Humans and the environment: How much damage have we done?

Photo by Keoni Cabral |

It’s a seemingly simple cycle: the environment influences how humans live, while at the same time, human activity changes the state of the environment in which we live.  This relationship has existed since humans first starting roaming the planet, and has become increasingly complex as technological advancements develop through time. 

Agricultural growth, fossil fuel consumption, and rapidly increasing populations are just some of the pressures we as humans have placed on this vulnerable, yet resilient planet.  But at what point is such intense human impact too much for Earth to withstand?  And more importantly, how will we know when this occurs?

Some scientists, including Will Steffen, believe that humans have already surpassed this manageable threshold, especially in terms of environmental damage and climate change throughout the last 50 or so years.  This automatically reminds me of charts and graphs I came across in climatology and conservation courses showing ‘peaks’ in human-induced environmental change in very recent years that surpass levels witnessed at any other point throughout history.  There is a new term floating around the scientific community that refers to extinction via human activity: “Anthropocene”.  According to many scientists, this has already begun.

We all know about the threats of melting glaciers, CO2 emissions, water scarcity, and overpopulation, but the catastrophic effects resulting from all of these human activities are starting to become a tough reality.  Although global birth rates are decreasing slightly and methods of renewable energy are becoming more attainable, any advancement is still heavily outweighed by human destruction and depletion.  

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome is public denial, says sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard.  The evidence is overwhelming – if we haven’t already surpassed the ‘tipping point’ of environmental damage, where returning to a sustainable level in near impossible, we are very, very close.  The problem with communicating this to the public is general resistance – which, from a sociological standpoint, is expected. 

Finding ways to move past the denial and start getting people all across the world to accept the consequences of their activities is the first key to fully acknowledging just how strong of a connection there is between Earth and its inhabitants.  Only then can we truly work on improving our relationship with the Earth at a global level.