Is the Battle Being Won?
“LOOK after this planet, it’s the only one we have.” This was the dramatic appeal of Prince Philip of Britain, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Thousands of years earlier, the psalmist wrote: “As regards the heavens, to Jehovah the heavens belong, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.” (Psalm 115:16) God has given us the earth as our home, and we must look after it. That is what ecology is all about.
Literally the word “ecology” means “a study of home.”* One definition given by The American Heritage Dictionary is “the study of the detrimental effects of modern civilization on the environment, with a view toward prevention or reversal through conservation.” Simply put, ecology means discovering what damage man has done and then finding ways to fix it. Neither is an easy task.
Three Home Truths of Ecology
Barry Commoner, biologist, in his book Making Peace With the Planet, suggests three simple laws of ecology that help explain why the earth is so vulnerable to abuse.
Everything is connected to everything else. Just as a bad tooth can affect our whole body, so damage to one particular natural resource can trigger a whole chain of environmental problems.
For example, during the last 40 years, 50 percent of Nepal’s Himalayan forests have been cut down either for firewood or for timber products. Once stripped of trees, the soil of the mountain slopes was soon washed away when the monsoon rains arrived. Without topsoil, new trees could not easily take hold, and many mountains became barren. Because of deforestation, Nepal is now losing millions of tons of topsoil every year. And the problems are not confined to Nepal.
In Bangladesh the torrential rains, which were once soaked up by the trees, rush unimpeded down the denuded mountains and on toward the coast, where they produce catastrophic floods. In times past, Bangladesh had serious flooding once every 50 years; now it is every 4 years or less.
In other parts of the world, deforestation has led to desertification and changes in local climate. Forests are only one natural resource that man is exploiting. As ecologists still know relatively little about the interlocking parts of our vast ecosystem, a problem may not be noticed until severe damage has already been done. This is true in the case of waste disposal, which well illustrates the second law of ecology.
Everything has to go somewhere. Imagine what a typical home would look like if there were no disposal of garbage. Our planet is just such a closed system—all our waste must end up somewhere around the earthly home. The partial destruction of the ozone layer shows that even apparently harmless gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), do not merely disappear into thin air. CFCs are just one of hundreds of potentially hazardous substances that are being released into the sky, the rivers, and the oceans.
True, some products—termed “biodegradable”—can in time be broken down and absorbed by natural processes, but others cannot. The beaches of the world are littered with plastic containers that will be lying around for decades to come. Less visible is industry’s toxic waste, which is usually buried somewhere. Although out of sight, there is no guarantee that it will always be out of mind. It can still seep into underground water supplies and pose grave health risks to man and animals. “We don’t know what to do with all the chemicals produced by modern industry,” admitted a Hungarian scientist at Budapest’s Institute of Hydrology. “We can’t even keep track of them.”
The most menacing garbage of all is radioactive waste, a by-product of nuclear power stations. Thousands of tons of nuclear waste is stored in temporary sites, although some has already been dumped in the oceans. Despite years of scientific research, no solution has yet been found for safe, permanent storage or disposal, and none is in the offing. No one knows when these ecological time bombs might explode. The problem will certainly not go away—the waste will be radioactive for centuries or millenniums to come, or until God takes action. (Revelation 11:18) Man’s disregard for the matter of waste disposal is also a reminder of the third law of ecology.
Let nature take its course. In other words, man needs to cooperate with natural systems rather than try to bypass them with something he thinks is better. Certain pesticides are a case in point. When first introduced, they enabled farmers to control weeds and practically eliminate destructive pests. Bumper crops seemed guaranteed. But then things went wrong. Weeds and insects proved resistant to one pesticide after another, and it became apparent that the pesticides were poisoning the insects’ natural predators, the wildlife, and even man himself. Maybe you have been affected by pesticide poisoning. Then you are one of at least a million victims worldwide.
The final irony is the growing evidence that pesticides may not even improve crop yields in the long run. In the United States, insects now devour a greater share of the harvest than they did before the pesticide revolution. Likewise, the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, has found that pesticides no longer improve rice yields in Southeast Asia. In fact, an Indonesian government-sponsored program that does not rely so heavily on pesticides has achieved a 15-percent increase in rice production since 1987 despite a 65-percent decrease in the use of pesticides. Notwithstanding, every year the world’s farmers still use pesticides extensively.
The three laws of ecology outlined above help explain why things are going wrong. Other important questions are, How much damage has already been done, and can it be fixed?
How Much Damage Has Been Done?
The accompanying world map (see pages 8-9) highlights some principal environmental problems and where they are most critical. Obviously, when loss of habitat or other factors cause the extermination of a plant or an animal species, man cannot repair the damage. Other damage—such as the deterioration of the ozone layer—has already been done. What about ongoing environmental degradation? Is progress being made in halting it or at least in slowing it down?
Two of the most important gauges of ecological damage are agriculture and fishing. Why? Because their productivity depends on a healthy environment and because our lives depend on a reliable food supply.
Both sectors are showing signs of deterioration. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has calculated that the fishing fleets of the world cannot catch more than 100 million tons of fish without seriously threatening fish stocks. That total was surpassed in 1989, and sure enough, the following year the worldwide catch fell by four million tons. The decline of some fishing banks has been precipitous. In the northeastern Atlantic, for example, the catch has dropped 32 percent over the last 20 years. The main problems are overfishing, pollution of the oceans, and destruction of spawning grounds.
This alarming trend is mirrored in crop production. During the ’60’s and ’70’s, improved strains of crops as well as irrigation and the extensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers boosted world grain production considerably. Now, pesticides and fertilizers are losing their effectiveness, and water shortages and pollution also contribute to leaner harvests.
Although there are nearly 100 million extra mouths to feed each year, during the last decade there has been a decrease in the total amount of cultivated land. And this arable land is losing its fertility. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that erosion has deprived farmers of 500 billion tons of topsoil during the last 20 years. Inevitably, food production has begun to decline. The report State of the World 1993 comments that “the 6-percent decline in grain output per person between 1984 and 1992 [is] perhaps the most disturbing economic trend in the world today.”
Clearly, the lives of millions of people are already at risk as a result of man’s neglect of the environment.
Can Man Handle the Problems?
Even though man now understands something about what is going wrong, it is not easy to fix. The first difficulty is that it would require big money—at least $600 billion a year—to implement the comprehensive proposals put forward at the Earth Summit in 1992. Real sacrifices would also be necessary—sacrifices such as wasting less and recycling more, conserving water and energy, using public rather than private transport, and, most difficult of all, thinking in terms of the planet rather than one’s own backyard. John Cairns, Jr., chairman of a U.S. committee for restoring the aquatic ecosystems, put the problem in a nutshell: “I’m optimistic about what we can do. I’m pessimistic about what we will do.”
The sheer cost of a wholesale cleanup is such that most countries prefer to put off the day of reckoning. At a time of economic crisis, environmental measures are viewed as a threat to jobs or a brake on the economy. Lip service is cheaper than action. The book Caring for the Earth describes the response so far as being like “thunderstorms of rhetoric followed by droughts of inaction.” But despite this foot-dragging, couldn’t new technology—if given time—find a painless cure for the planet’s ills? Apparently not.
In a joint statement, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London frankly admitted: “If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.”
The scary problem of nuclear waste with nowhere to go is a reminder that science is not omnipotent. For 40 years scientists have been searching for safe sites to store high-level radioactive waste permanently. The quest is proving so difficult that some countries, such as Italy and Argentina, have concluded that they won’t have a site ready until the year 2040 at the earliest. Germany, the most optimistic country in this field, hopes to finalize plans by the year 2008.
Why is nuclear waste such a problem? “No scientist or engineer can give an absolute guarantee that radioactive waste will not someday leak in dangerous quantities from even the best of repositories,” explains geologist Konrad Krauskopf. But despite early warnings about the difficulty of waste disposal, governments and the nuclear industry blithely pressed forward, assuming that the technology of tomorrow would come up with a solution. That tomorrow never came.
If technology doesn’t have a quick fix for the environmental crisis, what other options are left? Will necessity finally force the nations to work together to protect the planet?
From the Greek oiʹkos (house, home) and lo·giʹa (study).
[Box on page 7]
The Search for Renewable Energy Sources
Most of us take energy for granted—until there is a blackout or an increase in oil prices. Energy consumption, however, is one of the greatest causes of pollution. Most of the energy used comes from the burning of wood or fossil fuels, a process that dumps millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and decimates the world’s forests.
Nuclear energy, another option, is becoming more and more unpopular because of the danger of accidents and the difficulty of storing radioactive waste. Other alternatives are known as renewable energy sources, since they harness naturally occurring energy sources that are freely available. There are five principal types.
Solar energy. This can easily be tapped for heating, and in some countries, such as Israel, many houses have solar panels for heating water. Using the sun to produce electricity is more difficult, but modern photovoltaic cells are already providing electricity in rural areas and are becoming more economical.
Wind power. Gigantic windmills now dot the horizon in several windy parts of the world. The electricity supplied by this eolian energy, as it is called, has steadily fallen in price and now costs less in some areas than traditional energy supplies.
Hydroelectricity. Already 20 percent of the world’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants, but unfortunately most of the promising sites in developed countries are already exploited. Enormous dams can also do considerable ecological damage. A better prospect, especially in developing countries, seems to be that of building many smaller hydroelectric plants.
Geothermal energy. Some countries, particularly Iceland and New Zealand, have been able to plug into the “hot-water system” beneath their feet. Underground volcanic activity heats water, which can be used to heat houses and generate electricity. Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States have also developed this natural energy source to some extent.
Tidal power. The ocean tides are being used in some countries, such as Britain, France, and Russia, to generate electricity. However, there are few sites around the world that lend themselves to providing this supply of energy at an economical cost.
[Box/Pictures on page 8, 9]
Some of the World’s Major Environmental Problems
Destruction of forests. Three quarters of the temperate forests and half of the tropical forests of the world have already been lost, and the rate of deforestation has increased alarmingly during the past decade. Latest estimates put the destruction of tropical forests at between 60,000 [150,000] and 80,000 [200,000 sq km] square miles every year, about the size of Uruguay.
Toxic wastes. Half the 70,000 chemicals currently manufactured are classified as toxic. The United States alone produces 240 million tons of toxic wastes every year. Lack of data makes it impossible to calculate the worldwide total. Additionally, by the year 2000, there will be nearly 200,000 tons of radioactive waste stored in temporary sites.
Land degradation. A third of the world’s surface area is threatened by desertification. In some parts of Africa, the Sahara Desert has advanced 200 miles [350 km] in just 20 years. Already the livelihood of millions of people is being threatened.
Water scarcity. About two billion people live in areas where there is a chronic shortage of water. Aggravating the shortage is the drying up of thousands of wells due to the sinking levels of the aquifers on which they depend.
Species in danger of extinction. Although the figures are somewhat conjectural, scientists estimate that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 species of animals, plants, and insects will have been exterminated by the year 2000.
Atmospheric contamination. A United Nations study in the early 1980’s found that one billion people live in urban areas that are exposed daily to health-threatening levels of soot particles or poisonous gases, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The rapid growth of cities in the last decade has undoubtedly made this problem worse. Furthermore, 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere annually, and it is feared that this “greenhouse gas” may produce a global warming.
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Mountain High Maps™ copyright© 1993 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
Photo: Hutchings, Godo-Foto
Photo: Mora, Godo-Foto