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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, June 22, 2024

You can't beat the (environmental) system

Climate change discussion began this week in Copenhagen, and as most expected, our global climate outlook is becoming exponentially worse. Environmental statistics get tossed around regularly when a dialogue begins on climate change, and they have a tendency to approach hyperbolic proportions. I have this sense of foreboding because of the things I'm hearing about cycles of droughts due to substantially less rainfall, which will lead to irreparable agrarian damage, cause untold extinctions and hinder our global food supply in the near future.

The unfortunate truth about climate change is that we don't know exactly how bad it could be for us, but we are starting to see exactly how interconnected our society is with our environment. We've come to the point where it is impossible to deny that climate change is occurring and the damages done are irreversible. It is great that there is a dialogue occurring right now in Copenhagen about the environment, but unfortunately it will be a lot of talk about adaptations we should have made years ago. We need to shift the paradigm of environmentalism in order to deal with the new problems that climate change presents to us.

The new focus of environmentalism should emphasize that we are an intricate part of this giant earth system—an impossibly complex system that we cannot possibly hope to tame, but one that we can nonetheless assimilate too, entering into a state of harmony. Earth's current climate issues come from the fact that we forget that we are part of the planet's cycles. We––its inhabitants––forget that our actions and decisions exert dominance over the planet that is causing a lot of these pessimistic statistics. In 1991, systems ecologist and adventurer John P. Allen locked eight researchers into a closed natural system meant to be a scaled down simulation of the earth. It was known as Biosphere 2, an experiment designed to help us begin to understand how humans fit within earth's cycles.

While any small-scale replication of a system as big as the Earth will face its own unique constraints, there are still lessons that we can learn from the exercise. Essentially, Biosphere 2 served to simulate an increased human impact on the environment. Because it was such a small closed system, nutrient and atmospheric cycles occurred on radically shorter time steps. So, for instance, when someone physically exerted themselves, they could note the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air within hours. The water they drank from streams had only two days prior been vapor in the atmosphere.

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This high-frequency environment magnified any change the ‘biospherians' made in their environment. This situation is analogous to our global situation in that we as humans are increasingly forced to consider our actions on the planet as a result of our growing impact. The atmosphere is no longer an infinite sink for our pollution, as it once seemed. Instead the atmosphere—and of high importance today, the carbon dioxide it contains—have become dynamic system variables that respond to our actions. The reality of our impact upon the planet requires a high level of self-reflection and a realization that there is no action of ours that does not affect the planet. This really isn't possible in a consumer culture like ours in which the individual is meant to feel that they have no place in these bigger issues. In this new environmentalism, there is no room for this forced ambivalence. We all need to know that our actions matter, and that we are responsible for them.

Replacing our ego with awareness will not immediately put an end to the entropy of climate change and extinction, but the knowledge we gain will help us to structure our society in a way that will be conducive to drastic changes in the environment. Right now, we are complicating our role on the planet rather than complexifying. Complexification requires an entire restructuring of social hierarchy and human self-image, something that is becoming increasingly more difficult to accomplish with our current lifestyle. The United States is far and away the largest importer of goods in the world. This behavior is totally unsustainable for both the environment and society, as it diverts the focus of our lives away from actually living them.

This sterilization of individuality allows policy decisions to be made by people who do not act in the best interest of the planet. In a society that emphasizes profit margins and bulk spending, this also detracts from the importance of the individual. This is why grass roots organizations and other communities that stress individual thought and behavior have shown a high level of effectiveness as of late. These groups allocate the authority where it belongs: with the individual.

With all of these distractions then, how do we get people to realize that they are part of the system and that their individual actions have an impact on that system? Although the human population is growing, much of society is still living as if land were a variable to be trashed and left behind for greener pastures. The earth is going to start pushing back on us, changing constraints in an abused system. This is what makes climate change so unpredictable—we don't know what these new constraints will be. The old constraints have allowed for us to make the current climate change predictions, but the earth system is reconfiguring itself in response to our growing impact thus rendering the future of the planet highly unpredictable. However, as the statistics display, the future is not looking good.

At the end of Shawn Rosenheim's film about Biosphere 2, biologist Tony Burgess spoke about our role as humans in the natural system of earth. He emphasized that the natural cycles of the planet are a ""dance,"" and that we have to learn to ""dance the dance,"" or suffer the consequences. It is time to start realizing that our environment and our society are intricately linked, and that in this current situation, the actions of the individual can make all the difference.

Anthony Cefali is a senior majoring in biology. Please send feedback for The Green Room to 

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