The prosperity of human society and the anthropogenic environmental crisis

I read the editorial: Environment: Fighting to Save Earth From Man, a Time Magazine and CNN collaboration published on 02 February 1970. From the victory of the Second World War to the mid-60s, the United States went through a time of high economic growth and general prosperity. The process was accompanied by societal progress in civil rights. In the mean time, environmental awareness was increasing, following a few environmental incidents and our extended vision of Earth from space. In 1954, the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon was exposed to radioactive leak from a hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. In 1969, an ecologically catastrophic oil spill occurred from an offshore well in California’s Santa Barbara Channel. In the same year, Apollo 11 succeeded the first manned Moon landing Mission.

With the efforts of environmental informants — biologist Barry Commoner’s protest against nuclear testing since the late 1950s, marine biologist and author Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 and biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb in 1968, the public became increasingly aware of the environmental stress. Pictures of the Earth taken from space renewed people’s understanding of our preciously alive and in the meantime fragile planet. The air and water pollution, solid waste disposal, dwindling energy resources, nuclear radiation and pesticide poisoning all added anxiety within the society.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the executive order to create the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. In 1971, the agency conducted a massive photo documentary project DOCUMERICA, to record the adverse effects of modern life on the environment.

One of four bicyclists holds her ears against the roar of the jet taking off from National Airport in Washington, District of Columbia, in May of 1973.

All the civil and institutional efforts come down to one purpose: a full introspection of the human deeds and the consequences to our living environment. The core of the discussions was about how we human, in our ambition to conquer Nature and in our actions to urbanise and industrialise, have jeopardised the health of the sole planet that we rely on.

The environmentalism in America went on and promoted a global movement. Nearly five decades passed, environmentalism evolved from the initial human-nature relationship in which one was opposed to the other, e.g., “human activities were jeopardising nature and nature was revenging on human,” to today’s holistic points of view that we humans and our environment are both parts of nature and we are an integral system. Nevertheless, all the environmental problems still prevail and are worsened.

Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue bridge, looking east from West 13th Street, obscured by industrial smoke, in Cleveland, Ohio, in July of 1973.

I also read philosopher Viriato Soromenho-Marques’ Ontological Debt and Intergenerational JusticeThe Case of Climate Change. The theoretical significance of justice, framed by philosopher John Rawls, lies in its equivalence to Fairness, supporting the basic structure of society with two principles: 1. the greatest possible amount of liberty, and 2. social or economic equality (in resource distribution). How the personal power and conscience of mortal humans play out in the intergenerational passage of natural resources is very much focused on the idea of progress, as philosopher Emanuel Kant suggested.

Progress is defined distinctively in varies versions today. Regardless of the version, climate change is certainly a great obstacle in the pursuit towards progress in all aspects: social, economic and environmental. Can international environmental policies and legally binding agreements like the Paris Agreement properly frame intergenerational justice? If we agree to follow Rawls’ two principles of justice: liberty and equality, our next generation should have the right to request sufficient resource and decent environment for physical and spiritual needs from us. Therefore, The kind of progress we want to make in the future should be a result combining: 1. control of personal desire and institutional power and 2. the conscience caring for the physical and spiritual needs of our next generations.

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