Protection of Environment

What are we doing wrong? Mostly the problem is destruction of habitat by:

  • industrial pollution
  • mining
  • farming
  • transporting species into habitats where they had not been

What are some of the consequences?

  • One billion people in the world have no clean water
  • Two billion people have inadequate sanitation
  • One and a half billion people (mostly in large cities of newly industrialized countries) breath air that is dangerously unhealthy
  • Hundreds of millions of poor farmers struggle to make a living on poor land
  • Whole countries are on the verge of famine
  • People don't like to be ridiculed as "environmental wackos" or "tree huggers." But it is important to care about the environment. Thoughtful people can care about the environment and at the same time see the need to exploit or use nature for resources to satisfy the needs of our species.

The human species needs food and water. We need energy. But we also need to protect the ecosystem niches that make survival of our species possible. Beyond that, we need to protect the niches for other species too.  Why do niches need protection?

  1. It's not nice to try to fool Mother Nature. Ecosystems are complicated. We have seen in these lessons that complexity grows as  we move up the ladder from cells to organ systems to ecosystems. The history of our attempts to manipulate ecosystems shows that we often make mistakes and fail to see the unintended consequences of our actions. Rich ecosystems are those with many occupied niches. A change in any one niche is likely to affect other niches and their occupant species. Extinction is forever. We don't get a second chance.
  2. Environmental hazards are dangerous. Especially our lakes and oceans have become dumping grounds for dangerous chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, oil and refinery products, industrial wastes, and heavy metals). Some of these toxins actually concentrate in food webs, such as mercury in fish.
  3. Moral obligation. Our species owes its existence to the living world that we share with other species. We owe the living world a chance to perpetuate the life-creating processes of natural selection, population dynamics, and exchange cycles. We can only pay this debt by protecting the environment.

We humans are doing well as a species (see graph below). But our success comes at the expense of other species. The United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Center predicts that 25% of all the earth's species of mammals may become extinct in the next 30 years. Over 10% of the bird species face extinction in that time. 

Environmentalism and Politics

Many people in the world like to blame industrialized nations, especially the United States, for destroying world ecosystems. It is true that industrialized countries create much of the air pollution. But the problem will not be cured by treaties that punish American companies for air pollution when competing companies in other countries are exempt from regulation. 

World population is now at 6 billion. Over a 100-years, the world population has tripled and the growth seems to be continuing at the same rate. How long can the human species sustain such growth?

The really frightening prospect is the rapid pace of industrialization in many Third World countries where unregulated industries expand to serve the growth of the already huge populations. China has 1.2 billion people. India has about 1 billion people. What will world pollution be like when countries like these become fully industrialized and modernized?

People who wish to protect the environment often become politically active. They may come to believe that animals, and even plants, have "rights." What do you think? 

The idea of "rights" originally came from perceived inequalities in power and privilege among humans. "Rights" are something we United States citizens have to pursue "life, liberty, and happiness."

To extend the idea of rights across species quickly creates problems for ecosystems. Does the wolf have a right to kill sheep? Or do sheep have a right to be protected from predators? Does any species have a right to use Nature's resources to perpetuate itself as a species? Does a species have a right to destroy niches of other species in the process of exploiting nature for survival of the species? And if we could agree on any of these rights, we must answer the question, "Who issued these rights?" 

To argue in the political terms of "rights" misses the point about how Nature's ecosystems work.  Competition between and within species is not only natural but necessary for ecosystems to function well. Competition and exercise of power becomes a problem only when it is so destructive that an ecosystem itself becomes threatened. Because humans have the greatest power to damage ecosystems, humans also have the greatest duty to protect ecosystems. 

Species Become Extinct. So What?

Extinct species never return. A species arises only under a unique situation in which there is a great deal of genetic diversity in a population that matches the opportunities provided by a unique and currently unoccupied niche.

How sad it is to learn that humans are driving so many species toward extinction. Humans even deliberately kill (hunt) such marvelous animals as elephants, rhinos, and gorillas. Click here to see how kids can get involved in conserving wildlife.

Hunters in Africa kill elephants just to get their ivory tusks.

Appearance of new species depends critically on diversity of genes and diversity of niches. But human activity is producing the opposite at alarming rates. We eliminate many niches by creating habitats suitable for our species (example: we wipe out a forest to build a housing development).  We drive into extinction plant and animal species at a rate of about one species per day. The unique genes of these extinct plants and animals are lost forever. Our selective breeding of plants and animals creates uniformity in gene pools. Evolution of new species, which has usually taken thousands or millions of years, will proceed at even slower rates. There is no way that the pace of new species can keep up with the rate of extinction.

So, does it matter, in the short term of human existence thus far, that humans reduce genetic variation in plants and animals and drive so many species into extinction? How would you defend a position that it does matter?  Think in terms of:

  • Do we devalue life by destroying it?
  • Do we change the course of future medicine by making gene pools of plants and animals more uniform?  

Why Humans Are the Ecological Problem

Human population growth increases the demand for food, water, and energy. At some point, the world population must reach the earth's maximum capacity to support the species. At that point, a remedy will be imposed in one or more of the following forms:

  • starvation
  • mass epidemic
  • war

All of these possibilities are ugly. Unfortunately, starvation, epidemics, and war have already started in many parts of the world. All three are common in certain parts of Africa. The demand of humans for more food, more water, and more energy not only threatens the human species, but it also devastates ecosystems in which other species lives.

Consider agriculture. Clearing jungles to create pastures changes a rich ecosystem that can support hundreds of species into an impoverished one that supports only a few species. The solution, according to Dr. Norman Borlaug, the "Father of the Green Revolution" and a professor at Texas A&M University, is not to destroy more forests and jungles to create more farm land. The solution is to make the land we currently use for farming even more productive. The "Green Revolution" is well underway in Third World countries where agricultural productivity is being improved by better strains of plants and animals,  and more use of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. Modern agricultural practices not only provide more food, but by doing so without using more land, they produce a dramatic conservation effect. Dr. Borlaug says that if the world were still getting the low crop and livestock yields like those in 1950, at least half of today's 16 million square miles of global forest would already have been cut and plowed - and all the rest would be have to be destroyed in the next three decades. 

Click here for the United Nations Web site on world-wide agriculture.

Political problems are preventing completion of the Green Revolution. 

  • Many zealous environmentalists object to the use of pesticides and herbicides (and some even object to fertilizer). 
  • Peasants typically have few skills or opportunities to do anything except farm. In Mexico, for example, Borlaug says that nearly three million acres of forest are being cut down each year to expand poorly productive peasant farms.  
  • Many people object to genetic engineering, which could create many strains of plants and animals that are both disease resistant and grow more efficiently.
  • Humans in many parts of the world do not practice birth control and thus even more people are added to make demands on resources and to produce pollution.

Some environmentalists say that low-yield farming is more "sustainable." But Borlaug says that Africa proves that low-yield farming is sustainable only in the face of higher death rates. In many parts of Mexico, peasants farm in the same inefficient way that their Mayan ancestors did 2000 years ago. The problem of too many people with too little food is made worse by the lack of birth control. Peasants around the world are caught in a downward spiral of trying to have bigger inefficient farms by destroying the jungle and forests. How sustainable is that?

Are humans smart enough to save themselves and their environment? Maybe human evolution is not yet finished.

Protection of Environment

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