Environmental problems? What problems?

Ton Bührs

Environmental problems started to generate widespread concern from the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, is often credited with kicking off the modern environmental movement. The book described the effects of the use of human-made chemicals, notably DDT, on wildlife. Ingested by birds, the chemicals caused a thinning of egg shells, which led to fewer young being incubated, to a decline in the number of birds, and eventually possibly to their extinction. The book, which became a best-seller and was translated in many languages, triggered environmental action and eventually the banning of DDT in many countries.

The problem highlighted by Carson was only the first of many that were to receive the attention of publics and governments. Just to mention a few familiar topics, the pollution of air, water and soils, deforestation, and hazardous waste, became hot agenda items in many countries during the 1970s and 1980s, while the depletion of the ozone layer, the decline of biodiversity, and climate change grew into major global issues. Although the range and seriousness of environmental problems affecting countries differ, and governments have shown variable degrees of commitment towards addressing such problems, one thing is clear: environmental concern is not a passing fad and although environmental issues have shown signs of going up and down on public and government agendas, they have not gone away. If anything, on a global scale, environmental pressures and problems have been growing. Moreover, new issues continue to be added to the mix, such the spread of microplastics in the world’s freshwater supplies, and throughout the global food chain, with potentially serious adverse effects on life, including human life.

As governments, and the world as a whole, continue to struggle with environmental issues, it is important to revisit the way environmental problems are interpreted and approached. As a rule, environmental problems have been recognised one-by-one, after they have become apparent, and addressed by governments only when they were considered to pose an immediate threat to human (health or economic) interests, making them political issues. The measures adopted by governments commonly are based on compromises between conflicting interests, and more often than not prove to be only partially effective or ineffective for two main reasons: first, addressing environmental problems one-by-one ignores their interconnectedness; second, in most cases, this approach leads to the adoption of measures that only scratch the surface and do not address the underlying causes.

That environmental problems do not stand on their own but are interrelated was arguably the main and most important argument advanced by the early environmental thinkers and writers. Rachel Carson may, in first instance, have pointed the finger at DDT and other synthetic chemicals, but raised broader questions about the idea that humans can control nature. The idea that the earth is a complex system on which human actions can have multiple and often unforeseen adverse knock-on effects has been a common denominator of much environmental thought, and is perhaps most vividly portrayed in Kenneth Boulding’s metaphor of “Spaceship Earth”. From the 1980s, this idea has been the subject of research by a new integrated discipline, earth system science, and has led to the identification of planetary boundaries. The relatively mild conditions within these boundaries have provided the basis for the emergence of human civilisation some 11,700 years ago, the start of the Holocene. Now, there is growing evidence that several of these boundaries are being transgressed because of human impacts, with potentially highly destabilising and uncertain effects.

To remain within a safe operating space, humans need to reduce their impacts and develop the means to analyse and collectively address the sources and causes that are responsible for the trespassing of the planetary boundaries. Moreover, they need to do so in ways that do not shift pressures and problems or create new ones, and that equitably share the burden across the world. This means taking a systemic approach to the human sources and causes of environmental pressures and problems, including those that contain many of the immediate drivers, such as the agricultural, energy, transport, and urban planning systems, but also the systems that drive much of the change within these sectors, the economic and political systems.

Achieving coordinated change across all human systems that impact on the environment may seem impossible. Moreover, many people and governments take the view that it is also unnecessary, as they think that environmental problems can be solved by technological means and human ingenuity. However, coming back to Rachel Carson, science and technology are also often a source of new, unforeseen problems. It is naïve to think that science and technology, unless firmly embedded within a framework of environmental boundaries and priorities, will not remain a source of new, possibly even more intractable, ones.

Addressing environmental problems in a systemic way requires the integration of environmental parameters, based on planetary boundaries and agreed environmental and social principles, into all human systems that guide human behaviour and practices. This “environmental integration challenge” needs to be tackled in a concerted way, from the local to the global level, and is indeed formidable. At various times, governments have made moves in this direction, for instance, by adopting green plans or sustainable development strategies. In 1997, the EU made the integration of environmental considerations into sectoral policies mandatory. Unfortunately, these promising beginnings have been undercut by the rise of neoliberal ideology and policies, which have no place for the strong role by governments that is needed for environmental integration to happen in a coordinated and more than symbolic way. Ultimately, environmental problems are political-economic problems that prevent humanity from recognising the true scope and nature of the environmental challenge.



Note: this post was initially called, “The interrelatedness of environmental problems”.

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Ton Bührs
About the author

Ton Bührs

Ton Bührs is an Honorary Associate Professor of Lincoln University, where he worked from 1991 until his retirement in 2014. He has a Master’s (Drs) degree in Political and Social Sciences from the University of Amsterdam, and a PhD from the University of Auckland. His PhD research was on the New Zealand Commission for the Environment, New Zealand’s first government environmental agency (1972-1986). His main area of interest is environmental politics and policy. He is the author (together with Robert V. Bartlett) of Environmental Policy in New Zealand – The Politics of Clean and Green? (Oxford University Press, 1993), and of Environmental Integration – Our Common Challenge (Suny Press, 2009), and of many articles, book chapters and papers.