Impact on the Environment

All living things are to some extent in interaction with their environment. That is, their behavior changes the environment more or less, and environmental conditions in turn affect them, their behavior, their chances survival and reproduction.

Interactions between living organisms and their environment

More on causal mapping

All living things are also adapted to certain environmental conditions. Some species are "specialists" and can exist only under very narrow environmental conditions. Other species are "generalists" and can exist in variable conditions. Humans are generalists because, through our capacity for cultural evolution, we inhabit almost all areas of the earth. Nevertheless, our flexibility is not limitless. Changes in environmental conditions in the future, such as climate and the increase in extreme weather phenomena, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents and land masses, desertification, erosion, drop in groundwater level, are challenges to the sustainable development of our species.

Many living things "create" their environment by their own behavior. Examples are earthworms, which loosen up the earth by their movements, and thus provide for oxygen supply; animals that create nests, holes, nets, and burrows; beavers who build their dams and thus create whole ecosystems, on which the beavers and their offspring depend in turn for their survival. When living organisms are adapted to specific environmental conditions, and their behavior changes these environmental conditions, they have less chance of survival and reproduction than those who maintain favorable environmental conditions. Thus, through natural selection, interactions between organisms and the environment can arise in the course of evolution, which can last for millions of years.

We humans also change and create our own environment. Thanks to better and better technologies, we have had more and more effective ways of changing our environment and improving our living conditions - we used fire, cleared trees, built dwellings, hunted large animals, made clothes, planted plants, built dams, etc. Through cumulative culture and cultural evolution, our technologies have been improved to such an extent that our behavior has changed our own environment more and more. When certain resources were no longer sufficient, people moved further, opening up new areas or new resources.

In particular, food production through agriculture fundamentally changed our environment. The rapid growth of our population has also meant that the behavior of more and more people has had an impact on the common environment. In addition, today we can hardly explore new areas - with many resources we have arrived at the limit of the earth's carrying capacity. All this happened - from an evolutionary point of view - in a relatively short period of time.

Because of our evolutionary history, we are capable of sharing and maintaining our shared resources within small groups. But for us it is a challenge to monitor the impact of our actions in ever larger groups, and to regulate our behavior together in large groups. The development of regulations and institutions that can govern coexistence and resource use at regional and international levels is therefore an important element for the sustainable use of global resources.

Land use for agriculture

Agricultural food production has fundamentally changed the impact of our diet on the environment. Forests and other ecosystems had to give way to crop land and pastures, and food production on these areas changed the soil, water balance, local flora and fauna.

Technologies for food production increased the consumption of energy and water. This way agriculture contributes significantly to climate change.

In addition, continued population growth requires an increase in food production of around 70% by 2050. Today, around 800 million people are suffering from hunger or malnutrition. At the same time, about a third of the food produced worldwide is thrown away.

Goal 2 of Global Sustainable Development Goals is to end hunger in the world.

Goal 12 of Global Sustainable Development Goals is to make our resource consumption and production more sustainable.

Goal 14 of the Global Sustainable Development Goals is to sustainably use and conserve oceans, seas and marine resources.

Goal 15 of Global Sustainable Development Goals is to protect and restore land and water ecosystems, promote their sustainable use, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, end and reverse soil degradation, and end biodiversity loss.

How can we ensure that all people have access to quality food and at the same time, that our diets have no negative impact on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems?

What role can and should our technologies, commonly-established regulations, social norms, our own behavior, media and education play?

For example, some people think that we should continue to invest in technologies that allow us to "extract" more quality food from one area of land, so we do not need to increase the amount of land for food production. Similarly, improved technologies and variety breeding could ensure that food stays freshh longer and less of the produced food is thrown away.

Other people say we should stop investing in energy-intensive technologies for agriculture as these can have an uncertain impact on ecosystems. According to them, we should rather return to less intensive agricultural methods, or exploit processes in existing ecosystems that can serve our food production. However, this might require an expansion of agricultural land to meet the food needs of a growing population, and thus could also have far-reaching ecosystem implications.

Other people say that the best way to sustain global food security is by changing our diet, e.g. eat less meat, fish and dairy, or shifting to eating more insects. Similarly, we should change our behavior to throw away less food. However, behavioral change is a challenge for the individual unless conditions are created that support these behavioral changes - e.g. through jointly established regulations and institutions.

Others believe that through technology we can produce our food in the future without relying on crop land and livestock farming that intervene in ecosystems, e.g. through biotechnology and cell cultures. However, it is uncertain whether this type of food production would be more or less energy-intensive and would contribute more or less to climate change than "traditional" crop production and livestock farming.

Impacts on atmosphere and climate

A particular environmental impact is our use of fossil fuels. Within a century, use of fossil fuels has increased so much that the resulting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are changing the entire global climate. These effects affect people around the world more or less. This requires today that we find ways to work together on a global scale to limit climate change or to adapt to new climatic conditions.

Goal 13 of the Global Sustainable Development Goals is to take action to combat climate change and its impacts.

What role can and should our technologies, commonly-established regulations, social norms, our own behavior, media and education play?

Impacts of technologies: Plastic

Another unimagined environmental impact created by our technologies is the global production of plastic. The invention of plastic manufactured from mineral oil was a breakthrough for the industry, as this flexible, lightweight, unbreakable, inexpensive material made transportation of food and other things and industrial processing easier. However, compared to other materials, plastic is nonbiodegradable. Thus, plastic accumulates more and more in the environment and endangers terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The largest share of plastic waste is currently being thrown away and only about 20% is recycled.

Goal 12 of Global Sustainability Goals is to make our consumption and production more sustainable.

What role can and should improving technologies, co-ordinated regulations, social norms, our own behavior, media and education play to reduce our plastic consumption and the impact of our plastic production on ecosystems?