Without self-understanding, we cannot hope for enduring solutions to environmental problems, which are fundamentally human problems.- Yi-Fu Tuan
Environmental issues are at par with social issues since social disparity connects both. This is because social position decides to what degree an individual can cope with environmental-related issues. For instance, in the State of Gujarat in India, where water is scarce, the wealthy farmers install deep-bore tube wells to acquire underground water, while the poor farmers cannot get such infrastructure. The depletion of water is compounded during the absence of rainfall, as the wells of the poor farmers turn dry.
Although numerous environmental issues such as air pollution and loss of biodiversity are international issues, differing views prevail over the structure of public interest relating to the environment. Most times, these disparities lead to decisions that harm the interests of weaker sections of the society—for instance, discussions on the building of large dams and the human displacement resulting from these projects.
Effect of Environmental Issues on Human Life
Environmental issues have a significant implication on people, as do numerous other issues. We witness this most decisive proof in the form of a major hurricane, an earthquake, or another natural catastrophe that hits many parts of the world.
In January 2010, for example, a destructive earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 250,000 people, or about 2.5 percent of that country’s population. In 2021, there were many deadly floods in Europe in which 209 people died in Germany and Belgium. Dozens went missing due to raging wildfires in California, destroying around 4,700 km² of vegetation. Many will undoubtedly feel the impacts of these natural calamities on the economy and society for many years to come.
Slower advancements in the environment might also have a tremendous social implication. Industrialization and population growth have enhanced the pollution of our air, water, and soil. A greater environmental issue in climate change might not be arriving as expected. Still, its impacts devastate cities worldwide in a manner that climate change scientists have demonstrated and will undoubtedly be investigating for the foreseeable future.
Countermeasures to environmental issues need modifications in economic and environmental policies, and the possible execution and effect of these developments rely significantly on social and political aspects. For instance, in the United States, the two largest political parties (the Democrats and the Republicans), corporate interest groups, and environmental organizations constantly battle over approaches to pass environmental legislation.
Several environmental issues reflect and exemplify social imbalance based on social class, race, and ethnicity. As in numerous issues in the global society, the marginalized and people of color frequently face worse when it comes to the environment.
To say that the planet earth is in danger may sound intense, but the planet is in peril. An outline of environmental issues will suggest the graveness of this issue.
Ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and acute and chronic respiratory diseases. Air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal arises not just in the rich industrial countries but also in the countries of the developing world. Nations such as China and India are two major contributors to air pollution.
In developing countries, mortality rates in cities with higher levels of carbon, nitrates, sulfates, and other particles are 15 to 50 percent greater than those in cleaner areas. In European countries, experts expect air pollution to decrease the average life span by 8.6 months. The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011 does not exaggerate when it declares that air pollution “is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in developed and developing countries alike.”
International Climate Change
The burning of fossil fuels also promoted international climate change, also known as global warming. This phenomenon is partly due to the often-discussed greenhouse effect resulting from gases trapped in the atmosphere, turning the earth warmer with an increase of approximately 1°C during the past century. Apart from impacting the earth’s arctic regions and ocean levels across the globe, climate change threatens to produce many other issues. These often come in the form of enhanced diseases transmitted through food and water, malnutrition due to reduced agricultural production and drought, increased cases of hurricanes and other extreme climate events, and extermination of numerous animal and plant species. All these issues have been increasing—and will continue to increase—casualties around the globe. The WHO estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.
Further issues resulting from climate change escalate into interpersonal violence and armed conflict. Traditionally, when a strange climatic phenomenon has led to drought, flooding, or other issues, armed conflicts ensue. For instance, witch burning in Medieval Europe expedited when frigid weather destroyed crops, and mobs blamed so-called witches for the problem. Financial issues from decreasing farm values also contributed to the lynchings of African Americans in the Southern US states prior to the Civil Rights era due to crop failure and decreasing rainfall resulting from yet-identified global warming.
As the world looks ahead, it should remember the injustices against the environment and society. The world’s wealthier countries continue to donate more than their equal share to climate change. Canada, France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom constitute 15 percent of the total global community but ironically are accountable for half the earth’s carbon dioxide transmissions. However, the impact of climate change is more extreme for emerging countries compared to richer ones. Africans, for instance, are much less able to cope with drought, climate catastrophes, and other issues resulting from climate change than, say, Americans.
Water Pollution and Poor Sanitation
Water quality is also a significant challenge. Drinking water in underdeveloped countries is many times more hazardous because of inadequate sanitation systems for human waste and industrial waste into rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water than in more developed countries. Poor sanitation and unclean water resulted in parasitic diseases and infections, including diarrhea, malaria, cholera, intestinal worms, typhoid, and hepatitis A. The WHO evaluates that unclean drinking water and poor sanitation led to the following numbers of deaths across the globe:
- 2.5 million deaths from diarrhea, comprising 1.4 million child deaths
- 500,000 deaths from malaria
- 860,000 child deaths from malnutrition
At a minimum, 200 million more human beings are affected and fall ill to at least one of these severe illnesses because of poor sanitation facilities and unsafe drinking water annually.
What causes environmental issues and sidelined active engagement can be attributed to one common cause: the social constitution of everyday life or how we as a human society develop the numerous frameworks that pattern our days. Trapped in the ebb and flow of society, we move on, possibly halting now and then to get a peek of where we’re eventually going. But mostly, many of us just try to get through, be friendly, and get to where they want to go on their time.
The prospects mold our lives that our social condition offers us, and our perceptions of those possibilities, influenced by our social surroundings. In other words, it is a question of the social structure of our physical situations, the concepts we bring to bear on them, and the customs and traditions that form as a result. However, the environmental consequences of such events, beliefs, and activities are usually a significant component of how we collectively compose our situation. Instead, that structure is most often based on a more immediate presence in our lives—other humans.
We need to think of the surroundings as a more immediate (and social) component in our life. That does not imply we should constantly consider the environmental effects of our actions. Individuals are too preoccupied with a plethora of many other issues. Often, it would seem as though the world sees it unnecessary to examine environmental consequences regularly. However, we must think carefully about how we, as a community, develop conditions where humans make ecologically significant judgments.
What is essential is the creation of social conditions in which a person can follow a lifestyle not detrimental to the environment and his fellow person—although, as is usually the case, most people might not consciously consider the environmental and personal consequences of their actions at the time. What is necessary is to restructure our circumstances, so we do not find ourselves making sacrifices in our social or environmental lives daily.
While receiving the Oscar for best actor for The Revenant, Leonardo De Caprio once rightly said, “Climate change is real, and it is happening right now.”
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Tuan, Y.-F. (1990). Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. New York: Columbia University Press.
World Health Organization. (2021). Climate Change. Retrieved from World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/health-topics/climate-change