The Six Most Serious Environmental Threats Facing Our Planet

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  • Roar Bjonnes is the co-founder of Systems Change Alliance, a long-time environmental activist and a writer on ecology and alternative economics, which he terms eco-economics.

The most serious threat facing our planet today is not the commonly conceived causes of global warming, water shortages, or pollution—these are simply the symptoms of an unsustainable economic system and culture. The main threat, and thus the main cause, is the materialistic lifestyle which the people of the ‘modernized’ countries have become accustomed to in the last decades and continue to take for granted. Our overconsumption of material goods, and the following depletion and destruction of natural resources, has a direct cause-and-effect relationship to the state of the natural world we live in.

Seen from the perspective of those living in the poor part of the world, the lifestyle of the privileged nations and the economic and political decisions it promotes, can be experienced as a direct threat to survival. In the words of Indian environmental activist, Vandana Shiva:

Greed and appropriation of other people’s share of the planet’s precious resources are at the root of conflicts, and the root of terrorism. A way of life for the 20 percent of the earth’s people ~ who use 80 percent of the planet’s resources will dispossess 80 percent of its people of their just share of resources and eventually destroy the planet. We cannot survive as a species if greed is privileged and protected and the economics of the greedy set the rules for how we live and die.[1]

The environmental problems facing our planet have the potential to drive us further apart, even destroy us, but they also have the potential to bring us closer together. In fact, if we do not come together as one planetary nation to solve these imminent problems, we may no longer have a planet to call our home much longer. Here are some of the most pressing environmental problems we need to solve in the immediate future: 

1) Habitat Destruction

Photo by Justus Menke

Destruction of the earth’s natural habitats has at times been severe, at other times catastrophic. As mentioned above, two-thirds of the world’s ecosystem is being harmed by human activity, and the destruction is carried out at an ever increasing rate. According to the British newspaper, the Guardian, “The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.”[2]

That hazardous species is us. In addition to destroying the natural cycles that sustain life, we also actively introduce pollutants in water, air and earth, killing microorganisms and poisoning the planet. In nature, all waste functions as food for other organisms, which means that there is no waste without having an ecological function. Everything is recycled. However, with modern inventions, human beings have introduced artificial and toxic particles that nature is unable to utilize or break down. Radioactive waste, industrial waste products and many chemicals used every day belong to this group.

In his book The Future, Al Gore explains that,  “the rapid growth of human civilization—in the number of people, the power of technology, and the size of the global economy—is colliding with approaching limits to the supply of key natural resources on which billions of lives depend, including topsoil and freshwater.” Topsoil and freshwater are singled out here because of their importance in meeting our most basic needs. However, as Gore also points out, limits on virtually all of the natural resources that we use are becoming apparent.

A recent major study, according to Greenpeace, indicates that if global temperatures increase 1.8-2° Celsius (3.2-3.6°F), a million species would be threatened with extinction over the next fifty years. Rapid CO2  emissions reductions on a global scale can remedy this situation, but currently there is not enough political will to enact the changes needed to stop this massive species holocaust. If temperatures rise even higher, even more species will be lost.

2) Climate Crisis

Photo by Marcelo Novais

Of all the negative effects that are currently being caused by the collision of industry with the Earth“the single most important and threatening of this collision is the climate crisis.”[3] The climate crisis, an overwhelming majority of scientists believe, is being caused by the build-up of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the main contributor to which is the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.

However, the increase in the earth’s temperature is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to climate change, for this phenomenon causes a series of knock-on effects that are also potentially devastating. These include the disruptions from numerous weather and weather-related patterns in the environment. Southern Scandinavia, where I grew up, has experienced less snow cover, more rain and floods and even droughts in the past 20-30 years, as a direct effect of climate change. In many other parts of the world, other weather-related destructions, such has rising sea levels, storms, droughts, and typhoons are already beginning to impact people, plants and animals, and these natural disasters are only expected to intensify.

Barely three months before super-cyclone Haiyan ravaged parts of the Philippines in the fall of 2013 and gained notoriety as the strongest storm to hit land ever recorded, an article in the Geophysical Research Letter reported that the temperature in the Pacific Ocean has increased steadily since 1990. This area needs to be watched carefully, the report concluded, as devastating cyclones are likely to be formed here. [4] And the list goes on. Other serious threats to the global natural systems due to climate change include  rising sea levels, which are already impacting many island nations, due to melting polar ice; acidification of the oceans due to increased carbon dioxide absorption; oxygen depletion in the oceans which could have devastating effects on ocean life; and increased droughts in some areas and increased flooding in others could severely affect the global food supply. As temperatures increase, the greater will be the threat to the environment and to the future of humanity.

3) Loss of Biodiversity

Photo by Geran de Klerk

One of the most serious aspects of the environmental crisis is the loss of bio-diversity. Losing a species is loss of life, ecological balance, as well as the loss of food, medicine and other scientific information that can potentially be useful in the future.

If current trends continue, the polar bear—a symbol of not only global habitat loss but also climate change and global pollution trends—will likely be gone by the end of the century. Global warming and the resulting melting ice sheets threatens the feeding habits of polar bears and dioxin pollution, caused by plastic waste in the oceans, threaten its mating habits. 

If a country loses its food harvests due to natural disasters, it may cause famine and death. But as long as the knowledge of how to grow food is maintained, food harvests will eventually be restored. However, if the know-how as part of food production is lost, it can take generations before that knowledge is rediscovered.

Similarly, in the natural world, information is stored in the genetic code of an animal or a plant’s DNA. This information has taken millions of years to develop, and once it is irretrievably lost by the loss of a species, we cannot recreate it. Therefore, it is in our ethical, ecological and economic interest to preserve cultural and biological diversity.

All life has existential value. The life of a bird or a goat is as important to them as our own lives are to us. We therefore have an ethical and ecological responsibility to preserve as many natural life forms as possible for the sake of their own right to exist. This fundamental right is grossly overlooked in today’s economic reality, where utility value vastly trumps existential value. One way to support the existential value of other living beings is to eat as low on the food chain as possible. As popular American food writer Michael Pollan suggests, we should eat 1) whole foods, 2) mostly plants, and 3) not too much. From an ethical, health and ecological point of view, this is sound advice—plants are good for health; eating plants causes less animal suffering, and growing plant food has less of an environmental impact, as it uses less water, less energy, etc.

Another, more fundamental, and political, way to guarantee the existential value of nature is to follow Ecuador’s example, which has included in its Constitution the chapter, “Rights for Nature.” Rather than treating nature as property under the law, Rights for Nature articles acknowledge that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”  The Ecuadorian people have legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems, and the ecosystem can be named as defendant in court cases. [5]

All life forms, beyond their existential value, also have utility value in the great cycle of nature and in human society. The extinction of any species is a great crime against nature and humanity. The utility value of bees, for example, as pollinators of crops, is unquestionable. It is estimated they add 420 billion pounds to the UK economy alone. But bees all over the Western world are currently threatened by the pesticides, neonicotinoids, various pests, and also lack of bio-diversity—fewer varieties of flowers to feed on make them more susceptible to disease.  Therefore, in view of both the existential and utility value of bees, it is in the interest of human society to preserve their lives by banning neonicotinoids, as well as by preserving, and even increasing, the bio-diversity the bees depend on to stay healthy and to multiply.

Even exotic plants and animals seemingly of no real value, and existing in such small populations that they cannot possibly contribute anything substantial to the global system, or to human progress, are in fact repositories of information that might be crucial should the environment change. Containing unique gene pools, these exotic species might suddenly become essential for life under different ecological conditions. We may not fully understand a certain genome’s utility value at present, or what utilitarian potentials exist in certain species, but every time a species is lost, it potentially impacts our future and the ecological balance of life on the planet. Consequently, it is in the interest of all nations to follow Ecuador’s example to include “the rights of nature” in their respective constitutions.

4) Waste

Photo by Jasmin Sessler

In the award winning film, Trashed, actor Jeremy Irons documents how we are slowly but surely trashing our planet with non-biodegradable, plastic garbage; thereby jeopardizing the health of plants, animals and humans. Irons, a smoker, knows full well that waste from cigarette butts contain millions of toxins that are especially deadly to marine life. According to the film’s website, 4.5 trillion filters from smoked cigarettes make their way into the environment every year. Still, like most us, he continues to practice his environmentally unfriendly habits.

We are trashing the planet in small and big ways. When you buy a plastic toothbrush, and you throw it away, a few years later, according to the film, Trashed, it may end up in the stomach of a large fish. Yes, even the oceans have now become our planet’s garbage dumps. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego produced a study, which revealed that more than nine percent of the fish in an area of the Pacific Ocean contained plastic waste in their stomachs. The study estimated that up to 24,000 tons of plastic waste per year was ingested by fish in that area alone. [6] 

To save our planet from drowning in garbage, industrial innovators are learning to produce and reuse material waste from the way nature is designed. In nature, biological waste or nutrients decompose into the natural environment, soil and water without causing any pollution, providing food for bacteria and microbiological life. Later, these organisms become food for plants, animals and humans. Similarly, we can design industrial, commercial and waste systems according to these natural design mechanisms.  Technical nutrients, the inorganic or synthetic materials manufactured by humans—such as plastics and metals—can thus be used many times over without any loss in quality, staying in a continuous cycle.

To save the planet from drowning in waste, we must bypass the garbage dump, whether on land or in the ocean, altogether.  There are basically two ways to prevent trashing the planet: 1) make things that biodegrade just like in nature—you use it; you throw it in the compost, and 2) reuse all non-biodegradable materials as part of the industrial production cycle—your electronic gadget becomes outdated, you turn it in to the upcycling plant to make parts for new gadgets. In either scenario, nothing is wasted and no trash is created. This is our best hope for saving us from suffocating in our own waste.

5) Water

Photo by LuAnn Hunt

As mentioned above, fresh water is in short supply. Think about it: Global reserves of drinkable water are only a fraction of one percent. One in five humans does not have access to safe drinking water due, in part, due to polluted rivers. Strife has already broken out in some stressed regions. In others, there is conflict due to privatization of drinking water.

Indian scientist and activist, Vanadana Shiva, highlights the complexities involved in the global water crisis. “The water crisis,” she writes, “is an ecological crisis with commercial causes but no market solutions. Market solutions destroy the earth and aggravate inequality. The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological, and the solution for injustice is democracy. Ending the water crisis requires rejuvenating ecological democracy.” [7]

Scarcity and the growing demand for water means big business for global corporations. The two largest in the water industry are the French companies, Vivendi Environment and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, whose business operations extend to 120 countries. One of the main solutions to the water crisis is to ban the corporate privatization of water and to make it a key industry guaranteed to people by their local governments. Water is part of the global commons—it belongs to us all. Second, more efforts need to go into preservation of water, such as building rain water catchment systems on houses, and on cleaning up polluted rivers and lakes. 

6) Food

Photo by Ashley Green

The way we grow and distribute food is, perhaps more than any other human endeavor, a symbol of our unsustainable planet. Food researcher and author, Frances Moore Lappe, has maintained for many years that we do not lack food on this planet: we have a distribution problem, and we have a concentration-of-junk-food problem. Millions of people in the southern hemisphere are hungry and malnourished due to lack of food, and millions of people in the northern hemisphere are getting sick and obese from eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods.

We are turning food crops into biofuels to fill up our SUVs; we are giving corporations like Monsanto near absolute control of the global seed market; we import food we could grow at home from thousands of miles away; soy beans are imported from poor countries that lack protein to fatten pigs and cattle in rich countries with too much protein; pesticides and artificial fertilizer are poisoning fields, crops, water, animals and humans at an unprecedented rate.

The “green revolution” initiated in the 1970s by researchers, philanthropists, and governments sought to end world hunger by increasing food crop yields worldwide. Their productivity logic went something like this: modernize agricultural techniques, make high-yield crops pervasive, and food prices will drop and poor people will be fed. This largely failed paradigm still dominates worldwide, yet a billion people go hungry despite increases in food production.

The production, distribution and consumption of food today are symptoms of a lack of an ecological outlook and an unsustainable economy.  Food production needs to become more localized; food consumption, especially in rich countries, needs to be much more plant-based—as this increases efficiency, health and sustainability; corporations should be banned from monopolizing seed production; and organic methods of farming need to be increased and supported with research and subsidies.

We are in the process of gradually destroying our planet’s delicately balanced ecological systems. We are compromising an extremely effective and sophisticated web converting solar energy into life-giving energy and an atmosphere supporting an abundance of life. If we upset this delicate balance much more, the potentially catastrophic consequences are unpredictable. What we do know is this: it is time to change course; it is time to become better stewards of the only planet we have—the only home we know. From today onwards, we must start creating a more sustainable, more ecological, more resilient world. It is time for deep systems change, both economically and politically.

[1] Vandana Shiva, Water Wars, (South End Press, 2002), p. 14

[2] George Monbiot, from article in the Guardian, London

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dodelig Hav (Deadly Oceans), article in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, 13-19 December, 2013

[5] From an article at:: www.therightsofnature.org

[6] From an article at www.earthtimes.org

[7] Vandana Shiva, Water Wars, (South End Press), 2004, page 15

Top Photo by David Clode

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  • Roar Bjonnes is the co-founder of Systems Change Alliance, a long-time environmental activist and a writer on ecology and alternative economics, which he terms eco-economics.

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