I could start this article off with some clichéd statistic of how long humans have been on the planet, followed by a paragraph full of what we have done to the earth in our time here. I could also attempt to shed some new light on global warming or the rapid decline of the environment, but chances are you’ve already heard it. Chances are you’ve read the articles, watched the documentaries and engaged in enough conversations to make you an expert on the topic. I do not wish to summon a call to arms or start a new movement. Instead, I merely wish to change how you see the physical environment, and, more importantly, what we have done to it.
This morning I had an X-ray on my knee. I lay there in awe at the sheer epicness of the machine above me. This machine was about to defy logic and look inside me to produce images for a doctor to examine. However, it wasn’t the size or design of the machine that impressed me. What impressed me was how on earth the human race managed to construct such a machine. The key words here are ‘on earth’, because that is the part I can’t wrap my head around. This machine above me was constructed from raw materials found right here on earth. Every intricate part of that machine was once a part of the natural earth. How do I know this? It’s simple. The earth as a system is finite; what we have is what is here. Everything we have created in the physical world has been sourced from our planet, whether deep under the ground, above the ground or within the oceans.
Our systems for resource acquisition and distribution are so fine-tuned that we are able to import and export materials worldwide in miniscule or mammoth quantities. We now have the ability to acquire and use resources that are not naturally found in the immediate environment. The house you sit in is crafted from a combination of these resources, collected from around the world and combined to create your humble abode. The timber that makes up your floors, frames and decks are dead plants. The screws and brackets that keep them together are steel fashioned from iron ore. The brick that may surround your house is simply kneaded and hardened clay. The glass that makes the windows is made of melted minerals. The plastic which is so pervasive is effectively modified petroleum and other organics. Every single element of your house can be traced down to an organic or inorganic source naturally occurring on our precious earth. So what you really are sitting in is not a house, but a modification of the environment. Thus I feel that in the physical there is no such thing as ‘man-made’; instead, there is ‘man-modified’.
Take a moment to look at the world as man-modified rather than man-made.
As a human race we construct, build and design. However, the products of our construction and production are modified and combined elements of the earth. I am in no way denouncing our genius as a race or the final products we create. I’m just saying that the ‘man-made’ world we live in isn’t as man-made as you may have thought. If you take this idea, engrave it in your mind, and look at the physical world, what you see is something entirely different. When you realise that everything we have was once natural, you see how much we have changed this world. Instead of looking at an object as an object, try to work out what every element of the object is made of, where it came from and how it was modified. The watch on your wrist, the clothes you wear, the car you drive and the city you live in all came from Mother Nature.
The problem is that the majority of what we have modified cannot be modified back to its original state. The processes are irreversible, so what we are doing is removing resources from the environment for commercial and personal need without replacing them. This is an issue because, as mentioned before, the world is a finite system and once a resource is completely exhausted, it’s gone. All that remains is what we have turned it into, and in a lot of cases we have turned it into rubbish. We are fast approaching a time in which many of our most beloved resources are becoming harder and harder to find, pushing our mining and harvesting operations to harder-to-reach areas. Many endemic species live in these areas. Think of, for example, the Great Barrier Reef, is the loss of pristine habitat justified by what we produce?
This is where the term ‘sustainable’ comes in. The definition is clear: to sustain something. Much of what we are doing is unsustainable; if we keep it up and continue to modify everything, many of our resources will eventually be gone. Sustainability advocates know that we must exercise self-restraint or seek to actively replace resources to avoid losing them entirely. The only exception is sunlight, which is the one truly infinite resource, at least in terms of the human race’s probable lifespan. Harnessing its energy is not only sustainable but also practical and acts as a monument for sustainability. As it is, we can take as much as we want without facing any ramifications, but let’s place ourselves in a hypothetical predicament and pretend for a moment that the sun’s energy wasn’t infinite. Let’s suppose we knew that the more we harvested the sun’s energy the weaker it grew, and consequently the weaker the earth grew: plants, animals and, subsequently, humans. However, although we knew this, we ignored the warnings and continued harvesting the sun’s energy for commercial gain until one day it was gone, and with it so were we. Sounds ridiculous, right?
‘Man-modification’ is occurring on a global scale. Mankind has modified entire landscapes, natural cycles and sea-levels to name a few. It is of no surprise that the pursuit and modification of resources is extremely detrimental to the very humans who induced the change. But what can we do as an individual? What power do you have to combat the commercial and industrial powerhouses that are fueling this exponential modification? It is relatively true to say that as a rational individual you cannot do anything to help the environment on a large scale. However, just the simple alteration of your perception of the world makes such a great difference. Take a moment to look at the world as man-modified rather than man-made. When looking at the urban landscape, do not look at it as a few trees scattered around buildings; rather, look at it as a forest dominated by buildings crafted from nature. While looking at any object, take a moment to appreciate what its original state was and where it may have come from. If you have the ability to see what once was, then your appreciation for what is increases tenfold.