Saving the ‘Environment’ or the ‘Ecosystem’?

A distinction emerges within environmental discourse that is important to recognise and consider: when we confront the climate crisis, are we confronting problems with the environment, or with our ecosystem?

Why does this distinction matter? Surely the issues are still the same.

At base, there are two facts of the matter:

  1. Humanity releases too many greenhouse gasses (GHGs) into the atmosphere. These releases cause swift changes to global environmental conditions, and these changes bring on terrible consequences for the biological world that our species rely on.
  2. Humanity takes up too much land, and uses that land in toxic ways, such that the biological world suffers unimaginably. This causes terrible consequences for humanity.

However, the way that these facts are interpreted has a significant impact on the potential solutions that we can come up with.

Consider first, how we use the term ‘environment’.

Typically, we use the term ‘environment’ to talk about those things around us that are separate from ourselves. When we speak of our current environment, we’re talking about those things around us that we have a relationship with through proximity: this desk, that person, those plants, that road, etc… In this way, our ‘environment’ is a collection of objects that we are surrounded with, but separate from. We are not our environments, and our environments are not us.

This leads to an interpretation of the facts of our surroundings as things that are positive or negative, independently of ourselves. We do not need to change ourselves to make a better environment, because our environment does not, fundamentally, affect us. We stand above our surroundings and control them. If our environment makes us unhappy, then we may change it. Consequently, our environment needs to be the thing that changes relative to us – our needs, our wants, our worldly ideals.

On this understanding, our original facts – that too many GHGs are being released, that we use too much space and in bad ways – these facts become problems we solve by changing the things we surround ourselves with. Too many GHGs? Plant some more trees to soak them up. Too little space? Begin the exploitation of more far-flung resources, such as Mars, the Moon, and the Arctic oil reserves. Too many toxins in our rivers? They were never used for recreation or subsistence anyway: they are national sewers now.

The lives we live, on this view, are not open to criticism. It is the world that is wrong for not adjusting to our living habits, and it is the world that will adjust to our destructive practices.

Compare this view, to the use of the word ‘ecosystem’.

An ecosystem is a self-contained unit. It lives and breathes and dies, and then reproduces to live, breathe and die again. Ecosystems do not have ‘separators’, in the traditional sense. There is no ‘tyrant’. The termite, the ant, the lion, the moss – these parts are, while separate from the whole, essential to its functioning. Each provides a necessary utility for the wellbeing of the ecosystem, and each will serve in that function by performing its self-maximising activities. Ants and termites decompose organic material; frogs and birds eat the insects; who are in turn eaten by the hawks and mammals – who all eventually fall back to be decomposed by the insects.

In short, an ecosystem recognises the ‘interconnectedness’ of nature. Each change has an equal change elsewhere. Physical necessity spurs change, and that change produces change elsewhere – bringing us to our fundamental problems.

Too many GHGs are produced by humanity, destabilising the entire ecosystem to the point of collapse. What is the response? Conceiving of the ecosystem as ‘separate’ from ourselves, as in the ‘environmental’ view, makes little sense – it is the totality that fails together, not the individual. If humanity fails, we all fail. If the whole fails, humanity fails. The change cannot be by the ecosystem, because the ecosystem will fail. The change must be by humanity. Our change must be intrinsic – a conscious choice to reduce our GHG use.

Too much land is used by humanity, and in toxic ways. What is the response? The ecosystem will not change for us – we must change ourselves, towards conscious land use, in productive and non-destructive ways.

In other words, we must learn to apply our reason to our actions, and structure our political economies around that use of reason.

At base, human issues always stem from an inability to act in ‘proper’ ways, that align with reason. Why do we destroy our world, when we love ourselves? Why do we conduct ourselves to finance the production of more buildings, more food, more people – when we already have enough of each to satisfy everyone? Why do we act, when we could not act and achieve the same – or better – result?

Ecological thinking is beginning to take hold in academic economic and political theory. Yet, there is more work to do. We must work out the specific ways that society can be structured to encourage the use of free reason by everyone – such that the unnecessary actions of fossil fuel burning, poverty, inequality and hunger can be wiped from our society, and our history.

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