You Can't Have a Tea Party Without Clean Water
People like to breathe. Rich people, poor people, Tea Party Republicans, progressive Democrats, old people, young people, Americans, people from other countries—all are united in the biological necessities of being human. Water, food and air are all better when they are not filled with toxic substances. The political support for environmental protection is derived from this fundamental fact, along with the equally-fundamental awareness that all of these resources are at risk on a crowded and increasingly interconnected planet.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
In a piece analyzing Gallup's most recent polling on America's attitudes toward the environment, I observed that:
Those under 30 favor environmental protection over economic growth by 60 percent to 30 percent. In contrast, those over 65 years old favor economic growth over environmental protection by 50 percent to 39 percent. Since there is no evidence that someone ages out of environmentalism, it is likely that environmentalism will become a stronger force in American politics in the next several decades.
While there are aspects of Gallup's approach to measuring environmental attitudes that need improvement, they remain one of the best sources of longitudinal (comparing today to the past) data on American attitudes. With the exception of the Great Recession, Americans have consistently valued environmental protection over economic growth. Even during the Great Recession, young people continued to support environmental protection over economic growth.
Nevertheless, Gallup's data on youth environmentalism is countered by more in-depth academic research that indicates that growing materialism and faith in technology has resulted in declining environmentalism among young Americans. Laura Wray-Lake, Constance A. Flanagan and D. Wayne Osgood published a superb study in 2010 of the environmental attitudes of young people. The very careful and rigorous surveys that this article is based on were focused on measuring specific attitudes and behaviors over time, and indicate that young people do not act the way that scholars think environmentalists should behave. They don't conserve energy as much as they might or express pro-environmental views. I do not doubt the findings, or question Gallup's seemingly contradictory findings; a close look at the data indicates that the surveys are measuring different things. However, all of these data support my view that today's young people are more aware of sustainability than young people were fifty years ago and these issues help frame their view of how the world works. Their views of the environment may be inconsistent and difficult to explain, but young people are deeply aware of the issue. They have well-formulated views—that is how they differ from the kids I grew up with.
Americans born after 1970 have grown up in the "environmental era." They have been witnesses to an effort to protect the planet against the assaults of modern economic development. They've heard their parents and grandparents describe development of open spaces in their hometowns and in places they've visited. Congested roads, environmentally-induced illness and images of endangered nature are normal components of the world they understand. This has been part of their perception of the world since childhood. Our growing awareness of nutrition, health and exercise is part of a widespread understanding of the interconnection between the environment and individual wellness, and these perceptions have created a change in our culture.
Environmentalism is less a political perspective than a way of understanding how the world works. I frequently compare it to the changing views of gender, race, homosexuality and what we have come to term "parenting." When I was growing up, being a parent described a stage of your life cycle. Today it is a verb describing the actions involved in raising your children. While racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia remain strong forces in American society, they are less tolerated than they once were. Social and cultural changes during the last half-century have created a profound change in how we live and how we interact with each other. This, in turn, has had a deep impact on politics and public policy. The drive for a renewable economy housed on a sustainable and not-deteriorating planet is a key part of the cultural shift I am describing.
In my view, these social changes create a nearly irresistible force for political change. It may take decades to manifest itself, and the forces opposing these views can often remain in power through the use of economic and military power, but the current of history and social change are difficult to overcome. That is because these social trends are based on technological changes that have transformed our lives and are incredibly seductive.
The technology of transportation, information and communication has helped create a global, interconnected economy. The way many people in the developed world live today would have seemed dream-like to people a century ago. My grandparents lived through changes that resulted in a world they could barely imagine when they were chased out of Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth century. Ideas, images, goods, services and everything humans can imagine are transmitted and shipped throughout the world. These technologies bring enormous benefits, but also carry significant costs. Traditional community life is endangered, as is a sense of place, replaced by a homogeneous world culture. And of course, the natural resource base of the world economy is also threatened by the wanton destruction of relentless, non-renewable material production.
While few people think about the transformation underway, it forms the backdrop for our worldview. For young Americans, the influence of these new facts is greater, since it is all they have ever known. All have been exposed to the view of a single fragile earth photographed from outer space. Most were not exposed to the casual, unthinking racial and social biases America began to confront in the second half of the twentieth century. Today everyone knows people from different places with different lifestyles. One needs to willfully go off the grid and disconnect the Internet to grow up isolated and parochial—although I recognize that the web also empowers fact-free, delusional discussion. Nevertheless, as I often say, our TV images of family have changed from Ozzie and Harriet to the Cosbys to Modern Family. This is happening at the same time when distinct identities and communities are struggling to survive and absorb the unifying, but sometimes empty, values created by the global economy.
These technological, social and economic changes influence politics and public policy. While there are many feedback loops and interactive effects, the basic chain of causality is this: technological change results in economic change that in turn causes social change. Social change forms the boundaries for political legitimacy and the political agenda and that creates the context for political change.
In the final analysis, people in the developed world like their lifestyles and do not want to lose them. The notion of progress and improvement is being replaced by the more conservative sentiment to retain or sustain what we have. If we achieve some success in transitioning to a renewable economy, we may see a return to the ideology of improvement. The politics of sustainability will have an ideological component—no different from other political dialogues. But the facts of global interconnectivity are increasingly hard-wired into our culture and values. The importance of environmental quality and sustainability is an inescapable part of our shared understanding of how the world works. The political manifestation of that understanding has begun, even though its specific trajectory is difficult to predict.
We do know that people like to breathe, drink water and eat. Preserving the resources needed to ensure sustenance is a requirement of all political processes and governing regimes. You can't have a Tea Party without clean water to brew tea.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>