With ever-increasing attention to environmental crises, be they climate change, habitat destruction or drought, what has been our response? What have we done or failed to do? Why? Have we done anything meaningful? What should we do? This article - divided into two parts - seeks to answer these questions, seeks to look at the big picture - across time, cultures and ideas - of our relationship with nature in an attempt to gain some perspective on where we are and where we are heading.
Part One began with a snapshot of our current situation and went on to explore why we are struggling to achieve a good relationship with the natural world, with a particular emphasis on the difficulties posed by our biological traits and physical circumstances. Part Two - printed here - continues this search but shifts emphasis to the dominant ideas and systems governing our lives and finishes with suggestions as to how we might live better on and with this earth.
Human expansion has, of course, often been culturally as well as evolutionarily rewarding. The empires of Rome, Britain and the USA are stark examples. This appropriation of natural and human capital leads to the next major hurdle in dealing with growth: equity between cultures and the spectre of racism.
Nothing is more likely to silence the enthusiastic environmentalist than being called racist by questioning the growth and consumption of other, sometimes poorer, countries. The cry, in part justified, is that wealthy nations have done just this and benefited greatly, so why can’t the rest of humanity?
What is lost in this simple equation of two plus two equals four is that yes, Western nations have, in part, benefited from this expansion, but they have also suffered from the commensurate environmental degradation (as indeed, the entire globe has) so to repeat this behaviour would be like a son insisting on smoking because his father did.
Of course poorer nations should be able to improve their standard of living within reason, just as wealthier nations should assist with genuine redistribution of wealth and resources, but it will benefit no one simply to play a “me-too” game of expansion, consumption and ever-increasing withdrawal from an already overdrawn environmental account.
Proponents of ever-increasing growth and consumption claim that it is a false correlation between growth and environmental degradation, that it is an outdated 1960s and ’70s understanding and that the one can be “de-coupled” from the other. Again, the partial truth of this statement blinds us to its ultimate dishonesty: certain forms of growth and consumption are less damaging and degrading than others, both at the small scale of individual activities and efficiencies, and at the large scale of industry sectors and whole economies.
Many developed nations have smaller primary industry and manufacturing sectors - traditionally causes of significant environmental degradation - and large service and tertiary sectors (e.g. IT or entertainment industries) which can be much less taxing on resources.
Similarly, single activities or inventions can reduce our impact: engines that run on unleaded fuel and remove this dangerous pollutant; the solar cell that gives the potential to reduce non-renewable energy use; and the banning of feather plumes in hats that has saved hundreds of thousands of birds from being shot.
There are hundreds of such actions and advances, many of them ingenious, but they cannot do magic, perform a sort of sustainability alchemy whereby raw growth and consumption as basically understood, promoted and practised, does not take from the environment. To do otherwise would be to deny the fundamental laws of physics; more of us appropriating more from the environment and disposing more wastes into it means less for other creatures and greater disruption of natural cycles - full stop.
Partly as reaction to the huge scale of natural cycles, and partly due to clever political displacement of the profound nature and size of environmental problems, is the modern trend to trivialise, individualise and urbanise these problems.
The average Melburnian would be forgiven for thinking that if they only put a bucket in the shower, turned off the DVD or no longer washed the car then the problems confronting us would go away. These actions are all very well to garner collective support and momentum for larger, structural and meaningful initiatives, but a dreadful deception and betrayal if used to avoid difficult but vital actions that will really help.