Earth’s Dwindling Resources
“In nature everything is connected, and we are now being held accountable for our past blunders.”—African Wildlife magazine.
SOME call it the ecological footprint. It is a measure of mankind’s consumption of natural resources compared with the earth’s ability to replenish them. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the global ecological footprint has been running a deficit since the 1980’s.* But that is just one indicator of the immense strain being placed on our environment.
Another gauge is the condition of earth’s ecosystems. The term “ecosystem” refers to the complex interaction of all organisms within a natural environment, including living and nonliving matter. The overall health of these ecosystems—revealed by the number of forest, freshwater, and marine species they support—makes up what the World Wildlife Fund calls the Living Planet Index. Between 1970 and 2000, this index plunged about 37 percent.
Is There Enough to Go Around?
If you live in a Western land where store shelves are fully stocked and round-the-clock shopping may be possible, it is hard to imagine that there could be a looming shortage of natural resources. Nevertheless, only a minority of earth’s inhabitants enjoy an affluent life-style. Most are locked in a daily struggle for survival. It has been estimated, for example, that more than two billion people live on three dollars a day or less and that two billion have no access to affordable commercial energy services.
Some people blame the trade practices of wealthy nations for the poverty of developing lands. “In a variety of ways,” says Vital Signs 2003, “the world economy is rigged against the interests of the poor.” As more and more people scramble to grab an ever smaller and more costly piece of the environmental “pie,” those who are economically disadvantaged cannot afford to compete for their fair share. That, in turn, leaves more natural resources for those who can afford them—namely, the wealthy.
It is estimated that 80 percent of the inhabitants of Africa use wood for cooking. In addition, “Africa has the highest population growth rate [and] urban growth rate in the world,” says South Africa’s Getaway magazine. As a result, the territory around some large towns in the Sahel, a wide belt of semiarid land on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, has been stripped of trees for over 60 miles [100 km] in all directions. Those trees were not felled for capricious reasons. ‘The overwhelming majority of Africa’s citizens destroy their own environment simply to survive,’ says Professor Samuel Nana-Sinkam.
The situation is quite different in South America. In Brazil, for example, there are nearly 7,600 registered logging companies in the rain forest. Many of them are owned by well-funded international conglomerates. A mahogany tree is worth about $30 to a logging company. However, by the time brokers, traders, and manufacturers make their profit, that same tree can have a value of upwards of $130,000 before hitting the furniture showroom. Little wonder that mahogany has been called green gold.
Much has been published about the destruction of Brazil’s rain forest. Satellite images show that more than 7,000 square miles [20,000 sq km] of Brazilian forest were destroyed each year between 1995 and 2000. “This frightening rate of destruction means that an area of forest the size of a soccer field disappeared every eight seconds,” reports Brazil’s Veja magazine. Interestingly, the United States alone is reported to have imported more than 70 percent of Brazil’s mahogany in the year 2000.
Deforestation in other parts of the world tells a similar story. For instance, half of Mexico’s forests and jungles have disappeared in the last 50 years. The loss of Philippine forests has been even more pronounced. That country loses some 380 square miles [100,000 ha] of forest every year, and back in 1999 it was estimated that at that rate nearly two thirds of the nation’s forests would be eliminated within a decade.
It can take from 60 to 100 years for a hardwood tree to reach full maturity but only minutes for it to be felled. Should it surprise us that our forests cannot keep up?
When soil is stripped of vegetation, the bare topsoil soon dries out and is blown away by wind or washed away by water. This process is called erosion.
Erosion occurs naturally and is generally not a serious problem—unless man accelerates the process through poor land management. For example, the magazine China Today says that sandstorms, along with other factors such as deforestation and overgrazing, “have accelerated the expansion” of desert areas. Unusually arid conditions in recent years have left China’s western and northwestern provinces susceptible to the cold Siberian winds that sweep across the land. Millions of tons of yellow sand and dust have been displaced, some reaching as far as Korea and Japan. Approximately 25 percent of China’s landmass is now desert.
The destruction of African soil has similar causes. “By clearing forest to plant cereal crops,” says Africa Geographic, “farmers have irretrievably destabilised the thin soils.” It is estimated that after a plot has been cleared of bush, within three years it loses up to 50 percent of its fertility. Thus, the magazine adds: “Millions of hectares are already beyond recovery and millions more are heading that way as agricultural yields in some areas decline year by year.”
It is said that Brazil loses 500 million tons of soil every year to erosion. In Mexico the Department of Environment and Natural Resources says that 53 percent of the scrubland, 59 percent of the jungles, and 72 percent of the forests are affected by soil degradation. All told, says a report by the United Nations Development Programme, “land degradation affects perhaps as much as two thirds of the world’s agricultural land. As a result, agricultural productivity is declining sharply, while the number of mouths to feed continues to grow.”
Water—Free, yet Priceless
A man can live about a month without food, but he will die in about a week without water. Hence, experts claim that declining supplies of fresh water will be a source of increasing tension in coming years. According to a 2002 Time magazine report, worldwide more than a billion people do not have easy access to clean drinking water.
Water shortages occur for a variety of reasons. In France, pollution plays a role and is a growing source of concern. “French rivers are in a very poor state of health,” says Le Figaro. Scientists have traced the problem to nitrate-rich runoff, which comes primarily from fertilizers used for farming. “French rivers discharged 375,000 tons of nitrates into the Atlantic in 1999, almost twice as much as in 1985,” states the paper.
The situation is similar in Japan. In order to provide a steady supply of food in that country, “farmers had no choice but to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to meet society’s demand,” says Yutaka Une, head of a nonprofit farm safety organization. This has led to underground water pollution—which Tokyo’s IHT Asahi Shimbun calls “a major problem across Japan.”
In Mexico, 35 percent of illnesses “have their origin in environmental factors,” reports the newspaper Reforma. Furthermore, a study by the secretary of health revealed that “1 out of every 4 inhabitants does not have a sewer; over 8 million get their water from wells, rivers, lakes, or streams; and over one million obtain water from tanker trucks.” Little wonder that 90 percent of Mexico’s diarrhea cases are attributed to contaminated water!
“Rio’s beaches offer more than hot sun, white sand, and blue sea,” states Brazil’s Veja magazine. “They also harbor high levels of fecal coliforms and occasional oil spills.” That is because more than 50 percent of Brazil’s sewage flows directly into rivers, lakes, and the ocean without being treated. The result is a chronic shortage of clean water. The rivers around Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, are so heavily polluted that drinking water is now brought in from some 60 miles away.
On the other side of the globe, much of Australia’s water shortage stems from a process called salinization. For decades landowners were encouraged to clear their land in order to plant crops. With fewer trees and shrubs to soak up the groundwater, water tables began to rise, bringing with them thousands of tons of subterranean salt. “Some 2.5 million hectares [6.2 million acres] of land are already affected by salinity,” says Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). “Much of this is Australia’s most productive agricultural land.”
Some believe that if the Australian legislators had not chosen profit over public interest, the salinity problem might have been avoided. “Governments were told from as early as 1917 that Wheatbelt soils were especially prone to salinity,” says Hugo Bekle of Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. “The impact of clearing on stream salinity was publicised by the 1920’s, and its effect on a rising water table was accepted in the Agricultural Department by the 1930’s. A major report was undertaken for the [Australian] Government by the CSIRO in 1950, . . . yet governments persistently ignored these warnings, dismissing scientists as prejudiced.”
Without doubt, many of man’s actions have been well intended. But as is so often the case, we simply do not know enough about the environment to predict the consequences of our actions accurately. The results have been devastating. “We’ve so upset the balance of life here that we threaten the very land that supports us and, through that, our own survival,” says Tim Flannery, South Australian Museum director.
What is the solution? Will mankind ever learn to live in harmony with the environment? Indeed, can planet Earth be saved?
It is estimated, for example, that in 1999 the deficit reached 20 percent. This means that the amount of natural resources humans used during that 12-month period took more than 14 months to replace.
[Box on page 6]
Every Drop Counts
A few simple steps can conserve gallons of water.
● Repair leaky faucets.
● Keep showers short.
● Turn off the water while shaving or brushing your teeth.
● Reuse bath towels two or three times before laundering.
● Wait until you have a full load of clothes before using a washing machine. (The same principle applies to automatic dishwashers.)
[Box/Picture on page 7]
Waste Not, Want Not
● Even though Australia is the world’s driest continent, over 90 percent of its irrigation water is “applied to crops by simple flood-and-furrow irrigation,” reports The Canberra Times. This is the same “technology in use when the pharaohs were still building pyramids.”
● Worldwide, the average water use per person (including water used in agriculture and industry) is about 145,000 gallons [550,000 liters] a year. The average North American, however, uses nearly 423,000 gallons [1,600,000 liters] a year. A former Russian republic uses the most, averaging over 1.4 million gallons of water [5.3 million liters] per person annually.
● According to Africa Geographic, “on average, each South African consumes 4.0 global hectares a year whereas the country can afford only 2.4 global hectares per person per year.”
[Picture on page 5]
Deforested Sahel landscape in Burkina Faso. This area was thick with trees 15 years ago
© Jeremy Hartley/Panos Pictures
[Picture on page 8]
Slash-and-burn agriculture is destroying rain forests in Cameroon
© Fred Hoogervorst/Panos Pictures
[Picture on page 8]
Auto pollution is still a cause for concern in the United States
[Picture on page 8, 9]
Some 7,000 square miles of Brazilian forest were destroyed each year between 1995 and 2000
© Ricardo Funari/SocialPhotos.com
[Picture on page 9]
More than two billion people live on three dollars a day or less
© Giacomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures
[Picture on page 9]
The groundwater supplying this village well in India has been polluted by local prawn farms
© Caroline Penn/Panos Pictures