Environmental Degradation and Our Will to Stop It

Why we can’t stop environmental degradation, even though we want to.


| September 2013



Invisible Nature

Understand the modern relationship between people and nature and the path to a more sustainable world in “Invisible Nature.”

Cover Courtesy Prometheus Books

The fragmentations of our modern lives make it difficult to follow our own values and ethics. In Invisible Nature (Prometheus Books, 2013), environmental scholar Kenneth Worthy explains why our disconnections from nature make us more destructive and shows the way to make greater contact with the nature that sustains us. In this excerpt from the introduction, see why we want to help the environment, but at the same time, continue to contribute to environmental degradation.

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Nearly every day, I see around me a strange and perplexing contradiction of modern living: people concerned about the environment making environmentally harmful choices. Polls routinely show that the large majority of Americans care quite a lot about environmental quality, yet they often behave as if they don’t. In semi-arid California, droughts are common and major rivers are diverted for consumption in homes and on farms; therefore the habitats of various aquatic species are increasingly in peril. Nevertheless, I once met a California woman who flushes each individual facial tissue down the toilet, one every few minutes or so, when she has a cold—and with the tissue, gallons of fresh, clean mountain-river water. Recently, I saw a common grocery store sight: a shopper requesting that his two one-gallon plastic milk containers each be double-bagged in plastic shopping bags—even though the jugs themselves have handles. The bags are restricted or banned in many countries and some US cities. One problem is that plastic winds up in the oceans, where it’s eaten by animals such as albatrosses and turtles who mistake it for food; they die of poisoning, suffocation, or a clogged digestive tract.

I’ve seen empty houses in the dead of winter in New England heated to tropical warmth while their owners are out; environmental scholars throwing printer paper into a trash can that sits beside a paper-recycling container; and huge car dealerships lit up like the midday sun at midnight. All around us are gas-guzzling vehicles and oversized American homes that require large amounts of energy to build and furnish (there’s embodied energy in all building materials and every product) and to heat and cool. Meanwhile, the global climate is becoming unstable from greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels, and according to most climate experts, we’re far behind where we should be to avoid various global disasters.

These strange contradictions in a society that generally cares about the environment aren’t limited to private life, either: corporations and governments, made up of people well aware of and often concerned about environmental problems, make environmentally dubious choices all the time. I frequently see all the high-power lights over the vast Port of Oakland, California, glowing in the middle of the day, requiring Pacific Gas & Electricity’s generating plants to burn more fossil fuels, thereby increasing global warming. On a recent cold, rainy winter day, I saw a sprinkler system spraying copious amounts of water over a baseball field at a university—water from over-taxed reservoirs, water that would benefit the ecology of the Mokelumne River, from which it was taken. Why do people make choices harmful to the environment even when they truly care about it and when other choices are available?

The problem runs even deeper than harmful individual choices freely made. Basically all of us moderners participate in destructive practices, intentionally or not. It’s hard to live a modern life that fully aligns with your values if you care about nature and about the people—often the poor—who bear the brunt of environmental degradation. Many people attempt to lessen the damage by using public transit, buying less meat, flying less, line-drying clothing, turning the heat down in the winter—but these choices are no panacea. I often ride my bike for transportation and try to live modestly. But ultimately I can’t avoid propagating harms around the globe because just leading a normal life in our society means, for instance, buying computers, which are made of various toxic materials; heating my home and thereby releasing global warming gases; and releasing even more such gases by flying on jets. Some people live “off grid” by disconnecting their homes from the electrical network. But just try to disconnect from all the material and energy production networks—for food, clothing, gasoline, building materials—that sustain our modern lives and that at the same time divorce us from Earth and our consequences.