In modern society, the common perspective is that humanity is separate from nature. We spend nearly all of our time in entirely human constructed and controlled environments. Even when we go outside, we are in an area with dominant human influence. The food we eat comes in neatly organized packages and contains ingredients that we oftentimes don’t know the source of. We emit large quantities of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, either directly or indirectly, and we consume and produce waste at a massively unsustainable rate. What we often overlook is that we are in a closed system. We are on a single planet that is not too big to be impacted by our actions. We are part of the global system, not separate from it.
In his article, “The Vanishing” (a review of “Collapse” by Jared Diamond), Malcolm Gladwell discusses numerous extinct populations: such as the Vikings of Greenland and the Easter Islanders. He and Diamond assert that these populations did not fail because of some “act of God” or random bad luck, but because of their insistence on the survival of their culture, even when they could have otherwise survived by shifting to more sustainable practices. They make the assertion that these societies used up resources until they were gone and “they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death” .
Humanity’s problem is the belief that our habits, actions, and normal practices are one in the same with who we are. This, as Diamond and Gladwell point out, is what led the Vikings to starve. They didn’t eat fish and continued to not eat fish even if it meant they would starve to death. We must not hold on to unsustainable practices or denounce better alternatives if they fly in the face of what we hold dear. In order to reach true sustainability, everyone will need to give up something they value. This is an unfortunate, but true fact for nearly everyone is Western society. Just because we have a culture of overconsumption and waste, does not mean that we have to stick to that culture until our society collapses. We must learn from past societies and understand that ourselves and our culture are separate entities. Looking at modern society, it is becoming more and more apparent that our culture is going to inevitably die, but we have the choice if we are going to die with it.