Environmental solutions

Environmental solutions have seen major success [such as closing the hole in the ozone layer, spotted owl conservation] mixed with ongoing failure despite innovation and technological advances.

But the list of environmental issues remains long, with few problems solved and new issues added too regularly for comfort.

Given that major environmental issues are about people, it is possible for humanity to resolve most of them but three things need to be in place before we pay enough attention...

  1. immediate and acute personal pain hits most should the issue persist
  2. a collective will to fix the problem
  3. recognition to tackle the drivers that caused the problem and not just soothe the symptoms

water pollution managed with vegetation | NSW, Australia

Environmental solutions | Acute personal pain

Humans have relied on the environment for millennia — and we were scared of it for most of that time. 

Flood, fire, storm, drought, wild animals and disease are all a frightening prospect from a fragile temporary shelter made of reeds or thatch. It is no surprise that fear of the night pervades folk law everywhere.

Fear is primal and we would not have survived without out. But it can produce illogical behaviors. One of them is denial — if we ignore the issue it will go away. The extreme of this is to refuse to believe there is an issue in the first place. 

If the environment is big enough and wide enough to support nature and humanity since the dawn of time, then who are we to say it will not keep doing it indefinitely.

Sure humans use resources but so what. There are plenty out there. When there are grasslands as far as the eye can see it makes sense grow livestock on all that grass.

One consequence of this denial is that humans have seen and used natural capital for thousands of generations, purposely oblivious to any consequences. Indeed we did not even imagine there would be consequences. 

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond explains what happened to many human societies who failed to read the signs of resource depletion and carried on regardless. 

It is true that until recently the consequences of human actions for the environment were modest. There were extinctions and changes to landscapes [such as from the hunting and fire stick activities of aboriginal peoples in Australia] only they rarely polluted beyond a local impact. Neither did they compromise ecosystem services. 

Natural capital was altered but remained intact.  Life went on as it had done.

It is only when the consequences of natural resource management make a real and immediate difference to living and lifestyle that we pay attention. It is the frog in the boiling water problem.

Drop a frog into a saucepan of hot water and it tries its best to get out. The shock triggers its escape response.

Drop the frog into a saucepan of cold water and it is happy enough. Slowly heat the water and it stays put until it is too hot and too late.

Many environmental issues are diffuse or show steady accumulation without acute effects. As Mike Hulme explains in his book ‘Why we disagree about climate change, climate change is a classic example of this slow burn problem.

If we can’t feel it, it probably isn’t happening.

Environmental solutions | A collective will

There will always be people who recognize a problem in an instant.

And there will always be those who could not see a problem were it to tap them on the shoulder and say hello.

There are also people who recognize the problem but see it as merely an unfortunate consequence easily outweighed by the benefits of the activity that caused it.

If rainforest trees are felled for timber causing soil erosion and biodiversity loss and replaced by a palm oil plantation there are many tangible benefits. Timber makes furniture, frames for houses, and pulp for paper that can all be sold to markets across the globe. There is an almost insatiable desire for palm oil that makes the palms a valuable economic asset.  

In short, trees are converted to money.

In financial terms the natural capital is mobilized and this is good for the economy. Money fuels any number of useful human activities from education and health to defense.

There are those who lament the erosion of capital. Even economists would concede that it is better to preserve, or better still, grow capital assets if they yield a return. 

And this is the problem — natural capital requires conversion to achieve monetary yield.

This means there will always be those who think this is a good idea, essential even. How else is the human race to prosper?

And there will be those who want to keep at least something back for a rainy day and even preserve some of the environment for its own sake. Environmentalism gives us insurance for the future.

This can be a healthy tension. The entrepreneurial push against environmentalism can reach a balance where most needs are met. Equally it can lead to argument.

It is not until environmental problems get really bad that both sides readily agree.

When it comes to environmental solutions, true collective will is like hens teeth.

riparian forest in western NSW, Australia

Environmental solutions | Symptoms or disease

A headache can be readily soothed with a painkiller. A small tablet that brings fast relief and much easier than changing the pattern of long hours at work sandwiched by crowded commutes five days a week.

We like this focus on symptoms. They are what we feel and so we easily recognize the benefits when they are eased.

The disease can be scary, much harder to admit to and more troublesome to resolve.

Lists of environmental issues tend to catalogue the environmental equivalent of diseases. They are not easily resolved with the equivalent of a dose of painkiller.

Disease takes much longer to resolve.


Modern life is so buffered from acute environmental pain that we rarely feel it...

  • power at the flick of a switch
  • solid buildings
  • effortless mobility
  • a host of creature comforts

all make it hard for us to feel the need for environmental solutions. 

Even though environmental issues are more acute, widespread and damaging to our wellbeing than ever before, we are removed from their effects in air-conditioned plasma screen land.

There will always be those who believe that we must keep going with technological progress to maintain our comfort zone no matter what it does to the environment.

And there will always be those who believe that unbridled progress is wrong.

Environmental solutions must go beyond symptoms to the causes and drivers of the problem. 

This is challenging. What would do if we looked at major environmental issues like over population as though it was a treatable disease? Likewise soil degradation?   

This page does not list environmental solutions even though many exist and many more are waiting in the wings.

If you have read this far you will know why.

› environmental solutions

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big sky country in central Australia

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