Is human greed at the core of modern day environmental issues?

It’s become quite apparent in the twenty-first century that human needs and desires have been increasingly given more worth above all else. It’s equally undeniable that the needs of the Earth and importance in preserving and protecting it have been slowly stripped away in favor of those treasured human desires. Human greed has manifested itself in new ways, many of which are causing irreparable damage to the environment. This societal shift is anthropocentrism, where humankind is given intrinsic value; or being important merely for existing in and of itself. When human beings make decisions using this mindset, it reduces the world around them to only having instrumental value; or being important only in relation to what it provides or does for humankind. The environment becomes a malleable plaything from which we derive anything and everything we want, with consideration for our needs and desires, and with a lack of concern for the effects and damage it may cause to our generous planet.

How does human greed go beyond what’s in our pockets exactly? One of the ways the environment has suffered at the hands of increased profit, is Brazil’s deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest in favor of providing cheap land to raise cattle, and make profits off of cattle exports. The Brazilian INPE, or National Institute for Space Research has estimated that 65% of the cleared Amazonian land, or 45 million hectares (a whopping number that is only a fraction of the land that has been wiped out) has been utilized for cattle pastures. (It’s worth noting 100% of the cleared land has increased CO2 levels.) (“Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region”, 2016) Not only that, nearly 200 million cattle occupy that space and the industry appears to be booming. There are numerous incentives behind clearing such an extensive amount of land for cattle ranching. Ranching makes for huge profits. Cattle ranching is relatively low risk in relation to crops, they’re not affected by seasons and require smaller investments that make for quicker returns. Transportation of cattle is cheap and easy in rural Amazonian areas and doesn’t require extensive labor. There are also additional money making benefits involved with the effects, namely the manure that cattle produce that can be easily peddled as fertilizer. (Margulis, 31.) It’s evident that cattle ranching is just a single example of how human greed and anthropocentrism is at the center of very real environmental crises.

Is it going to be a man’s, man’s, man’s world until we destroy it? Hopefully not. While general cultural awareness of environmental issues have increased, theories and ideologies about how to eliminate human greed and restore balance have emerged. Arne Naess’s deep ecology movement radically suggest that we move away from shallow attempts at fighting pollution, resource depletion, etc., and focus on “biospheric egalitarianism”. Naess promotes intrinsic value within all things both human and nonhuman, rather than resorting to instrumentally based arguments about the environment, which are often along the lines of “Let’s save the environment for our grandchildren.” While there is some value to Naess’ perspective in that humankind should focus less on centering themselves and their desires above the balance and safety of our environment, many of the tenets of deep ecology are quite radical and would be unrealistic. Naess’ suggestion that we utilize population control to maintain a smaller population amounts to eugenics and has controversial, moral issues. I don’t believe deep ecology is the answer, but humankind must take a step back and reduce some of its social and cultural emphasis on what benefits humans, their wallets, and that alone.

Works Cited

Margulis, Sergio. Causes of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. Vol. 22. World Bank Publications, 2004.

“Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region”. http://globalforestatlas.yale.edu/amazon/land-use/cattle-ranching. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies: Global Forest Atlas. 2009.

 

 

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Website Essay

This is the first page of a two-page essay written by a student from the past Fall semester; it shows the level of analysis expected for these essays. 

Environmental Ethics Strike Back

The Total View of Sustainability is the type of modern analytical tool that does not clarify but occludes the fundamental issue that it is trying to address. Fundamentally, the issue of environmental sustainability is completely separate from economic and societal factors that could be affected by (and not necessarily affect) it. Irreversible environmental damage should not be permitted, allowed to continue, or go unattended because it offers some societal or economic advantage. The issue of the Greenpoint Oil Spill is a good example of how companies, the government, and residents can be oblivious to the core issues of an environmental crisis; the companies initially chose not to address the oil spill for economic reasons, the government was not competent in how they chose to enforce the law and the need for remediation, and the residents and politicians who represented them were unwilling to accept the designation of a ‘superfund’ site because of the social and economic ramifications on the neighborhood and despite the advantages this designation would have on the progress of the remediation. This type of argument that rests not on a moral basis (our obligation to the environment) but on other extraneous factors reminds me of a very short opinion-article that I read for an introductory philosophy class last year called “What will future generations condemn us for?” by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Basically, Appiah identifies three indications that a practice may be “destined for future condemnation.” One of the three signs describes the type of ‘triple bottom line’ that is at the core of the Total View of Sustainability: Appiah writes, “defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity.” Appiah uses his argument using historical and contemporary examples to assert that there is no cultural relativism in morality and that we are responsible for the moral content of our decisions, no matter what other factors may contribute to them.  …

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Are Humans Capable of Change?

Is change possible? Some might say change is inevitable. However, after first examining environmental ethics and some of the irreversible environmental impact of humans, it seems that humans are incapable of change.

Newspaper headlines and reporters often discuss human impact on the environment. However, nothing or little has changed each time humans are exposed to their own wrongdoings onto the planet. What comes to question is human greed and selfishness. Yes, we may support or start non-profit organizations, recycle our used plastic water bottles or support only organic processes and industries, but how do we really stop these exponentially negative impact?

Our environmental impact isn’t just about the toxic emissions and Global Warming or the BP oil spills. Almost everything we do and use creates waste that we either dispose of properly, or more likely, dispose carelessly into “oblivion”. Everything we do has a consequence that we may or may not see. For example, the tons and tons of carbon dioxide that we emit are constantly increasing despite our “efforts” to lessen our food wastes, using quality public transportation or shrinking our carbon profiles. It affects not only our breathing air but also increases ocean acidity which results in microorganism death and the death of the bigger fish that prey on these toxic microorganisms. An example of such impact is the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The runoff and the dumping of sediments from farms and other industries have caused fertilizers and sewages with nitrogen and phosphates to infiltrate the waters. These nutrients stimulate algae blossoms resulting in the depletion of oxygen or hypoxia. The decrease in oxygen cannot support life at the bottom of the Gulf, resulting in the continual depletion of life in the ocean. Although the Department of US Agriculture has donated and established long-term water quality monitoring networks along the Mississippi River, it is still not enough. This is where ethics come in.

Permanent environmental damage should not be allowed or be unregulated just because it provides us, humans, with societal or economic advantage. There is no shortage of excuses for humans, so inevitably, we are stuck at a stand still. No matter how much publicity is thrown at our negative environmental impact, nothing is enough to truly impact and cause change in our behaviors and our way of life. For example, although we see the adverse effects of the fertilizers, they are still the most inexpensive option. If we use an alternative that is more costly, it may result in the raised prices of corn, then beef and finally, of our McDonald’s Quarter-pounders. And it seems like this is too much to ask for humans.

Why should we care? If these materials and our actions benefit us, why must we change? It results from the anthropocentric view of most of the world. To those, only humans have intrinsic value, the ones who must be preserved and conserved, while non-humans only have instrumental value. As a result, human interests are promoted at the expense of non-humans for they do not have value in their own right and are only valued for labor and food. Oftentimes we do not even acknowledge our own wrongdoings and blame it on something else or someone else. For example, some blame the origin of our environmental damaging behavior on the Judeo-Christian Bible or the patriarchy.

It is human nature to be individualistic and selfish. Thus, we often feel entitled to all of nature’s fruits and use them for our own self-interests. What more, even if we come to realize that change must occur, it is for our own selfish human reasons, for our future families, not for the sake of the planet. And in the end, who decides what is right from wrong? It is still us, humans.

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What Goes Up Must Come Down: Will our anthropocentrism be our hamartia?

The human story has been a great one so far. Societies have flourished and innovated, paving the way for rapidly advancing technology and an even more rapidly growing population. Humans developed and then refuted the Classical view, which holds that the natural world is rational and intrinsically valuable, in favor of views that reduce the universe to “value-free equations” and place intrinsically valuable humans at the center (and controls) of that universe (Lecture 8/29).

Yet, as society advances and humans focus on money and materialism, the very environment that gave life to the human species is at risk.  In the literary world, hamartia is commonly viewed as “tragic flaw,” or something that leads to the demise of a protagonist, and is commonly attributed to the likes of the characters Oedipus and Hamlet. As discussed in lecture, as the human race has grown in size and complexity, anthropocentrism has spread and come to dominate modern self-conscious thought. Will anthropocentrism, which helped humans to achieve such great technological advancements and construct intricately intelligent societies but devalued nature in order to do so, be the fatal flaw of our species?

Anthropocentrism has origins in the shift from the Classical to Modern views, and has been fostered by technological and scientific advancements that have give humans more control over their environments, manipulating the natural world to great degrees. A shift towards a focus on the individual promoted a culture of materialism and consumerism. This means that people now demand more products at faster rates, so demand for materials has risen and consequently so have production and material waste. This is a sort of snowballing effect, since innovation regard production technology allowed for new products, but the consumption of products has coincided with an increased consumer appetite which creates a demand for new production technology and also a market that can capitalize on said appetite.

This can be seen in various industries, especially in the energy sector, as discussed in class. With consumerism and innovation creating a demand for energy in the form of electricity and more effective fuels, companies looking to make large profits and governments have scoured the world (quite literally) for methods that are cheaper and more effective. As discussed in class, there are seven major sources of the contamination of water, with most being related to industry, manufacturing, and energy. Mining for energy-rich materials for nuclear reactors is one of these seven sources, and it may directly have resulted from the increased demand for efficient and cheap energy as a result of consumer demands and capitalist opportunities.

The development and increased use of nuclear energy, a much more energy-dense fuel but one that produces nuclear waste, caused an increase in mining for uranium. This type of mining involves drilling deep underground shafts and going through a process of milling that leaves tailings as a by-product. As discussed in lecture, tailings contain toxic metals, radium, and leftover uranium, and when stored often pollute groundwater and aquifers. While this quest for a more efficient source of energy has produced notable results (nuclear material produces an extreme amount more energy than an identical quantity of fossil fuels), it also sacrifices potable water for humans and potentially the health and existence of all life, a consequence of anthropocentrism.

Even more than energy, the actual manufacturing processes and materials used completed using this energy also contribute to water pollution. Wastes, dyes, chemicals, byproducts from manufacturing may leak or be released into the environment, free to infect water supplies. An example that we discussed in class was PCBs, a neurotoxin that bioaccumulates, from paper suppliers that made carbonless copy paper. A recent example is the river in Russia near a metal processing plant that suddenly turned red and is causing alarm among residents and environmentalists (http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/08/europe/russia-red-river-siberia/). In this case, the visible change in the water has made the problem make news and cause concern rather quickly, however many forms of water pollution may be less noticeable, if at all, until toxic or worse levels and hence may not receive as much attention or urgency.

The pollution of water by these many sources might just be the epitome of anthropocentrism: placing human needs for materials and luxuries above health and even existence of other organisms. In the present day, there are still those who deny that humans are making enough of an impact on the environment so as to actually cause climatic change. Only recently have scientists proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch due to human actions and their consequences, which they are appropriately naming Anthropocene (http://time.com/4470514/anthropocene-geological-epoch-earth-scientists/3). As a species, we want to run our world, and we certainly have gained the knowledge and ability to master and exploit Earth and its resources to a great degree, especially in ways that do not always consider the health of the planet and the quality of the very resources that keep us alive (oxygen, water, organisms we consume as food, etc.). However, one must ponder whether running the world could also mean ruining it and our species along with it.

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Can Humankind Save Earth’s Water? (What-er We Gonna Do?)

According to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), there are several hundred factors that could indicate the presence of life throughout the universe. Nevertheless, their guiding policy has been to ‘follow the water’, because while water itself is fairly abundant throughout the cosmos in the form of ice, it is liquid water that harbors and sustains life as we know it. On Earth, 70% of the surface is covered by water, 3% of that is freshwater, and only about one-third of the freshwater is easily accessible and not stored in ice or snow. One percent may seem like a miniscule number, but if one considers the estimated 1.386 billion cubic kilometers of water on Earth and the naturally occurring hydrologic cycle, then one percent should be enough for everyone. That being said, the human population has more than doubled in the last fifty years and our awareness of our unwitting physical influences on the environment has not progressed in kind. If we are to solve the global water crisis, it is imperative that we collectively understand that the environmental degradation is human-driven and not the fault of the environment itself. Consequently, in order to fix the state of water on Earth there needs to be massive human intervention. There are several human-produced forms of pollution and misuses of the limited freshwater resource that have led to the current state of the global water crisis.

One of the reasons why water is so fundamental to the creation of life is because it is a very simple solvent. While this allows for water to be an intermediary in the chemical reactions essential to life, being a simple solvent also allows for pollutants to very easily homogenize into a water supply and become very difficult to remove. One of the largest sources of water pollution on Earth is human waste and sewage. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages as a result of human influences.” In theory, the environment should be able to handle sewage because biologically our waste is organic and sewage is 90% water. Unfortunately, as a result of an apathetic attitude towards the environment, we also dispose of non-natural waste along with the natural, which can even sometimes be left untreated before it is sent to the ocean.

This summer the 2016 Summer Olympic Games were held in Rio de Janeiro, a city that fits the environmentally inconsiderate archetype. Most of the open-water events took place in Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where enough sewage to fill 480 Olympic-sized swimming pools is dumped untreated every day. When the Brazilian government was awarded the honor of hosting the Olympic Games, they declared that they would build eight water treatment plants before the summer of 2016, but as of yet have only built one such facility. Guanabara Bay and Rio at large is a perfect case-study that illustrates how the power to save the water of the world is in our hands and that our choice of what to do with it can make the situation a whole lot worse. If the environment was completely self-healing and did not require human intervention, then Rio would be a lost cause and the people would be doomed to an eventual fate of complete potable water shortage. On the contrary, there is still hope for Rio, if the human and non-human resources of the Brazilian government where allocated to the preservation of Brazil’s water, then it could be saved.

I am a competitive open-water swimmer, and as a gift to my grandfather on father’s day I participated in a mile-long Hudson River Race in 2012. I joked with him that ‘if I swim then I will probably leave the water with a third eye’. He told me that 40 years ago one might not make it out of the water at all. The Hudson River used to receive immense amounts of industrial waste from power plants such as General Electric and untreated sewage from the surrounding cities. It was only in the 1960’s that Hudson River Sloop Clearwater was founded, an organization dedicated to the protection of the Hudson River and surrounding water sources. After many years of fighting for cleaner waters through music, education, and advocacy, Clearwater eventually forced General Electric to clean up a 40-mile expanse of the Hudson River that they had polluted. If one considers the difference in the societal response to water pollution in Rio and New York City, then they could see how significant the years ahead will be. As a result of water-conservation warriors like Clearwater, I very much enjoyed my swim in the Hudson.

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ETBE vs. MTBE: Is one actually better than the other?

 

Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE)  is a gasoline additive that has been a topic of controversy due to its supposed carcinogenic characteristics. ETBE, one of its proposed replacements, is deemed to be more advantageous than MTBE because of its greater environmental efficiency. However, the advantages and disadvantages of both additives should be analyzed before making a general assumption about the effects of either.

MTBE has the molecular formula CHOC(CH3)3 whereas ETBE is CH3CH2OC(CH3)3, exhibiting an extra CH2 (ethyl). These structural differences give rise to very different properties in either compound. These differences are essential to understanding their respective economic and environmental advantages and disadvantages. For example the water solubility of MTBE exceeds that of MTBE by 18.3 mg/L (“ETBE as an additive in gasoline”). MTBE is able to make hydrogen bonds with water more effectively than ETBE which makes it almost impossible to remove from groundwater once it has been contaminated. Water contaminated by MTBE is said to have an undesirable taste and odor. This, and other proposed detrimental effects, lead to the phase out of MTBE to ethanol blend. Some other key differences in chemical properties to note are boiling point and vapor pressure. ETBE has a higher boiling point and lower vapor pressure than MTBE due to the presence the ethyl group.  These properties enhance the fuel efficiency of ETBE by making it easier to produce efficiently oxygenate-blended gasoline (“ETBE as an additive in gasoline”). By examining these economic and environmental disparities between ETBE and MTBE, it is easy to see why some would deem ETBE as the superior additive. However, there is a lot more to the story. A comparison of the health effects of both and the prospective environmental effects of ETBE present an alternative conclusion about the additive.

One of the main controversies surrounding MTBE that lead to its phase out was its proposed carcinogenicity for humans. However, many sources do not even recognize MTBE as a conclusive cancer-causing compound to humans (“MTBE”). Most studies conducted on animals suggest that it is carcinogenic to them, but these studies are not always comparable in human biology. However, the effects of ETBE and MTBE on animals can be compared. While there have not been conclusive studies on animals regarding carcinogenicity it is believed that  “because one of the major breakdown products of ETBE in the body is TBA, it may have the potential to induce cancer”(“Environmental Fact Sheet”). In addition, exposure to ETBE has also shown increased levels of kidney and thyroid tumors in rodents (“Environmental Fact Sheet”). These studies on ETBE show that while there is no immediate proof of its carcinogenicity, the prospective outlook on its carcinogenicity is about the same as MTBE. This confounds the claim that ETBE is somehow a healthier alternative.

To provide an alternative perspective to the idea that ETBE is also a more environmentally friendly, one must consider the effects of overuse of ethanol to produce ETBE. Ethanol is an essential component of corn which is widely used as a cost effective food source. Future overuse of ethanol to produce ETBE could result in worldwide food shortages. According to the NCPA, “If all the cars in America were fueled with 100 percent ethanol from corn, it would require 97 percent of the 1.9 billion acres of land in the United States to grow the feedstock, according to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel.” At these numbers, ethanol used to created ETBE would cause significant even disastrous food shortages. Some of these effects seem to manifest already. Also according to the NCPA, “Corn prices have also risen beyond U.S. borders – for instance, in Mexico, where a dramatic increase in the price of corn tortillas led to riots in early 2007.” People are in the streets fighting for their tortillas! While this may be a single isolated example of what could happen as a result of ethanol overuse for biofuels, it does reflect a possible impending food crisis.

I do not propose that MTBE is a better alternative to ETBE. But through analysis of ETBE’s long term environmental effects and the current state of knowledge about its health effects I would argue that it is an equal alternative. While ETBE may seem like the better option now, environmental prospects show the detrimental effects of its overuse. Humans are prone to overuse of efficient, cost-effective resources so it is highly likely that ETBE overuse is in our future. By weighing the cost-benefit ratio between MTBE and ETBE I think it is safe to say that there is a tie between their overall effects. ETBE as a new alternative method to produce the greatest fuel efficiency will likely run the same course as MTBE. Once its detrimental effects are too difficult to reverse, ETBE will likely be phased out and replaced with an equally as damaging oxygenate. In an effort to create an efficient, high-functioning  environment, humans seem to do more harm than good in the long run. Only time can tell the true effects of ETBE.

 

 

References:

“Environmental Fact Sheet” 

http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-ehp-32.pdf

“ETBE as an additive in gasoline: advantages and disadvantages”

https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:21941/FULLTEXT01.pdf

“MTBE”

https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/tert-Butyl_methyl_ether#section=Top

“The Environmental Costs of Ethanol”

http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba591

 

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