Chin Up, World: Enivronmental Issues Need A New Perspective
By Amanda Anastasia
Elm Staff Writer
Many people groan when the subject of the environment comes up in conversation, the media, or the classroom. The use of the slogans “save the planet” and “stop global warming” prompts eye rolling and scoffing. For every person walking around with a t-shirt, bag, or water bottle stamped with the chasing arrows symbol, there is a person who detests the movement the symbol has come to represent.
These feelings likely result from the common portrayal of “the environment” as an area where we collectively have done great wrong, and the implication is that we are all terrible people for enjoying the comforts of modern life. Therefore, when environmental topics arise, both in the media and in academic settings, we often shy away from contributing to the conversation because of these alienating feelings. It should go without saying that people dislike being made to feel like part of a problem. The trouble is that the entire illustration of environmental topics in the news paints this picture, making the individual feel like the bad guy for not wanting to live in a small, unheated shack with a small-scale no-till organic garden in the backyard.
In examining environmental problems on a broader scale, however, it quickly becomes apparent that maintaining this portrayal of the individual as the antagonist in the public eye will cause predictions about the future (should they be correct) to play out faster than they otherwise might. The threat that we pose to the natural environment is much larger than my decision between a five-minute shower and a fifteen-minute shower, because not only are there 307 million other people in the United States who likely aren’t choosing the five-minute option, but in addition, our collective water use as individuals makes up only approximately 12 percent of the total water use in the country (according to USGS fact sheet 2009-3098).
Likewise, recycling every plastic bottle you use isn’t going to “save the world.” In fact, recycling is, in some ways, very controversial. I won’t bore you with all the details, but consider the following: for recyclable material to make it from where it was used to where it will become usable again, it must be sorted, collected, transported, sorted again, transported again, broken down, reprocessed, and redistributed. Not all of these activities take place at the same location, and so the materials have to move around quite a bit (using gas and producing air pollution in the process); furthermore, the breakdown processes themselves produce chemicals and pollutants that have negative environmental and health impacts. To avoid spiraling off into a long tangent about the pros and cons of recycling, suffice it to say that the economic and environmental impacts of instituting and maintaining recycling programs vary tremendously based on a very wide variety of factors, such as population density and location of nearest processing plants.
In light of the above examples, the negative views of the environmental movement may be justified in that they demonstrate how unapproachable environmental topics are becoming for a significant segment of the general public. [For those environmental studies majors out there who are already warming up your computers to respond, hear me out.]
What I would like to suggest is that we as a society are approaching the subject of environmental issues from the wrong perspective. Instead of doling out blame, it would be far more beneficial to look at the environmental situation from a positive perspective, emphasizing the things that individuals, groups, and companies can do to make a difference. It is all well and easy to point out that the biggest contributors to environmental issues today are not individuals, but rather corporations, businesses, and industries, such as agriculture and mining. Having said that, when we start pointing fingers at corporations instead of (or in addition to) the general population, we begin to alienate the people who support or rely on those corporations, businesses, and industries.
If we can come up with ways to make positive contributions to initiatives and programs that are already in place (or even come up with some brand new initiatives), especially in areas like agriculture and the business sector that have a larger impact, instead of just talking about the problems that need to be solved, then more people might actually be interested in investing in some more substantial life changes because of the visible, tangible proof that we actually can make a difference.
Consider this example: instead of a newspaper printing an article about fish kills resulting from anoxic zones caused by nitrogen runoff (a topic I’m sure most people in the Chesapeake region are somewhat familiar with), the journalist could write about the efforts of a local school to plant native vegetation around an area of the affected river to absorb some of the excess nutrients, or about the ways that an organization has been helping farmers to integrate less-harmful practices into their techniques in practical, affordable ways. Stories like these do frequently take place, but they aren’t presented in the media or in daily conversation to the extent that they should be, and therefore the overarching impression is that good things never happen with regards to the environment.
As an individual with a strong interest in environmental topics, I find it exceedingly disturbing that very few people are willing to talk about environmental issues. However, I cannot say that I blame them; it can be very tough to receive information in the negative way it is presented today. The point of the story is this: despite what the media or the news or scientists may attempt to tell you, you are not responsible for the present state of the environment; that said, you can choose to be instrumental in ensuring the continuation of both the natural world and the human species as we recognize it for centuries to come. That sounds pretty positive to me.
Volume LXXXI Issue 16