Human Dependence on Nature — How to help solve the environmental crisis

Haydn Washington

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

Human Dependence on Nature explains why, despite after 30 years of warning, most people still deny, ignore or fail to understand that we face the collapse of our ecosystems.

Sixty per cent of the planet’s ecosystem services are already degraded or being used unsustainably, the book notes, quoting the United Nations-sponsored report Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005. A quarter of the Earth’s mammal species face extinction (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Overfishing has resulted in the biomass of fish in fisheries reduced by 90 per cent. During the 20th century the planet’s ecosystems became strained by the quadrupling of the human population to 6.4 billion as well as industrial pollution going up 40-fold, energy use increasing 16-fold and CO2 emissions 17-fold, fish catches expanding by a factor of 35 and water use increasing ninefold.

Haydn Washington, a Sydney environmental scientist, believes we are in denial about this crisis because of our entrenched anthropocentric world view where everything is seen from our human point of view. This traps us into seeing “the environment” as a “thing” external to ourselves rather than something we are a part of.

Washington argues that our education system is also human-centric and has yet to develop the strong ecological perspective needed to transform society into taking meaningful action to stop environmental degradation.

Endless growth

Hayden Washington explains how society promotes the myth of endless growth despite the fact that Earth’s resources are finite and with many ecosystems degraded, nearing collapse, and the escalating extinction of many species. Rarely are alternative economic frameworks such as a “steady state” economy discussed. Modern society fails to recognise that we need to live within Earth’s limited energy budget. Destroying natural places like forests, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs also makes us more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report also notes that both economic growth and population growth lead to increased consumption of ecosystem services.

This book explains how the great cycles of life are being disturbed — the water, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus and carbon cycles. It also explains the complex concept of Net Primary Productivity (NPP) which represents the energy left over, after photosynthesis, for plant growth and consumption by herbivores. “It is NPP, then, that is the basis of all the food chains and food webs that make up Earth’s web of life.”

“The high and increasing appropriation of NPP by humanity is clearly a fundamental stress on ecosystem health. NPP is the foundation of all ecosystems, so if we pull out too many blocks from the foundation to put on the ‘human’ pile, then eventually other structures (natural ecosystems) collapse.”

“The fact that 60 per cent of ecosystem services are now being degraded or used unsustainably (MEA 2005) indicates that almost certainly the current level of NPP that humans appropriate is too high. We are using far more than our due.”

Governments, business and the media continue to deny that we are in an environmental crisis. There has been sustained opposition to action on climate change. The neoliberal economy opposes environmental regulation, because it is seen as a threat to free markets and profits. Yet neoliberalism has widened global inequality, exacerbated global poverty and increased environmental degradation.

Other reasons for the denial are “shifting baselines” or landscape amnesia where we simply forget and adjust to living in a degraded environment, accepting it as “normal”. Another issue is the inability to understand the exponential growth of many environmental problems. It also seems clear that we have no appreciation of the evolutionary processes that took millions of years to create the living systems that are so unique to Planet Earth.

Hayden Washington also gives solutions to the environment crisis based on an ecocentric world view and where nature must be valued for its intrinsic values. The book concludes with exciting solutions such as renewable power including wind, solar, geothermal and hot rocks, wave and tidal power.

The book asks one of the most critical questions of the century: are we prepared to allow the economy to destroy our life support systems for future generations? Will we remain blindly loyal to economic values even though they are destroying what we are utterly dependent on for life: the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we need to grow food?

This book is available for borrowing from the Federation library.