World Environment Day: when nature made its voice heard

Explore different angles of the human-nature relationship, following the celebration of World Environment Day at the time of the COVID-19 contingency.

World Environment Day: when nature made its voice heard
Photo by Tobias Tullius / Unsplash

World Environment Day was established in 1974, and every June 5 it encourages activities and, in particular, promotes the importance of the natural environment for human society, thus leading to a multisectoral reflection by the United Nations (UN). In other words, the purpose is to draw attention to the implementation of international policies that will lead to actions conducive to a more prosperous future for all the people of the world. However, it also alludes to identifying the human face of all environmental problems that are currently arising.

Thus, today we have noticed how the natural environment is yielding to the advance of population growth in the world and the advance of technological development by extracting from its entrails - at an accelerated rate - all kinds of resources to meet the demands of an insatiable human society. Let us remember that activities as simple as daily activities are gradually deteriorating the three elements - water, air, and soil - which, when combined, give rise to the process of the genesis of life. These actions are gradually producing a decline in the natural capacities to maintain the existence of life.

Because of the above, it becomes prudent and reasonable at the moment to aspire to less devastating styles of development and life, both globally, nationally, and locally, since the insertion of human beings in nature has generated alterations in the biological, chemical, and physical processes, which are responsible for promoting the mechanisms that transcribe the fundamental and natural processes of life itself. Therefore, we have to recognize that the human species has an unusual footprint that is pushing a rarefaction of the natural systems through the insertion of materials, foreign or not, in them, which by their qualities or quantities are bringing us closer and closer to an environmental collapse.

This reality is a product of the utilitarianism of human beings in their natural environment and makes us rethink whether the place we occupy and our relationship with nature should now be conceived as a small space that is finite and compromised by all human activities. This would question whether we are truly a thinking species or else, different from other organisms so as not to be dependent on nature.

Background and numerals

It is within the framework of statistics that we can measure the impact that human beings alone have on the natural environment so that we can see that they are the only living beings capable of consciously transforming and disturbing the environment, in such a way that they have erected a way of constituting themselves as a society in which they deconstruct the natural reality and reconstruct it in another with economic, political, cultural and social dimensions. This new conception of the environment is misleading since the assumption that sustains it as a construct is based on the idea that this other constructed environment is above the virtuous natural organization.

Therefore, it is necessary to indicate the brutality with which human beings have behaved in the face of nature, as well as on countless occasions against members of their species. This brutality was identified by Plato himself as a dark force that tends to disturb and turn the human being into a perverse being. For example, the World Bank states that 70% of natural systems are diminishing due to human mismanagement, pointing out that "nature is under threat and 1 million species of animals and plants, out of an estimated 8 million, are at risk of extinction".

Biodiversity is being depleted by humans through the direct exploitation of it, as well as by the use of soil change that promotes the loss of natural spaces, in addition to the pollution it causes in them.

In this same way, the World Meteorological Organization comments that in 2018 "global atmospheric mole fractions of greenhouse gases reached unprecedented levels" due to the industrial activities maintained by humanity, therefore this is changing the atmospheric composition of its elements, with consequences both for the environment and for the human being itself. In addition, the World Health Organization (2017) indicated that 25% of deaths -which resides in 1.7 million- in the world of children under 5 years of age are a product of environmental pollution, including air pollution that compromises their immune system.

While the WHO Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health (2018) warn that 90% of people in the world inhale high levels of pollutants and that around 7 million individuals in the world die annually due to air pollution, which would represent 5.5% of the Mexican population and that if these annual figures are maintained -without increase- it would be equivalent that in 18 years the entire Mexican population would perish.

On the other hand, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) documents that "commercial agriculture caused almost 70% of deforestation in Latin America in the period 2000-2010", where the practice of extensive soybean cultivation and oil plantations are the main factors -among others- that motivate deforestation. It also adds that in Southeast Asia, natural forest masses are dramatically declining in the face of the incentive to replace them with biofuel production.

Regardless of anthropogenic activities, this has led to a global loss of 129 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2015, which is equivalent to 66% of Mexico's territory. Similarly, UN Environment (2019) indicates that food production is the largest anthropogenic use of land, representing 50% of habitable land, and adds that approximately one-third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is lost or wasted.

At the same time, extractivism has been advancing, as Gudynas (2014) indicates, this anthropogenic activity consists of four stages. The first one occurred in colonialism, the second, with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the eighth century, the third one, which is shown in mining, monocultures, and petrochemical industry, which is sustained by technological progress and the machinery used, the fourth and last one, which is currently considerably ruining the natural systems to achieve what - raw materials - they have proposed.

An example of this is the use of fracking, a method that consists of drilling hundreds of wells and injecting millions of liters of water accompanied by toxic chemicals to extract natural gas, regardless of the environmental consequences.

Furthermore, this activity has caused tensions and disputes on a large scale between large corporations and ethnic minorities, where what matters least to international consortiums are the intervened ecosystems, since they are only interested in the resource obtained: oil, gold, silver, among others, as is the case in mining, energy and agricultural extraction with large extensions of monocultures, for example, soybeans, as mentioned above.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities are appealing to national governmental bodies, as well as to international entities to make the integrity of their natural environments prevail, as is ostensibly happening in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, and Uruguay. In this sense, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Foundation indicates that Mexico exports mainly (77.6%) its raw materials obtained from Mexican soil to the United States, the European Union (6%), and Canada (2.9%), among which we find corn, sugar cane, minerals, metals, coal, oil, and natural gas.

About the excessive use of water resources, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization-UNESCO (2019:2) has revealed that "water use has been increasing 1% annually worldwide since the 1980s, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns". This has intensified the damage to natural systems, not only through consumption but also by changing watercourses to dam them, thus altering the natural hydrological dynamics, which subsequently manifests itself in events that increase the effects of climate change.

The UN Environment warns that there is currently a serious problem caused by new pollutants that emanate from the productive processes of our society, which cannot be eliminated by current water treatment technology, and for this reason, there is a deep concern. Among these pollutants are residues from pharmaceuticals, pesticides, disinfectants, flame retardants, some detergent metabolites, and microplastics.

Finally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources-IUCN (2020) points out that this situation emerged during the 20th century when international decision-makers in the political concert considered the conservation of the natural environment with disdain, reluctance, and not as a central issue in their agendas, promoted by the unquenchable thirst for socioeconomic power that unfortunately still prevails.

Undoubtedly, this comes from the predominance of anthropocentric and alienating theocentrism, where the most perverse aberrations lacking reasoning have come from legal authorizations and erroneous social constructs, which suggest that the current conditions, and those related to climate change, come from mistaken social frameworks since they make pollution look like compliance, when in reality what has been done is to grant licenses to gradually deteriorate and liquidate the natural environment. Therefore, not everything legal is ethical, and not everything ethical is legal, in other words, not everything legal is correct, and not everything correct is legal.

Thus, it becomes pertinent to point out that in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the imperative need to reconceptualize our position towards nature is emerging, and also the demand for a change of mentality is imposed, since the predominance of human reason, up to this moment, has only turned every human being into an egocentric entity, which is only promoting difficulties and conflicts in the natural environment that surrounds him/her.

A holistic view of the relationship between human beings and nature

Reflecting on the above, we can indicate that the human being has an inappropriate way of valuing his relationship with nature, which is fundamentally sustained, as Frandsen (2013:75) indicates, in the event of having catalogued and established "as signs of intelligence those that correspond to his modality of intelligence, confusing than the form with the essence: not finding the same modality of expression in animals, he denies them the possession of the quality".

The human being has extended this to all living beings and therefore to nature itself, thus manifesting not the presence or inexistence of intelligence in the natural environment and its components, but rather revealing the difficulties, limitations, incapacities, and ignorance of the human being himself to understand and the reason that other types of rational thought and purposes of life can subsist in the natural environment different from our own. This can be observed, as Surasky and Morosi (2013:5) point out when they allude to:

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), father of empiricism and one of the first promoters of the scientific method of study, called for "science to torture Nature, as the Holy Office of the Inquisition did with its convicts, in order to succeed in unveiling the last of its secrets" [..... In 1600, Giordano Bruno [Italian philosopher and astronomer] burned at the stake of that same Inquisition for holding the view that the earth is life and has a soul, for which he had to face the accusation of "pantheism".

It is pertinent to clarify that pantheism -of which Bruno was accused- stands as a philosophical current that conceives the world in which both the universe, nature and that which monotheists call God, represent the same thing. This irrationality is additionally based on the fact that it ignores the dependence that human beings have on the natural environment for the adequate achievement of their own life. It is also shown by the scenarios that besiege us today, such as climate change, pollution, and the decline of nature, all of the events promoted and sustained by human beings.

Final considerations

As we have observed, nature until today has been subject to a utilitarian confiscation and exploitation by human beings, which has been characterized by constant transformation, in which the conflict generated by the same has exposed the irrational way of acting, which has given rise to the environmental crisis that we are currently experiencing.

To conclude laconically with a thought of Victor Hugo (1802-1885), the French playwright, who commented with sorrow: "It is an immense sadness to think that nature speaks while the human race does not listen to it". Notwithstanding this lament, today it has made itself heard intensely through the presence of COVID-19, so as not to be ignored by the intellectual arrogance and absurd behavior that accompanies human beings.

By Pedro César Cantú Martínez, Source: CIENCIA UANL / YEAR 23, No.104, November-December 2020. Dr. Pedro César Cantú Martínez is a researcher at UANL, Social Sciences. Faculty of Biological Sciences.