Restoring A World Out Of Balance

Koyaanisqatsi. It is the Hopi word for “life out of balance”, popularized in the ’80s by director Godfrey Reggio in his film trilogy. It is telling that we do not similarly have just one word in English to quite convey the same sense, as this is the situation in which many of us speaking English find ourselves today.

To start, let’s look at one issue: the global situation of amphibians. Reports from all over the world have documented alarming increases in deformities and unnatural growths in frogs. The issue became a very real story which gripped the scientific world from 2000-2004. Was it some odd fungal infection? Was it a legacy of the decades of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other synthetic chemicals that had been dispersed throughout the environment? No one was sure, to believe the report in the 2003 Scientific American, which hypothesized several possible causes: contaminated water, ultraviolet radiation, or a parasite. And an article in the March-April American Scientist of 2004 linked many of the amphibian problems to human-induced climate change.

What was clear was simply that something was wrong. Amphibians, with their highly permeable skin, act as canaries in the coal mine, and signal that something is amiss in the world’s living systems. And it was highly probable that human activity was culpable in some way.

In how many other areas have we seen significant detrimental impacts in our relationship to the natural world? More importantly, how often have we failed to take corrective action, once the detrimental impacts became clear?

If you’re reading this, you’re likely already attuned to environmental crises. Rather than supersaturate your likely-already-saturated capacity to listen to problem identification, I’ll skip the other examples (bats, UN Millennium Ecosystem assessment, etc.) and cut to the chase:

This is not simply an issue of forging better environmental policies or implementing better practices. At their core, the issues we are dealing with are issues of values, mindset, and ethics, requiring a fundamental shift in how we relate to, and act in, the world. Perhaps the key defining moral failure of our times is the failure to recognize the inherent right of other species, and ecosystems, to exist.

This failure creates the many bizarre situations in which we currently find ourselves, like economic systems with clear incentives to destroy the ecology on which they depend.

This failure also creates tremendous opportunities that we too often have failed to capitalize upon, because we’re too attached to business-as-usual and hold a real fear of change. For example, political contributions are an avoidable cost of doing business to the fossil fuel and chemicals industries, yet contributions continue to flow in order to avoid any forced changes that stem from our understanding of environmental problems caused by fossil fuels and chemical industry products. These industries have made strides in more strategic directions – investing in renewable energies, starting product lines with improved biodegradability, etc. But the motion and effort has not been anywhere near requisite to our challenge. The only possible reason I can ascribe to not truly making an effort is fear of change. We (rather than “they”, as we are embedded in the societies that spawned those industries) understand our processes and markets, get comfortable, and strive to maintain the status quo rather than grapple with harsh realities. So, rather than embracing new information on negative impacts of their products, we instead shove it away, because it doesn’t fit well with our desires and assumption, and reject the impetus to change rather than embrace it as a worthy challenge. (The automotive industry was in a similar situation for a long time, and seeing significant opening to certain changes there – even competitions now to see who can get the highest mpg – has been welcome.)

It’s easy to say that we need to create (or recreate) a better relationship with our surroundings. Real effort is required to get there. The real questions include . . . how do we operationalize it? How do we shift our and others’ minds to really embrace the rights of all species and all life? If and when we’re in agreement, given the unknowns and extent of our supply-chains, and our investments that impact far-flung places, how can we really be ensure supply-chain-related and investment-related actions reflect our values?

I expect very significant barriers to keeping an open mind to the questions, and major differences of opinion on the answers. BUT, I do think we do have pathways and methods available to help us advance, and even putting forth a very significant effort would be a win.