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The intersection between environmentalism, economics, and society

An environmental perspective to a broader sustainability movement

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We all know, love, and breathe sustainability. Well, at least we all know about it. 

My own understanding of sustainability has recently grown. Once a week, I get to attend a sustainability seminar at the UW and listen to various scientists and journalists talk about their involvement with environmental justice. 

Additionally, as a student assistant in the UW Sustainability Action Network (SAN), I get to address environmental concerns in a broader framework, incorporating the sustainability of our economy and democracy. Advised by Communications Professor Lance Bennett, the project is dedicated to redefining sustainability as a cross-disciplinary, inclusive movement.  

The environment is a resource for the adventure and natural goods in our life. It’s the overarching factor in the well-known, nested sustainability model that allows for the equitable development of our society and economy. 

For the scope of this article, I will be addressing specifically how the environment is a valuable component in all of our lives, whether we be environmentalists, hikers, musicians, or Netflix enthusiasts. The state of our environment’s wellness affects all of us.

Within the environment develops society and its subsequent economy. While debate continues about the terminology “democracy” versus “society,” the realm of it pertains directly to individuals: how can we ensure the use of our environmental and human capital will fulfill humane and equitable approaches to social, political, and economic development?

Our land provides “ecosystem services” as the benefits we receive from nature, including food, purified water, recreation, and cultural value, as defined by the The Nature Conservancy. To protect and positively develop this land by both preserving the nature and enhancing our social and cultural interests, we must take on the political and social changes as a more inclusive community, providing opportunity for everyone to dedicate their passions. 

“If we can change some of the priorities and practices of our economic system, we would make immediate gains in the capacity of the environment to support wellness and other life qualities,” Lance Bennett, professor of political science, communication director at the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement, and the advisor for UW SAN, wrote in an email interview. 

Greg Bratman, associate professor the UW College of the Environment, also addresses human well-being in the state of the environment. He combines two of his interests, psychology and ecology, to incorporate new and currently developing research on more interpersonal connections humans have with nature.

After watching a lot of open-space land around him succumb to development, he said that he began to grow “a personal concern for what [this] would mean for people living near those open spaces for their well being and mental health.”

Bratman’s research is working to answer the question, “What kinds of experiences with nature and people, given all the differences there are (socio economic, demographic, etc.) … come together and have an impact on people’s affect and human cognition?”

Specific aspects of ecology, like pollination services or flood protection, make evident the mutual benefits of studying the biophysical models of how nature helps people. Bratman explains it’s not necessarily that development is bad and nature is good, but rather how people’s interactions with nature shape the health benefits they may receive with those experiences.

Associate professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences Jon Bakker notes that being able to effectively restore or manage ecosystems does require an understanding of how they function. 

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, was a project initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan which concluded that environmental degradation at this rate will have drastically negative consequences for future generations and that linear changes in climate and the overall environment are at risk.

Concerns are being raised about the effectiveness of just the environmental movement alone. Many people don’t identify themselves as “environmentalists” and exclude themselves from the movement, or see actions like recycling — a positive but generally reactive process — as enough.

“Despite the great efforts of the environmental movement for many decades, we are losing the political fight to protect the quality of life on the planet both now and even more in the future,” Bennett wrote. “We are in the midst of a great species extinction, which is just one indicator of how severely life quality is being stressed across the planet.”

The thought behind intersectional sustainability is to bring together people from different backgrounds to encourage a shift in lifestyle that is both effective and balanced in its implementation.

Through art, music, journalism, poetry, financing, and all the disciplines your heart desires, sustainability is inclusive to those outside of the environmentalist community because the impact of environmental justice goes deep into the roots of social and economic equity. 

Reach writer Zoe Shadan at Twitter: @zoeshadan

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