Please read chapter 2 “How did we get here?
It is about the culture (practices and ideologies) we inherited, and about a plan for the culture we will need to develop for sustainability. Lots to stimulate lots, including your imagination. Please add some value with your own brilliant thinking, and try to answer the “so what?” question in some fashion.
Psychology for Sustainability
Psychology for Sustainability, 4th Editionâ€”known as Psychology of Environmental Problems:
Psychology for Sustainability in its previous editionâ€”applies psychological theory and
research to so-called â€œenvironmentalâ€ problems, which actually result from human behavior
that degrades natural systems. This upbeat, user-friendly edition represents a dramatic
reorganization and includes a substantial amount of new content that will be useful to
students and faculty in a variety of disciplinesâ€”and even to people outside of academia as
The literature reviewed throughout the text is up-to-date, and reflects the burgeoning
efforts of many in the behavioral sciences who are working to create a more sustainable
The 4th Edition is organized in four sections. The first section provides a foundation by
familiarizing readers with the current ecological crisis and its historical origins, and by
offering a vision for a sustainable future. The next five chapters present psychological
research methods, theory, and findings pertinent to understanding, and changing,
unsustainable behavior. The third section addresses the reciprocal relationship between
planetary and human wellbeing. And the final chapter encourages readers to take what they
have learned and apply it to move behavior in a sustainable direction by presenting a variety
of theoretically and empirically grounded ideas for how to face this challenging task with
positivity, wisdom, and enthusiasm.
This textbook may be used as a primary or secondary textbook on a wide range of
courses in Ecological Psychology, Environmental Science, Sustainability Sciences,
Environmental Education, and Social Marketing. It also provides a valuable resource for
professional audiences of policymakers, legislators, and those working on sustainable
Britain A. Scott is Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas.
Elise L. Amel is Professor of Psychology and Director of Environmental Studies at the
University of St. Thomas.
Susan M. Koger is Professor of Psychology at Willamette University in Oregon.
Christie M. Manning is Associate Director of the Educating Sustainability Ambassadors
program and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College.
Psychology for Sustainability
Britain A. Scott
Elise L. Amel
Susan M. Koger
Christie M. Manning
First published 2016
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
and by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
Â© 2016 Taylor & Francis
The right of Britain A. Scott, Elise L. Amel, Susan M. Koger, and Christie M. Manning to be identified as the authors
of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any
information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for
identification and explanation without intent to infringe.
Third edition published 2010 by Psychology Press
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Scott, Britain A.
Psychology for sustainability / authored by Britain A. Scott, Elise L. Amel, Susan M. Koger,
Christie M. Manning.
â€œ4th Edition of The Psychology of Environmental Problems.â€
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Environmental responsibility. 2. Environmental psychology. 3. Environmental
psychologyâ€”History. I. Amel, Elise L. II. Koger, Susan M. III. Manning, Christie M.
IV. Koger, Susan M. Psychology of environmental problems. V. Title.
ISBN: 978-1-84872-579-9 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-84872-580-5 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-72271-9 (ebk)
Typeset in ITC Stone Serif
by Apex CoVantage, LLC
For our daughters: Maren, Clara, Maya, Tess, Maeve, and Sylvie.
You are forever in our hearts and your future is always on our minds.
Thank you, Deborah, for providing the shoulders on which we stand.
Foreword (by Deborah Du Nann Winter)
About the Authors
PART 1 WHAT ON EARTH ARE WE DOING?
Chapter 1 There Are No Environmental Problems
Biologyâ€™s Bottom Line: Carrying Capacity
Overconsumption: Our Ecological Footprint
Chapter 2 How Did We Get Here? From Western Thought to â€œWise Useâ€
The Nature of Western Thought
Humans Are Separate from Nature
Nature Can and Should Be Controlled
Individuals Have a Right to Maximum Economic Gain
Progress Equals Growth
Environmentalism in the United States
Preservation and Conservation of Wilderness
The World Wars and Modern Living
Silent Spring and the Green Decade
Professional Environmentalism, Direct Action, and Wise Use
Partisan Policies and a Persistent Paradigm
Chapter 3 Where Do We Go from Here? Developing an Ecological Worldview
All Life Is Interdependent
Small Actions Can Cause Big Consequences
Life Systems Are Circular
There Are Limits to Growth
Diversity Equals Resilience
Upstream Solutions Are Better than Downstream Solutions
Living the Dream of a Sustainable World
Limits to Growth
Diversity Is Resilience
Limits to Growth
Diversity Is Resilience
The Functions of Individual Behavior
PART 2 PSYCHOLOGY FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Chapter 4 Psychology Can Help Save the Planet
Growth in Green Psychology
Psychology as a Sustainability Science
What Psychologists Study: Operational Definitions of Variables
Whom Psychologists Study: Participants
How Psychologists Study: Research Designs
Quasi-Experiments in the Field
Running the Numbers: Statistical Analysis
Measurement Tools for the Psychology of Sustainability
Limits to Empiricism
Chapter 5 The Power of the (Unsustainable) Situation
Basics of Behavior Modification
You Catch More Flies with Honey
Timing Is Everything
The Short and Long of It
Old Habits Die Hard
Basics of Social Influence
We Do as Others Do
We Do as Others Push Us to Do
We Do What Makes Us Look Best
Engineering Sustainable Situations
Antecedent Strategies: What to Do and When to Do It
Consequence Strategies: Was It Worth It?
Chapter 6 Itâ€™s Not Easy Thinking Green
Two Systems for Thinking
The Analytic System
The Automatic System
Careful Reasoning versus Quick Intuition
Cognitive Roots of Environmental Degradation
Cognition for a Sustainable World
Increase Personal Relevance
Provide Appropriate Knowledge
Moving toward a Greener World â€¦ Automatically
Chapter 7 Putting the â€œIâ€ in Environment
How I Think
Attitudes and Values
Who I Am
Chapter 8 To Be (Green), or Not to Be (Green) â€¦ Itâ€™s a Question of Motivation
Motivation Grows from Within
Seeded by Basic Needs
Rooted in Core Values
Planted in Perceptions of Control
Situations Can Nurture Motivation
Fairness Helps It Sprout
Goals Direct Its Growth
Feedback Is the Fertilizer
Cultivating Change at Different Stages of Growth
PART 3 WHATâ€™S GOOD FOR THE PLANET IS GOOD FOR US
Chapter 9 Making Ourselves Sick: Health Costs of Unsustainable Living
Stressors in the Human Zoo
Overactivity and Inactivity
Our Own Worst Enemy
The Toxic Sea around Us
Disabilities and Disorders in Children
Reproductive Abnormalities in Adults
Health Hazards of Climate Change
Chapter 10 Healing the Split between Planet and Self: We All Need to Walk on the Wild
The Ecological Unconscious and Biophilia
Our Preference for Natural Settings
Our Emotional Connection to Other Species
Benefits of Contact with Nature
Improved Mental Health
Optimal Child Development
Playing in Nature
Learning to Love Nature
Conclusion: Reawakening the Ecological Unconscious
PART 4 GETTING PSYCHED FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Chapter 11 Getting Psyched for Sustainability: Being the Change We Want to See
Pursue a Positive Path to Sustainability
Visualize an Ecologically Healthy World
Use Meaningful Metrics
Work for Sustainability
Harness Human Nature
Act on Big Ideas via Small Steps
Go with the Evolutionary Flow
Develop New Heuristics
Leverage Moments of Flux
Create a Social Avalanche for Sustainability
Methodically Plan Change
Seek Opportunities to Lead
Seek Opportunities to Follow
Appendix: Self-Change Project
This wonderful volume both informs and inspires us to address environmental problems
with the powerful tools of psychology. I am honored to have been asked by the authors to
introduce this edition by writing this Foreword, not only because I get to add my two
cents, but mainly because it gives me the opportunity to celebrate the considerable progress
which a fourth edition reflects. As the feminists said back in the 1970s: â€œWeâ€™ve come a long
way, baby â€¦â€
When I conceptualized and wrote the first edition during the years of 1993â€“1994, there
was no psychology of environmental problems, no psychology for sustainability, no
conservation psychology, nor green psychology. Less than 1% of the empirical work cited
in this edition had been conducted. There were very few psychologists remotely interested
in environmental problems. Those who called themselves â€œenvironmental psychologistsâ€
primarily focused on built environments, such as office design and indoor lighting. And the
few emerging â€œecopsychologists,â€ while writing beautifully, did not conduct empirical
Yet, around the world, environmentalists were hard at work in political realms
promoting a sustainable world through improving the quality of water and air, protecting
endangered species, recycling waste materials, cleaning up toxic waste sites, defending
native forests and coral reefs, reducing greenhouse gasses, and slowing soil erosion and
ozone damage. Psychologists might have been concerned about these problems as
individuals (as I was), but had little to say about any of those issues as psychologists. As an
indoor activity, psychology was split off from the natural world.
Against this cultural backdrop, I experienced a pivotal moment in the winter of 1988,
which I described in the Introduction to the first edition:
While on a sabbatical from my teaching position, I was living in Copenhagen â€¦ and went to visit a friend in
Hamburg. We were walking along the shore of the Elbe River one day; it was November and everything felt cold,
gray, damp, and dreary. The walk took us past some beautiful Victorian homes and I tried to visualize how pleasant
they would be in the summer sun, facing the water. I could see well-dressed little children in white lace, frolicking
along the waterâ€™s edge with their nannies looking on. So this is how the wealthy Germans live. As we continued on,
my friend asked what I would like to eat for dinner that evening. I suggested fish, since here we were along the
waterâ€™s edge. My friend answered that fish was very difficult to get and not very good. â€œWhy,â€ I asked. â€œHere we are
so near the water.â€ â€œOh,â€ my friend responded, â€œthe water is dead here. Itâ€™s been dead for years. Nothing grows in
it.â€ â€¦ Suddenly, I stepped into a new world: a world where the industrial pollutants of a city could actually kill
water. Not just water in an isolated lake, but water in a big river. Now I saw the graveyard of an entire ecosystem in
which not one living organism existed. No seaweed, no fish, no amoeba, nothing. Just blackness, lapping up against
the landscaped grounds of the beautiful estates. What I experienced in those next steps was an important shift in my
worldview. Walking along the shore path in Hamburg, I saw that the physical world made human civilization
possible: those Victorian estates rested on the industrial wealth from shipping, manufacturing, and merchandising.
But human civilization was destroying the physical world in return. Those beautiful estates, financed by the wealth
of Hamburgâ€™s industries, must now face the deathly result of that civilization, the black liquid that laps up against
(First edition, p. xiiâ€“xiv)
So I asked myself: What does psychology have to say about this predicament in which
human beings find themselves at the turn of the century? My answers at that time were
almost completely theoreticalâ€”both because I am inspired by theory, but also because
there were so few empirical studies to draw upon. My hope was that I might be able to
show the relevance of psychology for building a sustainable world, and that I might
stimulate others to take up the project. 1
I couldnâ€™t then have imagined that within a mere 20 years, there would be such a rich
store of empirical research, useful measures, important data-driven questions, insightful
operational definitions, and further theoretical contributions as are so lucidly described in
this fourth edition. Nor could I have hoped for a group of such talented writers to bring
this new empirical work into clearly accessible and well-organized discussion, beautifully
crafted for the undergraduate, but also valuable for both the curious layperson and the
more experienced scholar.
In addition to informing and instructing, this volume accomplishes the even rarer but
more crucial goal for an undergraduate text: inspiring. The problems this text addresses are
huge and overwhelming for most people. Without clear tools, clear examples, and clear
thinking, we are prone to denial, distortion, or distraction. This volume encourages and
supports our sustained attention to these issues, while not underestimating their
This edition elegantly updates, elaborates, and collates recent empirical work on topics
from earlier editions, but also adds new ones that contextualize and extend the psychology
of sustainability. To enhance the readerâ€™s understanding of the historical context of this
work, discussion has been added on William James, the history of American
environmentalism, and inspiring contemporary environmental leaders. To better inform
the reader of the empirical basis of psychology, a thorough presentation of research
methods has been developed. To extend the coverage of psychology for sustainability, many
new topics have been addressed, such as the role of positive emotion, habits, and green
defaults; Big Five personality theory; self-determination theory; expectancy theory; SMART
goals; sleep deprivation; and the psychological impacts of over- and inactivity, among
Inevitably, with the expansion of some topics, others have been dropped. Two which I
hope will reappear in future editions are insights from psychoanalysis and from
ecofeminism. Psychoanalysis because I am convinced that fear and anxiety drive
unconscious defense mechanisms that prevent us from deeply confronting terrifying issues
like climate change and resource depletion. And ecofeminism because I have been inspired
by courageous women who have led us in the serious work of addressing environmental
problems, be they Rachel Carson, Lois Gibbs, Joanna Macy, or the four authors of the
current edition. That is not to say that there havenâ€™t also been courageous men (see Note
1), but the passion and leadership of women in this field is unassailable. Why is that? It is
because the impact of gender isnâ€™t understood yet. However, to see these two hopes realized
would require more empirical work in these domains. Anyone interested?
Regardless, this edition succeeds beautifully in the scholarly challenge of crafting prose
that is lucid as well as accurate, informal as well as rigorous. Without dumbing down the
discussion, this edition opens doors and warmly welcomes readers of all levels into a serious
and inspired discussion of psychologyâ€™s contributions and potentials for building a
sustainable world. That was my hope for the first edition, and the authors have surpassed
me many times over in this one.
I praise their informal but serious tone because we will need to invite many more
scholars from many more domains into the project in the decades ahead, and letâ€™s face it,
academic textbooks are not known for their warm friendliness. The respectful, rigorous, but
informal voice in this volume demonstrates the authorsâ€™ talents for teaching bright young
scholars in liberal arts institutions (a blessing I also shared). While introducing technical
terms, the discussion is remarkably uncluttered by jargon. Consequently, this volume will
speak to all those interested in the question of how psychology can be useful in building a
sustainable world: an environmental studies student who has never studied psychology
before, or a thoughtful community leader who is considering policy issues to address
environmental threats, or any curious and concerned citizen, for that matter.
Finally, this volume demonstrates that, in or out of the classroom, human beings are
both agents of environmental problems as well as victims of them, we are part of, and
players in, a natural world that is both brutal and beautiful, we are simultaneously evolving
toward our possible demise AND our possible salvation. This scholarly work will help raise
the odds of our survival on our exquisite, small, blue planet, although our survival is not at
Yet, what else is there to do, but work hard and hope that our efforts align with
sustainability? I am deeply grateful to the present authors for their remarkable
achievements, for the students they will inspire, and for the growing family of scholars
contributing insights into the psychology of sustainability.
Deborah Du Nann Winter, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Walla Walla, Washington
1 There were some courageous (male) mavericks along my path, of course. Among them, I am deeply grateful to Elliot
Aronson for his early work on water conservation, who also wrote intimately and beautifully for undergraduates
(and who was kind enough to write the Foreword for the First Edition); Stuart Oskampâ€™s leadership on
sustainability issues in psychology (who wrote the Foreword for the Second Edition) and David Myersâ€™ prescience
in discussing sustainability as a social issue in his popular social psychology text (and who generously wrote the
Foreword for the 3rd edition)â€”to name just a few.
This book represents the fourth edition of Deborah Du Nann Winterâ€™s text, originally
entitled, Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (1996). The bookâ€™s
title and authorship has changed (twice), and the field has changed even more in the
decades since its original publication. In this preface, we authors will introduce ourselves,
explain the goals of the book, and describe the current editionâ€™s new organization and
The four of us are psychology professors who have long been interested in the ways in
which our field can inform solutions to the pressing planetary concerns described in this
book. Deborahâ€™s was an early voice in that regard, and her text inspired and emboldened us
â€”and countless othersâ€”to teach classes and conduct research on the important
interconnections between psychology and environmental issues.
Like many professionals, we enjoy the fruits of industrialized civilization, while
struggling to reconcile what we know about the ecological crisis with how we live.
Environmental devastation is driven by both greed and need. It is due to the overconsumption of global resources by the worldâ€™s rich and to the desperate depletion of local
resources by the worldâ€™s poor. We focus more on the former in this book because we fall
into that category, and we expect that most of you, our readers, do as well. We believe that
people from the wealthiest nations have the most opportunity and responsibility to make
crucial changes. As privileged people, we are economically secure enough to have the luxury
of considering larger questions of survival than just that of our own. We tell you these
things about ourselves because authors are always alive and potent in any intellectual work,
no matter how stringent their attempts to be objective.
As teachers, we find that some of our students feel uncertain about the future. They have
a sense of foreboding stemming from a recognition that the world is quickly approaching
the limits of industrial growth. They realize that their generation, and the generations that
follow, will have to pay the costs of the unsustainable practices of their predecessors. Yet,
our students are also optimistic, and it is their optimism for which we are most grateful,
and to which we speak in this book. In our many years of college teaching, we have seen
that most of our students truly want to help the world; they seek careers not only for good
money, but for good meaning; their hearts are still as open as their minds; and they ask
really good questions about values, choices, and purpose.
Many scholars agree that we are at a pivotal point in human history. The future is
uncertain, and forecasted scenarios are downright terrifying. We know the problems, and
yet can feel paralyzed or doubtful about how to respond. Thatâ€™s to be expected, given the
unprecedented challenges weâ€™re facing as a society and as a species. In such times, the best
we can do is to identify our most deeply held values and live accordingly and with integrity;
consider how we can be of service to our communities and larger world; speak for the
voiceless, including future human generations and members of other species; conserve and
protect what is beautiful in ourselves and the world around us; be kind and cooperative; all
while pausing to appreciate successes and mourn losses, and attending to the gift of the
present momentâ€”itâ€™s the only moment over which we have any control. Martin Luther is
quoted as saying, â€œIf I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple
tree todayâ€ (Lindberg, 2000, p. 276).
Goal, Organization, and Content of this Book
Like prior editions, this text applies psychological theory and research to â€œenvironmentalâ€
problems. We think this endeavor is important because there really are no environmental
problems. Rather, environmental degradation results from human behavior, reflecting a
mismatch between how humans meet their needs and wants, and the natural ecological
order. However, this edition represents a dramatic reorganization and includes a substantial
amount of new content. Our intent was to make the book more â€œuser-friendlyâ€ and
practical to students and faculty in a variety of disciplinesâ€”and perhaps to people outside
of academia as well. The literature reviewed throughout the text is up-to-date, and reflects
the burgeoning efforts of many in the behavioral sciences who are working to create a more
sustainable society. The book is organized in four sections:
Part 1: What on Earth Are We Doing?
The goal of the first three chapters is to provide a foundation for subsequent chapters by
familiarizing readers with the current ecological crisis and its origins, and by providing a
vision for a sustainable future.
There Are No Environmental Problems (Chapter 1) identifies and describes some of
the principal ways humans are living unsustainably; it serves as a primer on
How Did We Get Here? From Western Thought to â€œWise Useâ€ (Chapter 2)
contextualizes the current ecological crisis with a historical survey of relevant
cultural, technological, economic, and political developments; it represents an
introduction to environmental studies.
Where Do We Go from Here? Developing an Ecological Worldview (Chapter 3)
proposes basic principles grounded in ecology, followed by examples of behaviors
and systems compatible with these principles; this chapter is an introduction to
Part 2: Psychology for a Sustainable Future
The second section of the book reviews psychological theory and research findings
pertinent to understanding, and changing, unsustainable behavior.
Psychology Can Help Save the Planet (Chapter 4) introduces readers to
environmental psychology, ecopsychology, and conservation psychology, and
provides an overview of methods used by researchers who study the psychology of
The Power of the (Unsustainable) Situation (Chapter 5) describes how situational
and social influences shape unsustainable behavior, and how they can be enlisted
to promote sustainable behavior.
Itâ€™s Not Easy Thinking Green (Chapter 6) explains that many ecologically
problematic behaviors can be traced back to innate thinking processes that make it
challenging for humans to comprehend the scope of environmental degradation
and their role in it. The chapter describes how these same processes can be
overcome and harnessed to encourage sustainable thinking.
Putting the â€œIâ€ in Environment (Chapter 7) covers a variety of individual differences
among people that predict environmental behavior, including knowledge, beliefs,
attitudes and values, personality, and identity.
To Be (Green), or Not to Be (Green) â€¦ Itâ€™s a Question of Motivation (Chapter 8)
presents theories that describe how external and internal factors combine to
influence the motivation people feel to behave sustainably (or not).
Part 3: Whatâ€™s Good for the Planet Is Good for Us
In the third section of the book, we address the reciprocal relationship between planetary
and human wellbeing.
Making Ourselves Sick: Health Costs of Unsustainable Living (Chapter 9) documents
the detrimental effects of industrialized living and polluted environments on
human mental and physical health.
Healing the Split between Planet and Self: We All Need to Walk on the Wild Side
(Chapter 10) explores theory and research supporting the idea that living close to
nonhuman nature is beneficial for human development and functioningâ€”and
may, in fact, be essential for achieving optimal experiences and realizing our full
Part 4: Getting Psyched for Sustainability
The goal of the final chapter is to encourage readers to take what they have learned and
apply it to move behavior in a sustainable direction. Getting Psyched for Sustainability: Being
the Change We Want to See (Chapter 11) presents a variety of theoretically and empirically
grounded ideas for how to face this challenging task with positivity, wisdom, and
We are grateful to the people who inspired and supported us through our efforts in
developing, writing, and revising this text. We appreciate Paul Dukes at Taylor & Francis
who signed this edition, and his assistant, Xian Gu, for his administrative support. Britain
and Elise acknowledge the University of St. Thomas Faculty Development Center for
release time and funding. Sue appreciates the sabbatical granted by Willamette University.
Thank you to Britainâ€™s students, Sabastian Boyle-Mejia, Jenna Erickson, Sean Goossens,
Leon Henderson, Angela Kurth, Mark Painter, Maren Starzinski, Meghan Strauss, and
Brynn Sytsma for their invaluable feedback on early drafts of the chapters. Thank you to
the University of St. Thomas Psychology department chair Greg Robinson-Riegler for
supporting the use of a draft manuscript in the Psychology of Sustainability course. And
thank you to our academic colleagues and friends Ronald Amel, Catherine Daus, Gayla
Lindt, Roxanne Prichard, and Oriel Strickland for their expertise and keen suggestions.
Many thanks to Erin Scott at Wyldehare Creative for her graphics wizardry.
Bless you, Amy Steingas, for your meticulous formatting and checking of references.
Russ, Rich, Kris, and Frank, we so appreciate everything you did to accommodate our
mental, emotional, and physical absence during the lengthy and intense writing process.
Without your loving support, this book would not have been possible.
The following images are courtesy of Erin Scott: Figure 1.1 (p. 4), Graphic 1.1 (p. 11),
Graphic 1.2 (p. 12), Figure 1.3 (p. 13), Graphic 1.3 (p. 15), Graphic 2.1 (p. 37), Cartoon
3.2 (p. 70), Graphic 3.1 (p. 71), Figure 3.1 (p. 75), Cartoon 3.3 (p. 77), Graphic 4.1 (p.
99), Figure 4.1 (p. 101), Graphic 4.2 (p. 103), Figure 4.2 (p. 104), Figure 4.3 (p. 106),
Figure 4.4 (p. 107), Figure 4.5 (p. 108), Figure 4.6 (p. 109), Figure 4.7 (p. 110), Figure
4.8 (p. 112), Figure 4.9 (p. 115), Figure 4.10 (p. 116), Figure 4.11 (p. 116), Figure 4.12
(p. 118), Figure 5.1 (p. 123), Figure 5.2 (p. 124), Figure 5.3 (p. 125), Figure 5.4 (p. 131),
Figure 5.5 (p. 132), Figure 5.6 (p. 134), Figure 5.7 (p. 135), Graphic 5.1 (p. 140), Graphic
5.2 (p. 142), Figure 6.1 (p. 148), Figure 6.2 (p. 149), Figure 6.3 (p. 152), Graphic 6.1 (p.
157), Figure 6.4 (p. 160), Figure 6.5 (p. 161), Figure 6.8 (p. 169), Graphic 6.2 (p. 171),
Figure 7.1 (p. 181), Figure 7.2 (p. 183), Graphic 7.1 (p. 184), Box 7.1 (p. 185), Figure 7.3
(p. 187), Figure 7.4 (p. 189), Figure 7.5 (p. 192), Figure 7.6 (p. 193), Figure 7.7 (p. 194),
Table 7.1 (p. 197), Graphic 8.1 (p. 204), Graphic 8.2 (p. 204), Figure 8.1 (p. 206), Figure
8.2 (p. 207), Figure 8.3 (p. 208), Figure 8.4 (p. 210), Figure 8.5 (p. 211), Figure 8.6 (p.
213), Figure 8.7 (p. 213), Figure 8.8 (p. 215), Figure 8.9 (p. 218), Graphic 8.3 (p. 220),
Graphic 8.4 (p. 221), Figure 8.10 (p. 222), Graphic 8.5 (p. 224), Figure 8.11 (p. 226),
Figure 9.1 (p. 234), Figure 9.2 (p. 235), Figure 9.3 (p. 237), Graphic 9.2 (p. 242), Figure
9.4 (p. 245), Figure 9.5 (p. 246), Graphic 9.4 (p. 250), Figure 9.6 (p. 250), Table 9.1 (p.
252), Box 10.1 (p. 266), Figure 10.6 (p. 274), Figure 10.8 (p. 280), Figure 11.1 (p. 298),
Figure 11.2 (p. 301), Figure 11.4 (p. 302), Figure 11.5 (p. 303), Figure 11.6 (p. 306),
Figure 11.9 (p. 309), Figure 11.10 (p. 310), Figure 11.11 (p. 312), Figure 11.12 (p. 313),
Figure 11.13 (p. 314), Figure 11.14 (p. 316), Figure A.1 (p. 320), Figure A.2 (p. 320)
The following images come from the public domain of Wikipedia/Wikimedia: Figure
1.5 (p. 18), Graphic 2.3 (p. 42), Graphic 2.4 (p. 42), Figure 2.4 (p. 48), Figure 2.6 (p.55),
Graphic 2.9 (p.56), Figure 2.9 (p.60), Figure 3.4 (p.85), Figure 10.1 (p.264), Figure 10.2
(p.268), Figure 10.3 (p.269), Figure 10.4 (p.270)
Cartoon 1.1 (p. 8): with permission from Stuart McMillen
Graphic 1.4 (p. 21): courtesy of Stencilease
Cartoon 1.2 (p. 22): with permission from Kirk Anderson
Cartoon 2.1 (p. 32): with permission from Chris Madden
Cartoon 2.2 (p. 33): with permission from Mark Anderson at andertoons
Graphic 2.2 (p. 40): with permission from Retroclipart
Graphic 2.5 (p. 52): with permission from aldoleopold.org, Alamy
Graphic 2.6 (p. 52): with permission from aldoleopold.org, Alamy
Graphic 2.7 (p. 54): with permission from Shutterstock
Cartoon 3.1 (p. 68): with permission from Cartoonstock
Graphic 3.2 (p. 72): courtesy of RandomHouse
Cartoon 3.4 (p. 78): with permission from Kirk Anderson at kirktoons
Cartoon 3.5 (p. 88): with permission from Marian Henley
Cartoon 5.1 (p. 129): with permission from Cartoonstock
Cartoon 5.2 (p. 138): with permission from Cartoonstock
Cartoon 6.1 (p. 154): with permission from Universal Press Syndicate
Cartoon 6.2 (p. 173): with permission from oneworld.org Tiki
Cartoon 7.1 (p. 179): with permission from Shutterstock
Cartoon 7.2 (p. 190): with permission from Cartoonstock
Cartoon 7.3 (p. 195): with permission from Cartoonstock
Graphic 7.2 (p. 200): courtesy of Green Woman Store
Cartoon 9.1 (p. 232): with permission from Cartoonstock
Cartoon 9.2 (p. 239): with permission from Universal Press Syndicate
Graphic 9.1 (p. 240): with permission from Shutterstock
Graphic 9.3 (p. 243): with permission from Shutterstock
Cartoon 9.3 (p. 244): with permission from Cartoonstock
Graphic 9.5 (p. 254): courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency
Cartoon 9.5 (p. 256): with permission from Dave Coverly, speedbump cartoons
Cartoon 9.6 (p. 258): with permission from Cartoonstock
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Graphic 10.2 (p. 277): with permission from Shutterstock
Graphic 10.3 (p. 284): courtesy of OBH Council
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About the Authors
Dr. Britain A. Scott is Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas where she
has taught since 1996. She earned her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of
Minnesota. Britain is coauthor of a website for instructors encouraging integration of
environmental issues into psychology courses: Teaching Psychology for Sustainability at
Dr. Elise L. Amel is Professor of Psychology and Director of Environmental Studies at the
University of St. Thomas where she has taught since 1997. She earned her Ph.D. in
industrial-organizational psychology from Purdue University. Elise has successfully led
efforts for systemic change at the University of St. Thomas, such as adding sustainability as
a university-wide strategic priority, and providing faculty development opportunities to
infuse sustainability across the curriculum.
Dr. Susan M. Koger is Professor of Psychology at Willamette University in Oregon, where
she has taught for over 20 years. She earned her Ph.D. in physiological psychology at the
University of New Hampshire. Sue coauthored the previous two editions of this text with
Deborah Du Nann Winter and is the coauthor of Teaching Psychology for Sustainability.
Dr. Christie M. Manning is Associate Director of the Educating Sustainability
Ambassadors program and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at
Macalester College. She earned her Ph.D. in cognitive and biological psychology from the
University of Minnesota. Christie collaborates with nonprofits, government agencies, and
local grass-roots groups to encourage household sustainability and build community
What on Earth Are We Doing?
The goal of this first section of the book is to familiarize readers with the current
ecological crisis and its origins, as well as provide a vision for a sustainable future.
Chapter 1 reviews some of the principal ways humans are living unsustainably; it serves as a
primer on environmental science. Chapter 2 contextualizes the current ecological crisis with
a historical survey of relevant cultural, technological, economic, and political developments;
it represents environmental studies. Chapter 3 presents foundational principles grounded in
ecology, followed by examples of behaviors and systems compatible with these principles;
this chapter is an introduction to sustainability.
There Are No Environmental Problems
â€¢ Biologyâ€™s Bottom Line: Carrying Capacity
â€¢ Overconsumption: Our Ecological Footprint
â€¢ Material Goods
The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit. There could be no greater
misconception of its meaning than to believe it is concerned only with endangered wildlife, human-made ugliness,
and pollution. These are part of it, but more importantly, the crisis is concerned with the kind of creatures we are
and what we must become in order to survive.
(Lynton K. Caldwell, quoted by Miller, 2002, p. 1)
What will your future be like? If you are similar to your peers, you have hopes of a happy
life with your family and friends. 1 You desire good physical health and your own
comfortable space in which to live. You expect to own moreâ€”and betterâ€”things than you
currently do. You plan to travel. And, of course, you assume you will have easy access to
basic necessities like electricity, heat, food, and water.
Yet, you might also have a notion, ranging from an inkling to a grave fear, that this
scenario is threatened, that your future might not be so rosy. If this has not occurred to
you, just skim the local, national, and world news with your eyes peeled for stories about
energy debates, toxic pollution, nuclear waste, species extinctions, water shortages,
overflowing landfills, plastic gyres in the oceans, topsoil loss, over-population, and a
changing climate. As you educate yourself, you will begin to realize that many aspects of
our 2 current lifestyles simply cannot be taken for granted or maintained long-term,
particularly for those of us who live in the United States. The sobering fact is that because
of the way we are living, we are severely compromising planetary resources, and consuming
them too quickly and carelessly to keep demand in balance with the supply. If Mother
Earth had a Facebook page, her status update would be, â€œWTF, peeps?â€
Figure 1.1 Readiness to change.
Adapted from Amel, Manning, & Scott (2009).
Large surveys suggest that at least some people are aware of these problems. For example,
the most recent Yale survey on Climate Change in the American Mind found that two-thirds
of Americans believe global warming is happening; about the same number think it will
cause harm to future generations of people and to other species; 40% think it is a threat to
themselves, their families, or their local communities; and one in three think it is already
hurting people in the United States (Leiserowitz, et al., Climate change in the American
mind, 2014). But just knowing about the problems doesnâ€™t mean people are ready to take
action (see Figure 1.1).
Compared to a couple of decades ago, more people are doing little things such as
recycling their newspapers, bottles, and cans, but when it comes to the big picture, most
people generally behave according to established habits. A vague sense of pessimism about
the future coexists with a â€œbusiness as usualâ€ attitude. For example, in spite of the fact that
about half of Americans say they are â€œworriedâ€ about global warming (Leiserowitz, et al.,
Climate change in the American mind, 2014; Saad, 2013), most people continue to routinely
drive rather than walk or bike, take vacations across the country and around the world, heat
their homes to 72 degrees, use leaf blowers instead of rakes and dryers instead of
clotheslines, throw usable stuff away, buy new stuff â€¦ and try not to think about the fact
that the planet cannot possibly support all of this for much longer.
Not surprisingly, people have difficulty contemplating planetary collapse. We find it too
depressing, too overwhelming, perhaps too terrifying. So, we turn our attention to present
concerns such as family obligations, work or school, and paying bills. Such a response is
understandable and consistent with an evolutionary perspective. Human perceptual systems
evolved in an environment where threats were sudden and immediate; our ancient
ancestors had no need to track gradually worsening problems that took many years to
manifest. As a result, the human species is shortsighted and has difficulty responding to
potentially catastrophic, but slowly developing, harmful conditions. Rather than working to
prevent crises, people have a strong tendency to delay action until problems are large scale
and readily apparent, at which time they attempt to respond. Unfortunately, by then, it
may be too late.
Despite such hardwiring, the human species is capable of dramatic and rapid cultural
evolution, as the pace of the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions reveals.
For example, as undergraduates, the four of us authors used typewriters for papers after
spending hours searching printed publication indexes to find citations for journal articles
that we had to track down in the stacks of bound periodicals. Now, it feels normal to us to
use high-speed computers, online databases with full-text pdf files, and electronic
networking and file sharing tools. The point is this: Humans are quick to adapt. The
human capacity for rapid change could reverse current ecological trends, given sufficient
public attention and political will (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2008).
Many people reassure themselves that technological fixes will save the earth, but while
technological and engineering expertise is certainly needed to reverse ecological damageâ€”
just as such knowledge was used to produce itâ€”the problems that threaten the survival of
life on this planet are too huge, too complicated, and too urgent to be solved by advances in
technology alone. Human beings have always altered their physical environment in order to
survive, but the pace and scale of current environmental change knows no precedent. And
the longer people wait to take action, the worse the problems will become. Most
importantly, pinning hopes on technology misses the primary cause of the current
predicament and the crucial tool for lasting solutions: human behavior.
The theme of this book is that all so-called environmental problems are actually
behavioral problems. Ecological systems donâ€™t have problems in and of themselves; the
problems stem from peopleâ€™s behaviors as consumers, corporate decision makers, city
planners, and governmental legislators. Ecologically incompatible beliefs, values, worldviews,
and actions are ultimately responsible for the rapid deterioration of the natural systems on
which every creature depends for survival. Thus, these problems require more than just
technological solutions. As individuals, we need to make changes in how we satisfy our
needs and fulfill our desires, how we express ourselves and our values, how we participate in
our communities, how we experience our relationship to nature, and even, perhaps, in how
we understand the meaning of our lives.
You probably are somewhat familiar with the contemporary ecological crisis. Still, in
order to provide a foundation for the rest of the book, the following sections represent an
overview of several of the big issues confronting humanity. The scope is limited in the
interest of space, but should give you at least some idea of the challenges that lie ahead.
Biologyâ€™s Bottom Line: Carrying Capacity
It may surprise you to learn that the first scientific calculations of global warming due to
human emissions of carbon dioxide were published back in 1896 (Weart, 2013). In 1914,
the North American passenger pigeon was declared extinct due to hunting, yet this species
had once been so abundant that flocks blackened the entire sky as they took hours to pass
overhead (Blockstein, 2002). By the 1930s, negative health effects of new, toxic substances
such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were being reported in factory workers and
confirmed in laboratories (Versar, Inc., 1979). Indeed, for more than 100 years, scientists
have documented anthropogenic (human caused) threats to the survival of the biosphere, a
term coined in 1875 to mean the entire global ecosystem and all of its inhabitants.
As you will read in Chapter 2, however, widespread public awareness of these problems
was not raised until the 1960s. Even some scientists were slow to recognize how industrial
activities such as burning fossil fuels and synthesizing chemicals were having serious
systemic repercussions. But by 1992, 1,670 prestigious scientists, including over 100 Nobel
Laureates, had signed a â€œWorld Scientistsâ€™ Warning to Humanity,â€ urging public attention
to the â€œhuman activities that inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment
and on critical resourcesâ€ (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992). Today, it is very clear
that the planet and all of us who reside here are in dire straits.
A fundamental concept for understanding what is happening is carrying capacity, a term
used by biologists to describe the maximum number of any species a habitat can support. If
the territory is isolated and the population cannot migrate to a new one, the inhabitants
must find a way to live in balance with its resource base. Alternatively, if the population
grows too quickly so that it depletes its resources suddenly, the population will crash.
Such crashes have happened in both nonhuman and human populations. Islands, which
segregate ecosystems and prevent migration, provide the clearest examples. For instance, in
1944, the U.S. Coast Guard imported 29 yearling reindeer to the isolated St. Matthew
Island in the Bering Sea (between Alaska and Russia). The island was ideal for the
propagation of reindeer, so by 1963, the population had grown from 29 to over 6,000.
However, the terrain became badly overgrazed, food supplies dwindled, and the population
crashed in the winter of 1964. The island could have supported about 2,300 reindeer, but
after the crash, only 3% of that figure survived (Catton, 1993).
Archaeological evidence from Easter Island, off the coast of Chile, shows that a very
complex human population grew there for 16 centuries. To support themselves, the
islanders cut more and more of the surrounding forests so that eventually soil, water, and
cultivated food supplies were depleted. The population crashed in the seventeenth century,
falling from 12,000 in 1680 to less than 4,000 by 1722. In 1877, only 111 people still
survived (Catton, 1993). On the mainland, some human population crashes have been
hastened by the fact that societies weakened by resource shortages become more vulnerable
to being wiped out by other humans. However, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the
Maya of the Yucatan region provide two clear examples of crashes due simply to exceeded
The Sumerians were the first literate society in the world, leaving detailed records of their
civilization and its decline between 3000 and 2000 B.C. The complicated agricultural
system that supported their population also depleted the quality of their soil through
salinization and siltation. In the words of environmental historian Clive Ponting (1991):
The artificial agricultural system that was the foundation of Sumerian civilization was very fragile and in the end
brought about its downfall. The later history of the region reinforces the point that all human interventions tend to
degrade ecosystems and shows how easy it is to tip the balance towards destruction when the agricultural system is
highly artificial, natural conditions are very difficult, and the pressures for increased output are relentless. It also
suggests that it is very difficult to redress the balance or reverse the process once it has started.
Similarly, the Maya, who developed what are now parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize,
and Honduras, built a complex civilization on the fragile soil of tropical forests. Clearing
and planting supported a population from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 800. As the population grew,
land was not allowed time to recover between plantings. The deforestation caused
significant changes in weather patterns, further reducing crop yields. In about A.D. 800, the
population crashed; within a few decades, cities were abandoned, and only a small number
of peasants continued to survive in the area.
In the past, population crashes have occurred in one part of the world without seriously
affecting people in other regions. Today, however, the threat of a crash on a planetary level
is looming (Diamond, 2005; Kuntsler, 2005). The earth is essentially a large island, with
no way to import resources or immigrate to a less degraded habitat. Like isolated
geographical regions, the earth itself has its limits.
Human population growth is accelerating at an exponential rate, which makes the
problems even more pressing. Exponential growth is deceptive because it starts off slowly,
but accelerates quickly. It occurs when a quantity increases by a fixed percentage of the
whole, which means that it will double after a certain interval, rather than grow
incrementally (i.e., linear growth). The concept of exponential growth is so important to
understanding the current predicament that itâ€™s worth spending a moment with a
conceptual example. Imagine that you have a bottle with one bacterium in it, which will
double every minute. Assume that it is now 11:00 p.m. and the bottle will be completely
full by midnight. When will the bottle be half full? If you suggest 11:30, you are thinking
in terms of linear growth, rather than exponential growth. Actually, the bottle will be half
full at 11:59 because the bacteria double every minute. Next question (and this involves a
little more imagination): When do you think the bacteria might start to notice that things
are getting a little crowded? Probably not even at 11:55, because at this point, the bottle is
still only 3% full. Remember, exponential growth begins slowly but accelerates quickly.
Final question: Suppose the Royal Bacteria Society sponsored Sir Francis Bacterium to
leave the bottle and go exploring for new space, and suppose Sir Francis got really lucky
and found three new bottles, quadrupling the space for
their society. How much time did he buy? Although it may seem at first that their problems
are solved, it would actually only give them two more minutes until all four bottles were
completely full. 3
Figure 1.2 World population curve.
The J-shaped curve of exponential world population growth, with projections to 2050 (not to scale). The current world
population of 7.2 billion is projected to reach eight to ten billion this century. Data from World Bank and United
Nations; photo courtesy of NASA. (Adapted from Miller, 2007, p. 6).
The human population picture is startling because the past two centuries have seen such
quick acceleration. At mid-seventeenth-century rates, it would have taken 250 years to
double the worldâ€™s population, but the most recent doubling has occurred in just the 45
years since 1968, which is when Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich published his
best-seller, The Population Bomb (see Figure 1.2). Although industrialized countries have
managed to bring birthrates down, population continues to swell in the worldâ€™s less
developed countries, which are home to four-fifths of the planetâ€™s human beings. Contrast
the rate in the United States, which hovers around 2.1 births per woman, to the average of
5.2 births per woman in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa (with at least ten of these
countries averaging six or more) (Haub & Kaneda, 2013). At present rates, the population
of the 51 countries in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to more than double by 2050, and by
that time, in spite of decreasing birth rates in the developed countries, the worldâ€™s
population will have increased from 7.2 billion (at the time of this writing) to 9.7 billion
(Haub & Kaneda, 2013). Like the bacterium example, finding new supplies of food or
energy or even a new planet or two would only very temporarily alleviate the strain.
So, has the human population reached the earthâ€™s carrying capacity? An important
distinction here is the difference between biological carrying capacity and cultural carrying
[T]he question â€œHow many people can the earth support?â€ cannot be answered using only ecological concepts.
Human choices influence the earthâ€™s human carrying capacity along with natural constraints. â€¦ The question is
obviously incomplete. Support with what kind of life? With what technology? For how long? Leaving what kind of
earth for the future?
(Cohen, 1995, pp. 17, 166)
Estimates of how many people the earth can reasonably support have varied wildly. A
review of 69 studies found a range from 500 million to 1 Ã— 10 21 billion(!) with a â€œbestpoint estimateâ€ at just under eight billion, a level we have nearly reached already.
The highest estimates rely on the hypothetical idea that the billions and billions of
people would have a very simple standard of living, probably akin to our Stone Age
ancestors. When it comes to human populations, cultural carrying capacity is considerably
less than biological carrying capacity, so long as we use more resources than are necessary to
keep us alive and reproducing. For example, energy is the most basic resource; its
consumption is measured in terms of the daily number of kilocalories (i.e., â€œcaloriesâ€) that
people use to meet their needs. It is estimated that ancestral humans living hunterâ€“gatherer
subsistence lifestyles each required a daily average of about 2,000 calories (in the form of
food) for all their activities. Today, those of us living in the developed world consume
roughly the same amount of dietary calories each day, 4 but require an additional 600,000
calories of energy per person for the machines and systems that support our lifestyles (Miller
& Spoolman, 2012). Clearly, some of us are using more than our fair share of what the
planet has to offer. And by doing so, we are the ones exacerbating the divide between
biological and cultural carrying capacity.
Another way of conceptualizing cultural carrying capacity is with the formula for
environmental impact used by population scientists (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1991; Ehrlich &
I is the impact of any group or nation
P is population size
A is per capita affluence, as measured by consumption
T is technology employed in supplying that consumption
With this formula, one can see that doubling a population will double its impact if
affluence and technology remain constant; it is likely that this is what will happen in the
countries in sub-Saharan Africa over the next three decades. One can also see how it is the
case that the 20% of people living in the affluent, high-tech, industrialized world are
actually having a much bigger ecological impact than the 80% living in the developing
To see population as only a Third World problem is a fallacy. Population in the United
States and other industrialized countries must continue to decrease significantly if current
levels of resource consumption do not. Or, if population does not decrease, resource
consumption will, either systematically with planning or suddenly through ecological
Overconsumption: Our Ecological Footprint
One way to quantify consumption is with the use of the ecological footprint, a measure of
how fast people (individuals or populations) use resources and generate waste in
comparison to how rapidly nature can absorb the waste and replenish the resources
(Wackernagel & Rees, 1996). Variables include food, housing, home energy and
transportation, goods, and services. The footprint is reported as an estimate of the
hypothetical amount of land and ocean needed to support the lifestyle, either in hectares or
in terms of the number of planet earths that would be required if everyone lived that way.
Globally, human demand is exceeding the regenerative capacity of the planet by about
one half; that is, collectively, humans are consuming resources and generating waste so
rapidly that it would take one and a half earths to keep pace over time. This represents a
striking increase since the early 1970s, which is when the worldâ€™s ecological footprint first
started exceeding biocapacity.
83% of the worldâ€™s population now live in countries that use more biocapacity to support production activities than
they have available within their boundaries. The deficit is covered through the overexploitation of domestic natural
capital stocks (e.g., through overharvesting and overfishing), net import of resources, and the use of the global
commons (for instance by emitting CO 2 from fossil fuel into the atmosphere).
(Galli, Wackernagel, Iha, & Lazarus, 2014, p. 125)
As a group, those living in the United States have the largest ecological footprint,
consuming more resources and generating more waste than any other country on the
planet. 5 If everyone in the world lived like U.S. residents do, it would take four planet
earths to keep up (Grooten, 2012). Yet, there is only one.
So how are humans overconsuming and overproducing waste? In the following sections,
we will review some data on primary resources measured by the ecological footprint:
energy, water, food, and material goods.
When you think of your own energy use, what comes to mind? Stop for a minute or two
and try to identify all the ways you consume energy in your daily routine. (Weâ€™ll waitâ€¦)
Okay, whatâ€™s on your list? The electricity you use to charge your phone? Gas for your car?
You probably thought of the power to run your computerâ€”but did you think of the power
consumed by all the servers and routers that fire up every time you access the Cloud?
Maybe you thought of the fuel you use to cook food, but did you think of the energy it
took to produce that food and get it from the farm to your grocery store?
The energy used in homes and for personal transportation may be easy to identify, but
the bulk of what we (indirectly) consume is essentially invisible to us as individuals; it
includes energy used in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction; fuel for
trucks, trains, planes, boats, and barges that carry goods; and power used in public
buildings such as shopping malls, offices, hospitals, schools, and restaurants.
When you were making your list of ways you use energy, did you happen to ponder the
sources of energy you tap? Like the amount of energy we use, the origin of our energy is
something about which many of us remain in the dark (pun intended). One of us authors
once overheard a conversation in which a person was confronting another about wasting
electricity. It went something like this: â€œYou really shouldnâ€™t waste electricity.â€ â€œWhy not?
What does it matter?â€ â€œWell, where do you think electricity comes from?â€ â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€”
the air?â€ Hopefully, you are not quite as uninformed as this naive individual was. Still, do
you know where your energy comes from?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2013b), the primary energy
sources in the United States are petroleum (oil), natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewable
energy, in that order. Electricity is a secondary source that is generated from these primary
sources (see Figure 1.3). Only about 1% of electricity in the United States is generated by
oil, but oil is responsible for 93% of the energy consumed by various forms of
transportation, and 34.7% of energy overall. Using oil as a case example, it is clear why it
would take four planets if everyone lived like those of us in the United States do.
Figure 1.3 Sources of electricity in the United States.
Adapted from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Although it is home to less than 5% of the worldâ€™s population, the United States uses
over 20% of the world supply of oil, 18,490,000 barrels per day. The next largest consumer
is China, which uses 11.5% of the worldâ€™s oil, but also is home to nearly 19% of the
worldâ€™s population (that is, the United States has only one-quarter the population of
China, but uses nearly twice the fuel). Seventy percent of oil consumed in the United States
is used for transportation fuels such as jet fuel and gasoline (which accounts for about half
of the oil used for transportation). Per person, U.S. residents guzzle about four-and-a-half
times as much gasoline as people living in the United Kingdom and Germany, 22 times as
much as people in China, and 92 times as much as people living in India (The World
So far, we have been using the terms â€œconsumeâ€ and â€œuseâ€ interchangeably, but
consumption can actually be split into two categories: energy that is actually used and
energy that is wasted. In fact, the majority of energy consumed in the United States is wasted,
about 61% according to the latest estimate generated by the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory (Fischer, 2013). This number is based on data about the efficiency of car
engines, heating systems, light bulbs, and the like; but, it is undoubtedly an underestimate,
given that it does not take into account behavior-related inefficiencies such as idling the
car motor, keeping the thermostat set to â€œcomfyâ€ when away from home, and leaving the
lights on in an empty room. Nor does it address the preventable waste that occurs when
consumers select energy inefficient automobiles, furnaces, and appliances, when more
efficient choices are available.
Not only do we waste energy, we produce waste in the generation of energy. Recall that
the ecological footprint calculation is based both on consumption and on the creation of
waste that must be absorbed by the biosphere. Different energy sources produce different
by-products. Two of the most concerning are nuclear waste and carbon dioxide (CO 2).
Nuclear power plants provided 12.3% of the worldâ€™s electricity in 2012 (Nuclear Energy
Institute, 2014). The United States leads the world in the amount of nuclear power
generated, almost twice as much as the second runner-up, France. The portion of U.S.
electricity coming from nuclear reactors has remained at about 20% since 1990 (U.S. EIA,
2013), compared to 75% for France. Thirty-one countries have at least one nuclear reactor,
and 13 of these countries currently rely on nuclear energy to supply at least one-quarter of
their total electricity (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2014). Around the world, there are 436
nuclear reactors in operation and 70 more are under construction (World Nuclear
Nuclear power is often touted as â€œcleanâ€ energy because of the fact that it does not
produce CO 2 or emissions that contribute to air pollution and acid rain. However, the
waste it does produce is particularly and immediately hazardous to all life forms, and
cannot be absorbed by the biosphereâ€”at least not at a reasonable pace. The waste created
by nuclear fission of uranium is radioactive, meaning that it emits subatomic particles that
can easily penetrate living tissue, causing cell damage that may manifest as radiation
sickness (nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns, organ failure) or death in cases of highlevel acute exposure, and can lead to cancer or genetic mutation in cases of chronic
The most significant high-level waste from a nuclear reactor is the used nuclear fuel left after it has spent three years
in the reactor generating heat for electricity. Low-level waste is made up of lightly-contaminated items like tools and
work clothing from power plant operation and makes up the bulk of radioactive wastes. Items disposed of as
intermediate-level wastes might include used filters, steel components from within the reactor and some effluents
from reprocessing. High level wastes make just 3% of the total volume of waste arising from nuclear generation, but
they contain 95% of the radioactive content.
(World Nuclear Association, 2014)
The radioactivity of high-level wastes takes from 1,000 to 10,000 years to decay to the
amount present in the original uranium ore. And some of the radioactive isotopes present
in this waste take hundreds of thousands of years to decay. How much of a hazard this
presents â€œdepends on how concentrated it isâ€ (World Nuclear Association, 2012).
We are exposed to radiation every day from natural and man-made sources. Estimates of
the yearly dose to which people are exposed range from around 100 to 600 millirems (1000
millirems = 1 rem). Whether this low-level gradual exposure contributes to health problems
has not been established; what is known, however, is that sudden exposure to higher
amounts is dangerous. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commision (2007),
High-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are
capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, ten years after removal from a
reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, whereas a fatal whole-body
dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time). Furthermore, if constituents of these high-level
wastes were to get into ground water or rivers, they could enter into food chains. Although the dose produced
through this indirect exposure is much smaller than a direct exposure dose, there is a greater potential for a larger
population to be exposed.
Clearly, the question of how and where to store spent nuclear fuel for tens of thousands
of years is paramount.
Currently, spent fuel is stored on-site at nuclear power plants. Some is stored in pools of
water which cool the fuel and act as a radiation shield. The rest is stored outside in steel or
concrete casks. Both of these methods are considered temporary, but as of yet, there are no
permanent storage facilities for high-level waste. The most popular vision for how to isolate
this waste for the long, long term is to dig deep geologic depositories, sequestering the
waste 1,000 feet or more underground. Concerns about this method include the potential
risk of seismic activity and the problem of transporting the waste from the temporary
storage facilities to the permanent one. Picture the outcome if a semitruck carrying spent
fuel jackknifed on the highway.
Accidents occurring during the transportation of nuclear waste are not the only potential
ecological and public health calamity associated with this energy source. The other scenario
is a mishap at the nuclear plant itself. In fact, accidents have been happening at nuclear
power plants since 1952. The International Atomic Energy Authority, which does not
actually keep a comprehensive record of all accidents, uses a 1â€“7 rating scale, where 1 =
anomaly, 2 = incident, 3 = serious incident, 4 = accident with local consequences, 5 =
accident with wider consequences, 6 = serious accident, and 7 = major accident. In the past
50 years, there have been at least 33 serious incidents and accidents, the most significant
being the level 7 explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 (which was caused by unforeseen
complications during a test of the plantâ€™s cooling systems), and the most recent being the
meltdown of three reactors at Japanâ€™s Fukushima plant in 2011 after they were flooded by
an earthquake-caused tsunami (Rogers, 2011).
You may be aware that the majority of the worldâ€™s electricity (about two-thirds) is
generated by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas. These sources create waste
in several ways, beginning with the processes used to extract them. For example, after it is
mined, coal is washed in a chemical bath in a coal impoundment pond, producing slurry,
which contains dangerous heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, as well as a
variety of carcinogenic compounds. Impoundments cover acres and can contain millions of
gallons of sludge. When a coal impoundment fails (which happens with some regularity),
the spill surges into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes, threatening wildlife and
contaminating drinking water (The National Academies, 2002). At the time of this writing,
such a spill has just happened in West Virginia, leaving about 100,000 residents without
safe drinking water and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency (Nicks &
The form of fossil fuel waste that gets the most attention, however, is the CO2 that is
produced when these energy sources are combusted to provide heat for buildings, and power
for vehicles, machinery, and home appliances. Unlike the situation with radioactive nuclear
waste, the planet does have a system for naturally absorbing CO 2 (i.e., through the
respiration of plants). The problem is that humans have released extra carbon into the
atmosphere that would otherwise have remained trapped underground. Compounding the
problem, humans have also diminished the earthâ€™s capacity for absorbing carbon by
dramatically decreasing the size of the planetâ€™s green spaces. Carbon dioxide (along with
methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor) traps heat in the atmosphere. The resulting
greenhouse effect is necessary to stabilize atmospheric temperatures and maintain a climate
suitable for life on the planet. Gas levels vary naturally to some extent, but burning fossil
fuels has created an unprecedented increase, which is clearly correlated with planetary
warming patterns (see Figures 1.4 and 1.5).
Figure 1.4 The greenhouse effect.
Naturally occurring greenhouse gases trap some of the sunâ€™s heat, keeping the earth warm enough to support life, but
human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, are increasing greenhouse gas levels, leading to more heat being trapped in
the atmosphere, thus warming the planet.
Courtesy of National Park Service
Figure 1.5 Global temperature and CO2 concentrations since 1880.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Some people dismiss the idea of anthropogenic global warming, because they believe the
documented increase in temperature is just natural fluctuation. Others are skeptical about
the idea that the planet is getting hotter because they can point to examples of record low
temperatures. So as to evaluate these positions, it can be helpful to keep a few things in
mind. First, in the words of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2014),
The globally-averaged temperature for 2013 tied as the fourth warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. It
also marked the 37th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th century average. â€¦ all 13 years of
the 21st century (2001â€“2013) rank among the 15 warmest in the 134-year period of record.
Second, it is more descriptive to use the term climate change than â€œglobal warming,â€
because among its many effects, the planetary rise in temperature is causing shifts in climate
regions and more extreme weather events. Third, the scientific debate regarding the reality
of human-caused climate change effectively ended in 1995 with the first report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international coalition of 2,000
eminent climatologists and other scientists. In its most recent report, the IPCC stated,
The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels
unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since preindustrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions.
(IPPC, 2013, p. 9)
The report unequivocally documents simultaneous increases in atmospheric and ocean
temperatures, decreases in arctic ice and snow cover, and rises in sea levels. The authors
conclude: â€œIt is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the
observed warming since the mid-20th centuryâ€ (IPPC, 2013, p.15; the italics are theirs).
Anyone who tells you that there is significant disagreement among scientists about climate
change caused by burning fossil fuels is simply ignorant of the facts.
Energy isnâ€™t the only resource that is being overconsumed by people living in the
industrialized world. Like other animals, humans need water to drink, but these days, we
also use water for daily showers, lawn sprinklers, car washes, hot tubs, swimming pools,
decorative fountains, and water parks. We use it in industrial processesâ€”intensive
agricultural irrigation and to cool spent nuclear fuel rods and wash coal. And we use it to
create artificially lush habitats for ourselves, such as the luxurious cities of Las Vegas and
Dubai (which, in case you donâ€™t know, are located in arid deserts). The thing is that there is
only so much water.
Coleridgeâ€™s (1798) ancient mariner was prescient when he lamented, â€œWater, water every
where, nor any drop to drink.â€ For water to be drinkable, it must be fresh water rather than
saltwater. Freshwater comes from rivers, lakes, human-built reservoirs, and underground
aquifers. Aquifers are refilled by rainfall seeping into the ground. But rain tends to run off
rather than seep when it hits overgrazed turf, desiccated cropland, or pavement. Surface
runoff causes erosion, siltation, and flooding rather than aquifer replenishment. Runoff also
picks up pollutants such as pesticides, motor oil, and trash on its way to lakes and rivers.
Coastal aquifers are susceptible to saltwater contamination when their levels drop, making
them unsuitable sources of drinking water without expensive and energy-intensive
Currently, more groundwater is being withdrawn than is replenishedâ€”some for
drinking, but mostly for nonessential purposes. The combined direct and indirect water
consumption of the average U.S. resident is estimated to be the equivalent of about 33,000
glasses a day (waterfootprintnetwork.org). A combination of increasing demand on water
supplies, decreasing precipitation due to unusual weather patterns, and disruption of the
water replenishment cycle is resulting in widespread and dangerous droughts. At the time
of this writing, the governor of California has just declared a statewide drought emergency;
99% of the state is abnormally dry. The year 2013 was the driest on record, and San
Francisco had less rain than any year since the first records were kept during the 1849 gold
rush (Myers, 2014). News reports are highlighting the heightened risk of wildfires and
increasing smog over Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a trend is developing in Texas, which is also
experiencing its worst drought in recorded history, where affluent residents are digging
private wells, tapping into the regionâ€™s groundwater supply specifically to keep their
sprawling lawns green without paying for city water (Satija & Root, 2013). Also in the
news this month was the worsening of the drought that has plagued the Colorado River for
the past 14 years. The Colorado supplies most of the water consumed in the Southwestern
United States (Wines, 2014).
At current rates of population growth and industrial development, serious worldwide
water shortages are a very real probability within the next decade; already more than one
billion people in the developing world do not have regular access to safe drinking water.
The 2014 World Economic Forumâ€™s Global Risk Report identified water crises as the third
most troubling concern (after economic crises and high unemployment/underemployment)
to the more than 700 government, business, and nonprofit leaders they surveyed. Water
shortages threaten food supplies, energy production, and of course human health. Yet those
of us in the developed world pollute and waste gallons of drinkable water every time we
flush the toilet.
When your water goes down the drain, what happens to it? Just as the original source of
your water is a local lake, river, or underground aquifer, so, too, is its ultimate destination
(unless you live by the ocean, in which case it may be headed there). But, this isnâ€™t a direct
loop if you live in the developed world. Unless you draw water directly from a well or
spring, the freshwater you consume is treated before it comes to your home, and some of it
is treated after it leaves your home. However, water run-off into storm drains usually isnâ€™t
treated, so any drainage from your lawn, driveway, or street that is contaminated with oil,
antifreeze, or trash passes untreated into the waterwaysâ€”and back into the water supply.
The thought of drinking from a river without using a filter probably gives you pause, but
the fact is there was a time in the not-so-distant past when drinking directly from streams,
lakes, and rivers was not completely out of the question. These water sources can naturally
contain microorganisms that cause human sickness, but before the days of intensive
agriculture (think cow manure in the creek), this was not such a big threat. And today, we
are concerned about numerous additional contaminants in the water, such as chemicallaced runoff from farm fields, industrial effluent from factories, and human sewage from
towns and cities. Add to this all of the nonbiodegradable and toxic substances people rinse
down their household drains (e.g., cleaning and grooming products), and you can see why
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated back in 2000 that 40% of the rivers
in the country were too polluted for fishing and swimmingâ€”let alone drinking (EPA,
The fact is that water treatment doesnâ€™t actually remove all of these contaminants. Many
of them make their way into natural bodies of water where they become hazards for wildlife
first, and then for humans as the water cycles back through the system. Ironically, some
water treatment processes themselves end up contributing to water pollution. For example,
[The] unintended side effect of chlorinating water to meet federal drinking water regulations creates a family of
chemicals known as trihalomethanes. â€¦
Scientists suspect that trihalomethanes in drinking water may cause thousands of cases of bladder cancer every
year. These chemicals have also been linked to colon and rectal cancer, birth defects, low birth weight and
(Sharp & Pestano, 2013)
And donâ€™t kid yourself by thinking well water or spring water are safe alternatives; if you
are drinking from a well or spring, whatever has managed to seep into the underground
aquifer will end up in your glassâ€”or your bottled water. The imminent water shortages are
not just due to disruptions of the hydrologic system through overextraction from aquifers,
but also abuse of the water we have.
Here is one more water statistic for you: Worldwide, 70% of freshwater consumption is for
crops and livestock (United Nations, 2014), and that number reaches 80% in the United
States (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2013). Industrial agricultural practices, such as
those which dominate American farming, are water-intensive, energy-intensive, and
dependent on fossil fuels, not just to power farming equipment, but for manufacturing
petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers. When it developed in the first half of the twentieth
century, â€œindustrial agriculture was hailed as a technological triumph that would enable a
skyrocketing world population to feed itselfâ€; but now, â€œa growing chorus of agricultural
expertsâ€”including farmers as well as scientists and policy makersâ€ recognizes that
industrial agriculture as currently practiced wonâ€™t work long-term (Union of Concerned
Scientists, 2012). Growing single crops, such as corn or soybeans, in the same fields year
after year taps the soil of the specific nutrients the plants need, thus requiring the addition
of chemical fertilizers. Chemical pesticides are also necessary because monocultures are less
pest resistant than biologically diverse plantings. There are natural ways to fertilize soil and
deter pests, but the massive scale of industrial farming makes these methods impractical.
Monoculture plantings not only deplete the soil of nutrients, they also make fields
susceptible to erosion by water and wind. This means that chemical fertilizers and
pesticides donâ€™t just affect the fields to which they are applied, they affect plants, animals,
and water in the region as they run off, or blow off, the farm fields. With the runoff also
goes the topsoil, the top few inches of soil, which is the home of the organic matter
necessary for growing food. Once topsoil is lost, it can only be replenished by the
breakdown of more organic matter. When fields are never left fallow (unplanted, with
decaying remnant crops and weeds), and organic fertilizer, such as manure or compost, is
never applied, there is no topsoil restoration. Topsoil loss is a serious problem today. Half
of the topsoil in the world has been lost in the
last century and a half (World Wildlife Fund, 2014). Some experts say that at current rates
of loss without replacement, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left (World Economic
Perhaps you are thinking, â€œOkay, I get the point that I could probably reduce my
consumption of electricity, transportation fuel, and nonessential water, but I gotta eat!â€
True, we have to eat to live, but we make choices about what we eat, where we get it, and
how much of it we waste.
Do you know where your food comes from? How often do you eat food that is out of
season or does not grow in your region? One study estimated that, on average, food in the
United States travels more than 1,500 miles from its source to our plates (Pirog &
Benjamin, 2003). Perhaps you have heard the increasingly popular catchphrase â€œEat Local.â€
In truth, distance transported from farm to table is only one factor in a foodâ€™s
environmental impact, and it is a relatively small contributor compared to the production
phase (Weber & Matthews, 2008).
Although industrial agriculture in general has negative environmental impacts, such as
those described above, industrial production of meat is the most detrimental. In industrial
meat production, animals are prepared for slaughter by confinement for several weeks in
large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Some CAFOs are outdoor
â€œfeedlotsâ€ devoid of vegetation, and some are windowless buildings. Because of dense
crowding, accumulation of wastes, and unnatural diets, diseases and other health problems
flourish; so, farmers must use chemicals and antibiotics to keep (most of) the animals alive.
Routine use of antibiotics ultimately produces strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as
these are the bacteria that survive and reproduce unchecked by the medications. Animals in
CAFOs are fed a grain-based diet (mostly corn) to fatten them up, even though grain is not
the natural food of cows, pigs, or poultry. In fact, about 80% of all corn grown in the
United States is consumed by livestock, poultry, and farmed fish (National Corn Growers
Association, 2013). This means that meat production relies indirectly, but heavily, on the
use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and contributes indirectly, but significantly, to the
loss of topsoil.
Livestock farming produces more greenhouse gases than transportation. For some
perspective, consider that researchers have estimated the amount of CO2 emitted in the
industrial production of just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef to be the equivalent of the
amount emitted by an average European car driven 155 miles (Bittman, 2008). Half of the
methane and two-thirds of the nitrous oxide that humans release into the atmosphere can
be attributed to crop and livestock production (Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations, 2013). These greenhouse gases are, respectively, 25 and 300 times more
potent than CO 2 (Worldwatch Institute, 2011). At the same time, the planetâ€™s ability to
absorb CO 2 emissions is being reduced by deforestation for the purpose of ranching. The
tropical rainforests, which play a major role in global carbon sequestration, the removal
and storage of atmospheric CO 2, are rapidly disappearing. Ranchers in South America
routinely clear areas of rainforest to create cheap pastureland, which is only usable for a
limited time, thus requiring continued clearing. Eighty percent of the rainforest in the
Brazilian Amazon has been cleared to support cattle ranching (Rainforest Alliance, 2012).
Worldwide meat consumption has tripled since the 1960s, increasing by 20% in just the
first decade of this century, and this is largely due to the spread of industrial meat
production methods across the globe (Worldwatch Institute, 2011). Meat production and
consumption is expected to continue to rise by at least 30% by midcentury, with the most
dramatic increases happening in the worldâ€™s two most highly populated countries, China
and India (Deutsche Welle, 2014).
Industrial food production includes more than the agricultural phase. Seventy percent of
the average American diet consists of processed food, manufactured products that you
could not make with the same ingredients in your home kitchen (Warner, 2013). Processed
food has undergone energy-intensive (and sometimes polluting) steps that involve the
addition of chemicals to enhance flavor, preserve texture, and increase shelf-life. At least
5,000 known food additives are used in the United States, and this figure is generally
considered an underestimate because it is left up to the food industry itself to tell the Food
and Drug Administration about new ingredients; in other words, there is no mandated
testing of chemical food additives in the United States and the only regulation is â€œselfregulationâ€ (Warner, 2013). Food additives are in nearly everything available in a typical
grocery store and in most restaurants, even many items that do not look â€œprocessed,â€ such
as the whole chicken breast on your sandwich (Warner, 2013). Health implications of
processed foods are discussed in Chapter 9.
Earlier in this chapter â€œconsumptionâ€ was divided into actual use and waste. When it
comes to food, this distinction is particularly poignant: About 39% of the edible food
supply in the United States is wasted (Stokstad, 2009). The amount of food U.S. citizens
waste each day could essentially fill the 90,000 seat Rose Bowl stadium (Bloom, 2010). This
amounts to 36 million tons per year, nearly all of which ends up in landfills (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, 2013b). Worldwide, that number is about 1.3 billion
tons, which is about one-third of the edible supply. Waste varies across food categories and
income levels; for example, in high income regions of the world, about 67% of meat is
wasted (FAO, 2013). Food waste is obviously a concern in terms of human welfare and
economics, but it is also a significant problem from an environmental perspective. In the
first study to examine food waste in terms of its ecological footprint, the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that, with regard to worldwide CO
2 emissions, â€œfood wastage ranks as the third top emitter after the USA and Chinaâ€ (FAO,
Food waste makes up nearly 15% of total municipal solid waste in the United States
(EPA, 2014d). Add to this the containers and wrappers in which food (especially processed
food) is packaged and served, most of which are not reusable or recyclable. Containers and
packaging constitute another 30% of the municipal solid waste in the United States. Of
course, not all of this packaging is for food items; a good portion of the packaging waste is
from material goods, the topic to be addressed next.
The United States produces more solid waste than any other country, about 30% of the
global total; this amounts to more than 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day (Rogers,
2005). The amount of trash Americans generated in 2009 could circle the earth 24 times
(Keep America Beautiful, 2013). Perhaps you are skeptical that you personally generate
nearly five pounds of solid waste per day. Keep in mind that your daily garbage does not
just include the things you physically throw out; it includes the waste created in the
manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of products you consume, before those
products ever get into your hands. It takes as many as 70 cans of garbage to make the stuff
that we throw out in one garbage can (www.storyofstuff.org).
Where does waste go after we throw it away? Well, there really is no â€œaway,â€ even though
people act as if there is. Instead, most solid waste goes to landfills or incinerators, both of
which pose ecological threats. Not only do landfills claim acreage, they release emissions
that cause air pollution and leach toxicants that pollute groundwater. According to the
Environmental Protection Agency (2013c), landfills are the third-largest source of humancaused methane emissions in the United States. 6 When precipitation percolates through
the contents of a landfill, it creates leachate, a liquid mixture that carries contaminants to
local bodies of water. Today, the negative effects of leachate are being reduced somewhat by
the use of liners or sites that are geologically impermeable, but these methods have not
eliminated the problem. When waste is incinerated, chemical materials combine and
produce new chemicals that are released into the air. These chemical compounds are
known to pose a variety of human health risks including reproductive and developmental
abnormalities, immune system damage, and cancer. More specific information on how
toxicants affect human development and functioning is presented in Chapter 9.
Earlier in this chapter, you learned about the hazardous waste created in the production
of nuclear power, but there are many other substances and materials used every day that
also qualify as hazardous, and should never make their way into landfills or incinerators, or
be poured down the drain, dumped on the ground, or washed down storm sewers
(Environmental Protection Agency, 2014b). These include paints, household cleaners,
batteries, lawn chemicals, used motor oil, antifreeze, and compact fluorescent light bulbs
(because they contain mercury). How often do you think these household hazardous
wastes are improperly discarded? And what would represent â€œproperâ€ disposal of them
Not all solid waste ends up contained in landfills or incinerators; some ends up as litter
in the environment. Have you ever encountered litter in surprising places? We authors have
seen plastic bags clinging to the cacti in the Sonoran desert, plastic bottles scattered over the
slopes of Greek islands, and unidentifiable bits of plastic among the leaf litter in forested
wilderness. Indeed, plastic is a particularly pervasive and pernicious form of solid waste
(Royte, 2006). Evidence for this can be seen in the oceans where floating plastic waste is
accumulating by getting caught in natural currents, creating large moving gyres of
nonbiodegradable material (Goldstein, Titmus, & Ford, 2013). Over time, plastic does
degrade into smaller and smaller particles; however, even at the molecular level,
nonbiodegradable polymers never completely reintegrate into nature and thus are
considered contaminants. It remains to be seen what the exact consequences of these
moving â€œgarbage patchesâ€ are, but there is evidence that aquatic animals are ingesting the
smallest particles and birds mistake the colorful plastic for food, filling their bellies with
bottle caps (NOAA, 2010; see Figure 1.6). In addition to the plastic debris found in the
oceans, â€œmicrobeadsâ€ of plastic from personal care products such as facial scrubs are also
accumulating at high concentrations in freshwater ecosystems such as the Great Lakes
(Eriksen, et al., 2013).
Of course, some plastic and other materials are being recycled. However, not everything
is currently recyclable, and much waste that could be recycled is not being diverted from
landfills, incinerators, or the litter stream. For example, in 2009, Americans threw out
nearly nine million tons of glass, enough to fill a line of tractor trailers stretching from New
York to Los Angeles and back; and, in 2010, Americans threw away enough paper to cover
26,700 football fields three feet deep (Keep America Beautiful, 2013).
Figure 1.6 Birds among plastic waste washed up on the beach.
With permission from Shutterstock
Although many components of â€œe-wasteâ€ (discarded electronics) can be recycled, most
are not. Of the more than two million tons of electronic gadgets discarded by U.S.
consumers in 2009, only 25% were collected for recycling, including 38% of computers,
17% of televisions, and only 8% of mobile devices such as cell phones (EPA, 2012c).
Recycling lessens the environmental impact from toxic metals being buried and burned,
and reduces the demand for energy to mine and manufacture virgin material; yet, even ewaste that is reclaimed poses problems. Much of it is exported from industrialized countries
to be recycled elsewhere in the world by impoverished workers in unregulated conditions,
in spite of the fact that this practice is prohibited by United Nations conventions. For
example, in Guiyu, China, where a massive amount of the worldâ€™s e-waste ends up, crude
methods of recycling contaminate groundwater and soil with mercury, lead, and other
hazardous substances, and pollute the air with toxic fumes (Watson, 2013; see Figure 1.7).
Of course, the problem of solid waste starts with consumers. Material consumption has
increased dramatically in the past century, and this is not just due to population growth.
For example, from 1910 to 2010 in the United States, the use of raw materials (other than
fossil fuels and food) rose 2.8 times more than the population increased (Center for
Sustainable Systems, 2013). Although family size has decreased in the United States, the
average size of single-family homes being built today is more than double what it was in the
1950s, and of course, these larger homes are not sitting empty. They are filled with stuff,
more than twice the amount per person than in 1950 (Taylor & Tilford, 2000).
Figure 1.7 Child sits among e-waste in Guiyu, China.
Courtesy of Greenpeace/Natalie Behring.
The dramatic increase in material consumption in the industrialized world has coincided
with the technological and social developments that you will read about in Chapter 2.
Changes in lifestyle have been responses to, and have driven, changes in the types and
amount of goods available. For example, the advent of industrial manufacturing in the
nineteenth century introduced mass-produced consumer goods, allowing those who aspired
to climb the socioeconomic ladder to practice conspicuous consumption, the display of
power and prestige through the accumulation of unnecessary luxury items (Veblen, 1899).
With the introduction of plastic products in the middle decades of the twentieth century
came the concept that material possessions could be disposable or single-use. In an effort to
recharge the U.S. economy after World War II, consumer goods engineers became
enamored with the concept of planned obsolescence, intentionally designing products to
have a limited lifespan so that consumers will have to intermittently replace them (Packard,
1960); this is still standard practice today. And, of course, just as common today is
perceived obsolescence, consumers feeling that a perfectly functional item needs replacing
simply because it is dated or out-of-fashion. Do you ever discard useable things just because
a different design, color, or style has come out?
Many material possessions that are common today in industrialized cultures did not exist
100, 50, 25, or even 5 years ago. How many do you own? Try mentally walking through
your home, your school, your car, your workplace. How many of your possessions are not
reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable? How many of them do you plan to keep for the rest
of your life? How many will you pass on to future generations? How many do you consider
essential? One way to come up with an answer to this last question is to take a global
perspective. There is a wide disparity between the amount of material goods consumed in
industrialized countries and developing countries. Yet, as developing countries aspire to the
industrialized lifestyle, material consumption and associated resource use and waste
production will continue to increase.
So, how ya doinâ€™? Ready to go hide under a rock yet? This litany of whatâ€™s wrong in the
world is not meant to scare you; rather, it is our hope as the authors of this text that it will
inspire you. Change can happen, and some recent data suggest people in the United States
are moving in the right direction. For example, earlier, you read that the United States uses
about 20% of the worldâ€™s supply of oil; just a few years ago that number was closer to 25%.
Thatâ€™s an improvement. Still, other parts of the world (e.g., China) are increasing their
fossil fuel consumption in the process of becoming more industrialized, so the fundamental
global problem of fossil fuel consumption is not abating. And fossil fuel use is a prime
example of a behavior that is simply not sustainable.
What does that mean, â€œsustainableâ€? Certainly, you have heard this term; itâ€™s pretty
popular these days. You may also have heard people argue that it is difficult, perhaps even
impossible, to define. Nonsense! The meaning is actually quite straightforward: A
sustainable behavior is one that can be sustained; that is, maintained or continued at a
certain rate or level. Clearly, many of our current practices, particularly in the industrialized
world, do not fit this definition: reliance on finite energy sources, agriculture that depletes
topsoil and water, and creation of waste that cannot be reabsorbed into natural cycles come
to mind. And, we must not overlook the impact our actions are having on other species;
extinction is obviously an unsustainable pattern.
How, then, do humans move in a direction that will ultimately lead to a sustainable
balance? As Einsteinâ€™s well-known dictum puts it, problems canâ€™t be solved from the same
mindset that created them. It is this mindset that is addressed in the next chapter. In order
to know where to go from here, it is valuable to understand how we got here in the first
1 Our thanks to Deborah Winter for her permission to retain some phrasing from the first edition of this book,
Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (1996).
2 In general, the use of the plural pronouns â€œourâ€ and â€œweâ€ in this text refer collectively to human beings, especially
those of us living in the Western industrialized world.
3 Special thanks to John Du Nann Winter for this teaching example.
4 In the United States, the Recommended Daily Allowance guidelines still use a 2,000 calorie standard, but in 2010,
U.S. residents consumed an average of 2534 calories per day. And this is less than the U.S. food supply produces per
person, which was 3900 calories per day in 2006 (Center for Sustainable Systems, 2013). Forty percent of the edible
food produced in the United States is wasted (Gunders, 2012).
5 There are four countries where the average ecological footprint for individual people is higher than for individuals in
the U.S.: Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Denmark; but the combined population of these four
countries amounts to only 20 million people, about 6% of the size of the U.S. population.
6 There is an effort in some places to capture methane release from landfills for energy; as of July 2013, 621 such
projects existed in the United States. See more at http://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-info/#a02.
How Did We Get Here?
From Western Thought to â€œWise Useâ€
â€¢ The Nature of Western Thought
â€¢ Humans Are Separate from Nature
â€¢ Nature Can and Should Be Controlled
â€¢ Individuals Have a Right to Maximum Economic Gain
â€¢ Progress Equals Growth
â€¢ Divergent Voices
â€¢ Environmentalism in the United States
â€¢ Preservation and Conservation of Wilderness
â€¢ The World Wars and Modern Living
â€¢ Silent Spring and the Green Decade
â€¢ Professional Environmentalism, Direct Action, and Wise Use
â€¢ Partisan Policies and a…
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