Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Environmental Sustainability?

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
~Native American proverb

What do credit card debt, hoarding and obesity have in common?

They value present consumption over future consumption. They also provide a snapshot of the convenience-riddled modern day lifestyles that we have embraced, with blatant disregard for the consequences. The question that naturally springs up is: Is the current lifestyle sustainable in the long term?

Humans have consumed natural resources and contributed to environmental squalor ever since we evolved as a species. The effects back then were localized and likely insignificant, with the earth’s air, waters, soil and life forms resilient enough to regenerate swiftly. Also, in the past, population control was programmed into the order of the physical universe: natural disasters, famines, drought, flooding, conflicts, disease and epidemics.

All that changed with the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 1700s and continues till today. We traded horses for horse power, muscles for machines, and huts for high rises. We picked up “extinction insurance” through mechanized agriculture. Advances in sanitation, clean water and health care extended human life span. Large-scale manufacturing triggered an economic boom, leading to the phenomenon of “globalization” that thrives on energy derived from fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum (oil) and natural gas. Fossil fuels have formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants in the Earth's crust over millions of years. They are cheap and energy dense, but present serious environmental concerns. When burned, fossil fuels release carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane—naturally occurring gases that circulate between the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants and animals, but when released in excess transform into lethal, heat-trapping greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

A measure of the Earth’s CO2 levels from Antarctic ice cores dating back hundreds of thousands of years shows a steady rise beginning in the early 1900s. Why is it that the CO2 levels remained relatively steady for hundreds of thousands of years and suddenly spiked over the last few decades? The only logical explanation for this unprecedented rise is anthropogenic activity related to the burning of fossil fuels—the bloodline of the Industrial Revolution. This ominous ascent of temperature, if left unchecked, has the potential to cause global climate changes such as melting glaciers, desertification, rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, and the corresponding destruction of both the ecosystem and the life that depends on it, including humans.

Another concern is fossil sources are unevenly distributed across the globe, located strategically only in the palms of a few. A tiny geopolitical ripple in any of these oil rich nations holds the power to bring down the global economy—an energy-entrenched web of connectedness—to its knees. To date, efforts to develop clean energy from renewable sources including sun, wind and water have been unexciting, in part because of unproven technology, limited scalability and questionable EROEIs (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), but mostly owing to enormous political resistance. Continued reliance on fossil energy in parallel with inadequate investment in renewables threatens energy security and the security of modern standards of living, and is no longer a problem we can ignore.

Over half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. Rapid urbanization has slashed the birth and death rates and increased overall affluence, but challenges such as water and energy shortages, traffic congestion, the creation of slums, and a host of illegal and criminal activity threaten social health and equity. Urban living has come at a huge cost to the environment too. Landfills are running at capacity and emitting methane; vehicles outnumber people and are releasing CO2; and plastics have invaded the oceans and are throttling sea life, and are no longer problems we can ignore. Hazardous chemicals from agricultural runoff, industrial wastewater, untreated sewage and stormwater are triggering dead zones and harmful algal blooms in receiving waters, seeping down through the Earth’s layers to contaminate drinking water aquifers and winding their way up the food chain to endanger the wellbeing of all life forms, and are no longer problems we can ignore.

In its entire history of over four billion years, our home planet, the Earth, has never cradled so many humans. Nearly 40% of the Earth’s surface now serves as pastures and agricultural land, and a large chunk of the world oil supply now wheels food across the continents. Industrialized agriculture has come at a steep price for society and the environment: It has severely impacted the habitat of honeybees, nature’s pollinating agent, reducing their resilience and killing them off in droves. It has stripped the soil of nutrients, resulting in soil loss and degradation. It has supplanted the livelihood and decision-making of family farmers with large agro-corporations that emphasize profits over social and environmental obligations. Each year, industrial food animal production spews tons of NO2 and methane into the air and unloads an equivalent amount of animal waste into the environment. Detrimental industrial agricultural practices are no longer problems we can ignore.

The Hydrologic Cycle
Industrial fishing has drastically slashed ocean fish stocks and annihilated sea ecosystems. An imperative industry and agricultural need, fresh water is a precious resource, and is only renewable as long as the factors that support the water cycle—precipitation, ground cover, evaporation rates and ocean water—remain in balance. We don’t know what the Earth’s providing capacity is or where we are on the consumption timeline. Caring for a burgeoning population is rapidly exhausting natural resources, clearing forests, shifting biodiversity patterns, accelerating species loss, subjugating food sovereignty, releasing greenhouse gases, elevating global water stress to new levels, and is no longer a problem we can ignore.

Plants inhale CO2 and exhale oxygen, an element critical for human survival. This life cycle is at the very core of the Earth’s functioning. Continued tree cutting and fossil fuel combustion is altering this ancient life cycle, upsetting the greenhouse gas balance in the atmosphere, jeopardizing the flow of life itself, and is no longer a problem we can ignore.

Two things distinguish humans from other life forms: self-awareness and our ability to shape thoughts and ideas into action. Especially in light of the climate change and resource depletion crises, we must act now to ensure that current generations do not prevent future generations from prospering.

As a first step towards fulfilling that responsibility, let’s sketch a roadmap to sustain our living, starting with the mindful consumption of all material things. Let’s muster the political finesse necessary to invest in clean energy and smart grids. Let’s localize agriculture and encourage residents to buy and eat local, fresh foods. Let’s modernize infrastructure, development and land use policies to reflect sustainability principles. Let’s make our cities resilient and low-carbon. Let’s redesign industry and businesses to be environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible—all while sucking out heat-trapping greenhouse gases from the air. Lastly, let’s galvanize the efforts of global governments, businesses, finance, industry, and civil society to help thrust our world in a post-fossil fuel direction.

Modeling values and behaviors that effect positive change will bequeath to future generations a world of prosperity, for sure, but more importantly, will pass on an ingrained sense of conscientiousness that will help sustain the tradition.