7.7 The Environment and Human Life

Human life is lived out in the context of the whole continuum of other life forms and the physical environment that surrounds them. The industrial age has generally been viewed as an exploitive one insofar as the environment has been concerned. Progress has been the byword, and the bottom lines were the standard of living and the gross national product. Simultaneously, the rapid decline in the agricultural work force and the gathering into cities have isolated industrialized peoples from the natural environment and left them largely unconcerned with harmful changes, except when such issues periodically become fashionable.

The earth is a large place, and its systems have both a great deal of inertia and a massive capability to absorb damage. Nevertheless, there have been severe strains in a number of areas, and it is now clear that the next civilization must continue to develop and deploy a technology of the environment, if it wishes to maintain the earth as a viable living place. Problems have shown up in the quality of the air (acid rain), the water (dead and dying lakes or streams) and the land (erosion, desertification, salt poisoning, and fertility loss). There are also scarcities of strategic minerals, oil, and other energy forms. These problems become most visible in the scars left by open pit mines, in the changed climate and ruined soils from deforestation, in the extinction of entire plant and animal species, and even in the quantity of nonbiodegradable waste floating about on the ocean surface. Cities themselves have largely grown up from old agricultural centres in river valleys, spilling out into the surrounding area and swallowing prime farmland in the process.

The contribution of technology has thus far been negative, accelerating damage to the environment, but this is because the governing model has been exploitive. Moreover, many of the 1960s environmentalists were associated, whether correctly or not, with radical left politics, and this made it easy for conservatives to discount their legitimate message. Political considerations can be of first importance in facing environmental problems. For example, North American governments are reluctant to tackle solutions to the acid rain problem, so they fund studies to see if it really exists--when it has been known and described in some detail in the literature for over a century. In more recent years, though, environmental groups have successfully called attention to the more spectacular damage and a new model has emerged--one that uses technology in a conserving manner. Gradually, this conserving image is replacing the radical one, and care for the environment is becoming conventional conservative wisdom.

Thus, smoke emissions are now scrubbed in Great Britain, and city air is once more breathable. The same thing will eventually be required of new North American installations, and over time, lakes and forests destroyed by acid rain will probably recover, though perhaps with different species inhabiting them. Likewise, energy sources will in the future likely be required to be clean, giving impetus to research on solar, geothermic, nuclear fusion, and other nonpolluting supplies. At some point, petroleum and coal will no longer be used as fuel, and electricity will be the principal medium for delivering energy. The desire--indeed, the necessity--for a cleaner environment will thus alter many industries and result in further structural changes to society as resource-based industries in certain sectors go out of existence. The political map will likely also be affected, for any current economy that depends on, say, oil or coal production and does not industrialize or otherwise diversify will be seriously impaired.

There will no doubt continue to be a variety of environmental activists for some years--protesting logging, whaling, sealing, habitat destruction, and the experimental use of animals. Although these voices were muted or neutralized somewhat by the 1980s and 1990s concentration on business and the bottom line, their impact will be permanent, for they have expressed the important truth that humanity cannot go on fouling its nest but must come to terms with the fact that the human biospace is part of a complex continuum that must be lived in.

Some environmental groups have in their tactics raised interesting new ethical issues by going beyond civil disobedience to property destruction and violence. Such methods have been criticized even by those who support the causes. Some argue that protesters ought to take a legislative route to make their point, but the more radical environmentalists have claimed that only dramatic action is sufficient to sensitize enough people to the difficulties even to make them public issues. Thus, there have been invasions of labs doing animal experiments; harp seals have been painted red to destroy the commercial value of their pelts; nuclear tests have been interfered with; and a whaling fleet and processing plant have been vandalized to put them out of business. In addition, protesters for a variety of causes throw themselves in front of trains or trucks when they dislike their cargoes; they picket the homes and offices of researchers or politicians who oppose them, and they block roads to proposed mining and lumbering sites or nail ceramic spikes into the trees, and lay down in front of bulldozers to prevent them from clearing land. Regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of these tactics (what is the higher norm that must be obeyed?) there can be little doubt that the environmentalists have indeed successfully touched a raw nerve of new-found sensitivity to the environment and that the effects will be very long lasting.

They also have going for them that new technologies are indeed likely to be cleaner--at least in the industrialized countries, and provided that clean power sources become available. On the other hand, they have against them that they can be premature or sensationalist in their pronouncements--especially when they offer incomplete or preliminary scientific research to bolster their claims. For instance, that the climate has warmed over the last century is a fact. That it is due to certain gasses causing an alleged greenhouse effect is still speculative; the cause may be sunspot cycles or some other cyclical effect instead. If the latter turns out to be the case, the bad science will prove costly to all environmental efforts.

In any case, the day of the exploitive society may now be coming to an end. If so, all those individuals and institutions aligned with it will decline in influence. This may include some religious institutions that have so allied themselves, taking for example the "subdue the Earth" command of Genesis as exploitive instead of as management responsibility. Political thinking has also often focused upon the immediate economic benefits to be had from industry, however conducted, rather than upon its long term effects. With the new-found realization of the network of biospace dependencies, such voices will no longer be listened to, for people will know that there are many more than the purely short-term considerations to the making of decisions. In an ideal information-based society, decisions would always be made both openly and in a fully informed fashion, and specifically with the effect on the larger environment having been considered. At least, this is the ideal--whether human nature will allow it to be achieved is another matter.

There is also a potential downside to these environmental concerns that must not be neglected, and that is the cost of making suitable changes. Ironically, the cost for the cleanup technology may be so great that only the largest of industrial firms can afford to develop and deploy it. This could have the effect of strengthening the very conglomerates that created many of the difficulties in the first place, at least in the intermediate term. On the other hand, industry could respond to Western environmental concerns simply by moving manufacturing (and its pollution and jobs) to the third world, with negative effects on the Earth as a whole due to increased production and decreased regulation.

In the long term, however, the preservation of plant and animal species, recycling, and a concern for soil conservation and clean air and water will all be part of an environment-conscious ethic of the next civilization. There may even be some who will wish to live at one extreme--indoors, in completely controlled and managed environments. There may be others will want to get back to nature and live in more direct communion with it, but without giving up any of their technological benefits. Both may well be possible, along with as numerous alternative life-styles.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises