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An Answer To The “Environmentalist’s Paradox”

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Around the world, humans have wiped out 60 percent of all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, according to a report by the World Wildlife Foundation.

To cite one just example in North America, seventy percent of shorebird populations have disappeared since 1973. That was when I was a child strolling on the beach. 

Modern civilization is wreaking havoc on biodiversity, with our industries, population growth and pesticides gradually killing off most large forms of life that do not serve humanity or feed off of us.

This is frightening. But at the same time, the average life span of people around the world has more than doubled since 1900, because of medical improvements, advances in farming technology and rising incomes.

This conflict is sometimes described as the “environmentalists paradox.” The paradox, in a nutshell, is that the quality of life for humans has improved even as we’ve pillaged and destroyed the planet’s natural ecosystems.

What to make of this? That destroying the earth is good for our health? The usual argument made by environmentalists is that our consumption is not sustainable – and that all of this will come crashing down some day.  Humanity will reach a tipping point – and our overpopulation, our greenhouse gases, our stripping of the planet of forests and wetlands will come back to destroy us.

It’s a logical and appealing argument. But I don’t think it’s true.  Humans are an incredibly resilient and inventive species, and I suspect we – like our neighbors and co-conspirators, the rats, raccoons and cockroaches – will live on, in some form, through almost anything, even climate change or nuclear war.  We’ll just stay inside and turn up our air conditioners, plant more genetically modified corn, and feed it more nitrogen chemical fertilizer.

In the end, what if it’s not about us literally dying? What if it’s about humans continuing to exist, perhaps even with better physical health – and wealth, for a very few of us -- but surrounded by a terribly degraded and depressing outdoor environment. 

For me, the issue is that, someday, we may wake up, and realize that we’ve killed off all the magic in the world.  We’ve snuffed out all the nonhuman life – the charm and the beauty and the amazing, complex otherness -- that that does not serve us and our economy and that will never have a dollar value. The monarch butterflies. The songbirds.  The starfish.  The lightning bugs.  All gone.

I think, in the end, what might save all this life is the realization, deep down, that most of us, as humans, don’t really have an economic value, either. We’re increasingly replaced by software and technology like self-driving trucks and self-checkout lanes.

Eventually, it will dawn on voters that the people with the most economic value – the billionaires who game the system – are sociopaths and narcissists with whom you wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes.

Think about all the people you love and really value in your life. Many of them don’t earn much of anything, and yet they mean the world to you because of their smiles in hard times, their humor and charm, perhaps just the fact that they keep on going. In short, you love them for being nothing more than what they are. Their value is like the beauty of a maple leaf that you see in the light of an autumn afternoon and know will soon fall.

Someday, people will wake up and realize that the magic we’re losing in nature is the same unique, ineffable, unpredictable and uncontrollable beauty that lies at the heart of all people.

And that moment of realization – perhaps triggered by a time of great crisis – may provide a spark of revolution and a moral rebirth. I hope that awakening will allow a majority of us to agree, through the democratic process, on the government and mutual regulation that will save the natural world and our happiness at the same time.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.