Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Are We Not Astonished by What is Happening to Our World?


It is no secret that our world is changing rapidly. Faster than most of its denizens and biological processes can compensate for, and in fact far faster than most of us realize. Modern humans have only existed for a couple hundred thousand years, a fraction of an eye-blink in the 4.5 billion year geologic timescale, but in just the last century or so our activities have facilitated global changes at an unprecedented rate. Stephen Hawking, world renowned physicist and science advocate, has said that “The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic but technological — technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science.” Technological innovations have greatly helped us to thrive and spread by exponentially increasing the speed by which we obtain and consume natural resources. Now as the human population steadily cruises past 7 billion, it is becoming ever more apparent that the unbridled success of the human race has had an inverse correlation with the collective health of the biosphere.

There is an ever growing mountain of empirical evidence revealing and detailing relationships between various human activities and their harmful effects on the natural world, and it is understood better now than ever before that we are causing or contributing to the rapid degredation of the entire global ecosystem. It is well understood that to continue on in the way in which we have been going is simply suicide for our species. But what are we most concerned with in life? Pretty much the same things we have always been concerned with; Ourselves, our friends and family, our things, money. And what does the average person understand of the natural world? Or how anthropogenic forces threaten it on a global scale, or how their personal actions impact it? Not much. How can we be so far removed from the rest of nature that news of its destruction causes little reaction? The evidence is there. The scientific community exposes issues, makes predictions, and proposes solutions, but public and governmental reaction is minimal at best. When we step back and observe the environment and biodiversity slipping away, and contemplate the future that awaits us if we refuse to change, why are we not astonished that we continue to happily meander down this ruinous path? In his excellent 1999 article in World Watch Magazine, which I will explore here in this blog post, Ed Ayres thoughtfully investigates this urgent question.

                Perhaps we have grown accustomed to environmental doom and gloom forecasts to the point that it no longer fazes us. Global environmental concerns are the subject of increasing scientific research and discussion, but for the vast majority of people these issues continue to lie just outside our range of personal concern. For years now scientists have warned of ongoing “megaphenomena” which evidence suggests are greatly magnified by human activity and gaining momentum, working in concert to threaten all life as we know it.The four big ones according to Ayres are:

1. Rising CO2 Levels

Changes in observed atmospheric CO2. Black line is adjusted for seasonal changes and shows a constant increase.

 The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the resulting effects have been a hot topic for a while now, and like with most hot topics, there is debate. However in this case much of the debate comes from those who are utterly misinformed. Many still believe that global climate change is not a man made issue, but a perfectly normal natural cycle or even a myth. Popular conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh maintains a stance that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the political left, and frequently brings it up on the air. Considering that Limbaugh is one of the highest paid people in broadcasting, it is frightening to think millions of people may actually believe him. The truth is the scientific community is nearly unanimous in its stance that global climate change is man made and due largely to CO2 output. However, the general public is not so united, thanks in part to people like Limbaugh. In addition to warming by greenhouse effects, rising atmospheric CO2 is leading to the acidification of the ocean, which is bad news for any creature with a calcium carbonate shell or exoskeleton. Logan (2010) and many other studies predict that ocean acidification will negatively affect global food systems in a massive way.

2. Rising Extinction Rates

A third or more of amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction

 The evidence is overwhelming. Habitat destruction, overexploitation, pollution, climate change, and other manmade causes are driving plant and animal species to extinction faster than it has ever occurred naturally. In their article, Wake & Vredenburg (2008) discuss the current peril of amphibians, a class of animals in which a third or more of its species are threatened with extinction. They support the common idea that the plight of the amphibians, who are susceptible to slight environmental changes, may be a sign that even greater biodiversity catastrophe is looming on the horizon.

3. Rising Consumption of Resources 

Changes in global resource use in the 20th century

Inhabitants of developed nations use up an incredible amount of natural resources, upwards of 40 tons per person per year in some places. With world population growing, and more and more places adopting a more “modern” lifestyle, global rates of resource consumption could potentially triple to 140 billion tons annually by the year 2050 according to a U.N. environmental panel. This rate is far beyond sustainable. U.N. representatives warn that nations MUST decouple economic growth from resource consumption.

4. Rising Human Population

Trends in world population 

Perhaps the most controversial problem that we face as a species is that of overpopulation. With global population predicted by many to surpass 9 billion by 2050, we are fanning the flames of the previously discussed issues. More people means more resources and space required to sustain the human population. Without a doubt we must wisely manage the environment to account for human ambition, but more importantly manage the human population (Luck, 2007). 

So why is there such little meaningful reaction to these issues?

                  Ayres cites many potential causes. Among the most emphasized is over exposure to confusing information. Much of the present day media is privatized, and so what reaches the eyes and ears of the public is often skewed by political or economic agenda. Folks like Rush Limbaugh spread nonsense that is readily heard and absorbed, while real news is buried, unreported, or distorted. More than ever we tune in to biased corporate media sources which are most interested in influencing how we spend our money, and obtain less of what we know from people who actually care about us. We must be very selective of where we obtain our information and always maintain skepticism. Children are especially vulnerable to being manipulated through media and misinformation. Through constant bombardment of information we can easily become emotionally distant from world issues. Around the clock we hear about environmental problems and eventually begin to tune them out, silencing them with music, movies, technological toys, and other forms of entertainment or simply ignoring them. Education is another major factor. Why would we care about something we don't understand or even know about?

What can we do?

 Children developing a bond with nature

      Much of the dislocation comes from shortcomings in education, especially in early childhood when we are most impressionable. The value of raising children with at least some close contact with the natural world, the thing that allows us to live, cannot be understated. Digital wilderness is no substitute for the real thing. With fewer and fewer children growing up with any deep personal connection to nature, it is likely that fewer children will grow up with any real understanding of nature, let alone a desire to preserve it. Children must learn perspective, how we fit in the world in relation to the rest of nature, and how the Earth reacts to our actions. Children should understand early on that we have engineered serious problems for ourselves and the rest of biodiversity for which we must rapidly make changes to amend. Perhaps most importantly, we need to look not at technology as our savior, but at ourselves. We, as a species, must rise up and act heroically by changing our behavior and educating the next generation as well as ourselves on the ways which we depend on the world that we are quickly degrading.

Some inspiration : 



(1) Ayres, E. (1999, May/June). Why Are We Not Astonished? World Watch Magazine, vol 12 no. 3. Retrieved from

(2) Logan, C., & AMER INST BIOLOGICAL, S. (2010). A review of ocean acidification and America's response. BIOSCIENCE, 60(10), 819-828.

(3) Luck, G., & PUBLISHING, B. (2007). A review of the relationships between human population density and biodiversity. Biological Reviews, 82(4), 607-645.

(4) Wake, D., & Vredenburg, V. (2008). Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? a view from the world of amphibians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105, 11466-11473.

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