Contemporary Environmental Issues

     Issues in ecology are complex and do not always have clear solutions.  In addition, many of the solutions that have been proposed and popularly accepted have been based on emotion, bad science or no science at all.  Indeed, as William Rathje points out in his book, RUBBISH! The Archaeology of Garbage, "the most critical part of the garbage problem in America is that our notions about the creation and disposal of garbage are often riddled with myth."  This has been clearly illustrated, for example, by the history of the "disposable diaper hysteria".  Numerous published claims were made that disposable diapers comprise over 30% of the contents of landfills.  This led several states to consider passing laws that would ban disposable diapers altogether.  However, as a result of 10-years of carefully documented scientific research (1980-89) involving numerous landfills throughout the U.S., the Garbage Project was able to conclude that disposable diapers amounted to "no more than" 1% of the weight and "no more than" 1.4% of the volume of the material found in landfills.  The total range in all landfills investigated was 0.59% to 1.28% for weight and 0.53% to 1.82% for volume.


    Serious complexities must be taken into consideration when determining the most suitable alternatives to waste management.  It is not the case that recycling is always the better option.  It is necessary to combine Cost/Benefit Analysis and Risk Assessment to determine whether disposing of garbage through landfills is a more viable option than recycling or burning.  Market considerations, for example, make recycling aluminum cans highly profitable, whereas, the same market considerations make both paper and glass recycling unprofitable and very expensive.  When it comes to the recycling of paper, consideration has to be made of the economic and environmental costs of recycling.  Since it takes 5,000 more gallons of water to produce a ton of new paper from recycled paper than directly from wood pulp, issues concerning the depletion of water resources become paramount.  Also, since manufacturing new paper from recycled paper produces a toxic sludge containing (among other things) the inks that are removed from the paper in the processing, recycling creates its own form of environmental pollution.  In addition, there is the manufacture of recycling vehicles and machinery and the fuel consumed by those vehicles and machines in the collecting and sorting of trash, as well as the labor cost of collecting and sorting what the public does not correctly sort (50% of aluminum cans end up in garbage bags rather than recycling bags).  All of this has led the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (1988) to conclude "it is not clear whether secondary manufacturing processes produce less pollution per ton of material processed than primary manufacturing."


     A similar problem exists in determining whether or not it is environmentally preferable to use paper vs. plastic cups.  This is, of course, an issue that inflamed considerable passion several years ago with regard to the fast food industry (whose contribution to landfills was wildly overstated in the public media).  Information contained in an article written by Martin Hocking in Science, the leading journal of scientific research in the U.S., illustrates this point:


Because 6 times as much wood pulp as polystyrene is required to produce a cup, the paper cup consumes about 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity, and twice as much cooling water as a polystyrene foam cup.  About 580 times the volume of waste paper is produced for the pulp required for the paper cup as compared to the polystyrene requirement for the polyfoam cup.  The contaminants present in the wastewater from pulping and bleaching operations are removed to a varying degree depending on site-specific details, but the residuals present in all categories except metal salts still amount to 10 to 100 times those present in the wastewater system from polystyrene processing.


     It then becomes necessary to weigh the respective costs and benefits of recycling against the cost and benefits of constructing landfills.  Contrary to popular opinion, the United States is nowhere near running out of landfill space.  Two researchers have calculated independently that only about 1600 square miles (40 miles by 40 miles) of landfill space would be needed to accommodate U.S. waste (at current levels of waste production) for the next 1,000 years. 


     In his critique of Herman Daly's book, Ecological Economics: The Ecology  of Economics, in which Daly presents a negative picture of the future based on his view of current environmental issues, Richard Ford states that "doom" has always been just around the corner, in the sense that population pressure has repeatedly placed demands on human populations to adapt to their surroundings.  Indeed, the history of the human species over the past 4 million years is that it has adapted.  moreover, it has done so through a variety of processes, including frequently altering its physical environment to accommodate the needs of an increasing population.  However, those changes have resulted in fairly consistently higher standards of living among those populations and for the species as a whole, and the very lifestyle that most students take for granted is a direct result of those changes. There have been numerous individuals throughout history who have forecasted global catastrophes, dating back to Malthus, Jesus, Socrates and beyond.  The reality, however, is that they have all been wrong.  The human species is highly adaptable and muddles through.  Human adaptability has been the key to our species' success. 


     Human ecology is the study of human-environmental relations from a scientific perspective, applying the principles of science to understand and explain human behavior in relation to the natural environment.   The concern of human ecology should be to develop principles and explanations of human-environment relations that are grounded in science and that best explain the available data, not to "confirm some political, ideological, or religious project."  As an anthropologist, I am especially predisposed to view contemporary issues within an evolutionary framework.  Doing so does not necessarily minimize concerns about these issues, but it does demand that they be viewed over a sufficient time period and through the examination of longitudinal data.  It is only by doing this that one is able to fully assess the merit of contemporary claims and, thus, separate the serious issues from the passing fads (of which there have been many).




Population Syllabus


Cultural Syllabus



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