We introduce thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies into the environment, each of which determines how the environment will respond to our presence and our social necessities. Because the things we introduce represent both our sense of values and the behavior those values engender, it's to our collective benefit to pay close attention to what we introduce.
Initially, our pattern of thought determines how we perceive the Earth and how we act towards it—either as something sacred to be nurtured or only as a commodity to be converted into money. Because our pattern of thought determines the value we place on various components of an ecosystem, it's our sense of values that determines how we treat those components and through them the ecosystem as a whole.
In our linear, product-oriented thinking, for example, an ancient forest is an economic waste if its "conversion potential" is not realized, i.e., the only value the old trees have is their potential of being converted into money. Notions such as this stimulated Garrett Hardin to say that "Economics, the handmaiden of business, is daily concerned with 'discounting the future,' a mathematical operation, that under high rates of interest, has the effect of making the future beyond a very few years essentially disappear from rational calculation." Unfortunately, he is correct. Conversion potential counts so heavily with resources that are considered to be renewable because the ultimate horizon in most economic planning is only five years away. Thus, in our linear, economic thinking, any merchantable tree that might fall over and reinvest its nutrient capital into the soil is deemed an "economic waste"—in a biophysical system wherein such a concept is a non sequitur.
To make harvesting trees ever-more efficient, therefore, new equipment is constantly being devised, such as the chain saw, which revolutionized the liquidation of ancient forests worldwide. Possessed by this new tool, the timber industry and the forestry profession lost all sense of restraint and began cutting forests faster than they could regrow. Further, no forested ecosystem has evolved to cope with the massive, systematic, and continuous clear cutting made possible by the chain saw and the purely economic thinking behind it.
In our search for "national security" and cheap energy, concentrated nuclear waste is being introduced into many ecosystems, the impact of which is both global in scale and complex in the extreme. And there is no safe way to introduce the concentrations we are creating. The meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was not potentially so dangerous as was the buried nuclear dump that blew up near Chelyabinsk, in the southern Ural Mountains in late 1957 or early 1958. The land was dead for roughly 1,000 square kilometers (621 square miles). All that was left standing were chimneys.
Yet instead of committing our efforts to producing safe, clean solar and wind energy, we cling steadfastly to unsafe, dirty nuclear energy and annually create thousands of tons of nuclear waste and pollution through the military-industrial complex of peacetime technology.
We have not the slightest idea of how to deal safely with the concentrations of nuclear wastes we are introducing into the world. If we continue this course, the biosphere will eventually adapt to high, generalized concentrations or radioactivity, but most life as we know it will not be here to see what adaptation takes place.
Our so-called "management" of the world's resources is always to maximize the output of material products, the conversion potential. In so doing, we not only deplete our finite resource base but also produce unmanageable "by-products," usually in the form of hazardous "wastes" that in unforeseen ways are altering how our biosphere functions. In reality, however, there is no such thing as a "by-product," only an unintended product that, more often than not, is undesirable.
Because of unforeseen, unpredictable, and usually undesirable impacts from many of the things we uncritically introduce into the environment, such as domestic livestock, which has resulted in the desertification of much of the world, and the suppression of fire, which continues to cause the declining health of our forests, we must shift our thinking from managing for one particular, short-term product or another to caretaking our environment for its long-term, social-environmental sustainability.
To accomplish this, we must be innovative and daring, and we must focus on controlling the type of thoughts and the kinds of processes, substances, and technologies that we introduce into an ecosystem to effect a particular outcome—because once introduced, they are permanently out of our control. With prudence in our decisions of what to introduce into an ecosystem and how, we can have a quality environment that produces a good mix of services, products, and amenities on an ecologically sustainable basis for all generations—present and future.
©chris maser 2009. All rights reserved.