Human nature

20th November 2013


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Richard Campen discusses how we achieve the difficult balance between conserving natural resources and meeting people's needs

If we are to become truly sustainable, to meet the needs of both the present and future generations, we must learn to better manage the Earth’s natural resources. However, with multiple definitions and interpretations of sustainability, it is not always clear what it means in terms of government policy or in business practice.

Ideology plays a significant part in how we understand sustainability. When considering the need to conserve a particular species, for example, some will argue that people and their needs should come first. Others will support the conservation of biodiversity and natural systems for their own sakes; others still might be concerned that the loss of biodiversity may be the loss of a valuable resource that could be part of meeting future human needs. It’s all comes down to perspective – how do individuals value human life and nature.

Ideological approach

One way to promote positive environment outcomes is to stress the benefits to humans of the conservation of natural systems and resources. This strategic approach is evident in eco-tourism, for example. However, even this approach still involves some form of exploitation of the resources we aim to conserve.

Another way to look at the problem is from a social perspective, focusing on human health and quality of life. This puts people first, but has the potential to do so in an ecological context if it is accepted that we are part of, and dependent on, biodiversity and natural systems. This is a different ideology: putting humans and ecosystems on the same level of importance. It is an approach that requires us to adopt ecologically sensitive ways of living, based on ecological values. It does, however, raise challenging questions about our priorities, in relation to human life and our use of natural resources.

The overriding philosophy in this case would be that society is egalitarian in that it removes inequalities and involves people’s participation in decisions around political, social and economic practices that lead to a sustainable society. This is different to the more usual approach of “mainstreaming” environmentalism in political structures. In the latter, we see political parties making statements in manifestos, which too often assume that environmental problems will be solved through technical solutions – what might be described a business-as-usual approach.

The business-as-usual approach is an optimistic one and relies on our ability to adapt to the ecological problems we have created. We are familiar with the concept of adaptation through evolution – we know that species adapt to changing conditions over millennia. However, we tend to forget the geological timescales required for such adaptation and that there are both winners and losers in such changes. As a species, we assume that we will be among the winners in the new order of things at some distant point in the future.

The adaptive strategy involves challenging ourselves to be more innovative and develop geoengineering solutions, such as using solar shields to reflect sunlight away from the Earth and mitigate global warming. The trouble is, as the maxim goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”; experience shows that often as we find a solution to one problem, we create more problems, sometimes on a larger scale.

Of course, what environment practitioners largely spend their efforts on is attempting to transform society to be fully industrialised in ways that enable us to achieve economic development and ecological protection. This brings us back to the main problem; the difficult choices we have to make between conserving resources and meeting people’s needs and expectations.

It also highlights the further issue of “living with risk”. Modern society does, and will continue to, create its own environmental hazards, as evidenced by manmade global warming and pollution created through the exploitation of natural resources (the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example). We are aware of the risks of environmental degradation, but we seem compelled to continue our journey. We are challenged to do the best we can to mitigate our impacts, but we are reliant on technical innovation.

Furthermore, the modern manifestation of “Local Agenda 21” – the concept that if everyone acted responsibly at a local level, global problems would be greatly reduced – is a series of policies and plans for sustainable development, such as the government’s localisation agenda, that do not actually solve the problem.

Blinded by science

Part of the difficulty in finding sustainable solutions is our reliance on scientific knowledge. Science often provides a lot of technical information on individual issues or species, for example, but we have to learn to see the relationships between all the different parts of natural systems to ensure decision-making is as ecologically sustainable as possible.

The trouble is, there are billions of us using vast quantities of resources annually and the knowledge required to understand all the Earth’s ecological relationships and our impacts on them can never realistically be attained. In the absence of that complex level of knowledge, we are often forced into situations where doing something is better than doing nothing.

All of these issues can present particular challenges for organisations at the policy, strategy and practical levels. Environment managers need to understand how to lead, influence and practice not only within their organisation, but also in the wider social and environmental setting. This means developing environment, health and safety policy that addresses corporate social responsibility issues, and requires a diverse range of knowledge and skills in areas such as environmental auditing, finance and decision analysis, accreditation, risk management and evaluating long-term trends.

Richard Campen, FIEMA, is an associate lecturer with the Open University. For more information visit:

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