Our Battered Earth—The Assaults Strike Many Areas
IN JUNE of last year, the Earth Summit on the environment was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. To coincide with it, in that same month, India Today published an editorial by its associate editor Raj Chengappa. It was entitled “The Wounded Earth.” Its opening paragraphs painted a graphic picture:
“In 1971 when Edgar Mitchell flew to the moon on board Apollo 14, his first glimpse of earth from space sent him into rhapsody. ‘It looks like a sparkling blue and white jewel . . . Laced with slowly swirling veils of white . . . Like a small pearl in a thick black sea of mystery,’ he radioed back effusively to Houston.
“Twenty-one years later, if Mitchell was to be sent back into space, this time with special spectacles that allowed him to see the invisible gases of the earth’s atmosphere, a vastly different sight would greet him. He would see giant punctures in the protective ozone shields over Antarctica and North America. Instead of a sparkling blue and white jewel he would see a dull, dirty earth filled with dark, swirling clouds of dioxides of carbon and sulphur.
“If Mitchell took out his camera and shot images of forest cover of the earth and compared it with those he took in ’71, he would be stunned by the amount they have shrunk. And if he opened his special telescope to help him examine the filth in the waters of the earth, he would see ribbons of poison criss-crossing the land masses and dark balls of tar lining much of the ocean floor. ‘Houston,’ he would have radioed back, ‘what on earth have we done?’
“Actually, we don’t need to go 36,000 km [22,000 mi] into space to know what we have done. Today, we can drink, breathe, smell and see pollution. Within 100 years, and more so in the past 30, human beings have brought the earth to the brink of disaster. By spewing an excessive amount of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere we are triggering debilitating climatic changes. Gases that our refrigerators and air-conditioners use are now responsible for depleting the protective ozone layer, exposing us to skin cancer and altering the gene structures in smaller animals. Meanwhile, we have degraded vast tracks of land, destroyed forests at suicidal rates, dumped tonnes of poison into rivers indiscriminately and poured toxic chemicals into our seas.
“Now more than anything else the threat to humanity comes from the destruction of the earth’s environment. And it needs a movement of planetary dimensions to arrest the holocaust.”
After enumerating many problems that the nations must concentrate on solving relative to the environment, Raj Chengappa concludes his editorial with these words: “All this must be done without delay. For the threat is no more to your children’s future. It is now. And here.”
So the earth doctors gather around. Conferences are held, cures are offered, but they can’t agree. They argue. ‘It’s not really sick,’ some say. ‘It’s on its deathbed!’ others cry. The rhetoric escalates, the remedies proliferate, the doctors procrastinate, while the patient deteriorates. Nothing is done. They need to make further studies. They write prescriptions that are never filled. Alas, so much of it is just a delaying tactic to allow the polluting to continue and the profits to accumulate. The patient never gets the medicine, his ills increase, the crisis deepens, and the battering of the earth continues.
The earth and the life on it are very complex, intricately interwoven. The millions of interrelated living creatures have been referred to as the web of life. Cut one strand, and the web may start to unravel. Topple one domino, and dozens of others will fall. The cutting down of a tropical rain forest illustrates this.
By photosynthesis the rain forest takes in carbon dioxide from the air and returns oxygen to it. It drinks up huge quantities of rainwater but uses very little in making its food. The great bulk of it is recycled into the atmosphere as water vapor. There it makes new rain clouds for more needed rainfall for the rain forest and the millions of living plants and animals it nourishes beneath its green canopy.
Then the rain forest is cut down. The carbon dioxide remains overhead like a blanket to hold in the sun’s heat. Little oxygen is added to the atmosphere for the benefit of the animals. Little rain is recycled for more rainfall. Instead, any rain that falls rushes off the land into streams, carrying with it the topsoil necessary for the regrowth of plants. Streams and lakes are muddied, fish die. Silt is carried to the oceans and covers tropical reefs, and they die. Millions of plants and animals that once thrived under the green canopy disappear, the heavy rains that once watered the land diminish, and the long slow process of desertification sets in. Remember, the great Sahara Desert of Africa was once green, but now this largest expanse of sand on earth is edging into parts of Europe.
At the Earth Summit, the United States and other affluent countries used pressure to try to get Brazil and other developing countries to stop cutting their rain forests. “The United States argues,” according to a New York Times dispatch, “that forests, especially tropical forests, are being destroyed at an alarming rate in the developing world and that the planet as a whole will be the loser. Forests, it argues, are a global asset that help regulate the climate by absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide and are the repository of a major portion of the world’s living species.”
The charge of hypocrisy was quick in coming from the developing nations. According to The New York Times, they “bridle at what they see as an attempt to abridge their sovereignty by countries that long ago cut down their own trees for profit but now want to place the main burden of global forest conservation on countries struggling for economic survival.” A Malaysian diplomat put it bluntly: “We are certainly not holding our forests in custody for those who have destroyed their own forests and now try to claim ours as part of the heritage of mankind.” In the Pacific Northwest, the United States has only 10 percent of its old-growth rain forests left, and they are still being logged, yet it wants Brazil, which still has 90 percent of its Amazon forests, to stop all logging.
Those who preach to others, ‘Don’t destroy your forests,’ even while they destroy their own, are reminiscent of those described at Romans 2:21-23: “Do you, however, the one teaching someone else, not teach yourself? You, the one preaching ‘Do not steal,’ do you steal? You, the one saying ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You, the one expressing abhorrence of the idols, do you rob temples? You, who take pride in law, do you by your transgressing of the Law dishonor God?” Or environmentally stated, ‘do you, the one preaching, “Conserve your forests,” cut down your own?’
Closely linked to the destruction of forests are the concerns about global warming. The chemical and thermal dynamics are complex, but concern focuses primarily on one chemical in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide. It is a major factor in the heating of the earth. Researchers of the Byrd Polar Research Center reported last year that “all mid- and low-altitude mountain glaciers are now melting and retreating—some of them quite rapidly—and that the ice record contained in these glaciers shows that the last 50 years have been much warmer than any other 50-year period” on record. Too little carbon dioxide could mean colder weather; too much could mean melting polar icecaps and glaciers and flooding of coastal cities.
Concerning carbon dioxide India Today said:
“It may constitute just a fraction of the atmospheric gases: 0.03 per cent of the total. But without carbon dioxide, our planet would be as cold as the moon. By trapping the heat radiating from the earth’s surface, it regulates global temperatures to a life-sustaining 15 degrees celsius. But if its quantity increases, the earth could turn into one giant sauna bath.
“If global weather monitoring stations are anything to go by, the heat is truly on. The ’80s saw six of the seven hottest summers since weather began to be recorded about 150 years ago. The apparent culprit: a 26-per cent rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the pre-industrial revolution level.”
The source is thought to be the 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide spewed out annually by burning fossil fuels. A hoped-for treaty to exercise more control over carbon dioxide emissions was so watered down at the recent Earth Summit that it reportedly “raised the temperatures” of the climatologists there. One of them was so heated up that he said: “We just can’t continue business as normal. It is an indisputable fact that the global bank account of gases has lost its equilibrium. Something has to be done or we’ll soon have millions of environmental refugees.” He was referring to those who would flee from their flooded homelands.
Another burning issue concerns the so-called holes appearing in the ozone layer that protects earth from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. The chief culprit is the CFC (chlorofluorocarbons). They are used in refrigeration, air-conditioning, and cleaning solvents and as blowing agents in creating plastic foams. In many countries they are still spewed out by aerosol sprays. When they reach the stratosphere, the sun’s ultraviolet rays break them down, and free chlorine is released, each atom of which can destroy at least 100,000 ozone molecules. Holes, regions with drastically reduced ozone levels, are left in the ozone layer, both in Antarctica and in Northern latitudes, which means that more ultraviolet rays reach the earth.
These rays kill phytoplankton and krill, which are at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. Mutations are caused in the DNA molecules that contain life’s genetic code. Crops are affected. The rays cause eye cataracts and skin cancers in humans. When NASA researchers found high concentrations of chlorine monoxide over northern regions of the United States, Canada, Europe, and Russia, one of the researchers said: “Everybody should be alarmed about this. It’s far worse than we thought.” Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, reported: “Scientists estimate that accelerated depletion of the ozone layer in the northern hemisphere will cause an additional 200 000 deaths in the US alone from skin cancer during the next 50 years. Worldwide, millions of lives are at risk.”
Biodiversity, the keeping of as many plants and animals as possible functioning in their natural habitats, is another current concern. Discover magazine published an excerpt from biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent book The Diversity of Life, in which he listed the extinction of thousands of species of birds, fish, and insects, as well as species usually dismissed as unimportant: “Many of the vanished species are mycorrhizal fungi, symbiotic forms that enhance the absorption of nutrients by the root systems of plants. Ecologists have long wondered what would happen to land ecosystems if these fungi were removed, and we will soon find out.”
In that book Wilson also asked and then answered this question about the importance of saving species:
“What difference does it make if some species are extinguished, if even half of all the species on Earth disappear? Let me count the ways. New sources of scientific information will be lost. Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber, fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light. It is fashionable in some quarters to wave aside the small and obscure, the bugs and weeds, forgetting that an obscure moth from Latin America saved Australia’s pastureland from overgrowth by cactus, that the rosy periwinkle provided the cure for Hodgkin’s disease and childhood lymphocytic leukemia, that the bark of the Pacific yew offers hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer, that a chemical from the saliva of leeches dissolves blood clots during surgery, and so on down a roster already grown long and illustrious despite the minimal nature of research addressed to it.
“In amnesiac reverie it is also easy to overlook the services that ecosystems provide to humanity. They enrich the soil and create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities the remaining tenure of the human race would be nasty and brief.”
As the saying goes—made trite by repetition only because it is so beautifully fitting—the foregoing is only the tip of the iceberg. When will the battering of the earth end? And who will end it? The next article gives the answers.
[Blurb on page 4]
The great Sahara Desert of Africa was once green
[Blurb on page 5]
‘Do you, the one preaching, “Conserve your forests,” cut down your own?’
[Blurb on page 5]
Too little carbon dioxide—colder weather
Too much of it—melting glaciers
[Blurb on page 6]
“What difference does it make if some species are extinguished?”
[Blurb on page 6]
Without microorganisms, the tenure of the human race would be short and nasty
[Pictures on page 7]
Amazon rain forest, in all its pristine beauty
More rain forest, after being battered by man
Abril Imagens/João Ramid
[Picture on page 8]
Toxic chemical dump polluting air, water, and soil