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Top>Opinion>The Way Forward on the Environmental Problem


Shunji Ouchi

Shunji Ouchi [profile]

The Way Forward on the Environmental Problem

Shunji Ouchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: geosciences, geomorphology

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The basic shape of the environmental problem

Although the “environmental problem” that currently faces us is a problem with human beings rather than the earth, the frequent use of phrases such as “friendly to the earth” suggests that this point has not yet been fully grasped. The earth will still be the earth whether it warms up or cools down, whether or not toxic substances build up or the human race dies out. Humans are creatures that emerged on earth and live in its global environment and, like all other creatures, our existence can be considered part of our planet. It is difficult for us to survive in a non-earth environment, and even if we were able to migrate to Mars or some kind of space colony, we would have to build and live meagerly in very restricted spaces whose environment was made similar to that on earth. It would probably be impossible for humankind to survive healthily in such spaces for more than a few generations. Ever since life on earth began, many creatures have appeared and either flourished or died out. The ones that thrive today are those that have come up with ingenious ways of producing offspring (to preserve their species) and overcome numerous ordeals to survive. Humans are the leading species at the present point in evolution, our cerebral development having given us the intelligence to survive, and we have flourished since our first appearance on earth and even through the harsh climate change of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era. It is the instinctive aim of all living things to make their lives as safe and comfortable as possible to be able to produce more offspring, and humankind has been the most successful at this. In particular, having become aware in the modern era of our humanity and acquired the perspective of objectivity, the human race has rapidly developed science and technology and focused it solely on trying to become more prosperous. In spite of repeated catastrophic wars due to people placing importance on the prosperity of the group to which they belong, the fact is that human society has achieved remarkable growth during that time. We have built a uniquely human world while believing in infinite progress, extending it at breakneck speed without a thought for the limitations of our planet. But now, with a global population beyond seven billion and people’s entrenched desire for a richer life, the limits of the earth have become very apparent. The maximum population that the planet is capable of feeding is said to be around 7.8 billion, a figure that will be exceeded in only a few more years. This is the most basic shape of the environmental problem.

The choice of humankind

If humankind existed in the same way as other animals, any deterioration in our environment brought on either by ourselves or changes in nature would result accordingly in an adjustment in our population. Having already drawn a sharp line between ourselves and other animals, however, we would be devastated if we were forced to return to the level of ordinary animals, and are unlikely to allow it to happen. Faced with the risk of extinction due to a deteriorating environment, the first thing animals in their natural state should do is move to where conditions are more favorable. If they are unable to do so, the weakest among them die in the harsh conditions and the species decreases in number or even moves toward extinction, and only those individuals who manage to adapt or are more resilient to their new environment survive and then aim to flourish. If humans were like other animals, we would also try to move somewhere more favorable in family-centric or race-centric groups, but since we now dominate the entire world there is nowhere left for us to migrate to, which makes the risk of war breaking out over food and other resources high before we try to migrate. Human beings now have nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, so a global-scale war would be bound to cause extreme misery. Humans are proud to be different from other animals, but can we really avoid such a tragic future? Becoming aware of our humanity has meant also becoming aware of the “self,” so personal happiness and the preservation of our species, which must once have been part of the same thing, began to separate from one another. As our lives have become more plentiful, we have placed more and more importance on personal happiness. Nowadays, so-called developed countries are facing issues with falling birth rates, but isn’t this a mark of prosperous mankind’s desire for personal happiness rather than preservation of the species? This decline of humankind as a race is an inevitability of the growth of human society and may be the path we have chosen for ourselves having differentiated ourselves from other animals.

The collapse of humankind

Looking at things in a slightly different way, it could be said that the current environment problem began when people first became aware of our humanity and drew a line between us and other creatures. We humans live in a world that we have built ourselves, and right now we think as if nature formed a part of it, which is why we have come up with concepts such as “nature conservation” and “environmental protection.” But the human world is a part of the natural world, not the other way around. And, with its awesome powers, nature is not always kind to human beings, as frequently seen in various natural disasters. Almost everyone these days is born and raised in an artificial world created by humankind (of which nature forms just a part), and we take it for granted that this world will continue to develop ad infinitum. Many experts too believe that humans will be able to tame and use nature, and that is certainly the direction in which the world is headed. But the human world cannot continue to develop and expand indefinitely beyond the limitations of our planet. Furthermore, as humans have become increasingly separated from the very nature that is supposed to support life on earth, some have lost their own identity and wandered into a void. There have been endless incidents perpetrated by such people in recent years, such as baffling murders committed by a boy who referred to himself as “transparent existence” and a girls who said she had just wanted to see what it was like to kill, and a heinous crime of a person who is able to identify only with his virtual image online triggered by the rejection on the online world. Social withdrawal cases, whose number is said to be enormous, are also probably related to this loss of identity. (This is one of the reasons why it would probably be difficult for the human race to survive on space colonies and so on.) The current environmental crisis should be seen as fundamentally linked to a crisis of human’s inner world. Our race may be starting to collapse from within and without.

The difficulty of education and a glimmer of hope

While teaching Environment Theory up until last year, I tried to keep the above crisis mentality while conveying fundamental ideas on the environmental problem. I tried various unique ways to make my students think about this issue, but, with a few exceptions, they seemed unable to perceive this problem as their own. Having lived in our plentiful human society since they were born, it may be impossible for them to now change the awareness that they have unquestioningly developed. It is also difficult to think about a problem when not even the beginning of an answer is in sight. Unfortunately, culture-based courses are, for most students, a way of obtaining credits rather than learning something, and they think of studying as understanding and memorizing what they have been told and tend to feel uncomfortable about having to think for themselves. The fact is that it will be difficult for them to see this problem as their own unless they are actually faced with a crisis. But by the time they actually see the crisis, it may well be too late. A major turning point is likely to come during the lifetime of our current students. My hope is that they gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of the environmental problem so that they will be able to take the best course of action at that time. Of course understanding a problem does not directly lead to its resolution. But however difficult it may be to go beyond simply understanding it, they can only select the best course if they understand the problem. If there is any salvation, it is that some of my students have reached a certain level of awareness. They may forget about this problem after going out into the world and striving in their respective lives. But even if just a fragment of what they have learned at university remains in their mind, that could be the germ of a solution to the problem. It is they on whom my hopes are pinned.

Shunji Ouchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: geosciences, geomorphology
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1949. Graduated from the Faculty of Science, Tokyo Metropolitan University in 1972. Completed the Master's Course at the Graduate School of Science, Tokyo Metropolitan University in 1974. Completed the Doctor's Course (Earth Resources) at Colorado State University in 1983. Ph.D. (Colorado State University).
Teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Mitaka High School. Assumed current post in 2008 after serving as Full-Time Instructor, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor at Chuo University.
Specializes in geomorphology. Has conducted research centering on crustal movements and river morphology, and is currently advancing experimental research on geomorphic evolution. Recent research papers include "Development of experimental landforms by rainfall erosion and uplift. The Journal of the Geological Society of Japan 117, 163-171 (2011)", and "Effects of uplift on the development of experimental erosion landform generated by artificial rainfall. Geomorphology, 127, 88-98 (2011)."