The Fight to Save Our Planet
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SPAIN
YURY, who lives in the Russian city of Karabash, has two children, and they are both sick. He is worried but not surprised. “There are no healthy kids here,” he explains. The people of Karabash are being poisoned. Every year a local factory spews out 162,000 tons of pollutants into the air—9 tons for every man, woman, and child living there. At Nikel and Monchegorsk on the Kola Peninsula, north of the Arctic Circle, “two of the world’s biggest and most antiquated nickel smelters . . . spew more heavy metals and sulfur dioxide into the air each year than any other such factories in Russia.”—The New York Times.
The air is no healthier in Mexico City. A survey by Dr. Margarita Castillejos found that even in a wealthy area of the city, the children were sick 4 days out of 5. “To be sick has for them become normal,” she observed. One of the main culprits, she says, is the pervasive smog produced by the thousands of vehicles that clog city streets. Ozone concentrations are four times the maximum guideline of the World Health Organization.
In Australia the danger is invisible—but just as deadly. Children now have to wear hats when romping in the school playground. The decimation of the protective shield of ozone in the Southern Hemisphere has made Australians begin to view the sun as an enemy rather than a friend. They have already seen a threefold increase in skin cancers.
In other parts of the world, finding sufficient water is a daily battle. When Amalia was 13 years old, the drought came to Mozambique. There was barely enough water for the first year and hardly any the following year. Vegetable crops withered and died. Amalia and her family were reduced to eating wild fruit and digging in sandy riverbeds for whatever precious water they could find.
In the Indian state of Rajasthan, it is grazing land that is fast disappearing. Phagu, a nomadic tribesman, frequently has arguments with local farmers. He cannot find pasture for his flock of sheep and goats. Because of the acute shortage of fertile land, centuries-long peaceful coexistence between farmers and nomads has broken down.
The situation is even worse in the Sahel, a wide belt of semiarid land on the southern edge of the Sahara in Africa. As a result of deforestation and subsequent drought, entire herds have been wiped out and countless smallholdings buried in the sands of the advancing desert. “I will not plant again,” vowed a Fulani farmer from Niger after seeing his millet crop fail for the seventh time. His cattle had already died from lack of pasture.
The Growing Threat
There is an ominous pattern behind the recent droughts, the failed harvests, and the polluted air that suffocates city after city. They are symptoms of a sick planet, a planet that can no longer cope with all the demands man is heaping upon it.
Nothing on earth is more important to our survival than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Inexorably, these life-sustaining essentials are being either contaminated or whittled away—by man himself. In some countries the state of the environment is already life-threatening. As former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev graphically put it, “ecology has caught us by the throat.”
The threat is not one to be taken lightly. World population is increasing steadily, and demands on limited resources are multiplying. Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, stated recently that “the overwhelming threat to our future is not military aggression but the environmental degradation of the planet.” Is enough being done to avert a tragedy?
The Fight to Protect the Planet
It is hard to help an alcoholic who is convinced he does not have a drinking problem. Likewise, the first step in improving the health of the planet is to recognize the extent of the malady. Possibly, education is the outstanding environmental success in recent years. Most people today are keenly aware that our earth is being impoverished and polluted—and that something must be done about it. The threat of environmental degradation now looms greater than the threat of nuclear war.
World leaders are not oblivious to the problems. Some 118 heads of state attended the Earth Summit in 1992, during which a few steps were taken toward protecting the atmosphere and the earth’s dwindling resources. Most countries signed a climate treaty in which they agreed to set up a system for reporting changes in carbon emissions, with the goal of freezing the total output in the near future. They also considered ways of safeguarding our planet’s biodiversity, the total number of plant and animal species. Agreement could not be reached on protecting the world’s forests, but the summit did produce two documents—the “Rio Declaration” and “Agenda 21,” which contains guidelines on how countries could achieve “sustainable development.”
As environmentalist Allen Hammond points out, “the crucial test will be whether the commitments made in Rio are kept—whether the bold words lead to actions in the months and years ahead.”
A significant step forward, however, was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which involved an international agreement to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) within a set time limit.* Why the concern? Because CFCs are said to be contributing to the rapid depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer. The ozone in the earth’s upper atmosphere plays a vital role in filtering the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancer and cataracts. This is a problem not just in Australia. Recently, scientists have detected an 8-percent decrease in winter ozone concentration above some temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Twenty million tons of CFCs have already drifted up toward the stratosphere.
In the face of this disastrous contamination of the atmosphere, nations of the world put aside their differences and took decisive action. Other international action has also been forthcoming to protect endangered species, conserve Antarctica, and control the traffic of toxic wastes.
Many countries are taking steps to clean up their rivers (salmon have now returned to England’s Thames River), to control air pollution (it has declined 10 percent in the cities of the United States with the worst smog), to tap environment-friendly energy sources (80 percent of the homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy), and to conserve their natural heritage (Costa Rica and Namibia have converted about 12 percent of their total land area into national parks).
Are these positive signs proof that mankind is taking the danger seriously? Will it just be a matter of time before our planet is in good health once again? The following articles will seek to answer those questions.
CFCs have been widely used in aerosol sprays, refrigeration, air-conditioning units, cleaning agents, and the manufacture of foam insulation. See Awake! of December 22, 1994, “When Our Atmosphere Is Damaged.”