The Human-Environment Link

Oct 072004
Authors: Meg Burd

Mohandas K. Gandhi once said, “There is a sufficiency in the

world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”

With biodiversity being lost around the globe at rapid rates,

the truth of Gandhi’s words today could not be more resonant. With

the World Conservation Union suggesting that more than 12,000

species are facing some extinction (including 13 percent of the

world’s flowering plants and a quarter of all mammals), added to

increasing problems of air and water pollution, the ever-looming

issue of environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity becomes

an even more pressing issue.

It is often easy to distance ourselves from these numbers

regarding extinction or pollution, however, in favor of other

issues. Why worry about the loss of some bird or a water system, we

argue, when people around the globe are starving?

The truth of the matter, according to many scientists,

anthropologists and health professionals, is that issues of human

welfare and humanitarian concerns are deeply intertwined with

issues of environment. To address the problem of things like world

hunger, disease and even in some cases economic impoverishment, it

is necessary to see the links of these issues to things such as

biodiversity loss and environmental exploitation.

“Ultimately, our behavior is the result of a fundamental failure

to recognize that human beings are an inseparable part of nature

and that we cannot damage it severely without severely damaging

ourselves,” concluded a study called “Biodiversity: Its Importance

to Human Health” sponsored by the United Nations, World Health

Organization and Harvard Medical School in 2002. “The mindless

degradation of our planet is driven by many factors, not the least

of which is our inability to take seriously the implications of our

rapidly growing population and of our unsustainable consumption,

largely by people in industrialized countries, of its


In looking at the developing world in particular, humanitarian

crises are often caused or at least worsened by such environmental

degradation. James Gustave Sperth, a leader of the environmental

movement, notes in his book “Red Sky at Morning,” that in places

where people routinely earn less than $2 a day, they simply do not

have the financial capacity to cope with the deterioration of the

natural world around them. For example, those living in places

where factories (that pay workers of the surrounding communities a

pittance to work within their walls) result in often hazardous

chemical runoff, those living in the communities surrounding the

factories are faced with contaminated water as well as contaminated

soil, their meager paychecks and lack of socioeconomic power

affording them little opportunity to obtain clean water and

nutritious food, something that ultimately could result in serious

population diseases and even birth defects in the next generation.

This problem of access to clean water in particular is a serious

problem, with Alex Kirby of the British Broadcasting Corp.

estimating that “by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s people are

likely to be living in areas of acute water stress.”

Besides the issue of clean water, access to enough nutritious

food to sustain life in many communities is an ever-present

problem, and once again with many deep ties to environmental

crises. Kirby estimates that one in six people are suffering from

hunger and malnutrition, and that this is a result of inefficient

and ill-advised land use on the part of the more economically

powerful consumer populations. Large swaths of land usable for food

production for local populations, such as Venezuelan forests,

argues the United Nations, are instead being cut down and logged to

provide the more prosperous consumer nations with timber and paper

goods. In other places in the rainforest, the problematic

utilization of forest land for cattle grazing (to produce meat for

consumers in the developed, prosperous world) similarly eliminates

not only the biodiversity of the area, but “food security” for the

local populations who depend on the land to obtain their nutrition.

Indeed, with more efficient use (as opposed to the inefficient,

consumer-oriented cattle ranching) the same plot of land could

potentially produce a diverse crop of much needed food for many


Carefully monitoring our own consumption and considering the

implications of our consumption not only on the environment but

subsequently on human populations around the globe seems an

important first step to curbing the damage done to both. Developing

a new way of thinking about humans in relation to the environment

and recognizing the vital link between humanitarian causes and

environmental ones also must take place.

As Albert Einstein once said, “We shall require a substantially

new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column

runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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