Human activity is changing the environment at an unprecedented scale. Deforestation, water pollution, the demand for fossil fuels, and overpopulation are altering our once-pristine ecosystems into wastelands. 

If these activities are left unmanaged, we run the risk of eroding our Earth’s environmental integrity, which is the natural, balanced state of the planet’s ecosystems. To continue maintaining environmental integrity will require us to better manage our cities and conserve our natural habitats. 

In this article, we explore what environmental integrity is and how humans can continue maintaining it for future generations.

Key takeaways:

  • The Earth’s environmental integrity refers to a condition where natural processes occur with their expected strength and frequency

  • It’s often implemented in law through conservation strategies that limit what humans can do in natural areas

  • Maintaining the Earth’s environmental integrity requires smart urban planning, the control of soil erosion, and the expansion of nature conservation projects that can protect natural areas from the impacts of human activity

What is environmental integrity? 

Environmental integrity is a condition where the natural processes of a place occur with the strength and frequency expected in the region. Places with environmental integrity experience normal patterns of rainfall, fires, and other processes and contain ecosystems that house the living and non-living species native to the area.

“Environmental integrity” is often used in legal and philosophical writing to refer to an undisturbed state of natural conditions. These are circumstances in which plant, animal, and human life can continue freely. Living beings can receive all of the resources essential to their growth and reproduction, such as water, food, and shelter. 

According to the 2012 National Park Service report, a place cannot be considered to have environmental integrity without life-supporting resources. Ecosystems with environmental integrity need to be self-sustaining and self-regulating without requiring human interference. 

Food webs, nutrient cycling, natural disturbances, and other natural processes have to be present to allow animal and plant species to thrive, reproduce, and populate the area naturally. Any human activity that disturbs the development of a healthy natural system negatively impacts the notion of environmental integrity.

This very intersection between human activity and environmental integrity is an area of continued contention. Humans have exploited the natural environment, particularly in the past few centuries, for their survival at the cost of other plant and animal lives. We’ve turned forests into farms and wetlands into housing projects with almost no regard for the health of the environment. 

Establishing a balance between the well-being of humans and other living beings in the environment is the key objective of environmental integrity. As some writers have argued, it’s morally important for the environment to remain intact for all living beings, including humans. Only then can the environment have positive instrumental value for all of its inhabitants. 

What is environmental integrity in philosophy? 

The concept of environmental integrity in philosophy was developed in the early twentieth century by a philosopher and ecologist named Aldo Leopold. His seminal “land ethic” philosophy looked at the holistic relationship between living beings, with homo sapiens as mere members of the land community. 

Leopold considered natural processes and organisms to be “right” when they helped preserve the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community”. Anything that could not achieve this end was regarded as wrong. 

Over the decades, Leopold’s definition of environmental integrity has been interpreted into different meanings by scientists and philosophers from different disciplines. It has been adapted to refer to the natural state of things in hierarchical organizations, harmonic communities, and even thermodynamics. 

Among biologists, bioethicists, and others working with the environment, the definition of environmental integrity continues to be debated. Some consider a place to have environmental integrity as long as it has a significant presence of one or more indicator species, such as grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park. 

Others consider this definition to be too simplistic and neglectful of natural processes. They argue instead that environmental integrity should encompass a complex set of natural processes and diversity of fauna and flora that represent the intricate relationships present in the natural world. 

How environmental integrity is implemented in law

Environmental integrity has been enshrined into some laws by international environmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature to protect the environment from increasing pressures.

The success of codifying environmental integrity has created a legal foundation for the promotion of environmental ethics, attainment of environmental justice, and pursuit of a sustainable future for all living beings. 

Environmental integrity is implemented in law as a series of conservation strategies that help to maintain or restore vital ecological processes of natural spaces. If the conservation strategies can be effectively carried out, the thinking goes that the self-sustaining and self-regulating nature of the environment can be achieved.

One such conservation strategy that’s been implemented to achieve this goal is the limiting of human influence on the environment. Before approving any construction works, government regulators may require companies to conduct environmental impact assessments and identify mitigation measures to limit the impact of the completed project on the environment. 

Other parts of the conservation strategy seek to foster the creation of more strict and enforceable environmental laws, regulations, and policies at the local and national levels. These laws may hold companies and individuals responsible for environmental damage accountable under criminal and civil codes. 

Environmental integrity may also be implemented through transparency and anti-corruption mechanisms that produce timely scientific reports on the impacts of human activity on the environment. 

The Environmental Integrity Project 

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) is a non-profit, nonpartisan environmental organization based in Washington D.C. that focuses on investigating environmental polluters and strengthening the enforcement of environmental laws. Its main objective is to expose the public health risks caused by air and water pollution. 

The EIP was founded in 2002 by Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director. Since its foundation, the organization has utilized a multidisciplinary approach using techniques from the law, environmental science, governance, grassroots mobilization, and data analysis in its advocacy work. 

It publishes reports on infringements of environmental laws using objective facts and figures as well as testimonies from local communities. It also pressures lawmakers to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual companies, accountable for environmental damage. 

The Environmental Integrity Project’s three main areas of focus are power plants, factory farms, and refineries. It specifically targets these facilities for the huge environmental impact they can have and the complicated political hurdles that appear when regulators try to reduce the environmental hazards posed by these facilities.

In recent years, the Environmental Integrity Project has been recognized for its role in filing a federal lawsuit against a wood pellet manufacturing plant in Houston, Texas that was found to be emitting hundreds of tons of illegal air pollutants into neighboring communities every year. 

The organization has even sued the EPA for its failure to reduce the number of toxic metals disposed of by coal-fired power plants into rivers, streams, and lakes. 

How to maintain the Earth’s environmental integrity 

The rapid pace of urban growth and massive exploitation of the planet’s resources are causing a decline of Earth’s ecosystems. Without targeted intervention, the Earth’s environmental integrity could deteriorate within the next few centuries. 

This problem is further compounded by the swift rise of the human population, which is expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 20 years. Public policy experts predict that the urban population could rise to nearly four billion by 2030 and cause an unprecedented burden on natural resources.

Managing the planet’s remaining resources and natural spaces is vital to maintaining the Earth’s environmental integrity. Here are three ways that the environment can be saved. 

Focus on smart urban planning

A rise in the Earth’s urban population will very likely lead to an expansion of megacities, which are known for their enormous waste and water footprints. Smart urban planning can help megacities reduce these negative environmental impacts and preserve existing ecosystems, such as rivers and woodlands, which are key to maintaining environmental integrity.

For smart urban planning to work, city development plans have to be drawn up using data and insights from a wide range of disciplines that include law enforcement, natural resource management, and public health. 

A close working relationship between construction companies, urban developers, city mayors, and urban planners is also beneficial to developing projects that increase natural spaces in cities such as wetland parks and nature trails. 

Help rural communities control erosion

If we move away from the urban context we’ll find environmental problems in rural and remote communities. Chief among these problems is poor soil health. Characterized by soil erosion, poor soil health can cause the collapse of entire ecosystems as the soil can no longer support the complex web of plant, animal, and microbial growth

To improve soil health, soil erosion has to be controlled. This can be done through the planting of ground cover crops on farmland, the preservation of trees, and the use of mulching. 

Conserve Earth’s remaining natural habitats

The successful maintenance of Earth’s environmental integrity rests on the continued existence of its natural habitats. Mountains, forests, rivers, oceans, deserts, polar ice caps - these are all essential to keeping life functioning on the planet.

The best way to protect these natural habitats is to expand the number of environmental conservation projects in all parts of the world. These protected areas are shielded from exploitative human activity and commercial interests, and allow biodiversity to flourish within them.  

Other ways to do your part for the environment 

Doing your part to save the planet doesn’t have to be complicated. With an online financial platform like Aspiration, you can fight climate change with each transaction you make.

Customers with an Aspiration Spend and Save account can round up your purchases to plant trees through our “Plant Your Change” program. Our system rounds up every transaction made using an Aspiration eco-friendly debit card to the nearest whole dollar and plants trees with the spare change on behalf of our customers. 

Aspiration does not invest any money in fossil fuels, which means that all of our customers’ deposits have no links to the environmentally destructive oil industry.

Try Aspiration today to make your money work for the planet.

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