I am an environmentalist and use this label with reluctance because, these days, being one is not politically correct and to the average American, environmentalists are, at best, somewhat out of touch with reality and at worst, left-wing socialist nut jobs. To be sure, the political right views environmental issues as red herrings which are being used to impose a socialistic agenda on a free and independent America. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Many environmental concerns are not only legitimate, but are serious issues which we ignore at our peril.
Our problem or more appropriately, the situation which keeps us from realizing the nature of our problem, is that we are victims of our past. For man's entire existence on planet Earth, he has been free do as he pleases without regard to the consequences. Humankind could indiscriminately use what was found in nature; transform it into anything desired without noticeable consequence, and discard anything without concern for the impact that this would have on our environment.
As recently as fifty years ago, industrial corporate stock certificates pictured factories with billowing smokestacks because a smoking chimney was a sign of wealth and prosperity. The accepted panacea of the day for poisonous waste was, "dilution is the solution to pollution". In other words, whatever we wanted to dispose of could be dumped into a river or lake where it would disappear into the environment and no longer be a problem.
We have come a long way from those days, but unfortunately we have not come far enough. Many people are now sensitized to the need to keep our environment clean and certainly there are now many laws in existence to ensure this is the case, but these laws are a Band Aid on a severed artery. They make us feel better and enable us think we are doing something to solve the problem, but we are not. The truth of the matter is that we still behave like the world will supply us with an endless flow of raw materials and that it has the capability to absorb an endless flow of waste and pollutants. Only a fool thinks this is the case, but while we pay lip service to environmental concerns, we continue to think and act like fools.
Our problem is that we do too much. We take too much out of the ground and we discard too much into the environment. Therefore, the key to understanding the root cause of our problem is to ask why? The answer to this question is obvious; we do too much because there are too many of us. The root cause of all our environmental problems is not our doings, but that fact that we have over-populated our planet. This being the case, it now must be asked how serious is the problem? The answer to this question is matter of intense debate around the globe, but from where I sit, we are in serious trouble and all that is necessary to see how bad things are is to open our eyes and look at the record. For example:
Population Growth: The population of the world is presently 6.2 billion human beings and for the past fifty years, has increased more rapidly that ever before in history. At the time of Christ, world population was about 300 million people. By 2050, world population is expected to increase another astounding fifty percent and is expected to level off at about 9 billion people.
Mass Extinctions: Mankind is presently causing and witnessing the greatest mass extinction event that has ever occurred in the history of life on our planet. If established trends continue, one half of all the species that presently existed will be gone in the next several decades. This rate of destruction of life is even greater than the mass extinction caused by a giant meteor collision that occurred sixty-five million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. Our present mass extinction is being fueled by human activity which destroys the habitants of plant and animal life.
Rain Forests Destruction: Rain forests, today, are rapidly disappearing in all areas of the world and their depletion, without considering anything else, rivals that of the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Every year, Brazil chops down an area of forest the size of the state of Nebraska. In addition to the disappearance of Amazon basin rain forest, many other forests are being cut down as well. In Indonesia, Zaire, Papua-New Guinea, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela, rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate and there is no end in sight to the devastation. The primary reason for rainforest demise is their deliberate destruction to make way for farms that will only be used for several years. After that, the exposed soil is depleted of nutrients and will no longer support crops or other plant life and animal life. The farmers responsible for this crime against nature, then move on to do the same thing deeper in the rain forest.
Global Warming: Global warming, while still a controversial topic is being recognized by more and more scientists as a problem that must be dealt with. The evidence in this regard is real and with each passing day, becomes clearer and more compelling. Glaciers throughout the world are receding, the Arctic and Antarctica ice packs are disintegrating, global sea levels are rising, world average temperatures are increasing, storms such as hurricanes and cyclones are becoming more numerous and severe, climates are changing, and animals and plant life are shifting their ranges in response to shifts in climate.
Acid Rain: Acid rain is caused by airborne pollutants that acidify falling rain with highly destructive results. Among these is the dying off of trees in the world's forests and reduced agricultural production. Scientists first discovered acid rain in 1852, when the English chemist Robert Agnus invented the term. Acid rain, itself, cannot be seen but its effects are clearly evident. The prime contributors to acid rain are automobiles emissions and coal-burning power plants, but almost all industrial activity makes a contribution. Different regions of the world experience different levels of acid rain, however, so much contributing gases are now being produced that the problem is global and no area of the planet escapes this onslaught.
Solid Waste Disposal: Human activity produces solid waste and far too often this waste is hazardous and dangerous to living things including man. The levels of hazardous waste are continuing to grow throughout the world and this is especially true in developing countries. The more advanced a society is the more hazardous waste it produces, so as third world countries industrialize, the hazardous waste they produce increases accordingly. Hazardous waste is cumulative in the environment. Once dumped, it stays where it is for many years and the world's ecosystems are still being affected by waste discard many years ago. Adding to this problem is the hazardous waste presently being produced and all that will be produced in future years. Included in this waste are spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants which will remain lethal for thousands upon thousands of years.
Water Pollution: Fourteen billion pounds of solid waste and nineteen trillion gallons of liquid waste are dumped in the oceans of the world each year. The oil spill of the Exxon Valdez is a horrible example of this kind of pollution, but what people do not realize is that the total amount of old spilled by the Exxon Valdez was only five-percent of the total amount of oil spilled that year. Ocean pollution affects every nation around the world because water movement disperses pollution to every corner of the globe. Presently, in the center of the Pacific Ocean, there is a huge area where ocean currents concentrate solid waste and this area looks like a garbage dump. Industrialization is the prime source of water pollution and as nations become more industrialized water pollution increases and has a greater impact on fish stocks and the oceans ability to support life.
Dead Zones: A dead zone is an area in the world's oceans where oxygen depletion causes the death of all living creatures unable to escape from the zone. The size and number of oxygen-deprived "dead zones" throughout the planet has increased steadily since the 1970's and now they number about one-hundred fifty. Dead zones are a threat to the world's fisheries and to humans who depend up those fisheries for sustenance. They are caused by excessive of nitrogen which flows into coastal waters from farm runoff, sewage, and emissions from vehicles and factories. In what scientists call a "nitrogen cascade"; the chemicals pass, untreated, into our oceans and triggers a proliferation of plankton. In turn, this depletes oxygen in the water. Fish are able to flee from these areas, but slow moving bottom-dwellings like clams, lobsters and oysters are less able to escape and die. Dead zones can range from less than a square mile in size, but the largest one is now 45,000 square miles and growing.
Red Tide: For the past several decades, red tide breakouts have been increasing in number and size all around the globe. Red tide is an explosion of one-celled organisms that form a bloom toxic to fish, mammals, and shellfish. Exposure to red tide has sent humans into coughing fits and blooms in Florida are known to have killed dolphins and manatees. The cause of red tide blooms, which can come in a multitude of colors, is not known with definitive certainty, but research has shown that sewage and agricultural run-off exacerbate the problem.
Fish Stock Depletion: Mankind depends upon the oceans to produce a significant amount of the food it eats. Since the 1950's fish stocks throughout the world have been significantly decreasing and more and more varieties are being classified as being over-exploited or depleted. Currently, only three percent of marine stocks are classified as being underexploited, while twenty-one percent are moderately exploited, which means that present fish stocks could support a modest increase in fishing and harvest levels. However, fifty-two percent are being fished at their maximum biological productivity and this means they are fully exploited, such that increased fishing would reduce future harvest levels. The remaining twenty-four percent are classified as being over exploited (16%), depleted (7%), or recovering from depletion (1%). Of the top ten food species of fish, seven of them are presently fully exploited or over exploited.