trastorn asked: What do you think are the three most pressing environmental issues and what are some steps that people can take in their daily lives to help?
This is a really good question but it’s quite difficult to narrow our current situation down to just 3 major problems, as environmental sustainability requires a balance of many, many factors. However, I can definitely name 3 of which we can all help to eradicate.
1. Something which may be more of a threat to our Earth than global warming itself is ocean acidification. If we want to fight ocean acidification, it is necessary that we learn more about it first. I’ve discussed this issue quite a bit on my blog, including here (the facts are pretty brutal) and it’s primarily caused by excess amounts of CO2 being pumped into our atmosphere. Acid deposition is a serious problem not only for our oceans but for those of us on land too. The nitric and sulfuric acids that are released into our atmosphere do their fair share of damage by contaminating our precipitation and by forming dry acid particles that settle out of the air. Acid deposition is why buildings, national monuments, statues, etc. are being rapidly worn away, why rain tastes sour, why animal and fish populations are declining faster than we often predict, why tree growth has rapidly declined, etc. This is a really tricky problem to combat because the acid deposition doesn’t necessarily occur where acidic gases are emitted and the politics are nasty, particularly since we know so very little about the problem still. However, there are a number of ways in which you can help:
- Switch your energy provider to non-coal. The main sources of sulfur dioxide (including nitrogen oxides, although to a lesser extent) are coal-burning power plants, large smelters, and industrial boilers. Wind carries these dangerous gases from smokestacks rather large distances. In the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide & nitrogen oxides react with water molecules to create sulfuring acid, nitric acid, and nitrous acid, each of which eventually falls back to Earth.
- Leave coral reefs alone and never, ever, ever touch one. Ocean acidification leads to what has been referred to as the calcification and osteoporosis-like disease of our coral reefs, which significantly weakens them. A large percentage of our reefs are currently in trouble and we need to begin conserving those most and least affected.
- Help marine life fight the rising acidity by improving its health. This means monitoring your seafood intake.
- Stop driving. Make the effort to find and take public transportation, carpool, ride your bike, or even better, walk.
- Click here for 30 more ways to help save our oceans and waterways. Anything you can do to ease the pressure on the oceans will help significantly while geoengineers search for better solutions to this ever growing problem.
2. Mining. There’s a huge difference between the consumption of minerals by highly developed and developing countries. For instance, the United States and Canada, which account for about 5.1% of the world’s population, currently consume about 25% of the world’s metals. Surface mining requires removing vegetation, soil, subsoil, and overlying rock strata. There are actually 2 types of surface mining: open-pit and strip mining. Open-pit mining requires digging massive quarries and strip mining entails digging a trench to extract minerals. The overburden (or the soil and rock overlying a mineral) is then put into a previously dug trench. 60% of the coal obtained in the United States is done do by surface mining. The highest consumer of coal, however, is China. Coal accounts for over 65% of China’s energy needs. The other 40% of coal extracted in the United States is done so by subsurface mining, where minerals are extracted from deep underground. This method disturbs the land less than surface mining but it’s incredibly dangerous and expensive. Coal mining in particular has serious environmental effects, including acid mine drainage, which is pollution caused when sulfuric acid and dangerous dissolved materials such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium, wash from coal and metal mines into nearby streams and waterways.
However, what is probably the most destructive practice done to land is mountaintop removal. In West Virginia alone, between 15-25% of all mountains have been totally leveled. Where exactly do you put the top of a mountain? Well, you usually just throw it somewhere in the valley or in a waterway. Mountaintop removal has grown so rapidly that over 50% of the peaks are predicted to be gone in that area by 2020. This practice has destroyed biodiversity and the erosion involved has lead to massive deforestation, causing many ecosystems to collapse. A major byproduct of mountaintop removal is a liquid waste known as coal slurry, which contains carcinogens, and very toxic heavy metals. Lots of people are getting sick due to these dangerous minerals, including many children. Long-term effects may include liver, kidney, and spleen failure, bone damage, and cancers of the digestive tract. According to a 2003 EPA report:
- More than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001.
- Over 1000 miles of streams have been permitted to be buried in valley fills. (for scale, this is a greater distance than the length of the entire Ohio River).
- Mountaintop removal mining, if it continues unabated, will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres by the end of the decade-an area the size of Delaware-with a concomitant severe impact on fish, wildlife, and bird species, not to mention a devastating effect on many neighboring communities.
- 800+ square miles of mountains are estimated to be already destroyed. (this is equal to a one-quarter mile wide swath of destruction from New York to San Francisco - it is also significantly underestimated).
Here’s what you can do to help:
- Find out if you’re connected to mountaintop removal mining.
- The Environmental Protection Agency extended the deadline for citizen comments on two proposals of how coal ash waste, a byproduct of coal-burning, is treated. Write the EPA before Nov. 19 and tell them that coal ash—which contains concentrated levels of mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals—should be treated as a hazardous waste with federal oversight
- Cut down on your energy consumption and upgrade to greener products.
- Support tax-deductible campaigns, projects, and films. (The organizations provided at the link are all great.)
3. The most pervasive and obvious environmental issue is over-consumption. Our Earth is horribly overpopulated and our resources are few. Our Earth currently does not have the resources for each person to live a life similar to ours. In fact, it would take 5 planet Earths to sustain life at our rate of consumption while nearly 1 in 4 people currently lives in extreme poverty. 3.5 billion people, that’s over half of the world’s population, live on less than $2 a day. 81% of the world’s population lives in poor countries, divided into moderately developed and less developed countries. The extremely high rate of consumption by those in highly developed countries has just as significant of an impact on the environment as the rapid growth in population. This increased consumption of nonessential items rapidly depletes resources and degrades the global environment. The economic development of poor countries is more often than not tied to the exploitation of their natural resources, which are frequently exported to highly developed countries. The people of these countries are faced with either exploiting their resources to meet the short-term demands of the growing populations or preserving the resources for future generations. The poor people in these countries find themselves in what seems to be an unwinnable situation: deplete environmental resources in order to survive but then lose the resources, diminish the prospects of economic development, and fall back into poverty.
Those of us who live in highly developed countries are encouraged to consume more in order to promote happiness by the media and advertising industries. Our use of resources is greatly disproportional to the number of consumers. For instance, even though the people in highly developed countries account for under 20% of the world’s population, they use 86% of the world’s aluminum, 76% of timber, 68% of energy produced, eat 61% of the world’s meat, and consume 42% of the world’s freshwater, while generating 75% of the world’s pollution and waste. Just one child born in such countries have a greater impact on the environment and resource depletion than about 20 children born in developing countries. The average ecological footprint of someone living in the United States is 9.6 hectares (23.7 acres) and the footprint of someone living in a developing country such as India or Nigeria is about 1 hectares (2.5 acres).
As more and more people are becoming consumers in developing countries, the human impact on the Earth is getting worse, particularly because many of us don’t quite understand these impacts or those of technological advancements. For instance, motor vehicles are not only liked to global warming from CO2 emissions but also air and water pollution (from exhaust, improperly disposed oil and antifreeze), stratospheric ozone depletion (from the leakage of air conditioner coolants), and solid waste (such as the disposal of cars in landfills). Despite these impacts of cars, there are about 550 million cars in the world and that number is increasing significantly each day. However, the consumption of a particular product or resource may increase, but the environmental impact may be decreased due to technological advancements. Finding a perfect balance is incredibly difficult and will require a great deal of cooperation.
We must approach each of these problems with the concept of environmental sustainability in mind, which National Geographic has popularly defined as “the ability to meet humanity’s current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Environmental sustainability applies to a number of levels, including the individual, communal, regional, national, and global levels and is based upon the following ideas:
- We must consider the effects of our actions on the health and well being of the natural environment, including all living things.
- Earth’s resources are not present in infinite supply. We must live within limits that let renewable resources such as fresh water regenerate for future needs.
- We must understand all of the costs to the environment and to society of products we consume.
- We must each share responsibility for environmental sustainability.
We currently aren’t living at such a level because we’re using nonrenewable resources as if they were unlimited in their supply, we’re not allowing renewable resources to replenish, we’re polluting as if the capacity of Earth to absorb our waste were limitless, and our population is growing despite Earth’s limited means to sustain us.
Our solutions require a universal better understanding of science. Without such knowledge the only possible outcome for us is failure. Furthermore, we must strive for sustainable development, where economic growth meets the needs of the present without compromising those of future generations. We must adopt a lifestyle based around sustainable consumption and embrace voluntary simplicity, where we recognize that our individual happiness and quality of life are not linked to materialism. Personal value and character define us far beyond what we own is capable of. In order to do this, we must embrace formal and informal education so that we can understand the necessity of change. If we are able to understand how the Earth and universe works, we can better appreciate our place within them and bring value to sustainability. We must adjust our worldview such that everything we do is just and provides for an evolved sense of ethics.
This is all possible. We just need to motivate ourselves and develop a determined will to change the world. It may seem daunting, but we certainly won’t be doing it alone.