Press "Enter" to skip to content

The weakening of our natural environment goes far beyond individual litter

The University of Maine students are not free of guilt when it comes to littering. A walk down “frat row,” the Mall or a peek into any dorm building would back up that statement. The ground is often covered with beer cans, plastic bottles and food wrappers. The skunk that can be found rooting around in the garbage cans on the UMaine Snapchat story would also suggest that the campus has an issue with the disposal of garbage and littering.  

Associate Professor of Freshwater Fisheries Ecology Stephen Coghlan offered his two cents on the issue of littering on campus and in the nearby Penobscot River. Coghlan acknowledges that littering is bad but suggests that the real problem is not with littering or litter itself but with our industrialized human society. The creation of plastics, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, fossil fuels, etc., is more than the Earth is capable of dealing with, as the conversion of nature to human goods and services always creates waste. 

“Littering is not the real problem. That is a symptom of the real problem,” Coghlan said. 

Coghlan talked about the four laws of ecology and economics, specifically focusing on the second law — everything must go somewhere. Whether or not the beer cans from parties end up in the Penobscot River or a landfill, the can is not going anywhere. Humans have created things that the environment cannot detoxify or disseminate, such as beer cans.  

Coghlan discussed the United States during the 1960s. After increased affluence, the economy sank back into a recession, which then caused the government to turn to economic growth via consumerism. The environment was then being used as an open sewer pit. Due to the increase in consumerism, there was then an influx of pollution from fossil fuel manufacturing, plastics, bottles, containers, etc. 

Pollution was finally starting to catch up to the people of America. Coghlan notes it was put in places rich people could not see. Humans had already overwhelmed Earth’s capacity. Public service announcements such as “Susan Spotless,” from 1961, or the “Crying Indian,” from 1970, were put out to blame pollution on selfish, careless people who wouldn’t throw out their trash. 

The government attempted to make average people feel guilty about a problem they were not causing or benefitting from. The blame was placed on the individual rather than the large corporations that promote consumerism and contribute to environmental issues. 

Coghlan suggests that society needs to change the paradigm and the incentives by which the systems operate. He believes that we need to teach children that the economy is embedded in the environment. Rather than teaching economics as a religion, it could be taught as bioeconomics. Coghlan offers Nate Hagen’s “Great Simplification” or the podcast series “Unlearning Economics” as educational resources for these difficult ideas. 

The Green Campus Initiative (GCI)  also works to help make UMaine a more sustainable culture and environment. More information about GCI can be found online on their website, Instagram or Facebook. 

Get the Maine Campus' weekly highlights right to your inbox!
Email address
First Name
Last Name
Secure and Spam free...