We are the problem and the solution

We ended the year 2020 thinking about how “People are part of the environment, both the problem and solution” in our previous blog Catch Phrase.  Dr. David Yoskowitz kicks off 2021 with additional perspective on this theme.

Look around you. No matter where you are, humans have left their fingerprint on the earth. Sometimes this interaction between humans and the natural environment is benign. Other times it is a significant impact; from drought, to morphology, and to plastics at the deepest points in the ocean.

The rapid industrialization after World War II and its effect on the environment is what led to the modern sustainability movement. Starting in the early 1970’s with the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act in the United States, the movement expanded with the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, and then the Brundtland Report in 1987 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. While we try to chart a course where humans can live sustainably, I don’t really like that term. Can’t we do better than just sustain? Can’t we enhance the natural environment at the same time we are growing our economies and communities?

We need to realize that there are no environmental problems but for humans.

We are the ones that create, define, and hopefully try to solve the problems. By framing the issue as I just have, we think of ourselves as something separate from the natural environment, which in fact is not the case. We are very much part of the system. In fact, a whole field has developed out of this recognition called social-ecological systems where we recognize two-way streets, or more, between the natural environment and human environment.

So, if we are not happy with the changes we are seeing in the environment – two-thirds of U.S. adults feel the federal government needs to do more to reduce the effects of climate change – then what do we need to do? How do we change our behavior that we sometimes seem to be locked into? The field of conservation psychology might provide some important insights into our relationship with the natural environment. Susan Clayton writes:

“Human behavior—how we reproduce, consume, and utilize geographical territory—has contributed to global climate change, desertification, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, and human behavior will have to help us mitigate and adapt to these problems.” (bold emphasis added)

While we are the cause of environmental problems (human problems are manifested in the natural world), we are also the solution. Clayton makes two important points that are a pause for concern but also give hope: 1) “…behavior is a function of multiple causes, many of which are irrational and/or outside conscious awareness. This means that people do not always know what’s good for them, and even when they do, they may not act on it…”, and 2) “…behavior is susceptible to change. Patterns of behavior that may seem like inevitable consequences of “human nature” are nevertheless malleable, responding to both unintentional and intentional influence…”.

Let’s find ways to change our behavior towards our natural world for the better and go beyond sustainability. We challenge you to think about how YOU can do this. With a fresh year ahead of us, what are your ideas for enhancing human and nature relationships?

Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is a redevelopment project by the Boeri Studio in Milan, Italy, and an example of using green technology to enhance the relationship between humans and other living species. Photo sourced from Stefano Boeri Architetti, https://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net/en/project/vertical-forest/

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