The ‘environmentalist’s paradox’ is that the human condition improves while the condition of the natural environment worsens. This paradox is decidedly true when you consider the course of recent human development: the growth of technology, science and industry has led to increasingly safe and comfortable lifestyles for many people worldwide, while the health of the natural environment becomes increasingly endangered and fragile. I believe, however, that what is lost in this contemporary human era is equal, if not greater, than what is gained.
For example, advances in modern medicine have greatly increased the length of the average human lifespan, yet encroachment into the Amazon rainforest by loggers and farmers is destroying one of the Earth’s largest reservoirs for natural medicines (as well as biodiversity). Commercial agriculture has allowed for the majority of people to pursue livelihoods unrelated to the production of food, yet has also led to topsoil loss, climate change and pollution, and is increasingly dependent on chemical fertilizers and genetic modification as a result.
This paradox was even applicable over a thousand years ago, when the complex and growing Mayan civilization depleted the surrounding rainforests and needed to evacuate their massive cities. Some scientists argue that drought or warfare, as opposed to overpopulation and overexploitation of resources led to the Mayan’s decline, yet the latter assumption points to something important – the human condition will improve until the natural environment can no longer sustain such a way of life. If the organizers and drivers of our wealthy and advanced societies could learn from the historical rise and fall of great civilizations, they would see that our untethered growth will lead us all to an eventual and inevitable decline.
Many in the world already pay the price for such affluence. Those in the global South, upon whom the global North sits, experience decreasing qualities of life due to overpopulation in crowded cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, where many don’t have consistent access to health care, clean water, plumbing or electricity. Laborers in countries around the world still suffer from poor wages and unhealthy or unsafe working conditions, as well, and major refugee crises are occuring, partially due to climate-induced droughts and sea level rises.
Even the elites, who have largely avoided the impacts of climate change, are now experiencing the effects of a warming atmosphere. California’s air was recently rendered unbreathable due to drought-induced wildfires, and LA-resident Elon Musk is preparing for the transition to life on Mars. Is it a mark of success or failure that we are seriously contemplating leaving our unique planet to live on one which supports no biological activity?
I believe that we need to rethink our relationship with the Earth. The current paradox of human life, where our growth is in juxtaposition with the health of the environment, is only that way because we’ve made it so. Humans existed on this planet for thousands of years prior to the ‘Anthropocene Epoch’ and could live for thousands more – although not at our current trajectory. Our growth has become a self-destructive tendency whereby we destroy our homes, race to our own failures and take everybody and everything else down with us.
So why don’t we consider living in accordance with the natural law so that we can sustain the resources we depend upon for our own survival? One of the greatest challenges to our contemporary society is it’s obsession with growth, and ‘sustainable development’ may be the best and only way to move forward. Becoming ‘sustainable’ will entail drastic changes in almost every industry and sector of our society, namely energy, infrastructure and agriculture, and education is at the foundation of these changes.
People must know that we can live in harmony with our surroundings, and understand how and why we should, for such changes to take effect. We can power our homes with sources besides gas and coal. We can nourish the soil as we grow food and replace what we take from the Earth, and we should, because otherwise we may be digging our own graves. People must understand why ‘living green’ is important, yet it also must be rewarding and economical.
For such choices to be economical, businesses must see that it is in their best long-term interests to provide more environmentally friendly goods and services, as to not undermine the dwindling environmental resources that we still have. People will need to work across the board to implement sustainability as a multifaceted component of our continued shared existence, yet I see whistleblowers and educators as having a seminal role in this moment in human history.
By changing the minds of consumers and producers alike, and empowering children with an understanding of our planet and the important role we play in maintaining it, I believe that we can create a future where humans collaborate to steward the Earth. After all, we are inextricably linked to this planet, and it’s wellbeing is no different from our own.