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Environmental concerns

Degeneration of forests/water/soil; Consumption
of resources; Problems caused by waste.

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Degeneration of forests:

The destruction of forests causes an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere due to the decomposition and burning of the forest and the fact that there are fewer trees to remove carbon dioxide from the air. In fact, deforestation is second only to fossil fuels as a human source of atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the World Resources Institute we are currently losing about 12 million hectares of natural forest annually. To save the natural forest ecosystem we would have to reduce the culture of consumption in the key developed countries, 1 But it may already be too late. According to Edward Goldsmith, the process is now completely out of control. He:

"does not see anything in place that can conceivably stop the continued destruction of the world's forests until there are no accessible forests left, or rather until it has become uneconomic to cut down any more. The demand of the First World countries for hardwood is insatiable. It has increased fifteen-fold since World-War II, 2 and can be reduced only by prices becoming exorbitant. There is no law anywhere to prevent corporations from clear cutting forests."

The rain forests are extremely rich. They are among the oldest living systems on earth, having evolved during the past millions of years in an environment that was especially favorable. 3 It is unbelievable that they are in the process of being extinguished, and that at the rate of more than an acre a second. 4 For example, deforestation causes the habitat destruction of over 10,000 square miles per year in the Amazon Basin! The rate of tropical deforestation in 1989 was almost the double of that in 1979, with roughly 1.8% of the remaining forests disappearing each year. The biologist Norman Myers estimates that worldwide this amounts to 20 million hectares being yearly destroyed or seriously depleted. 3 Once the fragile and irreplaceable life system is extinguished it will never be the same. It could come back if the damage is limited, but on the scale in which the rain forests are presently being damaged they would never recover.

The conversion of tropical rain forests to cattle ranches to supply the fast-food hamburger stands of the First World countries is the most wasteful and destructive use of these forests. In 1988 in Brazil, 40,000 square miles of tropical forest (i.e., an area the size of England, Scotland, and Wales) were burned down - US researchers estimate that by 2020 less than 5% of it will remain in pristine conditions. The beef produced as a result of this plunder was and still is exported to the U.S.

A 1980 study of West African countries showed that the demand for wood for fuel exceeded the estimated sustainable yield of forests in eleven of the thirteen countries surveyed. In both Mauritania and the mountainous areas of Rwanda, the demand for firewood is ten times the yield of the remaining forests. 5 As to the forests of Central Africa, it is estimated that about one fifth of them will be gone within 15 years. The amount of firewood burnt by a single family in Africa (or in India) is quite small, but it is to be multiplied by an enormous population to assess the rate with which the forests are disappearing.

The rate of destruction of the rainforests in the Philippines is alarming - they have dwindled from the original 17.5 million hectares to less than 1 million today. Similarly, in 1920 the extent of mangroves in the Philippines was estimated at around 500,000 hectares. Today, the figure is less than 150,000 hectares. 2

Figures from the Borealnet.org tell us that trees logged from Canada's Boreal Forests in a single year (1994-95) would fill up more than 4,300,000 logging trucks, which lined up bumper to bumper would encircle the world 2.5 times. The situation is similar in Siberia - as fast as timber flows out of the Russian Far East, consumer goods are pouring in from Japan, China, and Korea, wrapped in packaging produced from Russian pulp. 1 And yet the forests of the north and the taigas are essential to the health of the world and humanity.

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Degeneration of water supplies:

The amount of water in the world is finite. Humanity is growing quickly and its water use is growing even more quickly. Global water consumption rose six-fold between 1900 and 1995, which is more than double the rate of population growth. Without considering cooking, washing, and sanitation, for most people the absolute minimum needed to stay healthy is around 0.8 US gallons (3 liters) per day. In a hot climate people exerting themselves could consume more than 5.4 gallons (20 liters) per day. Direct sanitation needs require additional 6 gallons (25 liters) per day, and so does bathing and cooking. 6 This brings the reasonable minimum of water to 13 gallons (50 liters) per person per day, plus water needed to grow food, produce energy, and so on. In the US the average person uses about 99 gallons (380 liters) per day for indoor residential use. in the Netherlands the average is just over 26 gallons (100 liters) per day. 6 However, the latter is exceptional. Nearly half a billion people around the world faced water shortages in 2000. By 2025, the number is expected to grow to 2.8 billion people. Of these, at least 1 billion people live in countries facing absolute scarcity of water. The most over-populated countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, with a third of the world's population, have to survive on largely polluted and overused rivers and wells - as many as 2.3 billion people in the world in 2000 suffered from diseases linked to water (such as dysentery, cholera, and typhoid). By 2025, their number is expected to rise to two-thirds. Of course, humans are not the only ones who suffer - wildlife suffers as well: The level of the Aral Sea has fallen some 40 feet (12 m) as a result of excessive withdrawal of water from the Syr-Darya and the Amu-Darya rivers. The sea has shrunk to half its size, its port is now 30 miles (50 km) off the shoreline. The bottom is becoming a desert. Out of fourteen species of fish originally in the lake, only one survives. 5

Current estimates by WHO find that roughly 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water to meet their basic daily needs, and that 2.4 billion people don't have adequate sanitation. These conditions lead to at least 5 million deaths every year from water-related diseases. 6

Problems for the ecologist are also caused by the pollution of the sea. Not only is waste and poison dumped into the sea by all the polluted rivers; noxious fumes from industries, homes, and automobiles end up there as well. In the US alone, 142 million tonnes of air-borne pollution end up every year in the oceans. 2 Another source of pollution are the supertankers (Torrey Canyon discharged 100,000 tonnes of crude oil into the English Channel) and oil intentionally discharged each year from the world's navies and merchant fleets.

It would cost $170 billion to provide clean water and healthy sewage treatment for all. That should not be beyond the resources of our present global economy. 7

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Degeneration of water supplies:

There is not enough land for farming, and no hope of finding more. The deterioration of soil on agricultural land is worldwide. 35% of the world's arable land is in danger of being turned into desert, and the process is already going on: Globally, each year eleven million hectares of productive land is turned into wasteland. 2 For example, the Bureau of Soil in the Philippines estimates that over 500 million tones of soil are eroded annually. 2 As a result of human activity dictated by greed, the amount of topsoil disappearing each year is equivalent to the total topsoil of the entire wheat belt of Australia (113,000 square kilometers) 5

The deserts are expanding in sub-Saharan Africa, south-central Asia, Australia, the western United States, and southern South America. Farmers are having to turn to increasingly marginal land, and the good land is often taking a battering. Soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by 13% in the last half-century. This was aggravated by waterlogging and high salinity. Our agricultural land is eroding faster than soil can possibly form by natural processes 8 Neither the intensification of production nor the introduction of genetic hybrids can solve the problem. 9

In the USA one third of the cropland is now seriously eroded. For every bushel of corn that a US farmer in Iowa harvests, two bushels of soil are lost through erosion. This adds up to a loss of 4,000 million tones of topsoil each year. 3 If this continues, then there will be no possibility of feeding people because there is not going to be enough soil to grow the food. 9 On the other side of the globe, in 1972, British agriculture was losing 150,000 acres per year.

Land is a finite resource, so the present exploitative approach to it cannot continue much longer. Even so we must always act in the full knowledge that the soil that is lost so quickly took hundreds and thousands of years to build up.

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Resources:

The well-being of our society depends on the resources provided by the earth. There are removable resources such as timber, food, and water, and non-renewable re-sources such as fossil fuels and minerals; the earth also provides maintenance of the life-support systems such as pollution absorption capacity. Until the world population reached 3 billion the means the earth provided were adequate. However, the present growth in population coupled with industrial growth has caused all the resources, which are limited, to be outstripped by human demands. And they are not just overexploited to a small degree: Both society and the natural world are being destroyed at such a rate that the very survival of our species on this planet is now seriously threatened. 10

It seems that humans have forgotten how long it took for the Earth to evolve the current natural resources. The evolution process took billions of years to achieve, with humans occupying this planet for only over a million years. Before becoming industrialists, they consumed less than a third of the available food resources. They did not clear forests for agricultural land, nor did they hack down trees for building houses, nor were they shortsighted enough to exterminate the wild animals on which they depended for their livelihood. 9 It has taken us just 150 years to do all the damage.

Not everybody has contributed to the depletion of natural resources to the same extent. The demands made by the people in industrialized countries and the Third World elite are often 10 to 20 times higher than those made by the poor. 11 Six percent of the world's population in the United States is consuming 40% of the world's nonrenewable resources, 12 The total figures for the world's major industrial nations are no better: 20% of the world's population consume as much as 80% of the world's resources. The developed nations consume such disproportionate amounts of protein, raw materials, and fuels that, unless they considerably reduce their consumption, there is no hope for the undeveloped nations markedly improving their standard of living. 9 The idea that they will be able to eventually catch up with the West is not realistic. Should everyone in the developing countries use the same amount of energy as the average consumer in high income countries does, the developing countries' energy use would increase more than eight-fold in the next 50 years. And where would the energy come from?

The International Energy Agency says the world will need almost 60% more energy in 2030 than it did in 2002. At the same time, oil industry experts estimate that current reserves will only last for about 40 years, and the accessible reserves of coal will also be consumed within the foreseeable future. According to Walter Youngquist, 13 by March 1998 we have consumed more than 800 million barrels of oil. At the same time, we knew that another 850 million barrels are in reserve, with just about 150 million extra barrels yet to be discovered. After not quite 140 years we have consumed 44.5% of oil, this irreplaceable resource accumulated by geological processes during more than 500 million years. Life will go on without it, but in what form? Currently, oil consumption is being taken care of by some 600 million gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles operating in the world, and we have no idea what available alternative energy sources could individually or collectively replace the required 72 million barrels of petroleum a day. We do not even seem to think that far ahead: According to Paul and Anne Ehrlich,

"in the U.S. the Reagan administration relaxed the efficiency standards of automobiles (standards that had already been met by Chrysler). If these regulations had been kept in place, within a decade or so the amount of gasoline saved would have been equivalent to the entire amount of oil estimated to underlie the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That single step could have both removed a threat to one of the last really wild places on Earth and would have reduce pollution in cities." 14

At present rates of consumption we also have to face the exhaustion of known re-serves of silver, aluminum, gold, cobalt, chromium, iron, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, lead, platinum, tin, tungsten, and zinc.

We can allow the present growth rate in ecological demand to persist only at the cost of disrupting ecosystems and exhausting resources.

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Waste:

Apparently, many people are comforted by the fact that they can afford to waste. However, all the waste is immoral, and so is the behavior of our throw-away Western society. The more 'developed' we get, the more we throw away. The misuse and squandering of natural and human means in the First World (mostly Christian) countries not only shortens the resources, but is also directly related to the poverty which affect more and more of the world's population. The life-style and consumption patterns of many people in the First World countries are beyond what the Earth can support. 15 In the mid 1990s, OECD countries were producing almost two tonnes of industrial and household waste per person each year. 3 The United States is 'the world's number one producer of garbage' consuming 30% of all the planet's resources and producing 30% of all its waste, despite the fact that it has less than 5% of the world's population. According to Heather Rogers every American discards over 200 pounds (90 kg) of rubbish a year. 16 This means that each year Americans generate several millions of tonnes of trash in the form of wrappings, bottles, boxes, cans, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, phone books, and much more. Consumer durables all too often end up prematurely in landfill, but it appears that the largest contributor to waste is uneaten food, which is a matter of serious concern. The waste output of an average American has nearly doubled in the last 40 years.

According to an American research 17, foods that are regularly thrown away include bread, fruit, milk, cheese, meat and fish, and even unfinished bottles of wine. At least a third of the people surveyed suggested that they throw food away on a regular basis, many of them every week. Thrown away is frozen food that was too old to eat, over-ordered take-away meals, unused bagged salad or fruit, and similar items. On average, US households waste 14% of their food purchases. 15% of that includes products still within their expiration date but never opened. Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology estimates an average family of four currently tosses out $ 590 per year, just in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products. Nationwide, he says, household waste alone adds up to $43 billion.

According to a study by the University of Arizona Garbage Project, Americans throw away 1.3 pounds of food every day, or 474.5 pounds per year. A recent (2005) study revealed that almost half of the food in US goes to waste; 40 to 50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten. Not only is edible food discarded that could feed people who need it, but the rate of loss, even only partially corrected, could save US consumers and manufacturers tens of billions dollars each year. Californians throw away more than 5 billion tonnes of food scraps each year.

In the UK, demands for 'pristine looking' produce means a lot of food does not make the grade and never leaves the farm gate. Around one third of food grown for human consumption ends up in the garbage can. Statistics from the government and food industry show each adult wastes food to the value of 420 (US $777) each year. The waste increases by 15% every decade.

Cutting food waste would go a long way toward reducing serious environmental problems. It was estimated that reducing food waste by half could reduce adverse environmental impacts by 25% through reduced landfill use, soil depletion, and application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Generally, we are also losing valuable raw material to the scrap heap - our hunger for the latest consumer items leads to graveyards of computers, televisions, and other highly technical items. In addition, we are squandering energy on making new products.

Another serious problem in Western Europe and in the United States is junk mail. Through the mail come catalogues, charity cards, Christmas cards, irresistible and unignorable credit and goods offers, computer updates, and such - most of which go immediately into the bin. Every year 5.56 million tonnes of junk mail is shipped in the US, and much of it is disposed of unopened - even so, Americans spend 8 months of their life just opening junk mail. Recycling the 1.23 million tones of it saves landfill space, conserves natural resources, and may reduce the thrash bill, but there are still enormous environmental costs in terms of ink, energy to produce, deliver, and recycle the paper, as well as loss of virgin forest to create the high quality glossy paper much junk mail uses. This still leaves nearly 32 pounds of paper and plastic going into the garbage for every woman, man, and child in America, totaling 4.33 tonnes of garbage. Hauling this away requires 340,000 garbage trucks.

It takes on average 17 trees to make a ton of paper. This means that approximately 327,000 trees get used for junk mail every year in the US.

In addition to junk mail paper resources are wasted on unnecessary packaging that ac-counts for a large volume of paper (and plastics) in the thrash. For example, Californians generate 66 million tons of solid waste, of which approximately one third is packaging.

There are other kinds of waste, some of which it is difficult to categorize and or evaluate:

bulletFigures from an Internet mail filtering company, MessageLabs, show that 73% of the 12.6 billion e-mails they checked during 2004 were identified as spam.

bulletMaterially affluent society offers a variety of different fashions in apparel, footwear, and home textiles, as well as accessories to choose from. Fashion is a multi-billion dollar business that exists to create interest in and desire demand for various products, prevalently 'not-needed' ones. This requires that there has to exist a substantial range of goods currently 'out-of-fashion'. The aim is high demand maximizing profits. There is no doubt that by creating demand for goods we can live without, fashion increases unnecessary demands on natural resources.

bulletAccording to a research conducted by the Prudential, the average Briton wastes 7% of his/her annual salary on things he/she does not need. An average US $3,190 (1,725) per person is wasted on uneaten food, unused luxury goods and gadgets, and neglected hobbies. 17 Although food was the largest contributor, an astonishing US $690 (378) per year is wasted on hobbies we do not keep up. These include buying sports equipment, unfinished courses, and unused DIY products. To this we have to add US $444 (240) for unwanted videos, unread books, unused clothing, shoes, and toiletries, and various fashionable gadgets. 17

bulletThe combined United State Forces generate 1 billion pounds of hazardous material each year. 43 To what reasonable purpose is it used before it has to be destroyed?

Our generation of waste products should be a constant reminder that the planet has limits on its capacity to support people; that we face a serious global problem.

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Recommended site:

The Ecological Science Research Institute is a facility dedicated solely to the study and research of ecological sustainability goals and commitments of products and services in the area of Climate Protection; Preservation of Biodiversity; Preservation of Air and Water as well as; Prevention and Management of Waste. See: http://ecological.science.mma.edu.ph/

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Lebedev Anatoly, "Recycling our Forests?" at: http://www.the-tree.org.uk/
  2. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  3. McDonagh Sean, "The Greening of the Church," Geoffrey Chapman, (1990).
  4. Mazza Patrick, "Transportation and Global Warming Solutions," 2004-MAY, at: http://www.climatesolutions.org
  5. Birch Charles, "Regaining Compassion," New South Wales University Press, (1993).
  6. Cain Nicholas, "Challenges to Clean Water Worldwide," Geotimes, 2005-MAY.
  7. McDonagh Sean, "Johannesburg 2002," at: http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/
  8. Goldsmith Edward, "The Way," Themis Books, (1996).
  9. Ecologist Staff, "A Blueprint for Survival," Penguin, (1973).
  10. Goldsmith Edward, "Re-embedding religion in society, the natural world and the cosmos," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  11. McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction," Columba Press.
  12. Birch Charles, "Purpose in the Universe: A Search for Wholeness," Zygon, 6, No.1, Pages 4-27 1971-MAR.
  13. Youngquist Walter, "Spending Our Great Inheritance - Then What?" Geotimes, 1998-JUL.
  14. Ehrlich Paul R. & Anne H. Ehrlich, "The Popular Explosion," Simon and Schuster, (1990).
  15. Ardrey, Robert, "African Genesis," Collins, (1963).
  16. Rogers Heather, "Gone Tomorrow. The Hidden Life of Garbage," The New Press, (2005).
  17. Worthing Borough Council, "A Wasteful Society," at: http://www.worthing.gov.uk/
  18. Gold Mark, "The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat," Compassion in World Farming Trust, (2004). Online at: http://www.ciwf.org

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Copyright 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2011-AUG-24
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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