Environmental Issues & Society
Humans in industrial and postindustrial societies seem to have conquered the limitations placed on them by the environment through the use of technology. However, we actually live in a sensitive ecosystem in which humans and their physical environment interact and are interdependent. Harming the environment can have negative effects on the humans in it as phenomena such as the greenhouse effect, global climate change, and thermal pollution demonstrate. We live in a society that is the result of rapid changes in technology that have affected our lives. However, with every potential benefit comes a concomitant risk. Although technological advancements should not be stifled, it is important that they also be implemented with consideration for the uncertainty of their effect on the human ecosystem.
Keywords Economic Development; Environment; Ethics; Greenhouse Effect; Human Ecosystem; Industrialization; Postindustrial; Preindustrial; Society; Sociocultural Evolution; Technology; Thermal Pollution
Increasingly, the impact of humans on the environment has become an issue of social concern. The ever-decreasing availability of sources of fossil fuels and contemporary society's ever-increasing need for it to run its technology is a concern in and of itself. However, when the use of chlorine- and bromine-based products creates a hole in the ozone layer, this becomes an issue of immense and far-reaching proportions. Although this might seem to be a simple matter of doing what is right, the interaction between society and the environment is a political one as well, and it is often difficult to reach consensus on an operational definition of what is right. For example, although legal limits may be in place in a society that cap the amount of certain kinds of pollution that a single organization is allowed to produce, is it ethical to also have a system of pollution credits (i.e., a system in which a business that produces more pollution of a given type than legally allowed is able to purchase "credits" from a business that produces less pollution than is allowed) if one's aim is truly to reduce or eliminate pollution?
Human Relationship with the Natural Environment
Humans have always depended upon the natural environment. The natural environment provides us with the raw materials necessary to feed ourselves and our families and to build our technologies, whether they are spears and baskets for hunting-and-gathering societies or harnessing sources of energy for industrialized societies. In earlier stages of sociocultural evolution, this relationship between humankind and nature was arguably easier to see. Prehistoric humans tended to live in more temperate zones where they could find year-round supplies of food and needed little shelter from the elements or lived nomadic lifestyles in order to have a continual source of food and sufficient shelter. In twenty-first-century industrialized nations, however, people tend to buy their food at supermarkets and retreat into their human-built homes for their air conditioning or heat. Yet even with high-tech approaches to farming, people are still dependent on the sun to shine, the rain to fall, and the temperature to remain within a certain range over a window of time in order to have sufficient food to eat. The demands of industrialization require that we use our natural resources in order to run our technology. However, the demands of future generations mean that we must use these resources wisely and in a sustainable manner so that society does not stop because of our lack of concern.
The modern environmental movement began as societies came to realize that many of the things that were being done to improve or use technology to make life better in the short term were simultaneously having a negative impact on the environment and making life worse in the long term. Ecosystems are systems in which organisms and their environment interact and function as a unit. In ecosystems, the various parts (i.e., organisms and environment) are interdependent on each other and function as a unit. For example, animals breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide to live. They also either eat plants or eat other animals that eat the plants. The plants, in turn, require the use of the carbon dioxide expelled by the animals and, in turn, expel oxygen that is used by the animals. When the animals die, their bodies decompose and provide nutrients that enrich the soil and help the plants grow in a continuing cycle of interdependence. Human ecosystems are ecosystems that include human beings. As in other ecosystems, in human ecosystems, the parts are interdependent and function together. Obviously, human beings — even in the postindustrial age — are dependent on clean air, clean water, sunshine, and other essential elements of the natural environment to survive. Similarly, the natural environment is affected by pollution and other artifacts of human civilization. If the negative impact of human civilization becomes too great, the natural environment is harmed (e.g., greenhouse effect, global climate change). If the natural environment is harmed too much, the human part of the ecosystem will have to change in response if it hopes to survive. Done early enough in the cycle, this may mean doing relatively simple things as recycling and finding alternate energy sources. If the damage caused by humans is allowed to go unchecked for too long, however, the human ecosystem may be harmed to the point that society may have to find new ways to survive, may go backward on the sociocultural evolutionary scale, or may even become extinct.
The supply of many natural resources is limited, which means that once these are gone, they cannot be replaced (e.g., fossil fuels). Other natural resources are renewable only if we harvest them in a sustainable manner (e.g., lumber from forests). In addition, the parts of an ecosystem are interdependent: What happens to one part of the ecosystem affects the other parts (e.g., global climate change affects how and where certain crops can be grown). Therefore, two factors in particular are of concern in the environmental movement: vanishing resources and environmental pollution. Human beings depend on other parts of the human ecosystem for their survival. If the resources vanish, are poisoned, or otherwise made unusable through pollution, human beings and their concomitant societies will not be able to survive in the same form as they have or, depending on the type of resource that vanishes, may not be able to survive at all.
For example, if humans poison the air (our oxygen supply) or the water table with pollution, these seemingly unlimited natural resources can become unusable. Although sometimes such damage can be undone, this often does not happen before illness and loss of life occur. An excellent example of how this can happen occurred in the mid-twentieth century. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was widely used as a pesticide in the United States during the 1940s and '50s. After a few years of use, DDT had not only seeped into the soil and the groundwater, but on into the oceans, and by extension, the fish that lived in the oceans and the birds that ate the fish. Although the birds that ate the tainted fish continued to look healthy, they stored the chemical in their bodies which, in turn, caused their eggs to become disastrously brittle, ending not only in a severe reduction in the number of birds hatched for that generation but for many generations afterward. However, it was not only bird populations that were affected. DDT also contaminated the human food supply, with significant results including cancer and the contamination of human breast milk. Before the source of the problem was identified and corrected, severe damage had been done.
One of the major factors causing pollution to the human ecosystem are by-products of various technologies that we use to make our lives better. In the industrialized parts of the world, pollutants from vehicle emissions poison the air, causing respiratory problems. Industrialized societies also contribute to water pollution through such activities as the dumping of waste by tankers into the ocean and toxic runoff from factories into small streams that flow into larger rivers. Even everyday things such as runoff of pesticides or fertilizers used in the home garden or leaks or spills from some air-conditioning systems or other equipment can contribute to water pollution as the chemicals seeping to the ground and contaminate the water table. One type of contamination that became of great concern in the 1990s came from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and bromine-based compounds. These chemicals were long used as coolants in refrigerators, components in the manufacture of some plastics, and aerosol propellants. When released into the air, they worked their way into the upper atmosphere and eliminated the highly reactive ozone that blocks ultraviolet light. The more the ozone layer was depleted, the more damaging ultraviolet light got through. For humans, this resulted in an increase in sunburns, skin cancers, and other dangerous illnesses. Under the Montreal Protocol (first drafted in the late 1980s and last amended in 1999), the worst ozone-depleting substances, CFCs, were banned and are gradually being phased out, with developed countries helping to fund and facilitate the elimination process in developing nations...
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