Protecting the environment – whom for?

Many of us environmental professionals believe that protecting the environment was common sense. Assuming to be ´doing good´ for society, we forget that ´doing good´ requires doing what others want, not what we believe is good for them.

Environmental management is often dominated by uncertainty – we do what we believe is best, but we often don´t know for sure what consequences our actions will have. One form of environmental management ―adaptive management― copes with uncertainty by monitoring the outcomes of our actions and then adapting our strategy accordingly. Unfortunately and for a multitude of reasons, monitoring is all too often completely neglected in practice. The result is that we operate in one direction without considering if what we do is really best and if our achieved results reflect what our environment is asking for. We create a world that stimulates our individual needs and one that represents our values, yet we never ask if that´s what present and future generations ask for, the ultimate goal of sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland report back in the late 1980s.

A visit to Seoul illustrates how modern societies don´t really need nature to be satisfied. Korea is often used as a role model of (economic) development and as not only in Asia but worldwide many nations look at Korea as the ´dream of their future´, it could serve as a signpost. While enjoying the good living quality of a visitor to Korea, what somehow impressed me is the disconnection of the majority of Seoul´s citizens from nature. Seoul´s habitants love to shop, to entertain themselves, to play with their mobile phones, to line up for and waving at movie stars driving by in their cars, to take a picture of themselves posing in front of a field of artificial LED flowers and many other things that are all totally far away from natural life. While Korean food has its appeal and its costs are extremely high, the quality of food in Seoul is surprisingly low. Not a surprise considering that metropolitan Seoul accommodates for half of the country´s population and given that the food needs to be brought from far away. Yet, does it matter at all?

Koreans are definitely not the only ones that are happy with eating bad food. As long as it tastes the way people love to eat their food, food can´t even be considered bad food, can it? Let´s be honest, the times when Europeans were talking about the bad quality fast food that North Americans use to eat are long gone and even those who don´t exclusively feed on McDonalds, KFC and Co can hardly tell the difference between a ripe banana and a strawberry ripped under a plastic tent and illegally irrigated with groundwater from a national park in Andalusia (Spain). More business driven that environmentalists, retailers have thus long realized that what they need to achieve is not what they consider to be the panacea of alimentation, but to make consumers happy. If this goal can be met with low value ingredients, all the better: artificial food is cheap, guarantees for higher benefits and scores with shareholder values.

Taking eating behavior as an example, what we environmentalist should do is asking ourselves if our aims really target at making society happy or if our ideals have become obsolete. Although environmental protection makes sense for people like me who grew up in a rural environment and deeply connected with nature, it might not really address the needs of the majority on this planet. Even if for me it was great news to learn that Greenpeace´s campaigning against Arctic oil drilling has eventually been successful, probably billions of people on this planet give a shit about it. Living in a developing country I witness on a daily basis that for many of them one of the highest goals is still to one day drive or own a car. Being objective we might have to ask ourselves if we wouldn´t want the same, had we never had the chance to drive one when we were 16 or 18.

For most people on this planet, the likelihood of owning a car is as far away as the geographic distance to the Arctic. In fact, even for the more ´experienced´ adventurer it is rather unlikely to ever see a polar bear in wilderness. Why do we then expect other people to care for it? Isn´t it healthier when people sympathize with Doraemons, creatures that they can see, touch and feel, and which after all are much closer to them than some strange animals living thousands of kilometers away on ice fields that are going to melt within a few decades anyway? Isn´t it humane to feel most empathy with our neighbors, or those close to us?

To keep up with time and the lessons we learned at University, we environmental professionals might have to adapt our activities to meet the desires of society and ―considering the aims of sustainable development― those of future generations. Unfortunately, their interests might be very different from what we assume to be relevant. While I grew up learning about nature and animals, even those friends of mine who love to be in nature have discovered that an Ipad is the best nanny of modern times. No other things on this planet have the potential to satisfy today´s children[1] more than electronic devices. Watching this young individuals growing up focused only on the screens in front of them, I believe that to humans in general a polar bear might soon be more alien than Spider Man, and I wonder if it makes sense to protect a nature that nobody will even be able to see in a few decades from now. Maybe it´s time that we environmentalist adapt our perspectives or we risk to become obsolete as well.

[1] And adults alike: don´t they all just misuse the electronic nannies so they can´t check what their friends are posting on Facebook?


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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One Response to Protecting the environment – whom for?

  1. Justin R-Sondergaard says:

    Thanks for your thoughts & opinions…

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