Earth Environment School Reform Sustainability

One Reflection on Our Progress as a Species

When we think about the evolution of the automobile, our ways of communicating, the ease with which we travel across the globe, our tall buildings touching the sky, our underground labyrinth of trains, or the vast entertainment culture that captivates our attention, it is hard not to appreciate the progress we have made over the past few hundred years. Our technological progress has been unprecedented, but what about our social, emotional, moral, and spiritual progress. Has it evolved in parallel with our technological innovation? I believe this is a question worth asking and reflecting on.

One way I think about our social, emotional, moral, and spiritual progress is to think about our stewardship of the planet we inhabit. Throughout the past few hundred years we have witnessed enormous change in how we live our lives, showering ourselves with conveniences that have their roots in our technological innovations. However, our ability to care for the planet while immersed in the progress has been abysmal. Let me give you some of the many examples.

  • In the last 50 years, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, referred to as the lungs of the Earth, has lost nearly 20% of its forest cover—more than 275,000 square miles, which is about the size of Texas.
  • Within the next 5 years, according to a study published in Nature, the waste produced by cities around the globe will be enough to fill a line of rubbish trucks 3,100 miles long every day. We have a rubbish crisis.
  • While we know that fresh, clean water is an essential ingredient in life, and yet we needlessly trash our fresh water supplies across the globe. A UNESCO 2017 report claimed that 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped, untreated, back into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes and oceans. It’s important to remember that only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh and of that only a small fraction of it is available for drinking.
  • The unearthing process, extraction of oil, natural gas, or coal in the fossil fuel industry disrupts and destroys landscapes and ecosystems around the world. In the past 10 years, one of hundreds of examples of destruction due to fossil fuel extraction was the eradication of nearly 2,400 animals in Columbia after an oil spill in Magdalena River.
  • The loss of land-based ice sheets to climate change is the single largest contributor to rising sea levels. Data from NASA’s GRACE satellites, which measured Earth’s gravity field, show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since 2002 at a rate of 147 and 279 gigatons per year respectively. An important fact to remember is that about 60% of all fresh water on the Earth is held in the Antarctic ice sheet, an amount equivalent to about 58 m of sea-level rise.
  • We have a global stockpile of around 250,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel distributed across 14 countries that will remain dangerous for thousands of years and no global plan for how to deal with the issue. Just think of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and its worldwide impact.
  • In the United States, about 9 billion chickens are killed for food each year, while 300 million hens are used to harvest their eggs. For the most part, these animals spend their lives in inhumane confinement—from the moment they’re born until the day they are slaughtered. This is an animal rights, as well as a human health issue.

We have progressed in many ways that are too numerous to mention, but we have also failed to progress with respect to our social, ecological, moral, and spiritual responsibility to care for the Earth in a sustainable and healthy manner. All of the examples could be rationalized as providing important materials for our well being, but they could also be used to illustrate how we are destroying the planet’s resources that are vital to our survival as a species.

In 1988, Thomas Berry, in his compelling book, The Dream of the Earth, writes:

“For the first time the planet has become capable of self-destruction in may of its major life systems through human agency, or at least it has become capable of causing a violent and irreversible alteration of its chemical and biological constitution such as has not taken place since the original shaping of the earth occurred.” (page 218)

The important point he makes in his book is that all these changes in the Earth are human made. In order to rectify the problems we have created, we need a new way of seeing ourselves in the world. Dominion over the earth is not the answer. We have to learn to live in harmony with all Earth’s resources, both living and nonliving, if we expect Earth to be a welcoming home to future generations.

Therefore, in our schools we need to begin a concerted effort to teach students the importance of understanding systems. The Earth is a vast system of interacting, mutually interdependent parts. Students should learn to understand and appreciate the complexity of the system, and be aware of our collective impact on the whole by neglecting, exploiting, or abusing parts of the system. Living organisms on Earth, small and large, are one part of the system. Biodiversity is a critical component that keeps the Earth system healthy. However, we are losing between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species each year, about 10,000-100,000 species becoming extinct. What will this mean for our species survival if biodiversity is all but eliminated as a result of our actions?

I would advocate for rethinking our curricula and instructional practices to include a more robust and value-centered approach to our social, emotional, moral, and spiritual responsibility to our planet. Future generations will need to see the Earth and all its components as a single community. It will involve changing our mental model from one of domination over the earth to living in harmony with it. I think it best begins in schools where children exhibit a great appreciate for the wonders around them. We must tap into their desire to be dreamers so they can call forth their creativity to envision a new way to live in the world.

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