I enrolled in environmental writing because I am an environmental studies major and the power of literature has always intrigued me. I understood the scientific side of environmental studies (research, data, etc.) however I knew learning how to write and influence the public could be even more important for my future career. This course has expanded my knowledge on environmental ethics through the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s philosophy on human consciousness in our actions has shaped my writing and is the main theme in my final project.
For my final project, I wanted to educate my readers about specific issues I’m passionate about and feel deserve more attention. Issues like dynamite fishing, fossil fuels, and coral bleaching. Through these examples I show the cycle of environmental ethics and how important it is to educate the public about the consequences of their actions. I use Wendell Berry to solidify my claim that the Earth will not get better unless people become aware of their actions and that we must be calculated in our efforts to grab people’s attention.
The most influential thought I’ve learned in this course is that no matter how much factual research you have, if you do not understand the people you are trying to reach, none of it matters.
A Whole New World
Humans and nature have always had a complex relationship, and at the moment, our relationship seems toxic (both literally and figuratively). Humans take without giving back thus destroying the planet. It’s time to fix the cycle. Wendell Berry is influential to my work and one of his main claims is that humans need to understand how their products are made in order to make more conscious decisions. Educating people is the first step in our ethical cycle. However, before we talk about the ethical cycle, it’s important to note where our connection with nature weakened.
I believe that humans and nature have always been connected. To assume they were not, or that we have believed we were not, like William Cronon has suggested, is not a proper argument but rather an observation on the ignorance of some people. His claim would be more appropriate applied to the increasing lack of empathy humans feel towards the environment. There is a difference between disconnecting from nature and not feeling guilt towards our actions. In reality, if we were to be disconnected like Cronon suggests, there would be no climate change, no ocean acidification, no deforestation, etc. The real problem lies with our environmental ethics.
As our society continues to develop, we forget what was here before us. We forget that the trees we cut down for malls and apartments were thousands of years old. We forget that the animals we slaughter have emotions just like us. We think things that can’t speak our language aren’t alive. This is where I align with Wendell Berry. In The Pleasures of Eating, Berry wants society to be aware of their choices, specifically the food they eat, in hopes that they will realize what their actions are causing. Agriculture accounts for 1/3rd of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released annually which means agriculture releases over 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The negative impacts of CO2 will be discussed in further detail later on.
I believe there is a cycle to environmental ethics. Environmental ethics are the morals we have towards the environment. Typically, environmental ethics are applied to the actions of humans on nature and determine what is right or wrong. Some ethical questions could include: Should we destroy the rainforest for economic benefit? Should we overfish to extinction to provide for our species? These are loaded questions but they are considered every day. To increase public awareness of these ethical problems we must follow the ethical cycle. The ethical cycle starts with environmental researchers/scientists sharing information with leaders of local communities. In countries like the US it is relatively easy for people to look up information online, however poorer countries (where environmental problems are most prevalent) do not have the same luxury. Every town, city, country is unique so the ways we provide scientific information must also be unique in order to make an impact. After communities see how environmental problems can impact them they are more likely to cooperate with pollution regulations, conservation efforts, etc.
An example of the need to educate 3rd world countries is Tanzania’s dynamite fishing problem. Dynamite fishing is when fisherman go out into the ocean and drop dynamite into the water to stun or kill fish for food. As you can imagine, dynamite is extremely destructive on marine ecosystems and has become one of the key reasons that Tanzania’s coral reefs are dying. Educational efforts have been made and communities now realize the benefits of keeping coral (tourism, aesthetics, etc.) and have implemented security protocols for protecting against dynamite fishers. Researchers went to towns in Tanzania and helped communities find better fishing methods and subsidized ethical fishing. The key factor in this success story was the attention given to the communities and not just their resources. It’s knowing that people will do what is best for themselves before they will do what is best for the Earth.
One of the most harmful human activities on the environment is the combustion of oil. Oil is composed of hydrocarbons that are naturally chemically bonded in straight chains, however these straight chains make burning oil inefficient and release particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc. All of which, in large quantities, are harmful to human health. Think about all the cars, factories and machines that use oil as their fuel source and imagine how much carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere. Here’s your answer; “More than 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide (are) released into the air every second” (CBS). The United States uses approximately “19.69 million barrels (of oil) per day” (AGI). That is over 7 billion barrels used each year in one country alone.
It’s difficult to imagine such a vast quantity especially when it’s in gas form. Instead, I’d like to talk about what it means for the environment and for us. The effects of CO2 (carbon dioxide) are almost limitless so I’d like to focus on what will happen (and is already happening) to our oceans. Beginning with the warming of the planet, which is caused by an influx of greenhouse gas emissions from activities like burning fossil fuels. When the Earth gets hotter ice begins to melt. Less ice and more water in the oceans means less freshwater for humans and changes in gravitational pull. Continents and large countries have greater gravitational pull than smaller countries. This means that larger land forms pull water at a higher force, and when big ice masses begin melting, gravitational pull is spread more evenly thus resulting in sea level rise/flooding on coasts. The Earth is alive and trying to balance itself back out.
Cold dense water sinks to the bottom of the ocean and carries out major currents. More ice melting means that Earth’s major currents are slowing down and scientists have said that they could stop all together. This permanent stratification of the ocean would result in oxygen rich water only at the bottom of the ocean floor. This would suffocate 90% of the fish we use as a resource resulting in mass extinction and probable human starvation. Because this problem is already occurring, the cycles that marine ecosystems are used to experiencing are already changing. The interchanging of cold and warm waters effects breeding, migration, feeding times, etc., and now that it’s altered entire species are suffering the consequences of our actions. If starvation and flooding don’t scare you then let’s talk about the emotional value of the oceans.
One of the many benefits we receive from the ocean is through existence values. Existence values are the happiness we receive just by knowing that something exists. For example, coral reefs. Corals are beautiful living creatures with mutualistic (beneficial on both parts) relationships with zooxanthellae (a type of algae). Zooxanthellae benefit from living in coral tissues and coral benefit from zooxanthellae collecting their food. The main indicator of a healthy coral is its vivid coloring which is caused by the algae on their polyps. When ocean temperature rises, coral become stressed and the algae leave to find better homes. This results in the coral losing its color and is responsible for the phenomena called “coral bleaching”. When their algae leave, the coral starve and are impossible to recover.
Coral bleaching has increased over the past decade due to more CO2 in the atmosphere. I, along with many others, grew up seeing pictures of the Great Barrier Reef and hoped to dive there someday. Unfortunately, “half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016” (National Geographic). There are many people who care about corals dying, but for those who don’t, it’s important to express that by not saving the corals we are losing a valuable resource for ourselves. Typically, if people don’t care about an issue you can show them how it will negatively impact their own lives to get their attention.
The majority of humans believe their worst problems are anthropocentric, or human-centered. It’s easy for us to think this way when environmental problems are rarely at the top of the news cycle. It’s an ironic battle we contest. We like to fight over resources when they’re imposed upon by others, but we never fight to save the ecosystems we impose upon ourselves. We have researchers with scientific information saying that the planet is degrading and they offer solutions to fix the problems. Why do we not listen? Information is too generalized. To truly make an impact in communities we must research what is important to them. Humans are a greedy species, and although I’d like to believe we could fix the Earth out of the goodness of our hearts, we have to provide incentives to make better choices. That is the ethical cycle. Researchers teaming up with communities to create technology and educate future generations.
In conclusion; humans and nature are connected. Unfortunately, government leaders, leaders of countries, and anyone with power are run by the corporations responsible for destroying the planet. For example, oil makes money from people and uses it to make sure no environmentalist can get anything passed to help fix the Earth. Researchers spend their entire lives fighting for nature for one rich person to say no. It’s greed. And honestly that’s not something that can be fixed by anyone but the person themselves. This is why it is vital that people know how their products are made. If they know the process and the consequences they would be more likely to make the moral decision to choose a more ethical life. When society became industrialized we became less involved with nature and stopped caring about what happened to the world. There are success stories, like dynamite fishing, that show how we can fix communities. However, we must act on these plans and stop waiting for someone else to fix our problems. It’s time to integrate scientific knowledge into the general public so that society can become knowledgeable about what’s happening around us. Wendell Berry says it best, “to cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival”.
Ap. “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rise to 2.4 Million Pounds per Second.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 2 Dec. 2012, www.cbsnews.com/news/carbon-dioxide-emissions-rise-to-24-million-pounds-per-second/
“How Much Oil Is Consumed in the United States?” American Geosciences Institute, 1 June 2018, www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-much-oil-consumed-united-states.
James, Lauren E. “Half of the Great Barrier Reef Is Dead.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 7 Aug. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/08/explore-atlas-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-map-climate-change/.
“Wendell Berry: The Pleasures of Eating.” Ecoliteracy.org, www.ecoliteracy.org/article/wendell-berry-pleasures-eating