o The Frog Blog: Our Planet Our Home - What is its Future?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Our Planet Our Home - What is its Future?

As promised, here is another of the Transition Year essays produced for the Three Rock Churches Environmental Group competition. This time Julian Coquet-Benka has his say.

There are many problems facing our planet, if our future is to be a happy one. The most pressing issues are overcrowding, pollution, starvation and drought. I intend to look at these problems and their possible solutions.

The human population on Earth is rapidly nearing 7 billion people. This gives Earth an average population density of 46 people per square kilometre. Around 90% of these 7 million live on just 10% of the land. The population has almost tripled since 1950. One in six people live in hazardous environments. Overcrowding in the Earth’s cities can lead to disease epidemics and to the depletion of resources needed to cater for intensive populations.

Food resources are under pressure. Fish stocks are at an astounding low as over-fishing has depleted stocks of ‘big fish’ by 90% over the past few decades. Millions of gallons of grain are pumped around the world to provide nutrition for ruminants. Overcrowding bequeaths more overcrowding, as insufficient educational facilities are already failing to educate inhabitants about ways of breaking out of disease-ridden shanty towns, ghettos and slums.

In the short term, aggressive farming policies may be able to cater for expanding populations, and towering apartment blocks might manage to provide accommodation, but, more and more of the Earth’s resources are being mined and harvested to cater for our increasing population, and an unacceptably large proportion of these resources is immediately converted into the waste of our ‘throw away societies’. This waste then becomes a problem in itself as land-fill sites fill up and toxic fumes are produced by burning. Now is the time to explore alternative technologies.

The Reduction in Variety
The biodiversity of our planet is under grave threat, and scientists tell us that right now ‘a quarter of all mammal species face extinction’. According to Schipper et al. (2008) there are around 5,800 extant mammal species. That means 1,450 species face extinction within 30 years. Such threats of mass extinction are occurring all across the different biological Kingdoms, and the primary factor throughout is the destruction of habitats. Most of these habitats are destroyed by the direct action of humans, such as: logging, over-fishing, and the exhaustion of Ireland’s peat and bog lands as well as many other wetlands around the world. Indirect actions of modern societies also take their toll as lakes are poisoned by acid rain and the polar bears’ habitat is literally melting before our eyes, due to global warming.

Lions are an example of the rapid destruction of an entire species. The population of lions has fallen by nearly 90% in only 20 years – from an estimated figure of 200,000, to just 23,000. This decline is due to humanity’s expansion into wilderness areas, as over-population and over-crowding have driven humans to settle in previously unsullied land.

The diversity of cultivated plant species has also been greatly reduced. Only the most profitable are grown whilst hundreds of others are replaced by a single high-yield species. This reduction in crop variety means that certain species which relied on such plants will no longer have a habitat, as is true for several species of butterfly.

Drought is a major problem for humanity as all of our food is dependent on water, as well as our primary need for clean drinking water. Drought is not simply a lack of water, it is the lack of suitable and available water resources for drinking and for use in arable farming. The amount of water molecules on planet earth stays more or less constant, but its distribution around the globe and through the annual cycle of seasons is changing. As the population increases, and urban centres grow, more food is needed in already densely populated areas. The resulting intensive agriculture uses vast amounts of water to irrigate otherwise infertile land, and is responsible for widespread spraying of pesticides. These pesticides then run-off into both natural and man-made reservoirs, and poison our water resources. Global warming is making the sea level rise and causing coastal groundwater to become brackish, which is useless for irrigation unless desalinated. Global warming also causes annual temperature rises which increases evaporation from reservoirs and rivers - particularly in equatorial countries, causing severe drought. Increasing desertification results in barren landscapes become uninhabitable due to lack of water and extreme heat, leaving less land to live on and contributing to overcrowding. Desertification results from drought combined with over-grazing, which destroys the vegetation that binds the soil together and stops soil turning to dust which can be blown away. Loss of vegetation means that land is exposed to the full glare of the sun - turning it into a dry, cracked wasteland.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) there are currently 29 countries in the world that require outside assistance feeding their population. These countries are emerging nations whose agricultural system is not yet ‘petroleum powered’. As the demand increases for food evermore land is needed for farming which increases the amount of pesticides spread, as well as the quantity of farming fuel used (generally in the form of petroleum). Extra farms decrease land available for living space and intensive techniques lead to a reduction in crop diversity. The availability of raw materials for fertilisers and other additives is also becoming in short supply. As so much land is populated or occupied, agriculture is beginning to be established in previously uncultivated land such as in California. Entire canal systems have been dug to provide water to farms in some of the most arid land on the planet. This water has been diverted from rivers, which is making their levels plummet, and natural ecosystems die. Another problem is that the sun is evaporating the water in the canals increasing the salt concentration in the water meaning that the water will soon become unsuitable for irrigation.

Every year enough food is grown globally to feed Earth’s entire human population, however large amounts of agricultural produce are used to feed cattle and other ruminants instead. These animals don’t produce enough meat to feed the world’s population. Agricultural production is not always centred near the main concentrations of population and the transportation of food materials is becoming more expensive as energy prices rise, as well as increasing the global ‘carbon footprint’. To properly counter the issue of starvation both overcrowding and the energy crisis must be tackled.

Pollution has been a thorn in humanity’s side since the industrial revolution. Pollution is varied in form but is always harmful in some way to the environment and therefore to human existence. Acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, toxic waste and urban smog are all due to pollution - the by-products of humanity’s ‘success’. The price of this ‘success’ is thus the destruction and pollution of “our planet – our home”.

Pollution is the price we pay for the comfort, luxury and accessibility of modern life. To solve the problem however, a comfortable existence need not be abandoned, just moderated, and alternative energy sources need to be used.

Global Warming
Despite many misconceptions the greenhouse effect is not in itself a “bad thing”, it is in fact, necessary for life to exist on this planet. The “Enhanced Greenhouse Effect” is the primary concern. This is due to an excessive build up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). CO2 is the most prevalent of the two and, in terms of human activities, is predominantly released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Although less abundant, CH4 is far more damaging gram for gram, and the main source is cows and sheep. In Ireland ruminants are the highest contributing factor to global warming.

The Earth’s atmosphere acts as a ‘greenhouse’, maintaining a more or less constant temperature range. However, when extra greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere the greenhouse effect is enhanced and becomes too effective, trapping more long wave radiation and raising the Earth’s temperature. A solution would be to switch to alternative fuels and plant more forests, though both of these are unlikely to happen in the immediate future. Oil dependency is at an all-time high, whilst deforestation continues to threaten endangered ecosystems. As trees have been chopped down for use as lumber or paper, fewer trees remain to absorb CO2. Over 13 million hectares of forest disappear every year. Global warming has a major effect on ice caps. 30% of the surface area of Arctic ice has melted in 30 years. If all the ice on Greenland melted the sea level would rise by 7 meters. This would flood the world’s coastal plains - where 11 out of 15 of Earth’s major cities lie.

Ozone Depletion
The ozone layer is a layer of ‘ozone’ (O3) which absorbs UV rays protecting the ground below. The increased amount of CFC’s is becoming problematic as they destroy ozone molecules. CFC’s were used in fridges but have since been replaced because of their environmental effect. CFC’s are still used as gas propellants in deodorants and so on however and still pose a threat as UV can cause cancer and genetic mutation.

Acid Rain
Acid rain is caused by nitrogen dioxide and/or sulphur dioxide bonding with water in the air then falling as nitric or sulphuric acid. These acids have a pH of lower than 5.5 on average and cause damage to stonework and corrode metals. The environmental effects of acid rain are also very severe. Acid rain poisons lakes and kills all the bacteria and destroys the food chain. Acid rain is also highly damaging to coniferous trees in particular as reactions between the leaves and the acid, strengthen the concentration of the acid. Acid rain would cease to be a concern if alternative energy sources were found to replace fossil fuels.

Toxic Waste
Toxic waste or industrial waste is a major environmental problem. Factories pour chemical “soups” into the sea which poison aquatic life and can find its way into the drinking water and reservoirs of humans. Toxic waste can be disposed of safely but it requires large quantities of energy and, as oil prices at are at a record high, it is often not thought to be ‘commercially viable’.

Water is the most important resource on Earth, but is amongst the least well managed. 5,000 people die every day due to lack of clean living water and almost one billion people live without a regular source of fresh drinkable water. Waste is often dumped with callous disregard to water quality in order to create profit for companies.

The Energy Crisis
The most pressing and ubiquitous issue today is the energy crisis. It is the main concern of governments and environmentalists alike. Oil is finite, coal is finite, gas is finite, and once it is gone we cannot get it back. If the energy crisis is solved and cheap and environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels are discovered, the gravity of all the situations discussed above is greatly reduced, if not resolved. With cheap and easily obtainable energy water is readily available through desalination, and toxic waste can be disposed of safely. Reduced CO2, sulphur and nitrous emissions would reduce the problems of acid rain.

Nuclear power offers a promise of clean and cheap energy but, there is the problem of radioactive waste disposal, and public misinformation about this and the link with nuclear weaponry, means that (outside France) progress is hampered. Other promising alternatives include: solar power, hydroelectric power and wind power.

There are gargantuan problems ahead for humanity and one thing is certain, we as a species will not always find a technological solution to the problems we are creating for our environment. What we can do, is to be aware of the need to leave as good a world as possible to the next generation. This means not destroying everything in a mindless rush towards immediate profit and instant gratification. It is my firm belief that we can overcome our current predicament, because I believe in incentives as controls on human behaviour, and the incentive is simple “save the world or die”!

Schipper, J. (and 129 coauthors), 2008. The status of the world's land and marine mammals: Diversity, threat, and knowledge. Science 322: 225-230.

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