CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Making It Last by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?
Jared Diamond in Easter's End, August 1995

Congratulations, you've won the lottery and all of a sudden you have $1,000,000 at your disposal. Two scenarios come immediately to mind. You could quit your job and live on your winnings or you could invest your money and live on the interest. In the first case, you could live very well for a while but eventually your winnings would be gone and once again you'd have to work for a living. In the second case, as long as your money earns interest and you don't overspend, you could potentially never have to worry about money again for the rest of your life. To put it in terms of the environment, if we use, or spend, all of our resources without regard for what happens when the resources run out, we can survive for a while but eventually the environment goes bankrupt. If on the other hand we carefully manage our resources so that we don't overspend and develop renewable resources that will always be available, the environment and therefore we who depend on it will thrive. In other words, in order to survive, we need to maintain or sustain our resources. Environmental sustainability is one of the underlying themes of environmental science.

Many ideas go into the concept of sustainability. Is there enough water available to grow the food that we need to feed ourselves? Is there enough water available to drink? Is there enough land to grow the food we need? Is there enough land for the world's population to dwell on? You could imagine a balance: in one pan, irrigation water, in the other drinking water. As one goes up the other goes down. Likewise, one pan has land to grow food on and the other land to grow people on. And again, as one goes up the other goes down.

In his essay "Easter's End" Jared Diamond eloquently describes a case of resource use gone amok. Over time, the people of Easter Island slowly used up many of the resources (e.g. small trees used to make rope and fibers) they once heavily relied upon. As one resource was used faster than it could be replenished, they used something else instead, and then as that one was used they changed to another and yet another. The fate of Easter Island is just one example of unsustainable growth; a population that grew to perhaps 20,000 prospered for a short time but eventually crashed to its present value of about 2,000. Much like spending all of your winnings and going broke in the process, the richness of Easter Island was used up and disappeared. It definitely paints a bleak picture of one possible future.

One of the key concepts to always keep in mind is that everything affects everything else. Some way, somewhere, somehow everything is connected to everything else; whether its rats preventing the regeneration of palm forests on Easter Island or its humans cutting down trees faster than they can be replaced without regard for the future. If you change or affect one thing in the environment, many other things may change as a result. Everything we do has consequences, seen and unseen, immediate and delayed. The key is sustainability and everything that goes with it.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. What resources do you use in an unsustainable manner? What resources do you use in a sustainable manner? What about for the world as a whole?
  2. Do you think the resources being used unsustainably will be depleted in your lifetime? Why or why not?
  3. Does the government have a role to play in sustainable resource use? Does the free market have a role to play in sustainable resource use? If so, what kinds of things could the government or the free market do to help?
  4. What could you do personally to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • "Easter's End", Jared Diamond - Discover Magazine, 1995
    You'll need to go to the archive section and search on the title and/or author to retrieve this article but it is well worth the effort.
  • Easter Island Home Page
    This site gives much background information on Easter Island.
  • Secrets of Lost Empires: Easter Island - NOVA Online
    This is an excellent interactive site found on the PBS website. From the website: Welcome to the companion Web site to the NOVA program "Easter Island," originally broadcast on February 15, 2000. The film, which is a part of the NOVA series Secrets of Lost Empires, showcases the efforts of a team of archeologists, engineers, and other experts to transport an Easter Island moai, or carved stone monolith, overland and successfully raise it onto a pedestal.
  • Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment
    From the website: The Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is dedicated to the study of pressing global problems stemming from interactions between human activities, natural resources, and the environment. SAGE conducts cutting-edge research on critical environmental problems, and disseminates that knowledge through instruction and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Sustainability Institute - Dana Meadows Archive
    Dana Meadows was the founder of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct faculty at Dartmouth College. She wrote numerous articles pertaining to the idea of sustainability and under the Global Citizen section you can find links to well over 200 articles of hers.
  • The Alliance for Sustainability
    From the website: The mission of the Alliance is to bring about personal, organizational and planetary sustainability through support of projects that are ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane. The Alliance for Sustainability is a Minnesota-based, tax-deductible nonprofit supporting model sustainability projects on the local, national and international levels.
  • Sustainability Glossary
    This page is part of the Sustainability Project and describes the concepts of sustainability in easy to understand terms.
  • The Environmental Sustainability Index
    From the website: The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) is a measure of overall progress towards environmental sustainability, developed for 142 countries. The ESI scores are based upon a set of 20 core "indicators," each of which combines two to eight variables for a total of 68 underlying variables. The ESI permits cross-national comparisons of environmental progress in a systematic and quantitative fashion. It represents a first step towards a more analytically driven approach to environmental decision-making.
  • Institute for Environment and Sustainability
    This is the website for the Institute of Environment and Sustainability, which is one of the institutes of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003