After an entire semester investigating numerous environmental issues, three of the six that we studied really stood out as the most intriguing to me: plastic, GMOs, and animal captivity. After an abundance of research these three topics proved to be the most fascinating in addition to directly having an affect on humans of all ages. For these reasons, the aforementioned topics will be the focus of this final reflection.
Plastic is an everyday necessity when it comes to our world, being utilized in essentially any way possible.
Due to the cost efficient manner of production, there is an overflowing supply of plastic items scattered throughout society. Examples of such items are as simple as aplastic bag from the grocery store or as complex as parts imperative in the construction of cars. With such an abundance of supply, many people begin to ask how necessary plastic actually is. Much of plastic is manufactured with Bisphenol A, a chemical that has been linked to numerous terrible health complications; however, information like this is often overlooked by the public while they are drinking out of their plastic cups using a plastic straw.
This is where the issue of plastic really surfaces. A majority of plastic products are quite small an in the grand scheme of life, quite unimportant, but plastic is so firmly entrenched in our everyday lives that it is hard to change. Changes are attempting to be made, but that is usually after the fact when people actually realize all the plastic products blowing around in the wind as debris drifting through in the environment for multiple years.
Plastic never decomposes making it a scary piece of litter to have floating in our oceans and buried in the ground, affecting the environment and landscape day in and day out. With all this information, the debate on plastic wages onward as more and more people begin to realize that change may be necessary while others recognize the extreme financial benefits of such products.
There is relatively little actually known and understood about GMOs making them a very interesting topic in the world today. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short, are organisms whose original genetic material has been altered in some way by the utilization of genetic engineering techniques. An enormous amount of the foods individuals consume everyday are genetically modified and this is beginning to scare some people. Many scientists and civilians claim that GMOs are actually significantly more dangerous to the health of people than they are beneficial. These claims are heard all throughout the world and have people clamoring to understand more about what they are eating. Unfortunately, at this current moment in time these claims are just that, claims. There is no clear-cut evidence that suggests GMOs are harmful to the environment and the people that consume them. While people argue about whether or not GMOs are safe to eat, there are major strides in helping the world’s economy and hunger. By utilizing GMOs, farmers are able to skip some of the beginning steps in their cultivation process allowing for them to produce and sell more food much more often creating a surplus that can be used to help other people in need. This surplus also transitions into positive economic growth for all countries that have the benefit of enjoying it. GMOs affect the environment in ways that have never been seen before, saving land that has been rendered unusable and stopping the spread of pesticides just by genetically changing the product early on. The impact this has on the land as well as on the people around the land cannot be overlooked, but due to the claims of unsafe product, the GMO debate rages onward.
Animal captivity is an issue that garners opinions and emotions from people of all ages and cultures. Removing animals from their own habitat and placing them into a confined living setting such as a cage in a zoo or aquarium undoubtedly will start conversation. Zoos are moneymaking cogs that claim to spread animal information and benefit animals in need, but that may not always be the case. Some animals do not need to be confined in a cage for the rest of their lives, in fact most do not; however, the joy spread to both millions of people and families is quite hard to overlook. Millions of people attend zoos each year making them a prominent attraction for people of all ages. While the visitors thoroughly enjoy the spectacle known as zoos, many animal lovers and animals themselves look at the zoo as a prison. Animals are taken out of the wild and away from their families and infrastructure only to be placed on display against their own will. The ethics of zoos are investigated deeply by people all across the globe and more often than not they all agree that animals belong in the wild. Taking a singular animal away from its pack or group not only affects the animal being captured, but it also severely affects the animals that are left without a friend, family member, or leader. The entire infrastructure of that animals specific group can be torn apart by this action. Additionally, the environment and ecological structure can change in ways such as new predators rising too the top or an abundance of prey lower on the food chain taking over the area. This is all overlooked as people enjoy their yearly trip to the zoo in order to learn and enjoy the animals held in captivity. This tension surrounding this issue runs quite high and people dedicate their lives to the matter on both sides. Zoos never will go away, but there is a large push calling for change that could shake up how they conduct themselves.
The impact plastic has on the environment as well as on the civilian front is overwhelming in both cases, but in the end it proves to be much more harmful than beneficial. Each year 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide, an astronomical amount that needs to be decreased (Plastic Bags). Taking a step in even further, the United States alone goes through 100 billion, amassing to a total of $4 billion for retailers (Plastic Bags). That price tag is not one that actually supports our economy, but rather one that hurts it. Nobody buys plastic bags; instead they are given them for free at places such as a local grocery store or a mega store such as Wal-Mart. While it is hard to ignore the incredible convenience of plastic bags, they truly are hurting the environment. Even after they are broken down, plastic bags remain toxic. Some people chose to argue that this is fine because the bags are being broken down, but to counter that one can simply look at recycling versus garbage. 100 million bags are thrown away in the United States alone every year in comparison to the .5% to 3% that are recycled. This leads to a large portion of bags ending up in the environment as litter where it can take them anywhere form 20 to 1000 years to degrade (Plastic Bags); however, the problem does not stop here. Ten percent of all plastic products produced every year worldwide end up in our oceans, 70% of this winds up on the ocean floor where it will likely never degrade (Plastic Bags). These figures are shocking to some people, but still a large majority maintains their plastic use due to it being so accessible and prominent in society. While there is large opportunity for money to be made, it is important to realize the negative costs associated with plastic. The United States alone uses 12 million barrels of oil, more than the entire oil demand of Iceland or North Korea, just to make 100 billion bags (Plastic Bags). With oil prices being so high in the world today, that is a massive amount of money utilized in production of a relatively cheap product. In an effort to clean up plastic bags, San Francisco spent 17 cents to clean up every one bag. When you take this number and multiply it by 100 billion, a staggering $1.7 trillion is what results just from cleaning up all the plastic bags in the US (Plastic Bags). This shows alone that plastic might actually be hurting our economy rather than helping it. Finally, plastic is actually quite harmful to humans that directly touch it when eating and drinking from plastic products. Bisphenol A is a chemical used in the construction of hard plastic substances that are often used for drinking and eating out of. Numerous studies have linked this chemical to prostate cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. Jill Thompson, coordinator of Citizens for Change in Canada simply states, “Our food and water shouldn’t touch plastic.” (Kinnon). The health risks are too dangerous to continue to manufacture plastic in the manner that it currently is. When all these factors add up, it is abundantly clear that a movement must be made to change the plastic usage in the world today because as it stands now, we are killing our planet and ourselves slowly more and more each day.
When it comes to the debate on GMOs, it is abundantly clear that the positive effect of these products outweigh the negative. It is important to realize that the people slandering GMOs are just spitting out claims. These claims have no real information or studies to back them up because relatively hardly has been done. What is known is that GMOs benefit the environment as well as everyday life in supreme ways. Part of the beauty of GMOs is that it takes out pesticide spraying in the farming process. From 1996 to 2012 pesticide spraying decreased by 508 million kilograms, or 8.8%, from the years before 1996. This 508 million kilogram decrease is equivalent to two whole crop years in the EU 27 (Brookes 2012). In addition to the removal of pesticide spraying, GMOs allow for land to be cultivated which otherwise has been considered unusable. This allows for a large increase in the amount of crops cultivated every year. On top of that, because of genetically modified crops, there has been a decrease in fossil fuel consumption and emissions by 27 billion kilograms, the equivalent of taking 11.9 million cars off the road in the United Kingdom (Brookes 2012). The positive effects GMOs have on our environment and landscape are incredible and make people wonder why there is even any question in utilizing them. Where most of the problems arise for people is the claims that eating genetically modified organisms can lead to cancerous diseases and other dangerous health risks; however, there is nothing to fear. According to a recent New York Times article, the FDA stated, “that genetically engineered non browning apples and bruise-resistant potatoes were as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts” (Pollack). The foods are just as safe and taste just as good, if not better, than what is available in terms of non-GMOs. By utilizing tactics like this, farmers are able to skip the early steps in their process and create more supply more frequently. Due to this, some countries that are struggling economically such as India and the Philippines have seen a steady increase in annual income (Vendomois). This leads into economic support for countries all around the world as the effects that GMOs have is widespread and is overall positively affecting many different stakeholders (Moscini 2001). Farmers make more money due to a surplus of crops and people who sell the products after buying them from the farmers also benefit from a financial boost. This allows for more food and money to be pumped into countries struggling in addition to boosting personal, country, and worldwide economies. It is quite evident that GMOs really prove to be nothing less than a booming success in all factors of life. There is no reason to kick them out and stop production and consumption when genetically modified foods are so beneficial to everyone.
Animal captivity is an incredibly hot topic studied and argued by all kinds of scientists, animals rights activists, and everyday citizens; however, after all the conversation is done, it is clear to see that placing animals in captivity does much more harm than good. Almost all zoos and aquariums claim to be all about education, but in reality this is hardly the truth. Many employees fail to properly educate visitors by spitting out facts that at times are not even true (Blackfish). Additionally, viewers are too consumed with the spectacle of an animal they have never encountered to even pay attention. A study was performed with visitors in a stereotypical zoo and it was discovered that 700 out of 1000 visitors observed treated the educational panels outside of habitats as wallpaper and didn’t even acknowledge them at all (Pitiful Prisons). While claiming to spread education, zoos really are more concerned with making money, but recently that has become a problem as well. Many zoos and aquariums claim that they have a positive impact on the economic situation of the area; however this is often not the case. Pandas are often a zoos largest attraction, but they are incredibly expensive to keep. The expenses are in the millions and four zoos in Washington, Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego reported that they lost over $33 million on Pandas in just three years (Cohn). That is a huge financial it to any city’s economy. Upon the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, Sea World’s stock plummeted over 33%, indicating serious potential issues with consumers growing distaste towards animal captivity (Kosman). The economic effect of zoos and aquariums is not what it used to be as more and more people begin to realize the unethical approach these establishments have. Zoos claim to be better for animals than the wild would be, but it has been documented that animals have a worse life in captivity than in the wild. For example, the life span of animals, specifically elephants, are decreased up to half of what they would be in the wild once placed in captivity (PETA UK). Countering this idea, zoos state that they are saving animals and later will release them back into the wild. Unfortunately, this is not always true as tigers, elephants, and chimpanzees have never successfully released back into the wild (PETA UK). In addition to this, when zoos have a surplus of animals, they often sell them off to shady sources or, even more disturbing, perform mercy killings if the animals are too sick or old. Not only does this unethical approach to animal captivity hurt the individual animals themselves, but also the ecological balance outside of the zoos. Removing an animal from its family and network of society has a profound negative impact on the way of life of the species. Families are torn apart leaving mothers emotionally distraught and fathers quite hostile and angry (Dunlap). These broken relationships can never be rebuilt because the animals can never be released into the wild. On top of this, capturing animals can shake up the fabric of the animal kingdom. New predators can rise to the top shifting the balance, or an abundance of animals lower on the totem pole due to a lack of predators can result in overpopulation. Zoos and aquariums are incredibly unethical in the ways they handle themselves and due to that it is clear to see that there is much more of a negative effect on society and the environment than a positive one.
The media portrayal of environmental issues is relatively non-existent in my opinion. Whenever I see something about any of these topics on a media outlet it is almost always supporting it in order for financial success. That is what drives all of media is the financial component. Media outlets everywhere heavily support plastic because it is so useful and abundant. GMOs are relatively unseen across media outlets, but that is due to the newness of the topic. Zoos and aquariums are heavily advertised in order to draw more and more attendance to net profit. On the contrast, all three documentaries we watched slandered each topic in a heavily biased way. Each filmmaker had a distinct personal connection and played to the emotions of their audiences while failing to fairly show both sides of the issue. Watching the documentaries did nothing for me but want to stand on the opposite side. I feel as if it is quite ignorant and unprofessional to heavily influence and educate the public with only one side of the story. I did enjoy watching some of the documentaries, but I did not in any way support or enjoy how they were made and presented. It shows bad character to be so judgmental and ignorant to other people’s opinions especially when there are just as many for both sides.
I can gladly say that this course allowed for me to truly develop an understanding and appreciation for environmental issues. Going into the semester, I knew hardly anything, if anything at all about every topic we covered. Now I firmly believe that I have a much better understanding of many incredibly important and highly debated topics in our society today. I never would have looked into any of these topics on my own and I am surprisingly pleased now that I have. I always looked at myself as someone that didn’t really care about the environment that much, but that has definitely changed. There is no doubt in my mind that going forward, when I am doing anything I will constantly be thinking about the impact my actions may have on the world around me. In my opinion the two topics that were the most important were plastic and global warming. These two were the most important because I believe us as people can have a heavy impact on both topics. If we recycle plastic more than we throw it away, then there will be much less garbage floating in our oceans and killing wildlife. Additionally, we can take stances on global warming by using less machinery and supporting large companies less. We are only a small piece of the puzzle as individuals, but if everyone bands together, we can make an impact on our world because after all it is the only world we have and we must protect it from the everyday dangers it faces.