Human Conscience and Environmental Awareness

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Illustration by Fotolia/radub85
Environmental awareness is directly related to human conscience.

Generally, the Earth’s plants and animals are concerned only with propagating their own kind. Natural population controls — predators, disease, starvation — keep things in balance. But humans seem different in two important ways.

First, thus far we have been highly successful at fending off those natural controls. As a result, we enjoy the unprecedented benefits of civilization. At the same time, though, the world’s human population is growing rapidly.

Second, many of us have noticed that current human activities are threatening other species and the Earth’s natural systems. As far as we know, there’s no other species that considers its impact on nature. Given that we seem to be the only species that has developed environmental awareness, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that we’re having a tough time getting the hang of it.

The survival of an individual bear or a sparrow has no direct relationship to the health and welfare of human beings. There may or may not be an indirect connection. Yet many of us are concerned for bears and sparrows not only as abstract symbols of environmental health, but because they are important to us personally. We put pictures of them on our walls and name places for them. We want to save threatened animals not just to maintain biological balance; we take a personal interest in the health and welfare of our fellow earthlings. Crowds flock to beaches to help save stranded whales. Birdwatchers congregate along the world’s flyways to witness the beauty of birds and their migrations. Tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park in droves to observe the reintroduced gray wolves.

Humankind has understood the value of biological diversity for a long time. Judeo-Christian doctrine supports the concept in the story of Noah and his ark of animals. Jesus said God notices every sparrow that falls. Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu sages have advocated concern for all creatures from the earliest days of those faiths.

It’s tempting, of course, to dwell on our human failures. We haven’t risen to the challenge of our best intentions. We’re still allowing our population to skyrocket, still driving other species to extinction and still degrading the environment.

And we may ultimately fail to achieve our potential. We may spoil our own nest — damage our environment so severely that it can no longer support us. Then we may precipitate our own extinction, becoming victims of our own success.

But isn’t it miraculous that we can even consider all this? That we are conscious of the negative consequences of our prosperity? And that we care enough about our fellow creatures to debate the actions we should take to assure our collective survival in the future? The existence of the human conscience, if nothing else, should give us reason for hope.