Saving the Environment—How Successful Have We Been?
CHERNOBYL, Bhopal, Valdez, Three Mile Island. Such names likely conjure up images of environmental disasters that have occurred in various parts of the world. Each of these disasters reminded us that the earth’s environment is under attack.
Various authorities and individuals have voiced warnings. Some have taken action publicly to make their point. An English librarian chained herself to a bulldozer to oppose the building of a road through a fragile ecological area. Two Aboriginal women in Australia led a campaign against mining uranium inside a national park. Operations were suspended. Although well-intentioned, these efforts have not always been well received. For example, a naval captain under the Soviet regime was concerned about radiation leaks from the reactors of sunken nuclear submarines. When he published locations of these, he was arrested.
Various organizations have also been sounding the alarm about threats to the environment. These include the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; the United Nations Environment Programme; and Greenpeace. Some merely report on environmental problems as they happen to relate to their work. Others are dedicated to the cause of keeping environmental issues to the fore. Greenpeace is well-known for sending activists to environmental hot spots and attracting public attention to such matters as global warming, endangered species, and dangers of genetically modified animals and plants.
Some activists say that they use “creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems.” Thus, they use such tactics as chaining themselves to the gates of a sawmill to protest the destruction of ancient forests. Another group of activists protested one country’s breaking of a whaling moratorium by appearing at its embassies wearing huge eyeballs to indicate that the country’s actions were being watched.
There is no lack of issues to take up. For example, repeated warnings have come from individuals and organizations about the dangers of water pollution. Still, the situation looks very bleak. One billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. According to Time magazine, “3.4 million die each year from water-related diseases.” Air pollution is a similar problem. The State of World Population 2001 reports that “air pollution kills an estimated 2.7 million to 3.0 million people every year.” It adds that “outdoor air pollution harms more than 1.1 billion people.” As a specific example, it reports that “fine particulate pollution is responsible for up to 10 per cent of respiratory infections in European children.” Yes, despite warnings and any action taken so far, problems related to these most basic elements needed for life have just been getting worse.
To many, the situation is a paradox. More information than ever before is available on environmental subjects. More individuals and organizations than ever are interested in seeing the environment cleaned up. Governments have established departments to help solve the problems. We have more technology than ever before to help deal with problems. Yet, things do not seem to be getting better. Why?
One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward
Industrial progress was meant to make our lives easier. In some ways it has. However, it is this very “progress” that aggravates the earth’s environmental problems. We appreciate the inventions and advancements that industry has presented to us, but the very production of these and our use of them have often resulted in ruining parts of our world.
An example of this is motor vehicles. These have made travel quicker and easier. Very few people would like to go back to the age of the horse and buggy. Nevertheless, modern transportation has contributed to a host of problems. One of them is global warming. Humans have been altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere by using inventions that spew out millions of tons of gases. These gases are said to cause what is called the greenhouse effect, resulting in the warming of the atmosphere. Temperatures increased during the last century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that “the 20th century’s 10 warmest years all occurred in the last 15 years of the century.” Some scientists believe that in the 21st century, average global temperature could rise 2.2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit [1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius].
Warmer temperatures are expected to cause other problems. Snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has been decreasing. A 1,250-square-mile [3,250 sq km] ice shelf in Antarctica collapsed in early 2002. Sea levels could rise significantly in this century. Since a third of the world’s population lives near the sea, this could eventually result in loss of homes and farmland. It could also cause great difficulties for coastal cities.
Scientists believe that higher temperatures will result in increased precipitation, with a greater frequency of extreme weather. Some feel that severe storms like the one that took 90 lives and ruined 270 million trees in France in 1999 are just precursors of things to come. Other researchers feel that climate changes will result in the spread of diseases such as malaria, dengue, and cholera.
The example of the motor vehicle shows how complex the results of technology are—inventions that are helpful for people in general may cause a multitude of related problems that affect multiple areas of life. True is the statement of the Human Development Report 2001: “Every technological advance brings potential benefits and risks, some of which are not easy to predict.”
Technology itself is often looked to for solutions to environmental problems. For example, environmentalists have long decried the use of pesticides. When genetically modified plants were produced that would reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides, it looked as though technology had provided a good solution. However, in the case of Bt corn, which was designed to control stem borers without pesticide, tests found that it can also kill monarch butterflies. Thus, “solutions” sometimes backfire and can result in additional problems.
Can Governments Help?
Since destruction of the environment is such a huge problem, a successful solution would require the cooperation of the world’s governments. In some cases governmental representatives have commendably displayed the courage necessary to recommend positive changes that would help the environment. However, real victories have been few and far between.
An example of this is the international summit that took place in Japan in 1997. Nations haggled and disputed over terms of a treaty to reduce emissions that are said to cause global warming. Eventually, to the surprise of many, an agreement was reached. This agreement came to be called the Kyoto Protocol. Developed regions, such as the European Union, Japan, and the United States, would cut emissions by an average of 5.2 percent by 2012. It sounded good. However, in early 2001, the U.S. government indicated that it was abandoning the Kyoto Protocol. This has raised many eyebrows, since the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, produces about one fourth of the emissions. Additionally, other governments have been slow to ratify the treaty.
The foregoing example shows how difficult it is for governments to come up with meaningful solutions. It is difficult to get various governments together, and it is difficult for them to agree on how to tackle environmental issues. Even when agreements are signed, some parties later back off from commitments. Others find the agreements difficult to enforce. In other cases governments or corporations feel they cannot accept the expenses involved in cleaning up the environment. In some places it simply boils down to greed, as powerful commercial giants exert strong influence on governments not to implement measures that would eat into corporate profits. Businesses and corporations have been known to want to get the most they can from the land without regard for future consequences.
To complicate matters further, not all scientists agree on how drastic the effects of pollution of the earth will be. Thus, government policymakers may be unsure about how far to go in restricting economic growth in order to control a problem that may or may not be as big as some think.
Humankind is in a real fix. Everyone knows that there is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. Some nations are putting forth a conscientious effort, but environmental problems are, for the most part, getting worse. Is the earth simply destined to become unfit for human habitation? Let us examine this question next.
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One type of pollution is not seen but heard—noise pollution. Experts say that it is of concern because it can cause hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, sleep loss, and a loss in productivity. Children who go to school in noisy environments may develop reading deficiencies.
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DEFORESTATION RESULTS IN A RAT INFESTATION
When 15 towns in Samar, Philippines, suffered a massive rat infestation, a government source blamed it on deforestation in the region. Loss of forest resulted in a decline in rat predators as well as in food sources for the rats. The rodents moved into more populated areas in their search for food.
© Michael Harvey/Panos Pictures
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VICTIMS OF TOXIC WASTE?
At the age of three and a half months, Michael was found to have neuroblastoma, a form of cancer. If this were a singular case, that might not be so unusual. However, it was later found that about 100 other children from the same small area also had cancer. This alarmed many parents. Some thought that maybe the disproportionate number of cancer cases was linked to chemical companies in the region. An investigation found that an independent waste hauler had previously taken drums of toxic liquid from one of the companies and deposited them at a former chicken farm, sometimes pouring out the contents. Researchers discovered traces of a contaminant in local water wells. Parents cannot help but wonder if this could have been a factor in their children’s developing cancer.
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After World War II, 120,000 tons of toxic materials, mostly phosgene and mustard gas, was sealed in ships and sunk at sea, some to the northwest of Northern Ireland. Russian scientists have warned that these materials are now in danger of leaking.
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AIR POLLUTION KILLS
The World Health Organization says that between 5 and 6 percent of deaths worldwide each year are a result of air pollution. In Ontario, Canada, alone, it is reported that citizens spend more than $1 billion each year for health costs and absenteeism resulting from polluted air.
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DYING CORAL REEFS
Some fishermen in Southeast Asia use cyanide solution to stun fish, making them easy to catch. The poison flushes from a fish’s system, and thus the fish remains edible. However, the toxin remains in the seawater, killing coral reefs.
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WEAR A SURGICAL MASK?
Asiaweek magazine reports that much of the polluted air in Asia’s cities comes from vehicle exhaust. Diesel and two-cycle engines are often the biggest polluters, producing large amounts of very fine suspended particles. These cause many health problems. The same magazine reports: “Taiwan’s leading expert on the effects of pollution, Dr. Chan Chang-chuan, says diesel fumes are a cause of cancer.” Some people in Asian cities wear surgical masks in an effort to protect themselves. Do these masks help? Dr. Chan says: “These masks are ineffective. Much of the pollution in the form of gases and particulates is so tiny that a simple mask has a low filtration rate. Besides, . . . they are not airtight. So they give a false sense of security.”
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Replanting a forest to help save the environment
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AFP/Getty Images; top left: Published with the permission of The Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, London (IWM H 42208); top right: Howard Hall/howardhall.com