There’s something that’s not talked about enough on our campus.
Only on occasion do I hear a student quietly comment on the events occurring throughout the world—a change that we rarely dare to mention by name. We casually reference news about fires, floods, and other natural disasters without exploring their causes. We say how “bizarre it is” and how we “feel for those who are suffering,” but then we go quiet and the looming threat of climate change recedes in the distance as if our occasional thoughts and prayers have dissipated its stormy nature.
Perhaps we avoid these conversations because it often seems like everything we do is harmful. When you’re trying to shop while avoiding fast fashion, trying to eat at Leo’s without using plastic, or trying to find alternative proteins when none are available, ignorance can quickly become bliss. Rarely will my peers discuss environmentalism at length: what’s causing climate change, whether consumerist guilt does anything, or why Leo’s is only using god-dang plastic cutlery. In these conversations, the general consensus seems to be that it’s the largest 100 corporations’ faults, and all we can do about it is hope our government decides to impose stricter regulations; individual sustainability doesn’t really matter, they say.
However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of nerding out about environmental research, it’s that no one issue contributes the most to climate change. Yes, of course, the fossil fuels used and CO2 produced by corporations play a large role, and the government action so commonly discussed is extremely important, but there’s more to the story than that. Climate change is the result of a knot of interconnected problems, woven together and united by a common thread: overconsumption.
We overfish (there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050), we over farm (⅓-1/2 of global crops go to waste), we use excess energy, we pave down green spaces that regulate temperature, and we mow down any sort of nature that disagrees with our standard of beauty and perfection.
All of the issues society at large discusses—fossil fuels, animal agriculture, overfishing, inefficient design, plastic pollution, commercial agriculture, and more—are not extremely harmful in small doses. However, due to our desire to constantly produce and consume, we have created a tangled web of predicaments with a common theme.
Our obsession with having more is contrary to the fact that we’ve spent our entire lives being told, “everything in moderation.” If this motto applies to all aspects of our own health—eating, drinking, exercising—shouldn’t it also apply to environmental health? How has humanity forgotten to apply our most basic principle to the world around us? The answer is simple; it’s because of our society’s insatiable desire for growth.
Growth is usually the primary goal in business, and that ideology permeates into our daily lives. Grow your knowledge, grow your network, grow your business. Everything needs to be bigger; only through this growth can it be better.
This continuous pursuit of profit over the well-being of our neighbors or the natural world is what our countries are built on. Our society incentivizes us to take from others, whether that is a conscious choice or not. We take from the land through unsustainable farming practices, we take from other cultures and make jokes out of their traditions, we take from the forests and the jungles, and we take from the bones of the Earth itself; we constantly vacuum resources, leaving nothing for anyone else. By acting like this, by choosing to disregard any sort of balance, consumerist culture has made a choice to act as if we know better than billions of years of evolution.
Evolution has taught us that endless growth is impossible, literally. There are a finite amount of resources on this planet. Everything that lives dies; energy is neither created nor destroyed (who came up with landfills when this is the first law of thermodynamics?!). Even without these logistical boundaries, evolutionary processes always stop insatiable growth right in its tracks.
One example of this phenomenon is carrying capacity: the limit for the number of organisms an ecosystem can sustain before it collapses. We usually think of carrying capacity only in terms of animals, but, because we are just another species that evolution has created, shouldn’t we be subject to this law as well? Logically, if we consume past nature’s capacity, our ecosystem will collapse like any other.
However, in our quest for infinite growth, humanity has run up against this limit time and time again. We only manage to evade it by stamping out our competition, creating more food for an ever increasing population, and trashing any sense of interdependence with other species or the natural world. We have decided that the world was made for us, and for that reason we can manipulate the Earth and every ecosystem in it for our own purposes.
We must realize that the world was not made for us, as scary as that sounds. We are not the final product of evolution but simply another step in the formation and flow of time on this planet. We are not meant to take more than our share from the Earth; our attempts to deny the fact that we are subject to these laws will only lead to nature throwing larger and larger course corrections our way before, like carrying capacity states, our ecosystem completely collapses.
It’s time we change our vocabulary. The success of an individual or business should not be defined on growth but rather sustainability—or, even better, ‘thriveability’, as the book Cradle to Cradle puts it. Thriveability can be defined as having a positive impact on the environment instead of a neutral one, which is what sustainability entails.
Our first question when we begin to produce something should not be ‘How much can we make and how fast?’, but rather ‘What are the long-term effects of this production and how will it impact humans and the Earth?’
Instead of only worrying about how to not harm the planet, we should be thinking critically on how we can improve environmental health and reverse the destruction we’ve already caused. We must begin to ask ourselves how our actions and the actions of our businesses and governments are affecting the world around us. Are we giving as much to the world as we’re taking? Are we creating a world in which all can thrive?