Ecology - Bad News

climate changeLet me dispense with the bad news first.

The bad news is that we humans are treating the Earth as if it were a corporation in liquidation. We're transforming its wealth into an assortment of products to make our lives more convenient and comfortable. In an ever-accelerating frenzy, we are leveling rain forests, mining our agricultural soils, burning fossil fuels, polluting the atmosphere, and depleting fisheries.

In a single day, 140 to 180 square miles of tropical rain forest fall to chain saws and bulldozers. That's a swath 2 miles wide and 70 to 90 miles long. To date, 3 million square miles of tropical rain forest have been lost. That's equivalent to an area half the size of the US!

Species extinction is on the rise, too. Each day, an estimated 50 to 100 species are lost in large part as a result of the destruction of the planet's biologically rich rain forests, coral reefs, and wetlands.

Sure, species extinction is a natural phenomenon, but it is occurring at an unusually rapid rate. To understand how much more quickly species are vanishing, consider an analogy offered by University of Colorado biologist David Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong equates the historical rate of extinction to a car traveling at 55 miles per hour. In this analogy, the modern rate of extinction would be equivalent to a car traveling 29 times faster-about 1600 miles per hour. "The difference between natural rates of extinction and present, human-influenced rates," says Armstrong, "is analogous to the difference between a causal drive and Mach 2."

Concern over species extinction isn't just about losing pretty butterflies, it is also about losing food supplies. Since 1920, over two dozen commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic have been depleted. Today, virtually all of our remaining fisheries are under heavy pressure, so heavy, in fact, that it would take between 5 and 20 years for most of them to recover from current pressure if we were to stop fishing now.

If you have ever wondered why fish is so expensive these days, this is one of them. We're fishing the oceans dry. Expect prices to go even higher.

Although there have been some dramatic improvements in cropland protection, the world's agricultural lands continue to suffer. On an average day, nearly 70 million tons of topsoil are eroded form the world's farms.

Annually, that's about 24 billion tons of agricultural soil. Over a decade, agricultural soil erosion would be equivalent to about half of the topsoil on the United States' farmland.

Deserts continue to expand, too, in part because of overgrazing, but also because of the warming of the Earth's atmosphere caused by the release of greenhouse gases. On an average day, 70 square miles of semiarid grassland is lost to desert. That's a 1- mile-wide, 70-mile-long patch of Earth converted into desert because of us.

All this is made worse by the continual expansion of the world's population. In a single day, approximately 230,000 people are added to the world population. Each one will require food, water, and a host of other resources to survive.

The US population is growing rapidly, too. It is expected to increase from 280 million in 2000 to 390 million by 2050.

As populations increase and our need for energy expands, so does the release of many harmful pollutants. None is so important as the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. On an average day, approximately 15 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere from jets, cars, factories, power plants, and homes.

As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the Earth's temperature rises. Where it will end up is anyone's guess, but it will be hotter, substantially hotter, in the coming years.

While a shift in average global temperature of a few degrees may not seem like much, it is. An increase of only a couple degrees can have a major impact on sea level and global climate.

There is much to be learned about global climate change and there is some controversy over global climate change with dissenting scientific views coming from a small handful of researchers funded by the coal and oil industry.

But something is happening. Sea level is rising, flooding small islands. Violent storms are on the rise. Damage from storms is higher in the past 10 years than the previous 40. Each year seems hotter than the previous year. In fact, 17 of the hottest years in the past 100 years have occurred since 1980.

The bad news continues, but let it suffice to say that the trends are not good. We may not be doomed, but we are certainly heading in the wrong direction, wandering further and further off the path to a sustainable human existence.

What are we doing about it?

On an individual level, not much. It seems to me that many people have forsaken their environmental values. Even though numerous polls show that Americans are resoundingly in favor of environmental protection, our actions don't speak so loudly.

There's ample evidence of our loss of an environmental conscience. Look around you. Watch the mad frenzy of buying. Notice the rush to purchase bigger and more powerful vehicles, forsaking energy-efficient ones. As evidence of this trend, sport utility vehicles, light trucks, and vans now comprise 50% of all new car sales in the United States. Gas mileage in new vehicles has declined steadily over the last decade.

Look at the trend in housing, too. While many of the world's people live in meager shelters, in the United States big houses are the status quo. Huge homes dot the landscape, and we're filling them as fast as we can.

In this day and age, it seems as if comfort and convenience reign supreme. In our new found prosperity, we've abandoned all environmental conviction. We've become complacent, waiting for business and government to solve the problem for us.

It seems to me that the people who've responded to the questionnaires--that environmentalists wave in everyone's face to prove that Americans really are dedicated to conservation -- have forgotten a fundamental truth: that your philosophy is not what you believe, it is how you act, what you do, how you live.