A Critical Assessment of the Current Human PredicamentModule 3: The Impact of Individual and Collective Beliefs on the Living Environment and Physical Health
In this Module – The Impact of Collective Beliefs on Group Behavior, Structures and Consciousness – you will address the following 4 questions: What is the health of the planet as a complex adaptive system? What views of nature have led us to the current environmental crisis? To what extent have you contributed to the current state of the environment? In what waysis your health — and the health of those around — affected by environmental degradation?
To help you answer these questions, you will begin by considering the health of Planet Earth as a complex adaptive living system. You will then have the opportunity to formulate your ownunderstanding the impact of human action on natureand to consider to what extent it is both a global and a local issue.Finally in this Module, you will learn about the Impact of environmental degradation on human health.
Keeping in mind the definition of complex adaptive and living systems that you learned in the World 1 course, the intended outcome of this first unit is for you to gain a better understanding of the current health of the planet.
Planet Earth fits the definition of a complex adaptive system and living system. It consists of a number of interacting elements: biosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, etc. These elements interact with one another and use feedback mechanisms as a means to maintain the whole system within a range of relatively constant internal conditions. The Earth’s structure is holarchic, composed of open systems, capable of adaptation, self-organization and emergence, and sensitive to initial conditions. It captures the energy of the sun for photosynthetic processes and radiates it back into space as long-wave radiation, while matter is recycled within the Earth. It is perhaps the largest living system we can observe.
Let’s focus now on the key principle of diversity in living systems. Applied to Planet Earth, it is most directly expressed in terms of biodiversity. As it turns out, the biodiversity of Earth is deeply at risk.Edward O. Wilson, one of the world's leading authorities on Biodiversity and author of The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth writes:“In one sense we know much less about Earth than we do about Mars. The vast majority of life forms on our planet are still undiscovered, and their significance for our own species remains unknown. This gap in our knowledge is a serious matter: we will never completely understand and preserve the living world around us at our present level of ignorance."If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Paleontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years. Evolutionary biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the rate of species loss over the past few centuries.Some of them say that large mammals, including humans, might disappear altogether, but that other forms of life such as viruses and bacteria would thrive under the altered environmental conditions that are emerging on the Planet.It we humans are possibly both the prime cause and the most likely victims of a sixth mass extinction, it is important and urgent to ask what we can learn from nature to avert the crisis before it is too late.
There are many ways you can learn from nature. Here are some people who provide inspirational examples and initiatives:• JaneGoodall has dedicated her life to finding out what we can learn from chimpanzees and other primates, and is now working with youth all over the world to develop their capacity to appreciate and learn from nature.•Janine Benyus, author of the book Biomimicry, has inspired us to learn from how nature does things. Biomimicry – derived from bios, meaning life, and mimésis, meaning to imitate – enables us to learn from and apply nature's 3.8 billion years of research and development to meet human needs. In the last 15 years since the publication of the book, biologists, designers and business professionals have worked together to design new products, services and organizational structures that improve human life, based on Biomimicry. Janine advises us to look at nature as model, measure, and mentor. •Bill Shireman, founder and CEO of the Future 500 group, took CEOs from a variety of multinationals and impassioned environmental activists to observe and experience together the dense tropical rainforests of Sarawak, Malaysia. Through this type of experience come insightful books such as the one Shireman co-authored, called What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature.As you go through the various activities of this module, be sure to spend some time considering what you have learned from your own experience of vibrant nature …
Moving on to Learning Unit 2, the intended outcome here is for you to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of human action upon natureand assess to what extent it is occurring on both a global and a local scale.‘Nature’ in this unit refers to the entire biophysical world, including agricultural and urban ecosystems as well as the broader natural ecosystems in which they are embedded.
In the last 200 years, humans have increasingly contributed to an unsustainable society. This has happened largely through the following four dynamics:The progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)The progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )The progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat) Conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).These conclusions were arrived at two decades ago by aninternational network of scientists who unanimously and publically concluded that human society is damaging nature and altering life-supporting natural structures and functions in fundamental ways. Consequently, they were able to define three basic conditions that must be met if we want to maintain the essential natural resources, structures and functions that sustain a human presence on Earth. Furthermore, acknowledging that human action is the primary cause of the rapid change we see in nature today, they included a fourth system condition that focuses on the social and economic considerations that drive those actions and the capacity of human beings to meet their basic needs. These Four System Conditions have been disseminated worldwide by an organization originally created in Sweden and called The Natural Step, but many other scientific studies have since confirmed these conclusions. A number of books and films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Home have popularized these findings.The Natural Step principles have been adopted by global organizations to inform how they choose to function in the world – for example, the Scandinavian hotel chain Scandic has achieved tangible results (financial, ecological, and social) by implementing the Natural Step in 1994 – the company went from posting 3 years of losses totaling $22 million to being profitable. To learn more about how the Natural Step principles were applied by Scandic, please refer to the enclosed case study: http://thenaturalstep.org/en/usa/scandic-hotels
As consumers, we have become particularly sensitive to the price of oil and are starting to hear more and more often the term ‘peak oil’. There are two peaks so far as oil is concerned: one is in the discovery of oil reserves, and the other is in oil production. The peak in oil discovery was reached in 1965, and as a global civilization, we are now hitting peaks in our capacity to produce oil given our oil dependent ways of life. Although some of the fluctuations in the price of oil reflect political tensions in oil-producing regions, we know from recent oil spills that access to the remaining oil reserves is going to be not only more expensive but also more risky for the oceans, the coastal areas and their inhabitants.To proactively transition communities away from fossil fuels, grass-roots movements such “Transition Towns” focus on the idea of a community-envisioned, community-designed and community-implemented plans of self-reliance. The term "community" in this context includes all the key players of a local society — local people, local institutions, local agencies and local councils.Every day, we use materials from the earth without thinking about it, and often we use them for free or at fairly low cost. But what if we had to pay for their true value: would it make us more careful about what we use and what we waste? EconomistPavanSukhdev has been assessing the value of the Earth's assets. His eye-opening charts might make you think differently about the cost of air, water, trees, etc., so be sure to watch his TEDTalk video.As you continue with this module, think about what influences your views of nature and how you behave in it and toward it.
Religion also affects our view of nature. This should come as no surprise to you based on what you learned at the end of the World 1 course and all that you are learning in this one.Gerald G. Martens, author of Human Ecology - Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development writes:“Religion is a powerful way in which societies organize their worldviews and shape human behavior. Hunter-gatherer societies regarded nature with awe and respect. Their spirit religions considered people to be an integral part of nature, basically no different from other animals. Religion changed with the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions. Western religions considered humans to possess a unique character that vested them with authority over nature, as well as responsibility for its integrity. Awe for nature diminished as Western societies achieved greater dominion, and responsibility gave way to exploitation. Respect for nature revived with the appearance of environmental problems in recent years.”This might remind you of the final module of the World 1 course where you learned to distinguish among four major societal paradigms: Mythos, Theos, Logos, and Holos. Different cultures — and different people in the same culture — have different perceptions of how ecosystems function and how they respond to human action. While every perception has a basis in reality, some perceptions of nature are more useful than others because they embrace reality more completely or accurately. Recognizing how different perceptions do this to various extents can help you understand why certainindividuals and certain societies interact with the environment in such strikingly different ways.
In this unit, you will explore how you can assess the impact of environmental degradation on Human Health.
There are at least seven major environmental problems which directly affect human health conditions: Water pollution and water scarcity: According to the United Nations, more than two million deaths and billions of illnesses a year are attributable to water pollution. Water scarcity compounds these health problems even further.2.Air pollution: According to the UN, urban air pollution is responsible for 300,000–700,000 deaths annually and creates chronic health problems for many more people. 3. Solid and hazardous wastes: Diseases are spread by uncollected garbage and blocked drains; the health risks from hazardous wastes are typically more localized, but are often acute. Waste also affects health through the pollution of groundwater resources.4. Soil degradation: Depleted soils increase the risks of malnutrition for subsistancefarmers. Contemporary productivity losses on tropical soils are estimated to be in the range of 0.5-1.5 per cent of GNP. 5. Deforestation: Death and disease can result from the localized flooding caused by deforestation. Loss of sustainable logging potential,increased erosion, decreased watershed stability, and increasedcarbon emissions due to reduced foliage surfaceare among the health and productivity impacts of deforestation.6. Loss of biodiversity: The extinction of plant and animal species will potentially affect the development of new drugs; it will reduce ecosystem adaptability and lead to the loss of genetic resources.7. Atmospheric changes: Ozone depletion is responsible for perhaps 300,000 additional cases of skin cancer a year and 1.7 million cases of cataracts. Climate change may increase the risk of natural climatic disasters. Other health impacts may include sea-rise damage to coastal habitat, regional changes in agricultural productivity and disruption of the marine food chain.
Water, Air and Soil Pollution cause 40% of deaths worldwide, according to David Pimentel, Cornell professor of ecology and agricultural science. With a team of Cornell graduate students, he examined data from more than 120 published papers on the effects of population growth, malnutrition and various kinds of environmental degradation on human diseases.It turns out that malnutrition is not only the direct cause of death for 6 million childreneach year, but also makes millions of people much more susceptible to such killers as acute respiratory infections, malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases, according to the Cornell study. Increased water pollution creates breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, killing 1.2 million to 2.7 million people a year. Air pollution from smoke and various chemicals kills 3 million people a year. Soil is contaminated by many chemicals and pathogens, which are passed on to humans through direct contact or via food and water. Increased soil erosion worldwide not only results in more soil being blown away, but also in the spreading of disease causing microbes and various toxins. At the same time, more microbes are becoming increasingly drug-resistant. And global warming, together with changes in biological diversity, influence theevolution ofparasites and the ability of exotic species to invade new areas. As a result, diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza are re-emerging as major health threats, while new threats — including West Nile virus and Lyme disease — have appeared as global health problems.Pimentel and his fellow researchers conclude that reliance on diseases and malnutrition to limit human population growth diminishes the quality of life for all humans and is a high-risk policy. Theycall for comprehensive and fair population policies and greater conservation of environmental resources that support human life.Please consider how these types of environmentally-caused health issues might affect you locally, where you live.