All life exists is the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that envelops the planet. We often think of the atmosphere as extending to the heavens when in fact, it is only about ten kilometers thick. The biosphere, astronomer Carl Sagan used to say, is as thick as a layer of varnish painted on a basketball. That is where all life flourishes. Beyond it, there is only space.
Humanity has become so numerous and powerful that we are now altering the biological, physical and chemical makeup of the biosphere. Everything we do has repercussions throughout it because everything is interconnected. If, for example, we pour toxins into air, water or soil, it's clear that these same toxins will end up in us. This is exactly what we learned from Rachel Carson when she wrote her influential 1962 book Silent Spring, about the effects of the pesticide DDT in the biosphere. Carson explained how DDT, sprayed onto farmers' fields, killed insects as it was supposed to. But the pesticide also had unintended effects, such as ending up in fish, birds and mammals—including humans.
Since the initial publication of Silent Spring, it has become increasingly difficult to recognize how we are connected to the rest of the world because of globalization. And this has profound implications for the biosphere, and by extension all of humanity.
When I get up in the morning, I stagger into the kitchen where I perform my ritual of grinding a few coffee beans for a wakeup shot of caffeine before hitting the shower. As I wait for the coffee to steep, I don't reflect on the fact that Canada is a northern country. So where did the coffee come from? How were they grown? What were the conditions and incomes of the people who picked the beans? How did the beans get to my home?
The simple act of buying a pound of coffee at the local grocery store has ecological and social repercussions that extend around the planet. Yet they are not obvious.
Now imagine a television set, car or computer. Each has dozens of components made of many different minerals and materials. Where were the original metals mined? What was the ecological impact? What were the working conditions of the people who processed, manufactured and assembled the various components? The list of questions goes on.
Considered this way, it becomes clear that when we purchase a product, it is far more than the simple exchange of money for goods. The very act of purchasing an item means that we are supporting a host of activities, ranging from digging the raw materials out of the planet, to processing, manufacturing, transporting and selling. Yet the ecologically destructive or socially exploitive costs of our products are seldom visible.
Globalization obliterates the identity of local ecosystems and local communities. The entire planet becomes a source of raw materials while the "market" is no longer a local village place. Instead the market is potentially all 6.6 billion of us. And the effects of what we purchase become magnified on a global scale, having profound effects on the biosphere, and all of us who depend on it for survival.
So where do we begin? It would help if we had more information available to us to consider the full costs of the items we purchase. For example, the labels of processed foods or pharmaceutical drugs help us take responsibility for deciding whether to put the ingredients listed into our bodies. The same could be done with other products.
In most products, the social and ecological costs that went into them are never presented. The real costs are disguised in slick package design and smart advertising slogans. They are sold without any information other than where they were made.
Living as we do, divorced from the production of the goods we purchase each day, it is easy to forget how interconnected we are to the rest of the world. Economic globalization has meant that even a northern country like Canada can benefit from products like coffee from far away places in different seasons.
We devote a considerable amount of our lives working to earn the money to buy stuff. But in this globalized world, there should be a responsibility that accompanies our purchases, a responsibility to understand the ecological, social and spiritual repercussions of each item. The biosphere depends on it. And we depend on the biosphere.