Where is the Environment?
Plenty of words in modern dialogue carry major emotional and ideological baggage. Without question, “environment” is one of those words. For some, the word conjures images of pristine wilderness, replete with healthy verdant forests, waterfalls in hidden coves, and herds of wild gazelle running across open fields. For others, the word is often spat more than spoken, dismissed as the domain of hippies chaining themselves to trees or irate activists shouting curses at honest businesses doing their part to grow the economy.
Whenever there are such extremes about any concept, we have to wonder if we’re even talking about the same thing. It’s just a word, after all, used imperfectly to describe a concept that presumably the members of a society have a shared agreement as to its definition and application. As with all concepts, other beliefs and concepts play a significant role in shaping our perception – and emotional reactions.
The environment represents a set of concepts, depending on the speaker of the word, involving much more than ecosystems, species, and interactions.
So what exactly is the environment?
Or another way to look at it, where is the environment?
Let’s try a quick visual experiment.
We have here three circles, each representing a pillar of the modern world: society, economy, and environment.
Without reading below, think about where you would place these circles in relation to each other. In other words, how do they fit together? Does one go on top of the other? Are they all the same size? You are totally free to put the circles in any configuration that makes sense. It may be helpful to take a piece of paper and sketch it out. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I’ll put this soothing image of a cozy fireplace to keep you company while you draw (and to prevent you from reading further without trying the experiment).
(author looks around room, taps fingers on desk, patiently waiting…)
Ok, let’s share images. Did you draw something like the below image?
Or perhaps like this next sketch, where the environment and society feed into creating and maintaining an economy? Granted, this looks like an economy of a particular unnamed organization, but this could nonetheless be a common view.
All great ideas, no doubt. But here is what I believe is the only possible correct answer:
The “environment” is, in essence, everything around us, without exception. The environment isn’t somewhere “out there” – it’s everywhere. It is us. Or we are it. We are in the environment, just one small part of this much greater whole. It can’t be any other way than this.
Society only formed because the environmental conditions were present to allow Homo sapiens to thrive as small groups that would go on to dominate the planet. An economy only exists because those environmental conditions that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive also then allowed us to establish larger and larger groups, that in turn became towns, cities, and then nation-states. Those populations then developed the need to trade resources, given that no one place has every resource needed or desired by those growing populations. That need to trade led, steadily but only after tens of thousands of years, towards the development of economies.
Economy came last in all of this, as economies aren’t possible without societies. Societies are not possible without an environment that supports those societies.
The “environment” is a silly and misleading term, when we get down to it. It’s as if a fish, gaining consciousness of it’s fishiness, suddenly decided that water were some superfluous aspect of its existence – that what really mattered to the fish is the interactions between fellow fish. But, my fish friend, you cannot survive without that water! As such, can we really say that the water is a separate thing from the fish?
Can we say that the “environment” is some separate thing from human societies and economies? Or the reverse?
If we hope to ever have a sustainable economy, then we must at some point come to accept that treating the environment as something “out there” arises from a dangerous delusion. Looking at those circles again, it seems clear that anything that harms the containing circle also harms the circles contained within. If a fish were to poison the water it swims in, that fish would not be long for this world.
We must continue to support economic opportunity, yes, because the improvements to human societies that strong economies bring cannot be understated. However, when economic growth comes at the expense of the larger bodies that supports us – including both the environment and our societies – we do so at our own peril.
As Marcus Aurelius said two thousand years ago, “That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.” While the “economic” activity of the bees is no doubt crucial to the survival of the colony, without a hive and the inputs the colony requires to feed and build and survive, there is no hive.
While we can debate particular policies to ensure the health of our environment, society, and economy, debating the importance of a healthy environment wastes precious breath. Let us instead use the clean air we breathe in our short lives to work on solutions that ensure our hive survives – and thrives!