We land-lubbing species still depend on the health of Earth's oceans to survive. And the waters' future now depends on humans' capacity to change.
We live in mind-boggling times: Wars. Earthquakes. Climate change. Melting ice caps. Wildfires. Flooding. Drought. Dying oceans. Energy instability. Polarized domestic politics. A lingering recession that is restructuring the political economy of the nation and the world.
The end of time? Who knows? Certainly not me. I can’t do anything about that anyway.
My concerns are that People are hurting, the Earth is hurting. What’s the connection between those two? I believe it’s fundamental: how we treat people is bound by how we treat the Earth.
The sweep of history over the past five centuries or so includes a pattern of exploitation: a lot of people have created wealth for a few. Also, the conquerors have capitalized on the “free” gifts of nature, mostly from rural areas. There’s been little regard for the impacts of these activities on the environment or on people.
On one hand, this system has raised living standards for many in rural and urban areas alike (“the greater good”). On the other, it has left out many people, here and abroad, who continue to lack anything like prosperity. Poverty continues to be widespread and devastating with wide gaps between rich and poor countries and among regions within countries. The system enforces rural geographic discrimination that leaves many communities and their residents behind.
Meanwhile, the Earth groans under a burgeoning population that is experiencing rising and falling living standards at the same time. The recent report by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, which warns of likely mass extinctions of ocean creatures, is another warning about global ecosystem collapse. How soon? It’s hard to say. But it is irresponsible to deny that humans play a part in changing the complex environmental interactions that make our shared life on Earth possible.
Oceans are our largest rural areas. They cover about three-quarters of Earth’s surface. Humans only inhabit them as travelers, but we depend on their health. In prime condition, oceans are a source of food and maintain balance in our atmosphere. Climate change (the politically charged term is global warming) is a major threat. Even though we know better, we continue to use the world’s rivers as sewers whose effluent ends up in the oceans only to be spread worldwide. We overfish and overdevelop shorelines, destroying vital life-nurturing habitats where land and sea meet.
Oceans represent the largest part of the world’s commonwealth. Our mistreatment of the oceans eventually comes back to mistreating each other as healthy oceans are necessary for life to go on. If the scientists are correct and we stay on our present course, there will be little or nothing left for future generations.
“If the scientists are correct …” becomes the operative phrase when the realm of science confronts political and economic discourse. It is a common and too-often-true complaint that policy decisions are based on political and economic power and expediency instead of scientific data. After all, the scientists could be wrong, and changing the political economy is messy, especially if it means compromising money, convenience, and an entrenched status quo.
The debate over climate change and the condition of our oceans, air, soils, drinking water, flora, and fauna – our global ecology – make discussions about worldwide rural and urban political economy pale. Our quality of life – our survival – depends on the ecology, a basic concept forgotten by many because our species believes we can be disconnected from the Earth.
At some level, we know the ravages of damaged environments on people and creatures. For example, fishing communities have been in peril for decades, not only because of the changing economics and technology of the industry, but because of declining seafood populations. Time magazine’s recent cover story (July 18), “The Future of fish: Can farming save the last wild food?” is an ironic positive spin on just how bad things are. The free gifts are all but gone.
Here’s the crucial question: Given the evidence of global deterioration, alongside increasing world population, is it worth the risk of perpetuating activities that threaten the thin womb of air, soil, and water that makes our lives and the lives of all creatures on the planet possible? This is all we’ve got. There’s no place else to run.
Even if the timing of scientists’ projections can be questioned, all living species are still in deep trouble. The unhealthy global ecology affects our health, our ability to feed ourselves, and our livelihoods. Increasingly intensive agriculture, including fish farming, is only a temporary technological fix. As one of my biologist friends regularly reminds me, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. The global ecosystem can only take so much abuse, and ecosystems follow basic rules, that, once violated, spell disaster.
It is within our power to find the political, economic, and ecological will to change our ways. It has to be. The hardest part will be admitting that we’ve been doing the wrong things that harm each other and the environment.
Whatever the budget pressures on governments, real or imagined, our world’s economic and political leaders still have an obligation to increase preserve and protect the environment that supports life. With increasing demands on global resources, it is unconscionable folly to resist environmental protection, cut alternative energy allocations, and slash programs that barely support the poor.
The increasing seriousness of stretched resources is at once global, national, regional and local, rural and urban. We need to develop and support enviro-centric rural and urban leadership that is focused not only on protecting soil and water, but on supporting basic social justice.
It is truly time to get down to Earth. We need to love our planet out of respect for our common humanity and our shared relationships with local and global ecosystems built on soil, air, and water and their intricate interrelationships with the plants and animals that are necessary to all life.
Later or sooner, a global vision predicated on human inequality and abuse of the planet will push us out of this world.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.