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. A generation or two before ours and one might speak of saving the beauty of Western Ghats; conserving a single species—say the white rhino—from extinction (Sadly we failed on that too); or preserving an ecological region like the Amazon. That was a different age.
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 over-reaching 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?
Although not a scientist, I have a relatively unique perspective, having spent the last five years as a forester, gathering knowledge and experience on a wide-variety of issues from species-on-the-brink to indigenous rights to climate change politics. Sometimes it feel like watching a slow succumbing, an endless cataloguing toward the end of the world as we know it. I don’t mean that the Earth will keel over and die—hardly.
But 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 string weed in the Galapagos, from the oceans’ chemical make-up to the boreal forest’s ability to sequester carbon.
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, 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.
Habitat loss, deforestation, poaching, pollution, desertification, over-harvesting, invasive species, climate change: never before has one species—humans—threatened the existence of so many others. Most biologists now agree that we have pushed life on earth into a mass extinction event: the sixth that has occurred. Mass extinction events wipe out a good percentage—usually over 50 percent—of species in a short amount of time, geologically speaking. Such losses forever re-write Earth’s ecology and require millions of years for species diversity to begin recovery
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 experts, 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 it’s 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.
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. Although estimating deforestation is complex and difficult, it is thought that at least 32,300 hectares (80,000 acres) of rainforest are destroyed every day. If forest degradation is included in that estimate, the area doubles. Going back further: from 1950 to today approximately 668 million hectares of tropical forest have been lost—over six times the size of Bolivia—due largely to logging, fire, slash-and-burn, mining, dams, and clearcutting for plantation, pasture, or agriculture. In total just 41 percent of the world’s tropical forest biome survives today.
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.
Signs of our progressively warming world are everywhere and in some cases becoming iconic: melting glaciers, changes in animal migrations, earlier springs, exacerbated droughts, unusual flooding, longer melt season in the Arctic, global sea level rising, acidifying oceans, extinctions, desertification, longer growing seasons, and worsened water shortages. While one cannot simply subscribe a single weather-event to climate change, a long-term pattern of changes can and should be linked to climate change if backed up by scientific evidence. When I was a kid, climate change, though discussed, was a long-way off—a hundred years maybe—but it has come faster and fiercer than most researchers expected, and the on-the-ground changes are becoming increasingly visible even to non-scientists.
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.
Yes, there is still hope!!!
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.
Art, literature, philosophy, and religion would all be bankrupt without the natural world to draw from.
People also know that not only does the natural world provide us with the means on which we survive—food, water, materials, stable climate—but also gives us the inspiration to do the very things that make us human. Art, literature, philosophy, and religion would all be bankrupt without the natural world to draw from. Recently researchers have begun making connections between mental illness and a lack of access to—or time spent in—the natural world. I suspect these burgeoning studies to uncover a significant connection between our society’s loss of nature and our growth in mental illness, loss of purpose, and unhappiness even as we own more stuff.
Here’s the 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. So, I think we humans have to understand that “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to earth” and sooner we catch that better it will be for us as well as our future generations.
The author, Mohammad Tayyab Quazi is a forestry graduate from TNAU, pursuing post-graduation in forestry from Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun.