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Daily RC Article 87

Environmental Concerns: From Local to Global Perspectives

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The scale of response to environmental issues is a key point of debate. [Some argue that] localization is one of the most important elements to enacting environmental sustainability… However, our environmental problems are far more complex, and global, than the notion of ‘localization’ suggests. To understand this, we need to explore the evolution of environmental concern from one of local problems to global environmental issues.

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There is no clear beginning to environmental concern. Plato, Lucretius and Caesar all noted the problems of soil erosion. We now know that many of today’s most pressing environmental issues were first identified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Carter (2001) has categorized the evolution of environmental issues into three key periods. Pre-1960s a great deal of environmental concern was focused upon small-scale localized problems such as local pollution and wildlife protection. In the 1960s concern grew about the interrelation between human actions and more complex environmental implications.

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At the same time there were growing concerns about so-called ‘overpopulation’. Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin and Barry Commoner were considered neo-Malthusian because they saw environmental problems as a consequence of population growth, following the arguments set out by Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century. The misguided simplicity of neo-Malthusian explanations of environmental problems is shown in studies that have tried to explain land degradation in terms of population dynamics. Not only is the evidence contradictory, for example population growth in northern China has been linked to increased land degradation, whereas in northern Yemen and Kenya’s Machakos Hills it has been related to population decline, but also it is clear from these studies that linking land degradation to one explanatory parameter – population size – masks the complexity behind population dynamics and labour-land relationships. By the early 1970s there was recognition not just of the interconnectedness of environmental issues, and of the problems of cumulative damage, but also that these were global problems that needed internationally coordinated responses.

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Environmental scientists identify two types of global environmental change. On the one hand, systemic change occurs when there is a direct impact on a physically interconnected, global system, i.e., the atmosphere or the oceans: for example, the effects that increased emissions of greenhouse gases have on global climate. Cumulative change, on the other hand, occurs when many discrete events become significant because their distribution is global or because, added together, their impact is felt across a large proportion of the globe. For example, across the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific, the relatively small amounts of tropical forest lost in each area being converted from forest to farmland, or being lost to a mining operation, add up to a global-scale problem affecting humid tropical forests, one of the most biodiverse biomes found on earth: forests of vital significance to the global water and carbon balances. Recognition of this duality is important in formulating policies and strategies. Those actors addressing systemic issues need to be global, with all countries agreeing and adhering to a particular policy or strategy. Those focusing on cumulative issues require both global approaches and local approaches…

The article traces the evolution of environmental concerns from localized issues to global complexities. It highlights how historical views on environmental problems shifted from localized pollution to recognizing the interconnections and global impacts. It discusses the complexities in understanding population dynamics and their relationship with land degradation. Additionally, it distinguishes between systemic changes (direct impacts on global systems) and cumulative changes (aggregated impact across regions), emphasizing the need for both global and local strategies to address these environmental challenges.
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