Do we need to re-think our approach to the environment?

I recently put together a presentation of my research work for the SAEON seminar series – monthly presentations across the SAEON nodes – in which I argued the case for investing in whole-plant physiology research (You can find the video at this link, and I hope it is worth a watch!). My reasoning is as follows: 1. The natural world provides almost infinite services for us (and other life forms, of course). Some of these “services” are fairly easily quantified, while others are very difficult to quantify. For example, it might be possible to quantify the health benefits of clean drinking water or the volumes of water running off of a mountain catchment area, but how do we put a monetary value on improved human psychology resulting from a sense of place, wonder, awe or calmness that many get from healthy, natural places? 2. The world is changing in several ways at remarkable rates, and this will impact life on the planet. Humans and our tools are an incredibly powerful force in driving some of this change, including our propensity to dig up and burn fossil fuels, which is leading to increased global temperatures and other changes to the climate. I am beginning to think of our actions as being part of a kind of unplanned global experiment… 3. Species respond differently to such global changes. In the talk I provide several examples of where we have observed different responses among co-existing species to changes in one variable – rainfall – in Southern African ecosystems. 4. There is an urgent need to better understand these species-specific impacts if we are to understand and predict the outcomes of our global experiment. And if you are involved in policy or industry, a fifth point might be to act upon this knowledge as it comes in.

Does environmentalism need a re-think? And if so, why?

Now, this all seems fairly obvious and straightforward to me (and to those involved in conservation work, I gather), but I often wonder what is preventing us from making more progress in the realm of environmentalism. I can put forward two possible answers to this problem: The first is that the first two points in the line of reasoning may not be evident to most people. I suspect that we (i.e. humanity) have not fully grasped the point that we are entirely dependent on and immersed in the natural world. I would suggest reading E.O. Wilson’s Biophilia or Consilience, both excellent books illustrating our reliance on the environment, to gain deeper insight into the nature of our dependency.

The second answer is that we are locked into ways of living that preclude us from acting on our knowledge. If this is true, I wonder if being “locked in” is simply a failure of imagination on our behalf to generate alternative means of income, or whether there is something more to this. We get clean drinking water from healthy rivers, but this does not provide us with apples and gold or platinum…all of which might be essential. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there might simply be too many of us to exist in a sustainable manner. I can remember engaging with a website that calculated how many earth’s would be required to support my lifestyle if everyone adopted the same level of consumption, and the result was something close to 2 and a half earth’s. I wondered what it would take to cut this down to 1 planet earth; what sacrifices would I need to make to my lifestyle and were these possible? I think the answer is yes, but, again, it might take some imagination.

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