Environment influences everything. We are reflections, as well as representations, of our various environments. In this regard, how we perceive and treat our environment significantly impacts who we are and have the ability to become.
Humans are highly adaptable. We continue to exceed previous limitations. But if we want to stick around, we better learn to respect Earth’s boundaries.
“If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”— A message from the Kogi people of the Sierra Madre in Colombia to modern society (aka ‘little brother’)33
Earth has nine planetary boundaries within which humans remain safe. According to an article in the journal Science, our species has already transgressed four of those boundaries through climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).34
We are rapidly depleting our earth’s forests, animals, freshwater, and even the topsoil we need to grow our crops. We recognize the potentially irreversible and devastating consequences of our transgressions. We know that the answers to these questions, about how to adequately develop human endeavors on a changing planet, will require a new state of innovation.
We have the choice, right now, to begin choosing approaches to industry that can shift course from unsustainable and wasteful practices. The powerful slogan taught to elementary school students, that can, and should, be adopted by everyone is: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Beyond these three principles, we can all rethink how we approach our individual wants. We can learn to better listen to the Earth. We can recognize that we are part of everything we come into contact with. We can see that all of our actions have consequences. We can remember to place a more appropriate intention of reconnection with our environment as we employ natural resources to meet our needs. We believe that we can advance past the toxicity that our industrial waste has made of our planet and remain safely within the protection of Earth’s boundaries through a revised set of personal, societal, and industrial standards. By collectively agreeing to work toward repairing our relationships with one another, and the Earth, we can stop causing harm and start relearning how to live in healthy, balanced relationships.
All life on our planet shares one celestial habitat: a magical marble orbiting the sun, spinning in space as the universe expands.
In 1966, economist Kenneth E. Boulding wrote The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, an essay explaining the shift from the idea of our planet as a limitless expanse like the open West, to a way of living cognizant of the fact that resources on Earth are finite and we must find a way to work together to respect planetary boundaries. Boulding predicted a closed economy in which “man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”35
The Spaceship Earth worldview makes it clear that we all exist within finite boundaries. Our imaginations can exceed all kinds of limits though, and so we must imagine the oncoming paradigm shift from a linear economy of “take, make, waste” to a circular economy of integrated sustainable resource use and revitalization. The design term employed for this idea of circularity is “cradle to cradle”, which essentially means that the lifecycles of products regenerate rather than end. Conserving our resources, and innovating ways to recycle waste, will be fundamental in repairing the torn fabric of life.
In the 1970s, economist William Nordhaus conceived of a “spaceship economy” to ease tensions over the massive costs of mining and burning fossil fuels and instead invest in renewable energy. The set of conditions for the spaceship economy to thrive relies upon governments making sure companies offset the pollution they cause by paying a social cost of carbon. This social cost means that companies would become more responsible for the harmful effects to the health of people and planet by paying taxes levied on activities that cause pollution. This game-plan incentivizes companies to adopt cleaner methods of generating products. The most environmentally-damaging activities would become the costliest, thereby compelling corporations to avoid following the destructive patterns of our industrial past.
The current ill health of our planet can not only be seen in increased natural disasters and rising average temperatures across the globe, but is evident even from space. In 2018, to begin the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, astronaut Alexander Gerst relayed a message to conference goers while floating on board the International Space Station (ISS). Wishing them well in making decisions to protect our planet from the effects of climate change, Gerst said, “From my position aboard the ISS, I have a unique view of our planet. Up here, I see its beauty, its fragility, and also the impact humans make. I was struck this summer by many views of a brown and dried out Earth. Climate change is having an impact, we can see that even from space with our own eyes. And it’s crystal clear from up here, that everything is finite on this little blue marble in the black space, and there is no Planet B.”36
Indeed, the earth we’re on is the only one we have. And we need to clean up our mess by working together as one team to stop the harmful effects of status-quo business practices that are continuing to throw our climate into crisis.
It is helpful to think of Earth in its entirety, the way that America thinks of its national parks. We conserve the beauty of nature in certain places. Yet, why do we not extend that point of view to all of nature? The idea of regarding our planet as “a conservation district in the universe” was first proposed in a 1969 advertising campaign for The Sierra Club under the executive directorship of David Brower. This notion also resurfaced in a 1997 conversation between David Brower and the Dalai Lama on The Whole Earth Catalog’s online portal. Perhaps we can take this idea even further, and think of the entire universe as a conservation district unto itself. There is no place that deserves to be treated as if it is expendable. To emphasize that point, we can also continue to think of our planet the way we think of our own biological bodies: as a self-regulating system, miraculous in its design, and capable of incredible possibilities…but only when treated with respect.
In total, these metaphors help us develop humility and awareness around our limitations. We’re all part of a sacred, natural biosystem. It’s high time our economic behavior reflect that sacredness. Ambitions of exo-planetary habitation are certainly inspiring, but if we ever hope to reach that theoretical distance, we’ll first have to learn how to take care of what we already have.
- The Power of Humility
- Healthy Habits
- Environmental Actors
- Economic Priorities
- Lessons Ahead