Air, water and soil are the essentials of Earth’s environment that sustain life on the planet. A balance has developed with these three over millennium where humans and millions of other species coexist in a closed system. Significant losses with one or more will throw our ecosystem out of balance and life as we know it will eventually perish. Environmental degradation occurs when natural or man-made circumstances overwhelm existing sensitivities that precariously provide nature the means to perpetuate itself and all who live within it.
Prior to modern’s man’s existence roughly 20,000 years ago the life forces present, which included lesser forms of homo sapiens, lived with what they had. There was no agriculture, no industries powered by fossil fuels and no urban areas where large populations amassed into small corners of the planet. The global ecosystem essentially was not strained and what degradation did occur in small locales from overuse was minimal and far from making the planet totally uninhabitable by aerobic creatures.
But as the human population grew and expanded across the planet, stress developed with some habitats. If accompanied by natural disasters of flood, fire, volcanic and seismic activity and heavy wind forces, life in those regions would become difficult if not impossible.
There have been and continue to be natural climate changes that come into play gradually and alter the terrain where humans either adapted easily or were forced to relocate. Africa is our best example of this.
Desertification – once healthy farm land becoming dry and arid – has been occurring for at least 5000 years in most of Africa but a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicates that “what is new is the coincidence of drought with the increasing pressures put on fragile arid and semi-arid lands by mounting numbers of people and livestock.” (FAO document, Land and environmental degradation and desertification in Africa, The magnitude of the problem).
The prophetic statement of the cartoon character “Pogo” that declared “We have seen the enemy and they are us”, holds true today as it pertains to conditions for sustaining life on earth. The rates of environmental degradation have increased exponentially as more and more people vie for the limited resources of air, water and food production from soil. We each contribute to this degradation with lifestyles that pollute air and water and reduce land to parking lots and shopping malls.
This is not an American problem. It is truly a global exercise by all humans who have failed to see the impact of their actions on the place they call home. But it is more the result of developed countries that have created conditions threatening the ecosystem we depend upon.
Industrialization has utilized carbon emitting pollutants and other green house gases faster than nature can mollify their increase. CO2 emissions are twice what they were just 200 years. This is a faster rate of increase than was in play the previous 18,000 years or longer periods that science has been able to measure with ice core samples.
The ability of our planet to transfer this CO2 into oxygen has been significantly reduced through the decades of clear cutting forest and other oxygen giving plants in order to provide landfills for our waste and massive developments of concrete to house more people in tighter quarters. More accumulates in the atmosphere now creating an insulation blanket that is warming the climate at a rate that parallels the CO2 increase caused by human actions.
Our agricultural habits have resorted to methods that deplete soils of nutrients, forcing us to add synthetically-engineered ones. These herbicides and fertilizers wash into our streams, lakes and oceans and contaminate potable water while acidifying the ocean and creating oxygen-deprived “dead zones”, killing off marine life faster than they can reproduce.
Solving environmental degradation requires forethought and planning. It requires behavior changes that consume less and recycle more. It requires using air and water friendly sources of energy like wind and solar and not oxygen-killing, disease-causing oil and coal.
On a personal level it means using less electricity, traveling less in more energy efficient vehicles and hanging on longer to what we have rather than filling landfills with stuff that people in poorer countries could find great use for. During my tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, I watched the local villagers rummage through our dump site and make use of the items we discarded. Soles for sandals were used from discarded tire rubber and water containers were made from re-configured tin cans.
We have been led by the marketing minds of mass production to consume like there is no tomorrow. Never mind whether or not resources will dry up or alter climate patterns as a result of their demise. Capitalism has been a great economic model to raise this nation to a level of wealth unseen by most other nations but it requires the presence of mind to realize that consumption is only one part of a sustainable market economy.
Without planning and providing for shortages and the ill-effects of our production methods we are all doomed to fight one another to hold on to what little remains of an ecosystem’s life-sustaining essentials – air, water and soil. We need to avoid leaders who chant such nonsense as “drill baby, drill” or insist that we shop when crises occur.
Bold action is required also to circumvent the status quo and make policy decisions that may not be popular with a poorly informed and often misinformed public. Decisions to change our exploitative and wasteful ways should be based on the best knowledge available and not what’s likely so get some yahoo re-elected for another 2, 4 or 6 years.
In chemistry 101 I learned a basic bit of reality that should have altered my wasteful, consuming habits. But like most people I paid lip service to it rather than honoring its mandate. Everything that makes up our planet is fixed. If we remove one aspect of it and convert it to something else we are still limited by the fact that no extra air, water and soil have been created to accommodate this change.
When we convert dead organic matter to gasoline and home heating fuels we create conditions that impact that delicate balance that provided for a life where species existed as long as excesses in CO2 stayed underground and ample foliage accommodated moderate population increases spread out over large areas of earth.
When we make fertilizers and air sprays from chemicals that either weren’t here to begin with or at non-threatening levels, we push the envelope on the environment that was not designed to handle them. The human congestion and chemical alteration/displacement have made for a sick planet and like any living organism it must expel what makes it ill or die from the inability to do so.
How to solve environmental degradation? It seems to be a no-brainer. And yet … ?