Environmental unsustainability: characteristics & lessons

One of the most disturbing news’ that has been making the rounds globally—and particularly in the world of science—is that, based on scientific evidence, mankind is living unsustainably; also, this generation is the only one to have lived at such a high degree of unsustainability. There has been an accelerating rate of waste generation and depletion of natural resources—especially non-renewable ones. The term that best describes the negative impact caused by a combination of these activities and other related ones is known as “environmental degradation” or “natural capital degradation”.

Over the past few decades, information gathered from different parts of the world has revealed that—amongst other negative impacts—a lot of soils are eroding, the sizes of many forests are drastically reducing, and nutrients in farmlands are not replenishing fast enough. Coupled with these impacts are the increases in global warming, melting of ice, rising sea levels, forest fires, droughts and floods. Furthermore, in many parts of the world, rivers are not yielding as much water as they used to, and populations of various species of fish and other types of animals are becoming extinct at a rate that’s about a hundred times faster than it was before the age of “homo sapiens” (the species to which modern man belongs).

These incidences rose to such an extent that in the year 2000, the UN (United Nations) Secretary-General at the time, Kofi Annan, called for an assessment (Millenium Ecosystem Assessment: MEA) of the impact of human activities on the environment. The assessment was formally launched in 2001 and conducted within 4 years by 1,360 experts from 95 countries. At the end of the assessment (2005), the UN published a report which revealed that human activities had degraded about 60% of the Earth’s natural services, especially within 50 years prior to 2005 (i.e., between 1955 to 2005).

Fig. 1: Overview of environmental degradation

Many statements attributed to UN and scientists worldwide have acknowledged that human activities are straining the natural functioning of the Earth, and the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to sustain future generations is under serious threat. At the same time, UN and scientists also acknowledged that mankind has the knowledge/technologies to conserve natural resources and prevent further degradation of the Earth’s natural capital (resources).

Lessons learnt from cases of environmental unsustainability:

  • Most people don’t have any intention to degrade their environments.
  • Most people have degraded their environments without realizing it.
  • As human populations are increasing in number, everybody has been looking for ways to satisfy their needs by using more resources; in so doing, people have increased the amount of waste littered in the environment.
  • Environmental problems are still prominent in countries and societies where leaders have done their best to conserve natural resources by maintaining and expanding their economies.
  • Some parts/regions of the world have achieved high standards of living, sound economic growth, and provided their citizens people with more goods and services. However, there has been lack of enforcement of regulations or policies that could prevent waste of natural and man-made resources, pollution, and environmental degradation.

The UN classifies countries into “more developed countries”, or “less developed countries”, and does so on the basis of each country’s respective average income per person. The United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries are more developed and generate high income. On the other hand, many other nations (in which 81% of the world’s population live) are classified as less-developed; they include countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Another category not previously mentioned is the “middle-income” (i.e., not more developed, and not less developed) or “moderately-developed countries”; some of them include China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Thailand, and Mexico. According to information from UN and World Bank data, the “more-developed countries” (which have about 19% of the world’s population) use about 88% of all the Earth’s resources and produce about 75% of the world’s pollution and waste.

Generally, information from UN points to at least two things:

  • A country could be more developed but environmentally unsustainable because of its ineffectiveness in combating factors that cause environmental degradation.
  • A country could be “less developed” or “moderately developed”, but still be environmentally sustainable if it effectively combats factors that cause environmental degradation.


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