Anthropology major Lauren Burr's op-ed piece for Professor Browne's Public Anthropology course was published in Santa Fee New Mexican.

As appearing in Santa Fe New Mexican | February 24, 2018

by Lauren Burr

Lauren Burr

In three decades, we have projections of a global population increase by about one-third, but a less than 10 percent increase in accessible runoff water. This means that water for irrigation, industry and household use faces threatened sustainability. Regions like New Mexico already are too familiar with water shortages, and we cannot afford to mismanage water supplies. Yet, according to the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, our water supplies are at risk of contamination from carcinogenic plumes and other dangers.

Water and other natural resources have been essential to the development and progress in the U.S. But somewhere along the way of this development, we pushed the bounds of nature too far. By viewing nature as a conglomerate of extractable resources, we create a stark distinction between humans and nature. A distinction such as this gives us the idea that we have the ability — and the right — to interfere with nature as needed for our immediate interests. When immediate interests are profits, development and progress, New Mexico’s water faces threat of water speculators increasing pressure to mine and profit from groundwater.

There is something ironic about our idea of progress. Certainly our standard of living has risen due to industrialization and economic growth. But the “progress” for which we so strongly strive may be harming us more than we realize.

We’ve known for quite some time that invasions into an ecosystem are harmful, especially when not well understood. We owe Rachel Carson a debt of recognition for bringing to the public’s eye the harmful effects of pesticides when she published Silent Spring more than 50 years ago. Demonstrating the intricacy of our natural system, one of her stories goes: People spray trees with pesticides to rid them of Dutch elm disease spread by beetles. The spray coats the leaves of the tree in a film, the leaves fall off, and decompose into the soil. Earthworms in the soil ingest the pesticide from the leaves, and finally, birds eat the earthworms, which poison and often kill the birds. This story is just one example of the damage to lifeforms through our interference with a complex environment.

In the effort to control one part of nature, we forget one crucial idea of which Carson reminds us: “In nature, nothing exists alone.” The chemicals in the pesticide travel amid the intricate web of the ecosystem, and numerous species feel the destruction, including people. In the name of progress, we inflict harm to biodiversity, plants, nonhuman animals and ourselves.

I, for one, would like to think that grim stories like these are a thing of the past — something my parents’ generation surely would put an end to before I was born. But just in 2016, a list of 10 environmental concerns in New Mexico for that year included polluted air from Cold War-era radioactive waste, uranium mining industries and poor air quality in lower-income regions.

The underlying problems Carson identified — the assumption that nature is ours to conquer and control without truly understanding its intricacies — are still present today. For the sake of profit and progress, we manipulate natural resources like water supplies in a manner contrary to the common good.

That’s the ironic thing about our idea of progress. Is it really progress if we sacrifice our health and the health of our environment for the sake of growing our economies and civilizations? While I’m grateful for the quality of life I enjoy due to this country’s development, I don’t want to be among the last generations to admire the beautiful New Mexico skies without the foggy lens of pollution and environmental decay.

Lauren Burr was born and raised in Los Alamos and is now an undergraduate at Colorado State University majoring in anthropology and economics.