Printer Friendly Version
Why Study the International Environment?
Eric Davis - Rutgers University

No other issue ties us all together as global citizens than the environment. If we destroy the earth's resources, the human race will likewise be destroyed. The key questions raised in this module relate to the one of the most important issues of our time: how will the earth's population be able to grow and at the same time maintain the integrity of the global environment? Are we doomed to run out of water, pollute the air, eliminate large numbers of species of plants and animals, and create havoc with the earth's atmosphere through global warming? Or are there alternatives to these undesirable scenarios? If so, will this mean a dramatic slowing down of technological development and hence a lower standard of living for all the world's population? Although this module cannot provide answers to these questions, it does try to provide students with the necessary tools to formulate the core questions and issues that face us all in studying the international environment.

This module tries to avoid simplistic answers to complex problems. It seeks to encourage students to develop their own answers to environmental problems in which the needs of multiple constituencies can be served. By promoting what Paulo Freire calls "problem posing education," it seeks to empower students by having them apply their knowledge and policy prescriptions to the study of the international environment. A global citizen is just not a student with a strong knowledge base but one who can apply her/his knowledge to the solution of global problems.

The issue of environmentalism often assumes a deterministic quality. Thomas Malthus predicted early in the 19th century that the world would be overcome by a geometric expansion of the population about which nothing could be done. Modern day Malthusians abound, still arguing that the rapid increase in the world's population will ultimately constitute humanity's downfall. Without downplaying the significance of population growth, there have been plenty of examples of societies, which have coped with large populations. Two of the most prominent are China and India, which also happen to be the two most populous countries of the world. While both countries still have large numbers of poor, each is able to feed its people. Studies of other countries, e.g., Egypt, have shown that the argument that population is the cause of poverty and lack of development are highly problematic if not false. Thus taking population as an example, one important element of this module is its emphasis on our ability as global citizens to overcome environmental problems rather than assume that they are caused by forces beyond our control.

Another important issue raised by this module is the tension between progress and environmental responsibility. Often, the problems of the international environment are posed as a polarity pitting technological growth and economic prosperity, on the one hand, versus sensitivity to the world's natural resources and ecosystems, on the other. Those who seek rapid growth and higher levels of prosperity accuse environmentalists of being "radicals" while environmentalists accuse those who seek economic growth of being selfish and insensitive to the needs for future generations. Clearly this issue has strong regional overtones. More prosperous citizens of advanced industrialized countries, especially those involved in careers in the information technology revolution, can more easily support strict environmental standards. Advocating "green" energy, setting aside wetlands and forests where development is prohibited, and promoting strict pollution and water purity standards will not significantly impinge on their standards of living. However, workers in the coal, chemical and logging industries, for example, may be adversely affected if these industries become less competitive due to extensive governmental regulation. In poorer countries, the vast majority of people would opt for economic growth rather than environmental standards if given the choice. Thus the problems of the international environment cannot be presented as unidimensional problems. To simply advocate reducing population or air pollution without examining the possible negative effects on different segments of a society does not allow students to engage the complexities of environmental problems, including the need to mobilize a consensus among a particular society's members to address these important problems.

Closely related to the multidimensionality of environmental problems is the need to avoid viewing all environmental problem in zero-sum terms. This module seeks to avoid posing the problem of the international environment as always entailing losses for some parts of society. Students instead are encouraged to think creatively as to how both environmental problems can be addressed and how those groups that might be negatively affected by new environmentally oriented policies might be able to avoid negative consequences. Loggers, for example, who lose their employment due to the withdrawal of old hardwood forests from logging could be trained to assume new positions related to these forests such as forest management, tour guides, and environmental educators. In this instance, a coalition of environmentalist public policy makers, and industry representatives can work together to assure that losses due to new environmental policies are minimized or even provide better economic opportunities for those who have lost their traditional employment.

Finally, this module emphasizes the element of social and political choice. While we can all strive to maximize beneficial environmental policies, we cannot assume that there will be no difficult choices presented by an active effort to protect and preserve the earth's environment. Can members of advanced industrialized countries pursue a policy of unbridled consumption in the future and still conserve the earth's environment? Probably not. Efforts will need to be made to enhance fuel efficiency standards and reduce the electricity needs of the new technologies, which are fueling a Second Industrial Revolution in advanced industrialized countries. Ultimately, however, policies that seek to eliminate individual practices, which are environmentally detrimental, will require a new type of consciousness, which is both global and sensitive to our natural surroundings. Global citizenship will require a greater respect for the past and cultural traditions as well as an innovative approach to solving the environmental problems of the future. A truly global citizen will think not only of her/his immediate interests but become more sensitized to the implications of what personal decisions s/he takes as well as those of the government will have on the environment. Greater environmental awareness can become not only an analytic tool for better dealing with applied issues but also towards promoting a greater sense of international community.

To learn more about the influence of the International Environment on our global society, click on the links below:
Relevance | Lesson Plans | Resources | Results

Comments or questions about GC2000? E-mail Us.