The concept of environmental deficit is not dissimilar from other sociological and economic concepts of deficits: one side draws a disproportionate share of the benefits from what is ideally considered a symbiotic bilateral relationship. Put simply, environmental deficit is a concept that refers to the relationship between society and the natural environment, suggesting that the former pursues short-term benefits from the latter but in fact creates long-term negative consequences. This essay will explore the concept of the environmental deficit, taking an in-depth look at the relationship between modern society and the natural resources it requires for prosperity. The reader will glean a better understanding of the need for equilibrium between industrialization and sustainable resource management.
Keywords Acid Rain; Clean Water Act; Ecological Footprint; Equilibrium; Environmental Deficit; Pollution; Sustainable Development
Three centuries ago, the undeveloped island of Hispaniola was a lush paradise, filled with deep forests and beautiful vistas. When France absorbed that nation into its protectorates, one half of that island, which would later be known as Haiti, was considered a jewel of the French empire (Johnson, 2007). However, Haiti's reputation would change over a relatively short time. Political instability and rebellions throughout the next two centuries created a heritage of poverty and social upheaval, and in the process, those lush jungles slowly but consistently whittled down to a fraction of what they once were. In fact, 90 percent of those forests are now gone, chopped down to provide wood for fuel and jobs to the impoverished population. Thirty million trees each year are brought down but not replaced due to insufficient funds. In 2013, the Haitian government announced plans to plant more than fifty million trees per year in order to rectify this imbalance, which has exacerbated soil erosion and nutrient degradation. This initiative requires a huge investment by the government, but the costs of inaction are greater, as soil erosion and nutrient loss have led to decreasing agricultural yields (Roshan Lall, 2013).
The relationship between human society and the natural environment is one that has existed throughout the history of the former. Humans have always needed natural resources for survival. Then again, as humankind has grown in population and developed new technologies, the imbalance between what humanity needs from the environment and what the world can provide has grown significantly. This "environmental deficit" has become an important issue among academics, activists, and lawmakers.
Balancing Society with the Environment
The concept of environmental deficit is not dissimilar from other sociological and economic concepts of deficits: one side draws a disproportionate share of the benefits from what is ideally considered a symbiotic bilateral relationship. Put simply, the environmental deficit is a concept that refers to the relationship between society and the natural environment, suggesting that the former pursues short-term benefits from the latter but in fact creates long-term negative consequences (Macionis & Plummer, 2005). Indeed, the dire nature of this imbalance has generated considerable debate around the globe.
Throughout its history, humanity has always relied on natural resources for its survival. Without crops, wood, animals, and water, human society cannot persist. The need for natural resources has increased exponentially with economic development, especially during the twentieth century. Draws on water resources, fish stocks, crops, and other food needs are but part of the picture—the need for land, fossil fuels, and even waste management all fall under the umbrella of natural resource management and, in the modern era, these needs are paramount for virtually every society.
In a budget deficit, the implications of the imbalance between expenditures and revenues are the loss of jobs, cutting of services and programs, and even insolvency. The same can be said of environmental deficits—the potential repercussions for allowing such an imbalance between economic and technological development and a country's natural resources to occur are extremely harmful. Acid rain, air pollution, depleted animal populations, and global climate change are all among the potential implications of environmental deficits.
It can be said that at the center of the idea of an environmental deficit is the issue of sustainable development. This term refers to development that occurs that uses natural resources in such a way that those resources are not unnecessarily depleted. Sustainable development is best demonstrated by analyzing the combination of a given society's ecological "footprint" (how many natural resources are used and how much pollution is produced) and the capacity the nation has for maintaining its population (Lane & Ersson, 2003).
There are two general issues that can contribute to a society's environmental deficit. The first is the society's technological advancement and pursuit of a return on such advancements. The second is the size of a society's population and the rapidity with which it grows within the confines of its country's borders and resources.
Humanity has achieved extraordinary technological accomplishments over the last two centuries. The steam engine made manufacturing much easier, more productive, and time-efficient. The automobile ushered in a new era of transportation, as did the advent of aviation. Constant evolutions in medical research have saved countless lives that might have been lost in previous generations. Even in the last fifty years, telecommunications, television, computing, and the Internet have linked virtually every corner of the world.
Then again, the development of modern technologies has had a negative impact on the natural environment in a number of ways. In 1969, the United States saw a glaring example of this. In a bizarre, seemingly paradoxical situation, the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the heavily industrial city of Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. A Time magazine article cast an international light on this surreal scene, as oil, logs, debris, and household waste that had been introduced to the river for generations burst into flames. Amazingly, although people around the globe saw the images of this conflagration for the first time, Cleveland residents had seen the Cuyahoga catch fire at least twice before in the twentieth century, causing far greater damage than the 1969 fire. The river had traditionally been allowed to be a dumping ground for waste, as leaders had given priority to industrial development, rather than environmental protection, since the mid-nineteenth century. Then-mayor Carl Stokes, when asked about the 1969 fire, placed blame on state government, saying, "We have no jurisdiction over what is dumped in there … the state gives [industry] the right to pollute" (cited in Thomas, 2000, "Concern About").
A positive development that came of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was the passage of a major set of federal regulations known as the "Clean Water Act." Still, decades after the passage of the Clean Water Act In 1972, there remains a large number of heavily polluted rivers that coincidentally flow through areas whose chief economic outputs are manufacturing and heavy industry. The nation's longest, the Mississippi, which runs through farmlands (which employ an enormous quantity of chemical fertilizers), St. Louis, Memphis, and many other urban centers, is also one of the most polluted rivers. The Delaware, which runs through Philadelphia and several industrial Delaware cities, suffers a similar Plight. The Ohio River, however, remains the number-one waterway in the United States for total toxic discharges.
As the rivers and water resources adjacent to industrial areas suffer in the name of technological progress, thereby contributing to the environmental deficit, so too does another vital natural resource. As industrial output continues to increase around the world, so do the by-products of that progress. Air...
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