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The Growing Level of Environmental Awareness

Tuesday, January 06, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
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Source: Huffpost Green

Steven Cohen, Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

The Growing Level of Environmental Awareness

While it is far from universal, more and more people understand that we need to sustainably manage our planet's resources and ecosystems. This awareness has been growing for about a century, but has picked up momentum in the past decade. Evidence of deep support for environmental protection is an old story in the U.S., Japan and Europe, and as urbanization and economic development grow throughout the world, we are seeing it accompanied by increased worldwide environmental awareness as well. A recent piece in the New York Times on deforestation provides one example of this trend, and a survey of public opinion in China provides an even stronger signal.

Reporting from Costa Rica last week, New York Times reporter Justin Gillis observed that:

Over just a few decades in the mid-20th century, this small country chopped down a majority of its ancient forests. But after a huge conservation push and a wave of forest regrowth, trees now blanket more than half of Costa Rica...Over time, humans have cut down or damaged at least three-quarters of the world's forests...But now, driven by a growing environmental movement in countries that are home to tropical forests, and by mounting pressure from Western consumers who care about sustainable practices, corporate and government leaders are making a fresh push to slow the cutting -- and eventually to halt it. In addition, plans are being made by some of those same leaders to encourage forest regrowth...

Governments and corporations are being pushed both from within and by outside activists and consumers to pay more attention to the maintenance of our forests. While destruction certainly continues, momentum has shifted. We see a similar trend on environmental issues in China. In a report appearing in the China Daily this past May, the headline read, "Protecting Environment Tops Public Concerns in Poll." According to reporter Wang Hongyi:

About 60 percent of Chinese want the government to give priority to environmental protection when boosting economic growth... Eighty-three percent of respondents said their cities have smog, and about one-third said that smog is serious. In seven cities - Beijing, Harbin, Hefei, Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Zhengzhou - up to 60 percent thought the smog in their cities was serious. Regarding its impact on their lives, 63 percent said they reduced unnecessary trips and about 72 percent said they reduced their outdoor activities.

This level of concern matches what we see in Europe, Japan and the U.S. and the sense of urgency resembles what we saw in the United States in the 1970s when our federal EPA began its work. Environmental protection becomes a highly salient political issue when government fails to deliver effective programs to protect air, water and land, but once those programs are in place the urgency of the issue recedes. However, while the sense of urgency is reduced, it is replaced by a shift in values and in a changed awareness of how the world works. When people experience a damaged environment it changes their view of the world. They understand ecological interconnectedness--or what Barry Commoner once termed, "everything must go somewhere". This has nothing to do with environmentalism or ideology. People know that we are stressing the planet's finite resources. Young people know it more than old people, because they have grown up and been educated during the environmental era.

This awareness, which could be labeled a paradigm shift, is exerting pressure on many of the day-to-day actions routinely undertaken by corporations, government agencies and nonprofits, along with behaviors seen in communities and households. Individual behavior is changing as well. People think about how long they run the faucet. They think about the bin they toss their garbage in. They think about the cleanliness of the air they breathe. The change in private organizations can be striking, as people assert the need to protect the environmental along with typical corporate goals such as profit, market share and return on equity.

These changes are not simply a temporary fad or a symbolic trend, but a durable element of our changing values. I believe there are two reasons for this shift. The first is the objective degradation of environmental conditions that people can see, smell or at least view through the media. Whether it is smog in China, drinking water in West Virginia, or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people know these facts. The second reason is related to the growing emphasis on health, nutrition, exercise and what we sometimes term, "wellness". People are paying more attention to their physical and psychological health. In order to succeed in protecting yourself and your loved ones, government must do its part and protect the environment; on a more crowded planet with higher and higher levels of economic consumption, environmental sustainability cannot be assumed, it must be managed.

I discussed the cultural shift underway this summer when I wrote:

Environmentalism is less a political perspective than a way of understanding how the world works. I frequently compare it to the changing views of gender, race, homosexuality and what we have come to term "parenting." When I was growing up, being a parent described a stage of your life cycle. Today it is a verb describing the actions involved in raising your children. While racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia remain strong forces in American society, they are less tolerated than they once were. Social and cultural changes during the last half-century have created a profound change in how we live and how we interact with each other. This, in turn, has had a deep impact on politics and public policy. The drive for a renewable economy housed on a sustainable and not-deteriorating planet is a key part of the cultural shift I am describing.

As the planet's population continues to urbanize, and as technology continues to develop, our daily exposure to the natural world will be significantly reduced. Nevertheless, our reliance on those natural systems will continue as long as we need to breathe air, drink water and eat food. If technology someday makes it possible to supplant those natural systems, then we might be able to create a world devoid of nature. We are nowhere near that stage of technological development now, and if we move in the direction of a renewable economy, there will be no reason to develop technologies to do the work now done by natural systems. But there may come a point where the survival of natural systems will depend on our ethical sense of right and wrong and a culture valuing nature for its own sake. Some day we may be able to live without natural systems--but would we want to?

The cultural shift now underway leads us in a different direction. Just as the forests of Costa Rica are being replanted, we are slowly moving in the direction of harmonizing economic development and ecological well-being. This requires that we pay more attention to our use of energy, water and other material resources. It also requires that we learn enough about our planet's ecology to project the impact of production and consumption on natural systems. Once we learn what those impacts are, we need to develop the organizational capacity to manage them.

The goal is a high consumption economy that protects the planet while it enables economic security, leisure time and personal growth for people everywhere. For this to happen we need to change the definition of consumption. In essence, we need to increase the proportion of software (ideas, education, social interaction and entertainment) to hardware (material goods) in the economy. We need to ensure that the material part of the economy reduces the one-time use of non-renewable resources and increases the use of renewable resources. The value change we see in Costa Rica and China indicates the potential to develop a political, economic and organizational management approach built on the principles of sustainability. The potential exists--we just don't know if we can live up to our potential.


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