"The Burning Question: Is Our Relationship with Nature Catastrophic?"

The Burning Question: Is Our Relationship with Nature Catastrophic?

Disasters are deeply revealing. The 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico occurred because government and industry safety measures were overmatched by the operation’s regulatory and technical complexity. 

Personnel were improperly trained and supervised, corners were cut on safety, the installed technology failed in dozens of ways, and response efforts were inadequate to address the scope and scale of the catastrophe. As a result, 11 people died and 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf. It is by far the worst oil industry disaster in history.

Similar safety problems occurred in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, in which three reactors suffered partial meltdown and one exploded, and radioactive material was widely released into the ocean, coastal zone and residential areas. In 2018, radiation levels in the plant itself remain lethal.

In the U.S. and Canada, we are witnessing a similar inability to address complexity in the massive expansion of oil and natural gas development on public and private lands, resulting in safety violations, surface and groundwater contamination, pipeline siting and construction conflicts, boom-and-bust community economic cycles, and massive ecological degradation. Most recently, our current U.S. presidential administration has made several disturbing moves to increase domestic development of oil and gas resources, including proposing to open 100% of the nation’s coastal waters, reducing the size of national parklands, and decreasing protections for endangered species and ecosystems.

Myriad other interests are ignored in this political calculus, including tourism and recreation, fisheries and wildlife conservation, mitigation of climate change, the vast quality of life benefits that people reap from living near or having access to unspoiled lands and waters, and the intrinsic value of the very existence of the species and ecosystems that comprise our natural heritage. Our willingness to increase risk to both human and ecological well-being, and willfully sacrifice virtually all aspects of the natural world in the interests of energy development, has been ongoing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. During this period, the human population has grown from 1 billion to 7.5 billion. As a result, human-nature coexistence now stands on a knife’s edge.

Environmental scholar Thomas Fleischner calls natural history the “practice of intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” The success of human evolution is due to this practice—it allowed us to figure out what to eat, what materials to use, how to survive in varied climates and habitats, and all else that has led us to our modern condition. Our current trajectory is toward the loss of natural history, and represents an “extinction of experience,” the effects of which have both immediate and evolutionary consequences.

The question is: what decisions will we make to ensure future generations of humans and nonhumans the quality of life they deserve? The science of ecological degradation tells us that our needs are urgent. Among them: to restore natural history to its rightful place at all levels of education, and to take an activist approach to teaching and learning, in which we train students to be skilled advocates and leaders in economic and policy decisions that will ensure human and ecological sustainability.

At Ursinus we have been hard at work on this for nearly 20 years—as demonstrated by the work of our students, faculty, staff and alumni highlighted in this issue.

Richard L. Wallace is professor of environmental studies at Ursinus College and codirector of the college’s Robert and Shurley Knaefler Whittaker Environmental Research Station. He arrived at Ursinus in 2002 as founding chair of the Department of Environmental Studies, where he helped develop the undergraduate program on a foundation of reflective practice steeped in the theory and methods of integrative problem-solving. He teaches courses on land stewardship, biodiversity conservation, food and agriculture, and the theory and practice of integrative problem-solving.