At some point in the human race’s history, we saw it appropriate to separate ourselves from the world we live and the other organisms with which we share it. Since this separation, almost every action taken by a human has some influence on the earth’s non-human environment. In the case of many of our every day activities, this influence is considered to be a negative one. But what is it for something to be bad for the environment, and why is an unchanging ecosystem seen as preferable? Do humans have any duty to protect the rest of the life on earth? Further, what implications do the answers to these questions have for the future?
One million years ago, our ancestors roamed the plains of Africa. There, they played an important part in the region’s ecosystem competing for food and avoiding becoming it themselves. These ancestors made tools and may have even controlled fire, but it would be difficult to argue that they had separated themselves with nature. If this is true, than any impact they might have on their surroundings is just the unfolding of natural events. These impacts could have come in the form of extinctions or co-evolution and are common when new species interact with new environments. (When North America collided with South America, for instance, many mutually isolated species came into contact for the first time, resulting in many extinctions and drastic changes to both ecosystems.) By today’s standards, though many of the effects of our early ancestor’s interaction with the environment would be considered bad for the environment. (It is, of course, preposterous to hold our ancient ancestors to the same standards that we hold ourselves to today, as we have an understanding of nature and ability for foresight that lets us predict how ecosystems will react to different stimuli, allowing us to avoid the changes we expect to be bad. (whatever that is))
“Bad for the environment,” as the phrase is used today seems to mean any human action that results in a shift in an ecosystem. What reasons do people have for trying to prevent change? One response could be that changing one’s environment might endanger our ability to extract what we need from it. This is exactly what happened on Easter Island as people burnt away the forests to more easily exploit the islands food sources, resulting in the elimination of those food sources. This line of thinking values the environment is motivated entirely by desire for human well being.
Another reason for wanting to maintain an ecosystem in its current state is a sense of sympathy for other life or respect for natural aesthetics. It is probably fair to say that we are the first animal to ever care about other animal’s well being. At some point though, when space or resources are needed, one must question if the well being of an animal is worth as much as that of a human. Do humans have a duty to protect wildlife? I would say no, but often it is a good idea for the sake of the rest of the ecosystem, and therefore for our own well being.
If one’s chief concern is to encourage human well-being then it seems shortsighted to try and avoid any change in the environment, especially given how beneficial some past changes have been. Maize, for instance, evolved from a plant with a cob the size of ones thumb to the large cobs that we are familiar with today all due to human influence. This process continues today with the development of genetically modified crops. Ironically though, these new foods, with the ability to help feed our still rapidly growing population, and arguably save millions of lives have been shunned by many as “frankenfoods” for no other apparent reason than the fact that they are new. It makes it seem that people are simply afraid of the unfamililar. (This may be another reason for the desire on the part of many to preserve nature exactly as it is.)
Change over time has made life what it is today. Some of this change was caused by humans but most was not until recently. Whether or not it is desirable, it will continue in all our ecosystems into the future. Change is inevitable (especially with global warming right over the horizon), so our focus should not be to prevent change, but to aim for responsible change. One of the most important parts of responsible change is maintaining sustainability. Great care must be taken to look at the possible long term consequences of a induced change in the environment if we are to avoid negative consequences. In time, though, we may be able to significantly change the world’s ecosystems to better serve ourselves.
What would this world of the future look like? First of all, one would expect to see much less biodiversity than we enjoy today (which is quite a bit less today than before humans reached their position of dominance) because many varieties of plants and animal would have become extinct as humans made use of more land. Farming would probably become much more efficient than it is today due to machines becoming more advanced and widely used. Genetically modified foods will be developed that produce higher yields, and can handle harsher growing conditions. As the population grows to 10 billion, human settlement will cover a much greater area. In general, the planet’s ecosystems would be set up to benefit humans as much as possible, which will be good for any species that humans rely on, such as the cow. Wildlife safaris would, unfortunately, probably be a thing of the past.
If we do try to change our world, we must do so carefully because we have the power to make rapid and far reaching changes. Encouraging sustainability is essential if we are to be able to continue to advance and prosper. To answer the question I posed earlier, I would say that for something to be considered “bad for the environment,” it must be detrimental to the well being of the human race. The best thing we can do for our environment is to focus first and foremost on sustainability.
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