On the first Earth Day, 40 years ago the conversation was about saving a single species—say the white rhino—from extinction; or preserving an ecological region like the Amazon. That was a different age.
Today with the biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, the deforestation crisis: we are living in an age when environmental issues have moved from regional problems to global ones. 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?
Here are experts from a poignant op-ed written by Jeremy Hance Mongabay.com, April 22, 2010
The Earth may be very different in just a hundred years than the place we inherited: species are vanishing and ecosystems are being ravaged; humans are impacting everything from the deepest ocean to the most inaccessible mountain glaciers, from lion populations in East Africa to stringweed in the Galapagos, from the oceans’ chemical make-up to the boreal forest’s ability to sequester carbon.
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. Yet global needs, or rather global desires, are not divided equally as Jared Diamond pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times: the industrialized world consumes 32 times more resources than the developing world. There are many ways to illustrate such discrepancies: from the McMansions of suburban America (imagine 4,000 to 10,000 square feet) to the slums of India and the shanties of Kenya, from 61 cars for every 100 Australians compared to 3 cars for every 100 Filipinos, or from 6 TVs for every 10 Germans to half of a TV for every 10 Nigerians to one-third of a TV for every hundred Afghanis.
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.
We—the human species—are failing on every major environmental problem: biodiversity, oceans, deforestation, food and water, population and consumption, and climate change. Our inability thus far to even being solving these problems is bankrupting our Earth and will leave our children a very different—I venture to say lonelier and more chaotic—world.
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.
Humankind is, quite literally, eating the oceans. Targeted fish populations have collapsed impacting ecosystems all down the line. According to marine expert, Jeremy Jackson, large predatory fish, including tuna, salmon, cod, swordfish, and rays, have declined by 90 percent in 60 years. Sharks are faring no better. Caught as bycatch and heavily-targeted for shark-fin soup, shark populations have dropped even quicker than popular fish. In the Northwest Atlantic sharks populations declined 75 percent in just fifteen years. But its not just fish: oysters have suffered a global loss of 91 percent due to unsustainable exploitation. A 2006 paper in Science predicted that the oceans could be emptied of all target species by 2050 if business continued as usual. Despite this warning, little improvement has been made. The loss of these species also unfairly impacts the world’s poor, who depend on fish and other edible marine life as an important protein and economic source.
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.