Students must choose between sustainability and collapse

April 22 was Earth Day, and I went to a festival at a park to browse the tables set up by environmental, governmental and conservational groups. Some groups were distributing trees for people to plant in their yards; others were giving away energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. As I wandered, I was reminded of a lecture I attended earlier this semester at USF. Author and scientist Jared Diamond spoke in March about his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In the lecture and the book, Diamond described the demise of historical and pre-historical societies whose collapse he attributes in part to environmental ruin. He raised the possibility that societies as we know them may be approaching collapse due largely to ecological degradation exacerbated by our hesitancy to address environmental problems.

At least three major ecological emergencies face our planet: global climate change, overpopulation and the unsustainable use of resources. All are interconnected and all can lead to societal collapse. The choices we make regarding these issues may determine whether our society will continue or fail.

Many media outlets, politicians and business leaders irresponsibly paint human-caused climate change as “under debate” by scientists. This gives a platform for naysayers to complain about the financial costs of taking action, while refusing to acknowledge the huge costs resulting from climate change. Soon after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty calling for a reduction in the pollutants which cause global warming. In doing so, Bush wrote that Kyoto “would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy.” But the contrary seems to be true; after recent devastating hurricanes, which were strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, we now know that there are substantial costs to not taking action to prevent global climate change.

Despite a global population of 6.5 billion, overpopulation seems a taboo topic except in xenophobic circles. However, environmental alteration among overextended populations usually leads to resource depletion. This was a common phenomenon in many of the failed societies that Diamond studied, including some that were technologically advanced such as the Maya of Central America.

Large populations use lots of resources; especially those populations with obscene appetites for consumption (the United States and, to a lesser extent, other first-world countries). The only way to feed this hunger is to acquire resources from other lands and peoples. But there are signs that some resources (for example, petroleum) are reaching a point where demand exceeds supply. Even the World Bank agrees, “the costs of resource overexploitation are enormous.”

If the wealthier nations of the world wish to avoid societal collapse, they must confront and solve the three grave, interrelated environmental crises of human-caused global climate change, overpopulation and unsustainable resource use.

For students who have to live with the consequences of today’s decisions, this choice between sustainability and collapse is even more crucial. A first step is for the USF community to insist that all construction on campus incorporate environmentally sustainable practices, such as renewable energy sources. To that end, the new student center – a centerpiece of the University, with the construction being almost entirely paid for by the millions of dollars raised by student fees – should be constructed using sustainable construction practices such as solar power, water efficiency and Florida-friendly landscaping. In addition, students should insist that our student center and other buildings on campus be certified as “green buildings.” The benefits of a green building include saving the University considerable amounts of money, the prestige associated with being a campus at the leading edge of innovation and most importantly, choosing environmental sustainability over possible societal collapse.

Seán Kinane is a doctoral candidate in biology.