The Human Dimensions of Sustainability: History, Culture, Ethics

Read these sections. The text is directly related to sustainability ethics and how our understanding and attitudes have evolved over time. After reading the text, attempt to link the key features of the sustainability movement with the environmental movement. Are they one and the same, or are there stark differences?

Once we begin talking about sustainability, it's hard to stop. That's because sustainability is truly the science of everything, from technical strategies for repowering our homes and cars, to the ecological study of biodiversity in forests and oceans, to how we think and act as human beings. This latter category – the "human dimensions" of sustainability – is the focus of this chapter. Much sustainability discourse focuses on scientific, technical, and regulatory issues, but there is increasing awareness that without changes in people's attitudes and patterns of behavior, and how these attitudes are reflected in public policymaking priorities, meaningful reform toward a more sustainable management of natural resources will be impossible. One key to this problem is that we are accustomed to thinking of the environment as a remote issue. Even the words "environment" and "nature" themselves suggest the habitual view we take of ourselves as somehow independent of or superior to the planet's material resources and processes. The truth is different. Humanity is but a thread of nature's web, albeit an original and brilliant thread. So brilliant indeed that we are now shaping the evolution of the web itself, to our short-term advantage, but in ways that cannot be sustained.

One example of the centrality of the human dimensions component of sustainability studies is the fact that sustainable technologies of food and energy production are increasingly available, but have yet to be adapted on the necessary scale to make a difference to humanity's overall environmental footprint on the planet. Many look to technology for answers to our myriad environmental problems, but the fact that even the limited technological innovations that exist lack support and have been inadequately deployed is a complex human issue, touching an essential resistance to change in our economic and political structures, our lifestyles and culture and, at the micro-level, basic human psychology and behavior. This chapter will explore these human dimensions of the sustainability challenge, with an emphasis on the historical and cultural factors that have placed us on our dangerously unsustainable path, and which make changing course so challenging.

Sustainability in human terms is, first and foremost, a commonsense goal: to ensure that conditions on earth continue to support the project of human civilization, that widely diverse populations of the global community not slip into protracted crisis on account of deteriorating environmental conditions and depleted resources. This preventive dimension of sustainability discourse inevitably involves doom projections. Despite the popularity of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenarios in Hollywood movies, science fiction, and some corners of the blogosphere, the biological end of the human race remains scarcely imaginable – we will continue on, in some form. But in the emerging perfect storm of food stock declines, water scarcity, climate disruption, and energy shortfalls, there now exist measurable global-scale threats to social order and basic living standards that are the material bedrock of civic society as we recognize it.

The dramatic environmental changes underway on earth are already impacting human social systems. Droughts, floods, and rising sea levels are taking lives, damaging infrastructure, reducing crop yields, and creating a new global underclass of environmental refugees. The question is how much more serious will these impacts become and how soon? There are no reassuring answers if we continue on a business-as-usual path. One thing about sustainability in the twenty-first century is certain: individual nations and the international community together will need to both mitigate the projected declines of the planet's ecosystems, and at the same time adapt to those that are irreversible. As one popular sustainability policy mantra has it: "we must strive to avoid the unmanageable, while managing the unavoidable".

The environmental historian Sing Chew sees in the cluster of environmental crises of the early 21st century the hallmarks of a potential new Dark Age, that is, a period of conflict, resource scarcity, and cultural impoverishment such as has afflicted the global human community only a few times over the past five millennia. The goal of sustainability, in these terms, is clear and non-controversial: to avoid a new and scaled-up Dark Age in which the aspirations of billions of people, both living and yet unborn, face brutal constraints. The implications of sustainability, in this sense, extend well beyond what might ordinarily considered "green" issues, such as preserving rainforests or saving whales. Sustainability is a human and social issue as much as it is "environmental". Sustainability is about people, the habitats we depend on for services vital to us, and our ability to maintain culturally rich civic societies free from perennial crises in food, water, and energy supplies.



Focuses on the need for strategies to deal with the climate change that is unavoidable because of increased carbon already in the atmosphere.
Refers to the importance of reducing carbon emissions so as to prevent further, catastrophic changes in the climate system.

It's Not Easy Being Green: Anti-Environmental Discourse, Behavior, and Ideology

Learning Objectives

After reading this module, students should be able to

  • understand the complex connections that tie our modern lifestyles and the consumption of goods to human and environmental impacts across the world
  • relate our habits of consumption to the long history of human social development on evolutionary time scales
  • apply the working distinction between "society" and "culture" outlined in this section to explain the different and often conflictual attitudes toward the environment that exist today



The consensus view among scientists and professional elites in the early twenty-first century, as it has been among environmental activists for a much longer time, is that our globalized industrial world system is on an unsustainable path. Inherent in this view is a stern judgment of the recent past: we have not adapted well, as a species, to the fruits of our own brilliant technological accomplishments, in particular, to the harnessing of fossil fuels to power transport and industry.

Taking the long view of human evolution, it is not surprising to find that we are imperfectly adapted to our modern industrialized world of cars, computers, and teeming cities, or that human societies organized for so many millennia around the problem of scarcity should treat a sudden abundance of resources with the glee of a kid in a candy store. In evolutionary terms, we have simply not had sufficient time to adapt to the windfall of change. Though rapid advances in the biophysical sciences in recent decades mean that we mostly understand our maladaptation to industrialization and the great dangers it poses, our political decision-making and consumption patterns have barely changed on the basis of this understanding. This sobering fact tells us that, at this moment in human history, social behavior and political decision-making are not being driven by knowledge, but rather by entrenched attitudes that perpetuate an unsustainable drawdown of earth's resources. In short, human decision making and consumption of material goods in our fossil-fuel age continues to largely take place outside of an awareness of the strained and finite nature of our planet's ecosystem services.

It is the character of modern consumer society to promote the idea that nothing is connected, that the jeans we wear, or the food we eat, are matters of personal choice without any greater context beyond a concern for immediate pleasure and peer approval. Sustainability, by contrast, teaches that everything is connected. That favorite pair of jeans, for instance, is dependent on cheap labor in developing countries, on heavily fertilized cotton plantations, and enormous volumes of water expended throughout the jeans' lifecycle, from the irrigation to grow the cotton to the washing machine that cleans them. Or let's take that "cheap" fast-food lunch from yesterday: it most likely contained processed soybeans from a recently cleared stretch of the Amazon rainforest, and artificial sweeteners made from corn whose enormous production quotas are subsidized by government tax revenues. The corn-based sweetener, in turn, turns out to be a principal cause of the national obesity epidemic, a key contributor to spiraling health care costs. Thus the "value meal" turns out not to be so economical after all, once the systems-wide effects are factored in.

an image of fast food

Fast Food Industry's Environmental Impact? Here's food for thought. Though we are accustomed to measuring the impact of a fast-food diet on our physical health, there is much less readily available information on the global network of agricultural providers that supports the fast food industry, and on its environmental impacts on land use, water resources, and human communities.



To think about sustainability in these terms may sound exhausting. But because we live in a world characterized by connectivity, that is, complex chains linking our everyday lives to distant strangers and ecosystems in far-flung regions of the earth, we have no choice. In the end, we must adapt our thinking to a complex, connected model of the world and our place in it. Persisting with only simple, consumerist frames of understanding – "I look great!" "This tastes delicious!" – for a complex world of remote impacts and finite resources renders us increasingly vulnerable to episodes of what ecologists call system collapse, that is, to the sudden breakdown of ecosystem services we rely upon for our life's staple provisions.

In the early twenty-first century, vulnerability to these system collapses varies greatly according to where one lives. A long-term drought in India might bring the reality of aquifer depletion or climate change home to tens of thousands of people driven from their land, while the life of a suburban American teenager is not obviously affected by any resource crisis. But this gap will narrow in the coming years. Overwhelming scientific evidence points to rapidly increasing strains this century on our systems of food, water, and energy provision as well as on the seasonable weather to which we have adapted our agricultural and urban regions. In time, no one will enjoy the luxury of remaining oblivious to the challenges of sustainability. Drought, for example, is one of the primary indices of global ecosystem stress, and arguably the most important to humans. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, without wholesale reformation of water management practices on a global scale, two-thirds of the world's population will face water shortages by 2025, including densely populated regions of the United States.

So how did we arrive at this point? Without you or I ever consciously choosing to live unsustainably, how has it nevertheless come about that we face environmental crises of global scale, circumstances that will so decisively shape our lives and those of our children? Here's one explanatory narrative, framed by the long view of human evolution.

Since the emergence of the first proto-human communities in Africa millions of years ago, we have spent over 99% of evolutionary time as nomadic hunters and gatherers. A fraction of the balance of our time on earth spans the 10,000 years of human agriculture, since the end of the last Ice Age. In turn, only a third of that fractional period has witnessed the emergence of the institutions and technologies – writing, money, mathematics, etc. – that we associate with human "civilization". And lastly, at the very tip of the evolutionary timeline, no more than a blink of human species history, we find the development of the modern industrialized society we inhabit. Look around you. Observe for a moment all that is familiar in your immediate surroundings: the streetscape and buildings visible through the window, the plastic furnishings in the room, and the blinking gadgets within arm's length of where you sit. All of it is profoundly "new" to human beings; to all but a handful of the tens of thousands of generations of human beings that have preceded us, this everyday scene would appear baffling and frightening, as if from another planet.



In this sense, the real miracle of human evolution is that cars, computers, and cities appear so normal to us, even sometimes "boring" and monotonous! Our perception of the extraordinary, rapid changes in human societies in the past two centuries – even the past half-century – is deadened by virtue of what is our greatest evolutionary acquirement, namely normalization, an adaptive survival strategy fundamental to human success over the millennia. The ability to accept, analyze, and adapt to often fluctuating circumstances is our great strength as a species. But at this point in human history, it is also a grave weakness, what, in the language of Greek tragedy might be called a "fatal flaw".

To offer an analogy, for many centuries slavery appeared normal to most people across the world – until the late eighteenth century, when a handful of humanitarian activists in Britain began the long and difficult process of de-normalizing human bondage in the eyes of their compatriots. The task of sustainability ethics is analogous, and no less difficult, in that it lays out the argument for wholesale and disruptive attitude adjustment and behavior change in the general population. Given the long-term adaptation of the human species to the imperatives of hunter-gathering, our decision-making priorities and consumption drives still tend toward the simple necessities, based on the presumption of relative and seasonal scarcity, and with little emotional or social reward for restraint in the face of plenty, for viewing our choices in global terms, or for measuring their impacts on future generations.

A working distinction between the historical evolution of human society and human culture is useful to understanding the social and psychological obstacles to achieving sustainability. As both individuals and societies, we work hard to insulate ourselves from unpleasant surprises, shocks, and disorder. We crave "security", and our legal and economic institutions accordingly have evolved over the millennia to form a buffer against what Shakespeare's Hamlet called "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". For instance, the law protects us from violent physical harm (ideally), while insurance policies safeguard us from financial ruin in the event of an unexpected calamity.

In one sense, this security priority has determined the basic evolution of human societies, particularly the decisive transition 10,000 years ago from the variable and risky life of nomadic hunter communities to sedentary farming based on an anticipated stability of seasonal yields. Of course, the shift to agriculture only partially satisfied the human desire for security as farming communities remained vulnerable to changing climatic conditions and territorial warfare. Global industrialization, however, while it has rendered vast populations marginal and vulnerable, has offered its beneficiaries the most secure insulation yet enjoyed by humans against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". This success has been a double-edged sword, however, not least because the industrialized cocoon of our modern consumer lifestyles relentlessly promotes the notion that we have transcended our dependence on the earth's basic resources. As it stands, we look at our highly complex, industrialized world, and adapt our expectations and desires to its rewards. It is never our first instinct to ask whether the system of rewards itself might be unsustainable and collapse at some future time as a result of our eager participation.


Sustainability Obstacles and Support

In terms of the evolutionary argument I am outlining here, our ability to grasp the sustainability imperative faces two serious obstacles. The first is psychological, namely the inherited mental frameworks that reward us for the normalization and simplification of complex realities. The second is social, namely our economic and institutional arrangements designed to protect us from material wants, as well as from risk, shock, disorder, and violent change. Both these psychological and social features of our lives militate against an ecological, systems-based worldview.

Luckily, our cultural institutions have evolved to offer a counterweight to the complacency and inertia encouraged by the other simple, security-focused principles governing our lives. If society is founded upon the principle of security, and promotes our complacent feeling of independence from the natural world, we might think of culture as the conscience of society. What culture does, particularly in the arts and sciences, is remind us of our frailty as human beings, our vulnerability to shocks and sudden changes, and our connectedness to the earth's natural systems. In this sense, the arts and sciences, though we conventionally view them as opposites, in fact, perform the same social function: they remind us of what lies beyond the dominant security paradigm of our societies – which tends to a simplified and binary view of human being and nature – by bringing us closer to a complex, systemic understanding of how the natural world works and our embeddedness within it. Whether by means of an essay on plant biology, or a stage play about family breakdown (like Hamlet), the arts and sciences model complex worlds and the systemic interrelations that shape our lives. They expose complexities and connectivities in our world, and emphasize the material consequences of our actions to which we might otherwise remain oblivious. The close relation between the arts and sciences in the Western world is evidenced by the fact that their concerns have largely mirrored each other over time, from the ordered, hierarchical worldview in the classical and early modern periods, to the post-modern focus on connectivity, chaos, and emergence.

Life in the pre-modern world, in the memorable words of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was mostly "nasty, brutish, and short". By contrast, social and economic evolution has bestowed the inhabitants of the twenty-first century industrialized world with a lifestyle uniquely (though of course not wholly) insulated from physical hardship, infectious disease, and chronic violence. This insulation has come at a cost, however, namely our disconnection from the basic support systems of life: food, water, and energy. This is a very recent development. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, almost half of Americans grew up on farms. Now, fewer than two percent do. We experience the staples of life only at their service endpoints: the supermarket, the faucet, the gas station. In this context, the real-world sources of food, water, and energy do not seem important, while supplies appear limitless. We are not prepared for the inevitable shortages of the future.

On the positive side, it is possible to imagine that the citizens of the developed world might rapidly reconnect to a systems view of natural resources. One product of our long species evolution as hunters and agricultural land managers is an adaptive trait the ecologist E. O. Wilson has called "biophilia", that is, a love for the natural world that provides for us. In the few centuries of our fossil fuel modernity, this biophilia has become increasingly aestheticized and commodified – as landscape art, or nature tourism – and consequently marginalized from core social and economic decision structures. In the emerging age of environmental decline and resource scarcity, however, our inherited biophilia will play a key role in energizing the reform of industrialized societies toward a sustainable, renewable resource and energy future.


Review Questions

How has the human capacity for normalization both helped and hindered social development, and what are its implications for sustainable reform of our industries, infrastructure, and way of life?

Take an everyday consumer item – running shoes, or a cup of coffee – and briefly chart its course through the global consumer economy from the production of its materials to its disposal. What are its environmental impacts, and how might they be reduced?



An important feature of complex systems. Connections exist between even apparently remote and disparate things. For example, drought in Australia might impact the price of bread in Egypt, which in turn has repercussions for U.S. foreign policy.
An acquired evolutionary trait characteristic of human beings, whereby even radical changes are quickly adapted to and represented as normal.

The Industrialization of Nature: A Modern History (1500 to the present)

Learning Objectives

After reading this module, students should be able to

  • reproduce a basic timeline of global economic development since 1500, and outline the historical webs of trade linking sources of major raw materials – e.g. spices, cotton, oil – to their consumer markets on a world map
  • define the historical development of core and periphery nations in the world economy
  • understand the concept of externalization of environmental costs, and its role as a principle driver of unsustainable industrial development



It is a measure of our powers of normalization that we in the developed world take the existence of cheap energy, clean water, abundant food, and international travel so much for granted, when they are such recent endowments for humanity, and even now are at the disposal of considerably less than half the global population. It is a constant surprise to us that a situation so "normal" could be having such abnormal effects on the biosphere – degrading land, water, air, and the vital ecosystems hosting animals and fish. How did we get here? How can we square such apparent plenty with warnings of collapse?

Population growth graph

Population Growth Graph showing the rapid increase in human population since the beginning of the Industrial Age, with exponential rise since the mid-twentieth century. Source: IGBP synthesis: Global Change and the Earth System, Steffen et al 2004

Raw figures at least sketch the proportions of global change over the last 500 years. In 1500, even after several centuries of rapid population growth, the global population was no more than 500 million, or less than half the population of India today. It is now fourteen times as large, almost 7 billion. Over the same period, global economic output has increased 120 times, most of that growth occurring since 1820, and with the greatest acceleration since 1950. This combination of rampant population and economic growth since 1500 has naturally had major impacts on the earth's natural resources and ecosystem health. According to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by the beginning of the 21st century, 15 of the world's 24 ecosystems, from rainforests to aquifers to fisheries, were rated in serious decline.


Economic Development

Fundamental to significant changes in human history has been social reaction to resource scarcity. By 1500, Europeans, the first engineers of global growth, had significantly cleared their forests, settled their most productive agricultural lands, and negotiated their internal borders. And yet even with large-scale internal development, Europe struggled to feed itself, let alone to match the wealth of the then-dominant global empires, namely China and the Mughal States that stretched from the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia to the busy ports of the Eastern Mediterranean. As a consequence of resource scarcity, European states began to sponsor explorations abroad, in quest initially for gold, silver, and other precious metals to fill up their treasuries. Only over time did Europeans begin to perceive in the New World the opportunities for remote agricultural production as a source of income. Full-scale colonial settlement was an even later idea.

The new "frontiers" of European economic development in the immediate pre-industrial period 1500-1800 included tropical regions for plantation crops, such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, and opium, and temperate zones for the cultivation and export of grains. The seagoing merchants of Portugal, France, Spain, Britain, and the Netherlands trawled the islands of the East Indies for pepper and timber; established ports in India for commerce in silk, cotton, and indigo; exchanged silver for Chinese tea and porcelain; traded sugar, tobacco, furs, and rice in the Americas; and sailed to West Africa for slaves and gold. The slave trade and plantation economies of the Americas helped shift the center of global commerce from Asia to the Atlantic, while the new oceangoing infrastructure also allowed for the development of fisheries, particularly the lucrative whale industry. All these commercial developments precipitated significant changes in their respective ecosystems across the globe – deforestation and soil erosion in particular – albeit on a far smaller scale compared with what was to come with the harnessing of fossil fuel energy after 1800.

The 19th century witnessed the most rapid global economic growth seen before or mostly since, built on the twin tracks of continued agricultural expansion and the new "vertical" frontiers of fossil fuel and mineral extraction that truly unleashed the transformative power of industrialization on the global community and its diverse habitats. For the first time since the human transition to agriculture more than 10,000 years before, a state's wealth did not depend on agricultural yields from contiguous lands, but flowed rather from a variety of global sources, and derived from the industrialization of primary products, such as cotton textiles, minerals, and timber. During this period, a binary, inequitable structure of international relations began to take shape, with a core of industrializing nations in the northern hemisphere increasingly exploiting the natural resources of undeveloped periphery nations for the purposes of wealth creation.

Trade Map, Late 20th Century


Trade Map, Late 20th Century This map shows the "core" industrialized nations of the northern hemisphere, and the "periphery" nations of the tropics and south dependent on subsistence agriculture and natural resource extraction. This unequal relationship is the product of hundreds of years of trade and economic globalization Source: Created by Naboc1, based on a list in Christopher Chase-Dunn, Yukio Kawano and Benjamin Brewer, Trade Globalization since 1795, American Sociological Review, 2000 February, Vol. 65


The Great Acceleration

Despite the impact of the world wars and economic depression on global growth in the early 20th century, the new technological infrastructure of the combustion engine and coal-powered electricity sponsored increased productivity and the sanitization of growing urban centers. Infectious diseases, the scourge of humanity for thousands of years, retreated, more than compensating for losses in war, and the world's population continued to increase dramatically, doubling from 1 to 2 billion in 50 years, and with it the ecological footprint of our single species.

Nothing, however, is to be compared with the multiplying environmental impacts of human activities since 1950, a period dubbed by historians as "The Great Acceleration". In the words of the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, "over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth". The post-WWII global economic order promoted liberal and accelerated trade, capital investment, and technological innovation tethered to consumer markets, mostly free of environmental impact considerations. The resultant economic growth, and the corresponding drawdown of natural resources, are nonlinear in character, which is, exhibiting an unpredictable and exponential rate of increase.

All systems, human and natural, are characterized by nonlinear change. We are habituated to viewing our history as a legible story of "progress", governed by simple cause-and-effect and enacted by moral agents, with the natural world as a backdrop to scenes of human triumph and tragedy. But history, from a sustainability viewpoint, is ecological rather than dramatic or moral; that is, human events exhibit the same patterns of systems connectivity, complexity, and non-linear transformation that we observe in the organic world, from the genetic makeup of viruses to continental weather systems. The history of the world since 1950 is one such example, when certain pre-existing conditions – petroleum-based energy systems, technological infrastructure, advanced knowledge-based institutions and practices, and population increase – synergized to create a period of incredible global growth and transformation that could not have been predicted at the outset based upon those conditions alone. This unforeseen Great Acceleration has brought billions of human beings into the world, and created wealth and prosperity for many. But nonlinear changes are for the bad as well as the good, and the negative impacts of the human "triumph" of postwar growth have been felt across the biosphere. I will briefly detail the human causes of the following, itself only a selective list: soil degradation, deforestation, wetlands drainage and damming, air pollution, and climate change.


Soil Degradation

Since the transition to agriculture 10,000 years ago, human communities have struggled against the reality that soil suffers nutrient depletion through constant plowing and harvesting (mostly nitrogen loss). The specter of a significant die-off in human population owing to stagnant crop yields was averted in the 1970s by the so-called "Green Revolution", which, through the engineering of new crop varieties, large-scale irrigation projects, and the massive application of petroleum-based fertilizers to supplement nitrogen, increased staple crop production with such success that the numbers suffering malnutrition actually declined worldwide in the last two decades of the 20th century, from 1.9 to 1.4 billion, even as the world's population increased at 100 times background rates, to 6 billion. The prospects for expanding those gains in the new century are nevertheless threatened by the success of industrial agriculture itself. Soil depletion, declining water resources, and the diminishing returns of fertilizer technology – all the products of a half-century of industrial agriculture – have seen increases in crop yields level off. At the same time, growing populations in developing countries have seen increasing clearance of fragile and marginal agricultural lands to house the rural poor.

It has been estimated that industrial fertilizers have increased the planet's human carrying capacity by two billion people. Unfortunately, most of the chemical fertilizer applied to soils does not nourish the crop as intended, but rather enters the hydrological system, polluting aquifers, streams, and ultimately the oceans with an oversupply of nutrients, and ultimately draining the oxygen necessary to support aquatic life. As for the impact of fertilizers on soil productivity, this diminishes over time, requiring the application of ever-greater quantities in order to maintain yields.



Arguably the biggest losers from 20th-century economic growth were the forests of the world's tropical regions and their non-human inhabitants. Across Africa, Asia, and the Americas, approximately one-third of forest cover has been lost. Because about half of the world's species inhabits tropical rainforests, these clearances have had a devastating impact on biodiversity, with extinction rates now greater than they have been since the end of the dinosaur era, 65 million years ago. Much of the cleared land was converted to agriculture, so that the amount of irrigated soils increased fivefold over the century, from 50 to 250m hectares. Fully 40% of the terrestrial earth's total organic output is currently committed to human use. But we are now reaching the ceiling of productive land expansion, in terms of sheer area, while the continued productivity of arable land is threatened by salinity, acidity, and toxic metal levels that have now degraded soils across one-third of the earth's surface, some of them irreversibly.

Global Forest Map

Global Forest Map Since the middle of the twentieth century, the global logging industry, and hence large-scale deforestation, has shifted from the North Atlantic countries to the forests of tropical regions such as Indonesia and the Amazon Basin in Latin America. This tropical "green belt" is now rapidly diminishing, with devastating consequences for local ecosystems, water resources, and global climate.


Wetlands Drainage and Damming

Meanwhile, the worlds' vital wetlands, until recently viewed as useless swamps, have been ruthlessly drained – 15% worldwide, but over half in Europe and North America. The draining of wetlands has gone hand in hand with large-scale hydro-engineering projects that proliferated through the last century, such that now some two-thirds of the world's fresh water passes through dam systems, while rivers have been blocked, channeled, and re-routed to provide energy, irrigation for farming, and water for urban development. The long-term impacts of these projects were rarely considered in the planning stages, and collectively they constitute a wholesale re-engineering of the planet's hydrological system in ways that will be difficult to adapt to the population growth demands and changing climatic conditions of the 21st century. As for the world's oceans, these increasingly show signs of acidification due to carbon emissions, threatening the aquatic food chain and fish stocks for human consumption, while on the surface, the oceans now serve as a global conveyor belt for colossal amounts of non-degradable plastic debris.

The catchment area of the Mississippi River

Mississippi Watershed Map The catchment area of the Mississippi River covers almost 40% of the U.S. continental landmass, collecting freshwater from 32 states. Included in the runoff that feeds the river system are large quantities of agricultural fertilizer and other chemicals that eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an ever-growing "dead zone".


Air Pollution

In many parts of the world, pollution of the air by industrial particles is now less a problem than it was a century ago, when newspapers lamented the "black snow" over Chicago. This is due to concerted efforts by a clean air caucus of international scope that arose in the 1940s and gained significant political influence with the emergence of the environmental movement in the 1970s. The impact of the post-70s environmental movement on the quality of air and water, mostly in the West, but also developing countries such as India, is the most hopeful precedent we have that the sustainability issues facing the world in the new century might yet be overcome, given political will and organization equal to the task.


Climate Change

Air pollution is still a major problem in the megacities of the developing world, however, while a global change in air chemistry – an increase of 40% in the carbon load of the atmosphere since industrialization – is ushering in an era of accelerated climate change. This era will be characterized by increased droughts and floods, higher sea levels, and extreme weather events, unevenly and unpredictably distributed across the globe, with the highest initial impact in regions that, in economic and infrastructural terms, can least support climate disruption (for example, sub-Saharan Africa). The environmental historian J. R. McNeil estimates that between 25 and 40 million people died from air pollution in the 20th century. The death toll arising from climate change in the 21st century is difficult to predict, but given the scale of the disruption to weather systems on which especially marginal states depend, it is likely to be on a much larger scale.



From the Portuguese sea merchants of the 16th century in quest of silver and spices from Asia, to the multinational oil companies of today seeking to drill in ever more remote and fragile undersea regions, the dominant view driving global economic growth over the last half-millennium has been instrumentalist, that is, of the world's ecosystems as alternately a source of raw materials (foods, energy, minerals) and a dump for the wastes produced by the industrialization and consumption of those materials. The instrumentalist economic belief system of the modern era, and particularly the Industrial Age, is based on models of perennial growth, and measures the value of ecosystems according to their production of resources maximized for efficiency and hence profit. In this prevailing system, the cost of resource extraction to the ecosystem itself is traditionally not factored into the product and shareholder values of the industry. These costs are, in economic terms, externalized.

A future economics of sustainability, by contrast, would prioritize the management of ecosystems for resilience rather than pure capital efficiency, and would incorporate the cost of ecosystem management into the pricing of goods. In the view of many sustainability theorists, dismantling the system of "unnatural" subsidization of consumer goods that has developed over the last century in particular is the key to a sustainable future. Only a reformed economic system of natural pricing, whereby environmental costs are reflected in the price of products in the global supermarket, will alter consumer behavior at the scale necessary to ensure economic and environmental objectives are in stable alignment, rather than in constant conflict. As always in the sustainability paradigm, there are tradeoffs. A future economy built on the principle of resilience would be very different from that prevalent in the economic world system of the last 500 years in that its managers would accept reduced productivity and efficiency in exchange for the long-term vitality of the resource systems on which it depends.


Review Questions

What are the major technological and economic developments since 1500 that have placed an increased strain on the planet's ecosystem services? What is the role of carbon-based energy systems in that history?

What is the so-called Great Acceleration of the 20th century? What were its principal social features and environmental impacts?

What is the Green Revolution? What were its successes, and what problems has it created?



biodiversity and extinction
Thriving ecosystems are characterized by diverse plant and animal populations; there is, therefore, a strong correlation between current ecosystem decline globally, and the rate of extinction of species, which is in the order of a thousand times that of background rates. This has prompted scientists to label the current period the Sixth Mass Extinction in the long history of the biosphere, and the first since the end of the dinosaurs.
The process by which costs inherent to the production of goods – particularly environmental costs – are not included in the actual price paid.
An attitude to environmental resources characteristic of the last 500-year period of global human economic development, whereby ecosystem provisions – water, minerals, oil and gas, etc. – are perceived only in terms of their use value to human beings, rather than as integral elements of a wider natural system.
Changes in a system are nonlinear when they exhibit sudden changes in rate of increase or decline. The population of a particular tropical frog species, for example, may suddenly crash as a result of warming temperatures, rather than show gradual decline.

Source: OpenStax College and Gillen Wood,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2021, 12:27 PM