Environmentalism has become more than just a movement; it’s a way of life. It started as a response to the mistreatment or disregard of nature by the majority of a society embracing the industrial revolution. The truth is, there have always been human impacts on the environment, but prior to the invention and mass use of industrial equipment and technology, that relationship wasn’t as noticeable.
But the other truth is that not all human impact on the environment is bad, either. Exploring both sides of the coin can give a clearer picture as to how humans truly interact with nature, with greater insight as to where we can work harder to provide a more symbiotic relationship that doesn’t harm the environment.
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The Environmentalist Movement
It wasn’t until the 1960’s, when the Hippie movement came about and ‘free love’ and ‘one with nature’ themes entered the scene that people really started noting that we had a negative impact on the environment. Hippies and ‘flower children’ preached that we should be one with nature, which prompted the more serious scientific notice of things like pollution.
At the time, the larger part of society didn’t take it too seriously. Environmental concerns were seen as a bunch of hype by a lot of liberal kids who wanted to rebel against organized society. A lot of people thought these were just free spirits who wanted to live in the woods, shed their clothes, and not have to hold down a job or responsibilities. So, obviously, attacking the way industrialism and commercialism affected nature at large was a great way to branch off and relieve themselves of that responsibility.
But again, the science of it was there. CFCs had put a hole in the ozone layer, pollution had darkened the skies in many of the world’s largest cities and tainted water supplies, and we were starting to see disasters that only increased in size and impact, such as oil spills, that destroyed wildlife. For the first time, people started to take notice of species that were endangered and extinct because we cut down trees with disregard for the fact they were home to other creatures.
But when did it start? How long have humans been causing this damage? It had been longer than anyone would think, although at a much slower rate. And, more importantly, how does the environment affect humans?
The Industrial Revolution
The Terminator movies, which villainize machines, says a lot about the worldview of the Industrial Revolution. While the idea behind the movies is that machines become intelligent and destroy humankind, the underlying meaning is that the human creation of machines leads to their own ruin.
Environmentalists would argue that it’s a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution, since this is the pinpointed time when the world seemed to start negatively impacting nature. While it’s certainly true that the invention and use of steam and coal and other pollutants for mass marketing and factories sent the world into overdrive in terms of how we impacted the environment, this wasn’t the first time humans had released any sort of pollution into nature. It was simply the time when our technology begins to make a significant mark over a short period of time.
After all, metalworking and smithing had been professions for thousands of years, with many of the same toxins released during the processing of weapons and the like. However, when only one sword at a time could be made, or one set of horseshoes formed, very few pollutants entered the air. This went into mass production with the use of steam and other nonrenewable resources in the early 20th century, and therefore, that impact increased exponentially.
Today, there are plenty of regulations in place to reduce the negative effects of industry on the environment. Many of the laws that have passed were lobbied by environmentalists with their heart in the right place and proven necessary by the science of those more accurate in their particular concern about the environment. For example, the emissions regulations on vehicles today are some of the newest ways of limiting pollution, and they were passed into law based on scientific evidence. However, for years, naturalists and environmentalists have pushed for carpooling, electric cars, vehicles that run on natural gas and produce less pollution, and several other similar initiatives, all to save the environment. Much of the pressure of lobbying for such laws began with these groups.
But there is more to human impact than just the consumption of resources or air pollution. And what most people don’t talk about is that it’s not all bad. You also have to consider some other ways in which people affect their surroundings in a natural, symbiotic way.
Perhaps one of the reasons some people are adamant that humans are bad for this planet is the sheer amount of waste produced on a regular basis. Again, this came more with the Industrial Revolution than ever before. Disposable products – paper, plastic, etc. – were the ‘in’ thing. No longer did you have to wash cloth diapers or rags, no longer did you have to set out your glass milk bottles for a refill, and everything was mass produced so you didn’t have to save it anymore.
Of course, the landfills began to fill up quickly at such a rate, and then we weren’t just putting chemicals into the environment – we were misusing the land that we could have been farming or gardening. So, we were in double trouble – we stripped the land of its resources and then fed it trash in return.’
Thus, came initiatives to recycle, and this has done well, especially with ‘rewards’ for recycling. Cash for aluminum and plastic is a great incentive to take your recyclables in, and with paper recycling bins right next to waste bins everywhere you go, it’s easy to separate your paper products. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash are saved in this manner every year.
What about the treatment of the waste products required to recycle them? Remember, there are regulations in place for all factories and plants that help keep harmful chemical release and pollution to a minimum, and while you can blame technology as the origin of these problems, it’s also technology that keeps the process of ‘cleaning’ the air improving on a regular basis.
For things that are not recyclable, it’s also become important to assure that many of them are biodegradable, meaning that they will break down over time in the ground rather than simply stacking up and remaining trash in the landfill. While it’s not the ideal solution compared to not producing the waste to start with, it does at least create that hope for the future.
Destruction for Population
For a long time, the population has grown, in some places without any sort of control. This has led to the destruction of certain environments to plow through and make room for ‘civilization’. Once again, the face of humanity has been marching across the planet and settling in various places for hundreds of thousands of years, but as technology advanced, it happened more quickly and with less care for the use of resources.
It may never be known how many habitats have been destroyed that belonged to species which no longer exist, but if you consider Darwin’s theory of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, not every species was going to survive anyway. This is the argument back and forth as the damage done to nature is repaired, with some of the habitats now protected and others being rebuilt over time. Scientists say that some of these species wouldn’t have been strong enough to survive on their own anyway since they couldn’t adapt to a new environment as others did.
Still, most companies are now tasked with such reparations as planting two new trees for every one they cut down in order to keep natural habitats alive, or making provisions within certain ecosystems to retain parts of the natural order.
It seems impossible with so much negative impact that humans could have anything good to claim about their relationship with the environment that isn’t forced upon them, but actually, there are plenty of things that humans do to keep nature thriving. We are part of the living ecosystem, and whether we build a house to live in or take ourselves off the grid, we can have a positive influence on nature.
How We Get Along
There is a natural order to things in the environment, and that includes a food chain. A pecking order means that there are predators, and prey, and humans are very much a part of this chain. In fact, as hunters and gatherers by nature, humans are at the top of the food chain. We hunt animals with guns and bows, which helps with population control, but we also gather – grains, berries, and other non-meat products – which keeps supply and demand functioning on a natural level.
You might say that other predators – lions, bears, etc. – can fulfill this purpose and that there are birds and other creatures tasked with ‘gathering’ the seeds and grains. Could the planet survive without humans? If you look back through the evolutionary process, it has before. But the planet and the environment weren’t the same without humans.
The idea is that not everything we do has a negative impact on the environment. For example, our breathing alone is an exchange system. For our own purposes, we need oxygen on a very large scale. To keep our atmosphere plentiful in oxygen, we have trees and other plants that go through the process of photosynthesis, which releases oxygen into the air. We then breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is essential to the same trees and greenery to utilize for photosynthesis.
Such a symbiotic relationship keeps a particular balance in nature so that the environment doesn’t change overly much in a short time. Again, if you look back over history and the scientific explanation of evolution, the changes forced upon nature were due to turbulence and inconsistency. With humans acting in a consistent manner as part of the environment, however much of an influence they could potentially have in a negative manner, it maintains a much less volatile planetary balance so that things essentially stay the same.
What about Global Warming?
So, if humans aren’t always adding something negative to the environment, why are we concerned about our impact on global warming? The answer is, we shouldn’t be.
For the past couple of decades, this has been quite the scare, and because it seemed that the world was growing warmer, it started to influence decisions and grow the environmentalist movement once again. However, there are several factors that have been noted to take into account here, which impact the way we should view ‘global warming’.
First, if you look through the ancient history of the earth, both before and after the appearance of humans as they are known today, there have been cycles of warm and cold. There’s even an entire animated movie franchise about the Ice Ages of the past, through which the planet was much colder. So, it would stand to reason that, eventually, the planet could grow much warmer and then freeze all over again – but not necessarily because humans have impacted the weather patterns or changed the course of the earth’s revolution around the sun.
On a smaller scale, meteorologists have shown that, even over the last hundred years or so, there have been weather pattern fluctuations that are similar, with warmer temperatures and tougher natural disasters rotating through every 20 to 30 years. This, again, has had nothing to do with human impact on the environment and everything to do with the patterns of change on earth that happen completely without our assistance.
On the other hand, there are areas where we’ve had a detrimental impact on our world, and we’ve worked hard to start the reparations on this damage. The use of aerosols that contained CFCs is partly to blame for a hole in the ozone layer, something that would not have appeared should humans not have negatively impacted the environment.
This hole has created areas of the planet where ultraviolet rays are more intense, leading to higher rates of skin cancer and other similar problems. However, studies show that, with the removal of the use of such toxic chemicals, over the last several years, this hole has already started shrinking and will eventually repair itself.
This is yet another way that humans can positively impact the environment – our efforts to change our ways when necessary allow a very self-sufficient planet to make its own repairs, which is part of the reason that a scare about global warming shouldn’t bother anyone. If we’ve had enough of a negative influence so far to truly weigh in on the temperature of an entire planet, the efforts made over the last decade alone to ‘reduce our carbon footprints’ such as using renewable energy resources, should already be working to allow the earth to regenerate what it’s lost.
What about Disease?
It’s true that humans spread disease. This was seen on a major scale when Europeans came over to what is now North and South America and brought with them the diseases they carried, which nearly wiped out some of the indigenous people in the ‘New World.’
However, there were diseases already here that affected the Europeans, as well, and eventually, all adapted to the fact that these communicable diseases existed. In addition, there are diseases that pass through nature without human impact as well, and these can create just as much upheaval.
For example, a venture into the rainforest can find a new strain of malaria that is deadly, or a virus that spreads through a food supply could lead to famine. Just as pollination can spread the population of a particular plant, a disease can easily wipe it out, and this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with humans and their impact on the environment. In fact, a great many diseases – both contagious and spread through foodborne illness and otherwise – have been cured, prevented, and even eradicated by human research and advances in medication, which have left a positive effect on the environment.
How Technology Helps
Though the human use of technology has left some negative marks on the environment, it has also led to a number of advances and ways to better nature with its use. For example, the care of the land and the cleanup of disasters such as oil spills are much easier and quicker now with the use of technology.
Consider other ways that technology has made life and the way we handle our environment better.
- While technology certainly allows us to level the land faster, it also helps plant trees and restores other habitats more quickly.
- Technology creates opportunities and ways to cleanse the air, water, and other polluted parts of the environment to restore the natural order and better serve the flora and fauna that feed off the ecosystem.
- Using nonrenewable resources has given us the time and opportunity to locate and refine the use of more eco-friendly resources, such as solar and wind power, and we’ve been able to become more proficient with nuclear power.
While humans have definitely struck out and made waves in terms of harming the environment, overall, we are a part of the earth, and that means that much of our impact on nature is necessary and actually healthy. Without our efforts, much of the land would be infertile, whereas we’ve cultivated and had it grow. We’ve worked to keep ourselves abreast of any issues we cause over the last several decades as well, so we can be proactive about reversing negative impacts.
There are so many ways in which we impact the environment, both positive and negative, that it’s impossible to consider all the different aspects here. But knowing that we can be just as much good as we can harm helps us realize that, with a little effort to do things like recycle or assure that we plant a tree or garden, we can be a more symbiotic partner with the planet. It’s all about perspective and maintaining the proper balance, both in our minds and in our lives.
Here is an infographic showing how we affect biodiversity and other species.