I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.
This was for a course in Environmental Studies that I took in the Summer of 2014. This is the third essay for that class.
The Interdisciplinary Nature of Environmental Science
Environmental Science is considered an interdisciplinary science because it takes into account all of the different aspects of human activities and choices and how these affect the environment. “Since humans inhabit the natural world as well as the ‘built’ or technological, social, and cultural worlds, all constitute important parts of our environment.” (What is Environmental Science? Kaminski) It is the sum of our life, our physical activities and our attitudes, how our society influences our behaviors and choices, and how the earth and its creatures respond to us, that have created negative influences on our environment. It is important to combine the efforts of all the disciplines because “…we are changing Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it.” (Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems, Vitousek et al)
The conservation and management of our resources has become vitally important as we begin to realize that resources are not infinite, and we are coming close to using them up. Conservation stands for development and use of natural resources, and for the prevention of waste. “In all these matters of waste of natural resources, the education of the people to understand that they can stop the leakage comes before the actual stopping and after the means of stopping it have long been ready at our hands.” (Principles of Conservation, Pinchot)
Man’s tendency to blindness and ignorance is sometimes shown in the statements we make that have no connection with facts. When Sam Lee says “They’re (codfish) coming back because they have to,” (Cod, Kurlansky) he is expressing a stand that many people take. We are used to life as it is and do not want to change. We believe what we want to believe regardless of facts. Social science takes a look at this, identifies the problems, and suggests ways that education can be implemented. All of the other articles we have read and the TED talks we have watched are doing the same thing; addressing our ignorance and set ways in an attempt to educate us to the need for changes in societal patterns.
The social sciences also look at society and the patterns that have developed in business and government. After World War II, consumerism was deliberately and systematically introduced into American society in order to boost the economy. This unchecked trend is largely to blame for the state we find ourselves in today of unsustainability. By contrast, in Europe a new mindset is taking hold with sustainability in mind. “It is inclusivity that brings security – belonging, not belongings.” (The European Dream, Rifkin)
The earth sciences continue to gather and interpret data from the various biosystems. Much has been learned – enough to realize the danger we are in – and much still needs to be learned. For instance, no one knows how big a biomass is needed to regenerate the cod fish population. (Cod, pg. 192) In the case of the overfishing of cod, technological advances such as steam power and more efficient net systems were used indiscriminately to increase the catch. People were blind to the finite size of the resource.
Today technology can be used to make resource extraction and use more efficient, and can be used to find alternative sources of energy. However, “(I)t will be far easier to meet the energy needs of the world in coming years if sufficiency replaces profligacy as the ethic of the next energy paradigm. This will require a breakthrough not so much in science or technology as in values and lifestyles.” (Reinventing the Energy System, Flavin and Dunn)
In past generations it was assumed that human harvesting of resources would not deplete the seemingly unending supply. The codfish population was so overwhelmingly vast that it prompted statements like “…you could walk across the Atlantic dry-shod on the backs of cod.” (Cod, pg. 32) In 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture said, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.” (Cod, pg. 32) Unfortunately, the interdisciplinary studies are showing that the order of nature is, indeed, being overthrown. Just in the previous generation, when I was growing up, it was still assumed that we as a country were rich enough to share our wealth with poorer nations. There was no question about that being the ethical thing to do. To be faced now with the “lifeboat ethics” dilemma is a radical change in a short number of years, and reflects the growing awareness that supply will not always meet demand unless strong measures are taken.
Political science is incorporated into environmental studies because that is the arena in which the activities of men are governed. Any steps to change our behavior will have to be implemented by governmental actions, or at least governmental support. The most rich and powerful who are doing the most damage (Amazon rainforest cutting, Alaskan oil fields, land grabbing) can only be controlled through the government. The history of governmental actions is not a good one, from European countries overfishing their own fishing grounds and moving to our coasts, to current situations where “…politicians didn’t have the courage to put people out of business” in order to save the cod fish. (Cod, pg. 192) Governments also need to be flexible, adapting laws and other measures to reflect experience of what works and what doesn’t. In New England, the catch shares program is an example of where it worked for a while in certain areas, but has not given the overall results hoped for, and new measures need to be planned and implemented for some areas. (What’s the Catch? Schrope)
In working towards sustainability, governments, including the voting citizens, will have to make some decisions that will put limits on people and industries. As we saw with Maria’s House, having an eye to the future will cause some sacrifice, financial suffering, and changed plans for the present. There is no avoiding this process, but as we move forward it is important that the rights of the poor and less represented peoples are not used and ignored. As industries invest in developing nations, it is vital that a fair share of the profits go back to the people on whose land the development has happened. Small farm holders need to be incorporated into the overall plan in order to boost local economy and create sustainability within the country. For instance, in the Amazon rainforest, “(T)he lack of coordination between agencies and resource users is a major barrier to overcoming illegal logging within smallholder systems and to the integration of smallholders into the formal timber market.” (Searching for Sustainability, Lima, et al) It is also important that industry and environmentalist work together to find the answers to sustainability coupled with global development. “…Better global governance is the key to managing both globalization and the global environment.” (Environment and Globalization, Najam, Runnalls and Halle)
Security is of vital concern for every nation, and the rising food crisis is a threat to security. “As the effects of global warming become more pronounced, the world community will have to cope with a wide range of extreme environmental perils…” (Current History, Global Warming Battlefields, Klare) The information that the earth sciences provide to governments “…should, one would hope, convince those still unaware of the magnitude of the danger.” (Current History, Global Warming Battlefields, Klare) In the Cod wars, before the depletion of the cod fish was evident, Britain and Iceland fought over fishing rights. Today the battles will be over any and all food sources.
There is much study and speculation still going on, and interdisciplinary cooperation is needed. For instance, government support of farming fish has to be coupled with environmental studies and earth sciences to address the problem of genetic selection in farmed fish and how this will impact the future gene pool of wild fish. (Cod, pg. 196) Inbred problems of the farmed fish could get passed on to the wild fish and endanger their survival ability. What is economically feasible has to be balanced with the effect it has on the ecosystem. If the codfish are allowed to be completely overfished to extinction, it will affect all the other species in the ocean, creating a new balance of power in the food chain. Another example is how the regulations were put into place in Kampung Komodo, Indonesia, regarding the Komodo Dragons, and how this upset the balance between the dragons and the human population. Well-meaning but uninformed officials created a problem because they did not factor in the human element of the existing ecosystem.
Education may be the greatest tool in the arsenal of environmentalists. As I have learned and become aware of global issues through this course, I believe the majority of citizens still need to be made aware of these issues. In my personal circle, I hear no talk about the path we are on, and the need to make a difference. I can only assume that it is because others are not aware of the issues, as I have not been. With the history of the codfish as a cautionary tale, we can learn much from those lessons if we will be willing to look forward and take the necessary steps today to ensure that we do not use up the planet’s resources for tomorrow’s generations. The groundswell has begun. It is vital to keep getting the word out to everyone so that the groundswell creates a true and lasting change.