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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The silent "e"
May 1, 2014 - 5:40pm

Now that I've spent (too much) time and effort denigrating the right-hand side of the IPAT equation (environmental Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology), it strikes me that the biggest problem isn't over there on the right (and this from someone rarely reticent to blame the Right for just about anything).  Sure, Population is mathematically a non-factor and sociologically an attractive nuisance.  Technology is just the handmaiden of Affluence; it can be no more until and unless society rethinks some fundamental assumptions.  And Affluence is just a euphemism for consumption.

But the real culprit -- the Keyser Soze in the story -- is the letter that doesn't get capitalized, that's present only by mutual understanding.  The silent "e" that stands for "environmental".

Regardless of how we calculate it, what is "environmental impact"?  Indeed, what's "the environment"?  I have to admit, I've never really understood the term.

Stupid question, I know.  Everybody knows what "the environment" is, right?

Maybe not.  When I ask, most folks don't really have an answer.  Some who do say that it's everything (all of biophysical reality) that's not "us", by which I understand them to mean, not humanity.  Others say that it's everything on Earth that's not us.  Or everything (other than us) on which we depend.  Or that which is alive but not us.

The common element, pretty evidently, is "not us".  "The environment" is defined in negative terms -- not by what it is, but by what (or who) it's not.  I'm told (I don't really know) that it's a concept that grew out of Enlightenment thinking.  If humans are to exercise control over reality, they need to be located somewhere outside of it.  And since we don't want to define humanity as somehow unreal, we need to come up with a term ("environment") for the rest of reality.

So, first of all, it's important to realize that "the environment" is clearly and simply a social construct.  A convenient fiction.  A term that makes no real difference in physical or biological or chemical terms.  It's a key part of the thinking pattern that got us into this mess.

Second, it's significant that none of us have a good understanding of what constitutes "not us".  Or more simply, we don't really understand what "us" means.  Or even what "me" (for each of us) means.

I often engage schoolkids by asking them whether the food they eat is inside their body or not.  The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by "inside".  If that's a synonym for "contained by", the answer is arguably yes.  If it means "a member of", then the answer is no.  It's not a profound question, but it sometimes leads to good conversations.

If that sounds ridiculous, consider that (if what I'm told is true) of the cells that constitute what you think of as your body, less than half carry your DNA.  Not only is your body covered in parasitic microorganisms that aren't "you", your gut (if it's healthy) is full of billions of bacteria without which you wouldn't be alive.  

And think of all that's in you that isn't organic at all, and never was.  You've heard that humans (and other life forms) are accumulating heavy metals.  And plasticizers/endocrine disruptors.  And various agricultural chemicals.  Our fatty tissues are full of all sorts of nasty stuff.

So what's really the difference between "us" and "not us"?  Pretty much nothing.  And what's the net effect of cleaving to this meaningless distinction?  It allows us to think of "environmental impact" as somehow different from -- and less important than -- human impact.  It allows us to treat "environmental impact" as if it's something that can be negotiated.  Like it's something less threatening than a gun to our collective heads.  A gun which we, as a global society, are holding.

"Environmental" considered harmful.



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