April 22, 2010
Today we speak of preserving world biodiversity, of saving the 'lungs of the planet', of mitigating global climate change. No longer are humans over-reaching in just one region, but we are overreaching the whole planet, stretching ecological systems to a breaking point. While we are aware of the issues that threaten the well-being of life on this planet, including our own, how are we progressing on solutions?
A Vezo boy, a member of a semi-nomadic tribe in southern Madagascar, faces down the camera in Tulear Arovana (Ankorohoke), Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Given the challenges, how are our political leaders, corporate kings, media moguls, and the public tackling so many environmental issues? Are we implementing solutions, simply standing by, or continuing the actions that caused the problems in the first place?
The answer is simple: we—the human species—are failing on every major environmental problem, including those I highlight below: biodiversity, oceans, deforestation, food and water, population and consumption, and climate change. Our inability thus far to even begin solving these problems is bankrupting our Earth and will leave our children a very different—I venture to say lonelier and more chaotic—world.
Still, if you make through this whole piece you'll find that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For it is still up to us, every one of us, to determine our collective fate and that of generations to come.
On September 1, 1914, the last known Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died in a zoo in Cincinnati. For a bird that only decades before numbered in the billions, the passenger pigeon proved just how rapidly human actions—in this case unsustainable hunting for cheap meat—can wipe out a once super-abundant and prolific species, let alone naturally rare ones.
To date an unidentified leafhopper insect in the rainforests of Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
For many people biodiversity loss is not an important or visible problem. Yet, consider that life on Earth, i.e. biodiversity, underpins nature itself, and the multitude of good things we receive from it—known to researchers as 'ecosystem services'—such as pollination, food production, clean water, pest control, soil fertility, flood control, erosion, and carbon sequestration.
Beyond simply practical services, the diversity of life on Earth has inspired our arts and poetry, our philosophy and our religions, our individual cultures and our global one. It's impossible to imagine Hinduism without its species-inspired deities; the first book of the Bible, Genesis, without its 'winged birds' and 'great creatures of the sea'; Shakespeare without his references to the diverse species of the English countryside; or Bambi without its cast of wide-eyed woodland creatures.
There is also the belief—present in nearly all moral, philosophical, or religious traditions—that life is good in itself, and diverse life even better.
Yet despite our long and close relationship with other species, we are wiping out the Earth's biological riches—many of which took millions of years to evolve—with the ferocity of a global calamity. Extinction rates are currently estimated at 100 to 1000 times higher than the background extinction rate, i.e. the average rate of extinctions as determined by fossil-studies.
A Sumatran rhino in captivity in Borneo. The Sumatran rhino is on the edge of extinction with only 200 individuals estimated to survive. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
But it's not just species extinction that should be disconcerting: it's also the loss of abundance. While the roufus-necked hornbill is unlikely to go extinct anytime soon, its numbers have fallen dramatically due to large-scale deforestation, forest degradation, and hunting in Southeast Asia. As an important seed-disperser the loss of abundance of this species may have ecological ripples as big as its extinction: fewer roufus-necked hornbills means a diminished number of seeds dispersed by the species, which in turn threatens the plants it disperses and the species that depend on those specific plants. Such a 'trophic cascade' can even become a vicious circle: for example, the drop in salmon populations in the Northwestern United States means that the entire freshwater ecosystem receive less nutrients every year (researchers estimate a nutrient-drop of over 90 percent), but declining nutrients make it impossible for salmon to replenish to optimal populations, and so on and so forth. It's not just extinction that ripples through an ecosystem, but declines in abundance as well.
Despite this truly global problem, biodiversity has remained largely under the radar. Over a hundred pledges from the world's governments to stem global biodiversity loss by this year has ended in stark failure: another sign of governments' willingness to talk-the-talk but unwilling to take the necessary actions such pledges required. Big corporations still destroy forests, drain wetlands, and level mountains with impunity. In addition the mainstream media largely ignores the issue. Beyond some 'fluff' pieces on wildlife, the media has failed to educate the public about the loss and importance of biodiversity.
Even environmental organizations have long-focused on big, charismatic species, neglecting to use their unique position to educate the public on the importance not just of the 'cool' animals, but of every species from leafhoppers to fungi to the blue whale. Biodiversity and bio-abundance continues to decline and unless large-scale actions are taken quickly to halt these losses, it's impossible to know where they will stop.
For most of human history the idea that we could ever irrevocably change the vast and impenetrable oceans would have appeared ridiculous. Yet today, the possibility of depleting the ocean of its biological richness is not only conceivable: it is happening. That's not all: we are also altering the oceans' very chemical make-up with greenhouse gases, agricultural runoff, and pollution.
The longterm survival of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by carbon emissions that have caused ocean acidification. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
It's not just the fish we fish. With every targeted marine species caught, others are killed as bycatch. Either drowned in nets or on hooked by lines, sea birds, marine turtles, sharks, seals, and even whales face grisly deaths due to fisheries. In fact, many species are as threatened as by-catch as those intentionally caught.
Despite the emptying of our oceans, global demand for seafood only increases. As well, it has become clear that international bodies and governments are so far unwilling to put regulations into place to require sustainability. The poster fish of overexploitation, the bluefin tuna, is a prime example of how stubbornly governments and industry choose short-term profit even in the face of extinction.
We are not only impacting the oceans by over-exploitation, but with our waste. In the Pacific Ocean there is an island: this island was not created by eons of geological processes, but from a few decades of throwaway plastic. More than twice the size of Texas, this floating island-dump is made up almost entirely of anthropogenic plastic waste. The invention of cheap, throwaway plastic has decimated the oceans in a way that is difficult to comprehend. I was once told by a diver how an autopsy of a marine turtle revealed that the animal had died from constipation: its intestines had been stopped up with a dozen plastic bags and hundreds of cigarette butts.
Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Marine biologists fear that the oceans of the future will harbor jellyfish at the expense of other species. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Beyond threatening species, pollution has altered the chemical makeup of oceans, creating over 400 identified 'dead zones' and causing widespread bleaching of much of the world's coral reefs. Nutrient pollution from fertilizer, industrial runoff, livestock manure, and sewage leads every year to massive algal blooms in parts of the sea. These are broken down by bacteria, a process which starves the region of oxygen, leading to the so-called 'dead zone' where little survives but jellyfish and microbes. According to a study in Science the presence of dead zones have doubled every decade since 1960.
At the same time due to our greenhouse gas emissions the oceans have been forced to sequester more carbon. This causes the oceans' pH levels to decrease, i.e. become more acidic, and threatens the marine world's most biodiverse ecosystem: coral reefs. Weakening the coral's skeletal structure and sometimes leading to morality, scientists estimate that acidity due to carbon emissions may jump 100 times faster than anytime during the past 20 million years, likely crippling coral ecosystems worldwide. Species that produce shells and plates are also highly threatened by acidification due to depletions of calcium carbonate in the water needed to craft their shells. Yet, this is an issue directly related to carbon emissions that the public is largely unaware of, and the mainstream media rarely delves into.
Oceans may even receive less respect than global wildlife. Despite our love for dolphins and whales—and for eating seafood—we are failing to secure a future both for the oceans' big and small species, and for global seafood consumption. Yet, governments mostly side with short-term economic concerns rather than sustainably management, allowing entire fisheries to collapse instead of simply reigning in overfishing. In addition, long-ignored problems such as plastic pollution, dead zones, and acidification have left future generations with a monstrous mess to clean-up if they ever want to see productive and beautiful oceans again.
The world's rainforests contain the majority of terrestrial life on Earth, store vast amounts of carbon, aid cloud production, protect against desertification, are home to myriad indigenous groups, provide humans with an array of life-saving medicines, and leave all who visit in awe, yet rainforests continue to vanish at staggering rates.
Lone Brazil nut tree in deforested area in Brazil. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Some regions have been harder hit than others. For example, the Atlantic Forest, which once stretched along the eastern coast of South America, has lost 93 percent of its area since Europeans arrived. The island of Borneo, once blanketed in rainforest, has lost over half of its forest, mostly since 1950. Today Brazil still loses the most forest every year, but the Amazonian country is taking steps to lower it deforestation, while Indonesia—now number two—is gaining ground.
The majority of tropical countries with some notable exceptions have failed to preserve their natural heritage: facing poverty, corruption, poor governance, and a desire to emulate the west, they have sold out much of the great forests that once graced the planet.
Yet rich northern countries cannot claim the high ground for two major reasons. Number one: much of the felling of tropical forests around the world is due to unsustainable material consumption by the wealthy north and, more recently, juggernauts like China and India. Rainforests have fallen for soy and cattle in Brazil, timber in the Congo, rosewood and ebony in Madagascar, paper and oil palm in Indonesia, lawn furniture and throw-away chopsticks (not kidding) in Borneo, all of which mostly ends up as exports to wealthier countries. If we are eating the world's oceans, we are consuming the world's rainforests for throwaway goods and fancy furniture.
Number two: industrialized nations are still cutting vast swaths of their own old-growth forests. The world's boreal forests are vanishing rapidly even in the world's wealthiest countries. A new study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution shows that 60 percent of the world's great northern forests—the boreal—are fragmented and degraded: purposely-set fires, logging, mining, and pine beetles aided by warming temperatures are to blame. According to the study, Russia, which houses the most forest, is the worst steward of the boreal. The on-going destruction is thought to have turned the boreal from a carbon sink to a carbon source, as well as threatening hundreds of species with extinction.
Clearing of rainforest for a palm oil plantation on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Despite the gloomy news, deforestation may be the one are of the environment where progress is being made, albeit slowly considering the continuing costs of destroying the world's tropical and temperate forests. Having established large park systems that protect small percentages of the world's forest, scientists and conservationists have now realized that a strict 'park-approach' will not save the world's habitats by itself or aid people who live off the forests.
New programs, such as Reducing Emission through Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), are working out ways to pay countries to preserve rather than clear-cut their rainforests in line with carbon financing. The quest to achieve such a global program is complicated and on-going, but is one of the more hopeful and pragmatic ideas to stem deforestation loss.
Of course, it will be hard to consider the fight against deforestation won until new forest growth (not including monoculture plantations, which are not forests) at least equals what is lost annually. Far more preferable would be forest growth making a global comeback after so much loss and old-growth forests protected or sustainably managed.
Food and water
While making food and clean water available for every human on the planet may not seem like an environmental issue, it certainly is. Food and water is intimately tied to the ecological systems we are impacting: climate, biodiversity, overpopulation, overconsumption, waste, and pollution.
Turkana children in northern Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Kenya, Guatemala, Somalia are just some of the countries that have experience food crises during the past few years. At the height of the global food crisis 37 nations were said to be suffering. Today, the Sudan and Niger are both in the midst of devastating food shortages.
It is not that there isn't enough food in the world: in fact there is more than enough. The problem is not yet one of plenty, but of regional imbalances in food production as well as market inequalities. For example, Americans alone waste enough food every day to feed 200 million adults their daily caloric needs according to a recent study. In all approximately 30-40 percent of the world's food production ends up as waste. At the same time, many parts of the world do not make enough food—or farmers have been pushed to grow cash crops rather than staples—and so depend on the international market to feed them. But when these markets fail, there is no true safety net for food.
Food crises are often exacerbated or even launched by worse-than-usual droughts, and if hunger is already a massive issue, water shortages may become an even bigger one.
Eight hundred and eighty four million people currently lack access to safe water for drinking, while 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. But these numbers are only expected to go up: by 2050 the UN predicts that 7 billion people will suffer from water scarcity. While we may live on a blue planet, only a tiny percentage of the world's water is actually suitable for human use: 0.007 percent of the total or less than one percent of the world's freshwater.
China's Yangtze River has faced heavy pollution and extinction of key species due to industrialization. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
At the same time climate change is shifting where and when rain falls. In general dry regions are seeing less rain, and wetter regions more. In the past few years East Africa, China, Guatemala, Mali, and Australia have all experienced worse-than-average droughts, while some of the world's most important rivers have decreased in waterflow due to climate change, for example the Ganges, the Niger, the Colorado, and the Yellow River.
Wars over water may seem like science-fiction alarmism, but according to many international observers, water shortages is one of the primary drivers behind the conflict in Darfur, which has claimed over 200,000 lives to violence, disease, and starvation.
Overpopulation and overconsumption
In 1804 we hit a milestone: for the first time1 billion people populated the Earth. Today, after adding 6 billion people in just over a hundred years, we are on the edge of a new record: 7 billion people. That's 7 billion people who require food, clean water, clothes, and shelter: seven times those who required the same in 1804.
Suburban sprawl out of Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Extravagant consumption by the one billion or so people in the US, Canada, EU, Japan, and Australia added to increased consumption by big developing countries, such as China and India, has led to an untenable situation where human beings actually consume more resources every year than the Earth produces. As of 2005 the ecological footprint of humanity was 1.4 planet Earths annually, in other words we are overshooting our planet's sustainability by 40 percent.
Very few politicians, corporations, or media outlets are brave enough to broach the subject of overconsumption. Yet overconsumption—perhaps even more than overpopulation—is pushing the limits of the Earth's resources far beyond a point that is sustainable. While sustainability may have lost some of its meaning by becoming a catch-phrase for everything from big business advertisements to government rhetoric, 'sustainability' simply means the capacity for an enclosed system, in this case the Earth, to continue producing for the needs of its myriad inhabitants.
Urban Singapore: men in yellow clean the exterior of the Esplanade (Theatres by the Bay). Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
If left unchecked overconsumption combined with overpopulation will eventually turn on human societies, and the result will not be pretty. Unless we begin—very soon—harvesting other planets for resources (see science fiction horror stories like Avatar and Moon), consumption simply cannot continue indefinitely, even though governments around the world from England to India to China act in the belief that it can and will. By beginning with stemming wastefulness and increasing efficiency, society can then explore how the modern economy of growth at all costs should and must be altered.
Though the majority are silent on it, its impossible to deny that behind every global environmental issue rests, at least in part, these two factors: overpopulation and overconsumption.
Despite some politicians and media sources announcing that climate change is a conspiracy and there is no evidence that the Earth is warming, the globe continues to warm. The past decade, 2000-2009, was the warmest on record, i.e. since 1880. Average global temperatures have risen 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late nineteenth century. Warming has occurred far faster in the Arctic with temperatures rising in many places between 1.6-2.2 degrees Celsius (3-5 degrees Fahrenheit), which is why changes there are far more extreme.
Mendenhall glacier tube and stream in Alaska. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Something that mass-media largely ignores—or simply doesn't understand—is the fact that climate change is a complicated, messy phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it isn't occurring and we are not to blame. Climate change, unlike many environmental issues, has not been regulated to the back pages and short segments by mainstream media. However, even the fact that climate change is heavily reported, has not pushed society or its leaders to actually implementing on-the ground solutions. In part because rather than a sobering analysis, the media has turned climate change into an exciting scandal-ridden roller coaster ride. One day the world is ending; the next it's all one big lie.
The truth, of course, is in neither of these, but climate change—a warmer world—is impacting every ecosystem on Earth, and even our daily lives. It doesn't just threaten the way of life of polar bears, but the way of life of humans from the tropical Amazon to the deserts of Africa to mountains of Tibet—and even to the suburbs of the UK.
There is no doubt that the failure last December of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to adopt a legally-binding and strong agreement has dampened the spirits of many and placed into question the UN's capacity to deal with climate change. Time will tell whether or not the world can come together to mitigate greenhouse gases while helping the poor—and least responsible—to adapt to a warmer world. However, it should be noted that if the past is any indication, the world's governments are stymied by in-fighting and blind selfishness when it comes to climate change. Rather than take the significant and rapid action necessary to mitigate risk, governments largely talk about doing what's right but refuse to move forward at the pace necessary.
So, what are we to do?
Despite the problems presented above, I am not of the doom-and-gloom stripe. I see no end to life on Earth or to subsequent evolution—cockroaches can survive anything and so can jellyfish—but we are changing our planet in fundamental ways that will impact our lives, our children's lives, and the lives of all foreseeable generations of humans. This, in fact, is an important side-note to the environmental movement: as much as many environmentalists love animals and the natural world for its own sake, they are actually trying to preserve the world for themselves and their children. Environmentalism, by its very nature, is a human endeavor.
Children in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Here's the good news (yes, there is good news): we have hit this point in environmental degradation not for a lack of bright ideas and ambitious solutions, but due to a lack of will and courage.
Researchers and dedicated people worldwide have come up time-and-again with ways to stem the ecological harm—locally, regionally, globally—and begin repairing our environmental woes.
For example, everyone knows what needs to be done to combat climate change: it's not cryptic information. A clean energy revolution—solar, wind, geothermal—needs rapid investment and deployment, creating in turn millions of green jobs. In addition, other greenhouse gases, such as methane, need to be quickly regulated. Forests and other carbon-important natural landscapes, from peatlands to seagrasses, should be rapidly persevered. Smart reforestation efforts—jumpstarting natural forest growth—should begin worldwide in order to sequester carbon with a new generation of forests. Programs like REDD, if implemented faithfully, could kickoff this process. Of course, a good start in terms of combating climate change would be cutting out the billions in subsidies that fossil fuel companies—drowning in profit already—receive from governments and putting that money into green energy and conservation.
Preserving forests and beginning an 'age of reforestation' would also go a long way toward addressing the biodiversity crisis. Smart urban and suburban planning such as working to create a mix of environments from crops to pasture to forest to urban living—known as a matrix—in heavily populated or agricultural areas would help the world's tiny species and ensure migration routes in a warmer world. Finally, educating the public on the importance of global biodiversity—of species big and small, known and unknown—could give governments and society the needed push to turn back mass extinction.
Rainforest and river in Colombia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A cultural shift is needed to focus less on shopping and empty materialism, and more on community and experience. Our obsessive consumerism—where we see our self-worth in the product we buy and not, in fact, who we are—is not only an illness of the industrial west, but has spread throughout much of the world. We must ask ourselves does endless consumerism make us better friends, partners, parents—does it make us better people? I imagine such a shift would also allow us to finally implement smart solutions to feeding the world's people and providing clean water to every individual. It's shockingly immoral that at a time when someone can open their iPhone and watch the latest episode of Lost on the subway, we still cannot feed the world.
Obviously, we have far to go. Today, individuals, leaders, media, and corporations still place short-term financial gain far above the very stability of our planet, i.e. the predictable climate, abundant life, and rich ecosystems that allowed us to go from hunter-gatherers to traveling to the moon. They see environmental issues as more of a nuisance than a chance to protect the beautiful world we have inherited. They see a conflict between the environment and economy, not understanding that ecological processes underlie any human-crafted economy. They do not comprehend that the world has changed drastically in just the past fifty years and without a sustainable environment, we—as a species—are headed into a world of trouble.
So the onus is on us. We can no longer simply complain about governments with their heads stuck in the sand and corporations who are perfectly willing to sell-out rainforests for a higher profit margin, all in the names of 'development'. We cannot wallow in despair, but need to get moving, get busy, and begin making changes, whether local, regional, or global. We need to begin talking about these issues more candidly and openly, support media and leaders who actually explore the complexity of environmental issues, and press our governments through democratic actions.
But we also need more than debate. We need to start walking the walk: no matter how much people may decry the destruction of the world's rainforests they still buy paper, wood, food stuffs, and meat grown on them, and they still support the large corporations doing the cutting and the governments turning a blind eye.
Although the cause may at times appear insurmountable, this isn't the time to lash out in anger or complain numbly about the state of the world. Those who waste their time in despair and hate have not heard of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior, or Nelson Mandella, nor have they understood that behind every great leader, millions stood hopeful for a cause. Revolutions of this kind are not easy, they are not quick, they are by their very nature fraught with difficulty and setback, but sometimes they are necessary. This is one of those times. While today we are still failing planet Earth's species, ecosystems, and people, we don't have to fail them tomorrow.