Everything we do has an impact on the environment. Reading this very article requires a computer or mobile device which was unsustainably manufactured in a country with very loose environmental regulations. The electricity that enables your use of this device may be generated from coal or another non-renewable source. Once the device becomes obsolete, it is trashed in a landfill where it will leach poisonous chemicals into the groundwater.
Our natural environment can only sustain so much and, before long, it will be dramatically different than how we know it today. How we heat and cool our homes, power our electronics, commute, dispose of waste, and eat and prepare food has a profound negative impact on the climate, wildlife, and geography of our planet.
If we don’t reverse these destructive habits, the world our children and grandchildren live in will be drastically different than ours. We must be careful while going about this process however, as even our best intentions often cause environmental harm.
The Three Gorges reservoir in China is meant to generate green energy, but the project and its related infrastructure have irreversibly damaged the landscape and have exacerbated the potential of catastrophic natural disasters.
Along the banks of the re-routed Yangtze River—one of the world’s largest—the risk of landslides has almost doubled. Almost a half-million people may be displaced by more intense landslides by 2020. Considering the amount of silt that accompanies landslides, the ecosystem will suffer even further. Furthermore, since the reservoir is built atop two major fault lines, reservoir-induced seismicity is of major concern.
Scientists have alleged that the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—responsible for 80,000 deaths—was made worse by reservoir-induced seismicity in the Zipingpu Dam, built less than half a mile from the earthquake’s primary fault line.
"In western China, the one-sided pursuit of economic benefits from hydropower has come at the expense of relocated people, the environment, and the land and its cultural heritage," says Fan Xiao, a Sichuan geologist. "Hydropower development is disorderly and uncontrolled, and it has reached a crazy scale.”
The scariest part about it all? Scientists predict that an earthquake caused by the Three Gorges Dam would cause a catastrophic societal disaster of untold environmental and human cost sometime within the next 40 years if development continues as planned.
Overfishing has reached such an extreme that many species of fish are nearing extinction. The global fishing fleet is 2.5 times larger than what our ocean can support, more than half of the world’s fisheries are gone, and 25% are considered “overexploited, depleted, or recovering from collapse” according to the World Wildlife Foundation.
Reduced to ten percent of their original population, the world’s large ocean fish (tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder) have been ripped from their natural habitats. Unless something changes, they will be virtually extinct by 2048.
Fishing technology has converted a once noble, blue-collar profession into a fleet of floating factories equipped with fish-finding technology. Once a boat claims a fishing area for its own, the local fish population will decline by 80% in ten to fifteen years.
According to Dr. Boris Worm, a Marine Research Ecologist and Associate Professor at Dalhousie University, “marine biodiversity loss is increasingly impairing the ocean's capacity to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations.”
There is still hope, however. According to an article in the academic journal Science, “Available data suggest that at this point, these trends are still reversible”.
The Many Evils of Coal
Most people appropriately believe coal’s largest environmental impact is global warming caused by emissions. Unfortunately, that is not where its impact ends.
Mining for coal has its own profound effect on the environment and the ecosystems in which it occurs. Since coal is a cheaper energy source than natural gas, it is the most common electrical generator in the world. Around 25% of the world’s coal supply is in the US, especially in mountainous regions like Appalachia.
The primary means of mining coal are mountain-top removal and strip mining; both are incredibly destructive to the environment. Mountain-top removal involves the removal of up to 1,000 feet of the mountain’s peak so that the coal can be taken from deep inside the mountain. Strip mining is used primarily for newer coal deposits that aren’t as deep into the mountain as older ones. The top layers of the face of the mountain or hill (as well as everything living on or in it) are carefully scraped away so every possible layer of mineral is exposed and able to be mined.
Both processes virtually destroy anything that lives on the mountain, be it animal species, old-growth forests, or crystal-clear glacial streams.
More than 300,000 acres of hardwood forest in West Virginia (which contains 4% of the world’s coal) have been destroyed by mining, and it is estimated that 75% of streams and rivers in West Virginia are polluted by mining and related industries. The continued removal of trees in the area creates unstable erosion conditions, further destroying the surrounding landscape and animal habitats. Within the next twenty years, it has been estimated that more than 90% of the groundwater in West Virginia will be contaminated by the byproducts of mining.
"I think [the damage] is very clear. It is very compelling, and it would be a disservice to the people who live [in Appalachia] to say we just have to study it more," says Michael Hendryx , a community medicine professor at the University of West Virginia. "The monetary costs of the industry in terms of premature mortality and other impacts far outweigh any benefits.”
Our car-dependent society is another main contributor to our future demise. 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from cars alone. There are more than 232 million vehicles on the road in the US, and the average car consumes 2271 litres of gas a year. Mathematically speaking, that means we annually consume 526,872,000,000 litres of non-renewable gasoline just to commute.
A single car creates 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year through its exhaust; it would take 240 trees to offset that amount. Greenhouse gasses caused by transportation account for just under 28 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US, making it the second-highest producer behind the electricity sector.
Car exhaust contains a plethora of carcinogens and poisonous gasses including nitrogen oxide particles, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide. In high enough quantities, these gasses can all cause respiratory diseases.
Aside from emissions, the process of drilling for the oil to power the cars is environmentally damaging too: whether on land or underwater, there are consequences to this practice that cannot be ignored.
Land drilling forces out local species; creates a necessity for access roads to be built, usually through dense old-growth forests; and poisons the local groundwater, making natural regeneration almost impossible. Marine drilling involves shipping the oil back to land, creating environmental catastrophes such as the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989.
There have been at least a dozen oil spills of more than 40 million gallons of oil across the world since 1978, and the chemical dispersants used to clean the spills usually destroy marine life in tandem with the oil itself, poisoning entire swaths of ocean for generations. There is hope, however, with electric cars once again becoming prominent, and with global leaders committing to reduce emissions to near zero in the coming decades. Until the developing world has access to such technology, we should expect the greenhouse effect to amplify in the next 50 years and more extreme weather and poorer air quality will become normal occurrences rather than climatological anomalies.
Pollution by Produce
Perhaps our worst offence is the way we produce our food.
According the EPA, current farming practices are responsible for 70% of the pollution in the US’ rivers and streams; the runoff of chemicals, fertilizer, contaminated soil, and animal waste has polluted an estimated 278,417 kilometres of waterways. The by-product of this runoff is an increase in nitrogen levels and a decrease of oxygen in the water supply, leading to the creation of “dead zones” where hyper- and undergrowth of marine plants choke out the animals that live there.
Pesticides, which protect crops from predatory insects, kill many more species than they intend to and lead to the death and destruction of useful species, such as honeybees. The number of bee colonies in American farmland dropped from 4.4 million in 1985 to under 2 million in 1997, with a steady decrease since.
As if that’s not bad enough, factory farming and global eating trends have created an absence of biodiversity. We have a dangerous tendency to favour large mono-crops of single food varieties. There are an estimated 23,000 edible plant species on earth, of which humans only eat about 400.
In 1904, there were 7,098 apple varieties in the USA; 86% are now defunct. In Brazil, only 12 of 32 native pig breeds are left, all of which are currently under threat of extinction. If we don’t reverse these trends, the endangerment of species and extinction of once-abundant animals will threaten global ecosystems much more profoundly than it currently does, and combined with ongoing climate change, future generations may only have access to GMO versions of otherwise common produce we enjoy today.
While all of these trends are disturbing on their own, combined, they effectively turn our environment into a ticking bomb with the timer running low. We are rapidly poisoning our air, water, and soil at rates far beyond anything we can sustain. If reversal doesn’t happen in our lifetime, a catastrophic event will force our children to re-think the way they build things, produce food, commute, and generate power. The decisions we make now and the actions we take against these practices will determine whether or not we give future generations a wonderful world to inherit, or a toxic wasteland stripped bare for our benefit.