Environmental awareness is usually on the list of solutions to environmental issues. The logic is that when people are aware of their actions, they will think twice before they pollute, waste resources, and buy things that they don’t need.
Plus awareness is at the heart of most things good.
So why does awareness make the list of environmental issues?
Because the idea has been misconstrued.
It turns out that just being aware that there are environmental challenges or that using natural resources will have environmental consequences is not enough. Issues can still be ignored and any impacts tolerated.
Awareness is just the start. It does not guarantee that we take individual or collective responsibility.
It is worth tracking back to cover a few fundamentals...
The environment is the complex combination of physical conditions and biological responses that millions of extant species, including humans, are adapted.
Outside the human system, the environment is mostly predictable, disturbed by heat, flood, fire, drought and a host of smaller chance events that occur at random but within limits of frequency and intensity.
The Queensland coast in Australia is prone to tropical cyclones in summer. Gale force winds and rain clatter through coastal forests damaging trees and can be devastating to human infrastructure. The intense low pressure causes the ocean to bulge raising water levels to deliver storm surges on the coast. It seems like a disaster, only it is normal for that part of the world and so it is what nature expects and organisms thrive on it.
When a tree is blown over it is likely to die along with a host of other organisms that depend on it. But it doesn't disappear. Its leaves, twigs and branches become food for microbes and insects, even the trunk becomes sodden and home to a multitude of beetles, bugs and fungi. New plants sprout in the space that the mighty tree once owned.
Disturbance is part of natural systems creating space and opportunity. Where there is a space up pops an organism to fill it. Similarly, resources do not go unnoticed for long. A microbe, fungi, insect, plant or animal sooner or later uses it by converting resource to more of its kind.
No environment is stable with a biblical set of creatures but is dynamic and constantly evolving as life goes about its core business of more making.
Humans view the collective mass of biology and physicality of the environment as an opportunity, a resource to be used. It is intrinsic, hardwired into our genes. Our economic systems have come about to make the most of it.
We are just like the opportunistic beetles and fungi only with a far greater capacity to exploit.
Sixth sense tells us there is someone behind us – we become aware of his or her presence. The dictionary talks of “being informed” or “conscious” or “having knowledge” meaning that we know there is someone there.
We like to think that we are blessed with this sense of knowing. The good news is that we are.
The not so good news is that it is often masked, as though we are walking around in a cloud. When it comes to the environment we can be so focused on ourselves that we fail to see it at all, far less be aware of it.
This is especially true when we are focused on a task.
Our awareness narrows and we fail to see even obvious oddness around us. And modern humans are focused on tasks all the time.
If you get the chance to experience hypnotherapy then you’ll see what I mean by the cloudiness of our awareness. After a session of hypnosis a common side effect is that the world around appears more vibrant. You see everything in your peripheral vision as immediate and sharp. It is actually quite odd.
Meditation can have a similar effect.
Environmental awareness is both the knowledge of the environment and what goes on in it within a human context.
It is a view of the world through the lens of what humans have and are doing to the natural capital that supplies so many of our critical goods and services.
For example, instead of just throwing the plastic bag in the trash we realize that plastic has a history. It was manufactured from ancient fossil fuel using a big chunk of energy and is more or less indestructible in nature. Even though it may eventually break up into thousands of tiny pieces as it floats around the ocean, or its final destination is an incinerator that releases toxic fumes or more likely, a landfill that releases methane to the atmosphere.
That awareness may mean we think twice before purchasing another plastic bag, choosing instead to take a reusable bag to the grocery store — or it may not.
Environmental awareness alone is no guarantee of sustainability.
Environmental awareness challenges us for two key reasons:
1 | It is difficult to be aware of everything.
How much of your own environmental footprint do you know about? There is energy use, water, food, materials, and any number of goods and services. What we use every day is staggering and hugely complex.
We do not even know how many materials are used in the computer or mobile device that brings you these words.
2 | Having environmental awareness does not make decisions any easier.
Once we are told that carbon dioxide emissions are bad we might consider getting rid of our gas guzzling family saloon and replacing it with a hybrid or even electric car. Except that embodied energy in the new vehicle plus the emissions to deliver the electricity that charges the car is more than you save in fuel efficiency by switching.
Better to run the gas goes on until it reaches a natural end and then go for new technology.
So Ask Alloporus suggests that environmental awareness is very important but it can also be an issue if we don’t act on it — a screen we can hide behind.
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