Environmental Destruction: Individual vs. Collective Action

I was speaking with a biologist recently about my interest in all things plants, animals, and fungi. His response to me was, “you better learn quickly.” I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but he was referring to the increasing pace of environmental destruction and the dire state of the world’s ecosystems.

Boots standing on fallen autumn foliage. The leaves are coloured red, yellow and orange

World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity

His concerns echo the concerns of over 20,000 scientists that have signed on to the research paper, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” The paper describes how the actions of human beings are creating a planet that is uninhabitable for us and many other species. It argues, “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course” citing rapid ozone depletion, deforestation, overfishing, dwindling biodiversity, ocean dead zones, overpopulation, and declining freshwater availability among some of the top concerns. Human beings, it argues, “have unleashed a mass extinction event…wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.”

Moving Beyond Green Consumerism and Individual Choices

Many of us have heard similar warnings and have chosen to live more sustainable lifestyles. That might mean living frugally, recycling, engaging in environmental groups, or biking to work. But, there are limits to how much impact our individual choices can have.

To complicate matters, false information about what is sustainable often misleads us. Green marketing sells us the image of sustainability while simultaneously pushing consumerism. How many times have you heard, “buy this product to help save the environment”? Consider that some companies actually thrive off environmental destruction by making it a part of their branding.

The idea that we can “vote with our dollars” by supporting environmentally friendly companies and boycotting destructive ones is made difficult by greenwashing. The biggest polluters spend millions of dollars each year trying to convince us that their products are sustainable.

Furthermore, “voting with your dollars” doesn’t take into consideration that the biggest economic decisions are made by government and industry. Even collectively, our individual purchases and decisions make little impact. For example, I want to rely less on my car, but my city hasn’t properly invested in public transit. Likewise, our government has not invested in the infrastructure that would allow my apartment complex to be powered by a more sustainable energy source.

The Biggest Players in Environmental Degradation

The focus on individual action obscures the role that governments, industries, and the military play in environmental destruction.

Government policy decides the focus and direction of our economy and whether we move towards sustainability. Governments can spend money to create green industries and jobs, can optimize public transit thereby reducing reliance on cars, and divest in fossil fuels. Governments can legislate better forestry practices, decide what lands are protected, fund environmental sciences, and enact wildlife protections. It’s these big decisions that can help restructure and reorient the whole of society towards sustainability.

As for industry, there seems to be no limit to the amount of pollution created in the pursuit of profit. Let me share some statistics that drive this point home. A new report shows that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the world’s plastic pollution comes from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Canada’s mining companies have produced 1 trillion litres of toxic industrial byproduct. Corporate pollution is rampant.

Often overlooked, violence and war are one of the top contributors to environmental and human destruction. Over $1.6 trillion is spent annually on war worldwide. In Canada, we have no way of tracking how much pollution our military emits. This is true of the U.S. and other countries as well. Recently, the Canadian navy was holding live-fire exercises in protected orca habitat. There is little oversight when it comes to the military’s environmental footprint. The resources and energy spent on war could be used to address the environmental crisis and address social issues.

What Needs to Be Done?

So, what can and needs to be done? The “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” report offers 5 suggestions for helping to restore the planet and reverse environmental destruction. The scientists advocate for large-scale changes in economic and social policy which will require international cooperation. Some of them may surprise you:

  1. Bring environmentally damaging activities under control and restore the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems
  2. Manage crucial resources more effectively
  3. Stabilize the planet’s population by increasing social and economic wellbeing
  4. Eliminate poverty
  5. Ensure sexual equality and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions

Individual action is not enough. The solution to our environmental crisis lies in a new approach to organizing our economy and how we relate to one another. We need to ensure that governments are responding to climate change, environmental destruction, and increasing the social and economic well-being of people. Society must value this over the pursuit of corporate and private profit.

I hope this doesn’t discourage you from taking steps to reduce your ecological footprint. That’s still important!


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