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At the most recent “Exploring Ethics” forum hosted by the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, Stanley Maloy, dean of San Diego State University’s College of Sciences, discussed the parallels between climate change’s effects on infectious disease and the use of pesticides in Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.” Highlighted in the discussion was the role and impact that we, as individuals, have on our environment and the factors that influence what we do to contribute to a greener planet.
Every day we make decisions, whether actively or not, which impact those around us, as well as ourselves. We choose to carry reusable grocery bags over plastic, drive a hybrid over a gas-guzzler and support increased environmental protections for our region. We feel good about ourselves for doing our part to protect the environment for future generations.
We all know that we need to contribute what we can to protect our planet’s health. However, there are thresholds that exist for every person, where the benefit of bettering the planet is overcome by other influences. Purchasing organic produce or a fuel-efficient hybrid may be a great way of going green, but financial limitations are often the determining factor in these everyday decisions. Too often, going green is a luxury that many in our society simply cannot afford. Can we really view those who cannot afford to be green as being “eco-enemies?” In addition to these economic limitations, there are also “green thresholds” within communities. For example, here in San Diego County, we are all well aware of the preciousness of our water supply. Part of our attempt to deal with this crisis was a 2007 pilot program aimed to treat wastewater for reuse in our drinking supplies and land irrigation systems. The program was deemed to be more cost-efficient as well as environmentally friendly than our current system.
However, the program was met with overwhelming public scrutiny and disgust, in part due to a suggestive nickname of the program. In essence, as a community we once rejected a viable environmentally sustainable energy source based on a communal threshold. We just don’t want to drink water originating from our wastewater regardless of how it is treated before it lands in our drinking glass. Here’s what’s happening now.
Interestingly, many communities have approved similar programs that will irrigate their land with the captured, treated wastewater. Along similar lines, many homes in San Diego sport lush greenery that while aesthetically pleasing, is not native to this ecosystem and is an environmental burden. However, we’ve learned from various shows that curb appeal is a big attraction to homeowners. Our yards could be just as visually appealing with native species with a decreased water burden, but few in our communities deem this an appropriate trade-off for the environment. Clearly, as a community, we have met a threshold point.
Making green decisions may sometimes seem difficult when you are making them on your own or within local communities, but many of our decisions affect the global environment. How helpful are our small contributions to a greener world if in fact the world does not follow suit? Nations across the globe choose to regulate emissions and their own regional ecosystems, but obviously these are not self-contained regions. We are a complex and interconnected ecosystem.
While in the U.S. we are beginning to explore clean energy sources, China and India are utilizing fossil fuel-driven energy to drive their industrialization, just as we have in the past. Is it our place to attempt to push them to explore alternative energy sources as well? We are entwined in a complex, seven-billion-person debate on how to promote a greener planet where national progress often supersedes international benefits.
At each level (individual, local, state, national and global) we make environmental decisions based on pre-existing thresholds. However, these thresholds vary dramatically between individuals let alone internationally. The challenge for enacting change and response to climate change does not lie in convincing people that we need to act upon it, but rather to explore the thresholds with which we are all willing to live and working together to meet them.
Christopher Abdullah is a graduate student in the biomedical sciences program at UC San Diego and writes as a member of The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.
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