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Social views regarding sustainability need to shift

Every environmental course I’ve taken in my life can be summed up in two words: We’re screwed. Now that’s alarmist and simplifying the problem, but in essence, it’s the meat and potatoes of it all. With climate change, deforestation, food shortages, ecosystem destruction and a burgeoning human population, we need to get our act together as a species. In fact, environmental sustainability is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face in this century, if not the absolute biggest.

Anyone who will live through a good chunk of the 21st century is experiencing an interesting time: Our technology is burgeoning, pushing the boundaries of human existence, yet we are running into resource shortfalls. Nonprofit organization Mars One wants to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025, yet access to clean water is increasingly becoming scarce, according to the World Health Organization.

That dichotomy of progress versus sustainability is what will define us and generations to come. The science and research of what we are facing is well-established, so the hurdles we have to overcome are socially based. While there are green movements and countries that go the extra step for environmental sustainability, we need to shift our perspective globally to be able to start making sweeping changes and introducing beneficial legislation. What are those hurdles?

“It’s not my problem.”

Well, maybe not now, but environmental problems are a communal issue. What damage is done affects all of us whether we want it to or not. We are tied to the environment for food, water and other basic necessities, so it’s shortsighted to say it’s not your problem if those systems are being stretched thin and experiencing shortages.

“It doesn’t have economic value, so it’s less important.”

Judging the environment by economic value introduces it into a belief system ruled by dollar value, which is in opposition to how we should view the environment. The environment has intrinsic value established by the emotional or physical connections we make to it – think of the awe of the Grand Canyon or the feeling of peace you get laying in a hammock in a forest. By judging the environment only in economic terms, we ignore the sentimental value that doesn’t have a dollar figure associated with it.

And finally, the concept that remedial action being required is a belief or opinion.

You hear this frequently with climate change when someone will say something like, “I don’t believe in climate change.” Well that’s great, but the science showing anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming, and it’s happening whether you believe it or not. But the same concept applies to environmental issues as a whole. If you say, “Watershed depletion is a serious problem we need to address,” and someone replies saying, “That’s just your opinion,” remind them that clean water is a precious commodity (called the oil of the 21st century by Fortune Magazine) that all life needs.

These are just a few of the mental hurdles we need to get over. They are often systemic and part of a belief system. It might be difficult to change those who are already stuck in their ways, but we need to prepare their kids for the truths about environmental sustainability. Education is the answer and not just by having kids sit in a classroom. We need to get them out into nature to acquire the intrinsic value mentioned above. Think Florida Gulf Coast University’s colloquium course, but taught at a time when students are young enough to be actually simprinted by it.

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