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The Little Handbook
Seven Trends Shaping the Future Of Our Planet
By Ron Nielsen, Ken Rosenbloom, Henry Rosenbloom
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Ron Nielsen
All rights reserved.
'Sooner or later, wittingly or unwittingly, we must pay for every intrusion on the natural environment.'
— Barry Commoner (1917-) US biologist and environmentalist, The Speaker's Electronic Reference Collection, AApex Software, 1994
The seven groups of critical global trends and events outlined in the introduction have four common features:
1. They are associated with a hastened deterioration of the environment, both physical and social.
2. They show that, for the first time in human history, we are approaching and crossing global limits: the ecological limits of our planet, the limits of human suffering and deprivation, and the limits of human-induced damage to the planet.
3. They are happening in a relatively short time. They began about 200 years ago, a small fraction of the time humans have been on the Earth.
4. They focus on an even shorter time: the second or third quarter of the 21st century. They show that we are likely to experience dramatic changes, with the possibility of a global collapse of life-supporting systems.
In general, our environmental awareness is increasing,' but we still do not treat environmental and social issues with the seriousness they deserve. We still think life will go on as usual, but we are facing an unusual sequence of events. The Earth is the only planet in the solar system that offers suitable living conditions for humans. Our foremost priority should be to make this world safe, secure, and habitable.
What is the driving force behind critical global trends? The population explosion is the primary force behind the remaining six groups of critical global events. Combined with it is another force, which is less obvious, but adds to the aggravation of the global condition. It is our behaviour, a force that could be called human nature — or mind and culture.
The important point is that by changing our behaviour we could change the progression of the critical global trends and events, and turn danger into opportunity. But to do this we would have to work against our natural tendencies and inclinations.
One aspect of our behaviour is relatively benign: we want to make our lives more comfortable and more pleasant. However, there is a more sinister aspect of human nature, reflected in greed, hatred, selfishness, lack of cooperation, revenge, fighting, evil-doing, and pleasure in hurting others.
If we want a secure future for our children, we shall have to change the way we treat nature and one another. This will not come without effort.
Are we getting richer? Prosperity is increasing, at least in a handful of countries. However, all our wealth comes from the planet, which is growing poorer through neglect and overexploitation. This will eventually reflect on our prosperity.
We can see the degradation of the physical environment everywhere: in the rapid depletion of fresh water, fertile soil, and biodiversity; in the pollution of land, water, and the atmosphere; and in ruthless deforestation and overfishing. Environmental degradation undermines global food security, increases health risks, and is responsible for current and future economic loss. Environmental risk factors affecting human health include unsafe water, the lack of sanitation, hunger, urban air pollution, exposure to toxic chemicals, and climate change.
Children under five years of age form only 10 per cent of the global population, but they share 40 per cent of the burden of disease caused by environmental factors. Hunger affects about 150 million children in this age group and kills about 3.4 million each year. About 5500 children die each day of diseases caused by polluted air, water, and food.
Intensified agriculture. Global arable land resources are relatively small, and soil types are not equally productive. Unsustainable farming and mismanagement of land resources result in the degradation of land and the loss of soil productivity. To make more room for agriculture we are reducing the area of forests and pastures.
To grow food we need water, which is becoming scarce. To increase the productivity of arable land we use fertilisers. To protect crops we use pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. In the process we kill organisms that make the soil rich, healthy, and productive. Into the bargain we are polluting the air and the water.
Toxic chemicals. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 kinds of synthetic chemicals in use, and that between 200 and 1000 new chemicals are being added each year. Many of them are toxic. Lyons (1999) lists 26 toxic synthetic compounds and two heavy metals (lead and mercury) that have been found in breast milk and in human body fat in the populations of Europe, the United States, and other regions. Worldwide, in the early 1990s, we were producing 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes each year.
In some areas, concentrations of toxic chemicals are high. The hotspots are the Great Lakes, British Columbia, Florida, Norway, Russia, Japan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, South Africa, and the Midway Islands. The two groups of the most toxic and most dangerous chemicals, which are often discussed in the literature, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Endocrine disrupting chemicals. These chemicals act as endocrine disrupters. They are hormonally active — they mimic and interfere with the body's hormonal (endocrine) system.
Hormones are the messenger molecules that perform vital functions in the life of plants and animals. For instance, oestrogen and testosterone are sex hormones. Adrenaline is a hormone that mobilises the body for a quick action, known as "fight or flight". Thyroxine, produced in the thyroid gland, regulates many body functions such as the metabolic rate, reproduction, and resistance to infection. Growth hormone regulates the growth and development of children. Insulin regulates the level of sugar. Auxins regulate the growth of plants. Cytokinins regulate the growth of leaves and fruit.
Hormone-like chemicals are used as the means of communication between plants and animals. It is well known that pheromones are used by insects, mammals, and fish, but it is perhaps less known that plants emit volatile organic chemicals for communication, and that some insects have an ability to read these messages.
EDCs block the receptors receiving hormonal messages, disturb communication, and thus influence the way organisms work and develop. For instance, they interfere with the sexual development of the human embryo, and with the sex-hormone assisted development of the brain, muscles, bones, immune system, organs, and tissues. EDCs are responsible for various observed congenital birth defects and for immune system dysfunction. They may be also influencing neurological, mental, and behavioural development.
EDCs may well be responsible for decreasing sperm counts and for the declining mobility and stamina of sperm cells. They could also be contributing to the development of testicular cancer and breast cancer. EDCs come in the form of pesticides (such as atrazine, DDT, and endosulfan); industrial chemicals (such as dioxins, PCBs," and phthalates); and heavy metals (such as lead and magnesium). They can be present in food, drinking water, and certain types of plastics.
Persistent organic pollutants. Persistent organic pollutants form a specific group of toxic chemicals characterised by persistency and mobility. They have various adverse effects on plants, animals, and humans. Some of them are also endocrine disruptors. POPs were identified in the 1960s when scientists observed unusual congenital deformities in wildlife.
POPs are present in food, water, air, soil, and household products. They are extremely toxic and can be active for decades, if not for centuries. They dissolve in fat and thus are stored in fatty tissue where they accumulate and are passed from mother to foetus. In this form they travel up in the food chain, from lower to more complex organisms, each time increasing their concentration. The process is known as bioaccumulation or biomagnification. The concentration of POPs in animal and human tissue can be hundreds or even millions of times higher than in the surrounding environment.
The sources of POPs are industry (the production and use of chemical compounds), agriculture (the use of pesticides and other chemicals), and low-temperature incineration. They also come from natural sources such as forest fires and volcanoes.
Many highly toxic and banned pesticides are used by developing countries because they are cheap. They evaporate in the warm climates and are deposited by rain or snow in colder parts of the world. POPs can travel thousands of kilometres and can be deposited in remote areas. They are therefore a global problem.
Intensified industry. Industry is an integral part of progress and civilisation. The Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century with a handful of countries and is continuing with a much larger group representing a greater percentage of the global population.
Industrialisation pollutes the air with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluorides, silica, mercaptans, lead, arsenic, vanadium, copper, nickel, selenium, zinc, mercury, magnesium, aluminium, chromium, hydrofluoric acid, soda ash, potash, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), benzene, and particulate matter (PM).
It pollutes water with suspended solids, oils, tars, benzene, acids, caustics, mercaptans, phenols, sulphides, sulphates, ammonia, cyanides, fluorides, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, zinc, chromium, and PCBs.
It pollutes land with slag, sludges, oil, tars, grease residues, salts, sulphur compounds, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.
The industrialisation race. Industrial production and the use of industrial products are still mainly concentrated in a small group of countries comprising about one-fifth of global population. However, poorer countries are also developing industries and one wonders how long the planet will be able to cope with the increasing demand for resources and the increasing level of pollution.
Table 1-1 illustrates the strongly unequal distribution of industrial activities among various countries. About a quarter of global industrial production is concentrated in just one country, the US, and about a half in just three countries (the US, Japan, and Germany). The largest country in the world, China, contributes only about 6 per cent to global industrial production.
In the group of developing countries, the top 10 producers account for about 80 per cent of production. China accounts for about 30 per cent, and three countries (China, Brazil, and South Korea) for about 50 per cent. However, the combined contribution of developing countries to global industrial production is still small: the top 10 industrial producers contribute only about 17 per cent to the global total. Developing countries are still far behind the industrialised countries with their industrial production, and we shall see later (in Chapter 7) that they always will be. Yet industrial production is increasing all over the world, putting enormous stress on the environment.
Between 1985 and 1995, the global value of industrial output per person increased by an annual average of 4.3 per cent.' The annual average increase in industrialised countries was 3.5 per cent and in developing countries 5.3 per cent. The greatest annual increase was in East Asia (7 per cent) and in particular in China (7.4 per cent). The smallest increase was in sub-Saharan Africa (0.8 per cent).
The industrial race can be also measured using the so-called competitive industrial performance (CIP) index. This index has four components: manufacturing value added per person, manufacturing exports per person, the share of medium and high-tech activities in manufacturing production, and the share of medium and high-tech products in manufacturing exports. The higher the CIP index, the more vigorous are the industrial activities.
The highest CIP index in 1998 was in industrialised countries (0.44) and was increasing. The CIP index in East Asia was 0.3 and was also increasing. In other regions of the world the CIP index was much lower.
Between 1985 and 1998, China improved its CIP by 24 points, the Philippines by 21 points, Indonesia by 19 points, Thailand by 12 points, Ireland by 12 points, and Egypt by 10 points. But there were also many countries that were lagging: Tanzania, Peru, Ghana, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, Panama, Senegal, Oman, and Algeria. Their relative position in the industrial race worsened by between 10 points (Tanzania, Peru, and Ghana) to 20 points (Algeria and Oman).
Will the planet be able to cope with the increasing demands on it? Will it be able to cope with increasing pollution? How far can developing countries expect to progress? Do we have a secure future?
Mining. Industrialisation is closely connected with mining, but mining creates enormous volumes of waste and pollution. We are turning the Earth inside out and destroying the environment. Mining operations are carried out all over the world, but the intensity varies between countries. Depending on the materials extracted, production is concentrated in small groups of countries (see Box 1-1).
For each tonne of useful metal, we have to dig out many tonnes of ore. The amount of waste depends on the ore type. For instance, for iron it is 60 per cent; for manganese, 70 per cent; for tungsten, 99.75 per cent; for zinc 99.95 per cent; and for gold, 99.99 per cent.
Mining creates mountains of tailings, which are either left lying around or disposed of somehow. In Latin America, mining activities have resulted in the scattering of about 5000 tonnes of mercury in forests and urban areas. For every tonne of extracted ore, a tonne of mercury is released into the Amazon River. Mining operations in South Africa are responsible for large emissions of sulphur. In China, gold mining is claimed to have resulted in large quantities of arsenic, mercury, and cyanide being scattered on the surface. In some places, tailings have been pushed into creeks, contaminating water used by villagers living downstream.
Most tailings contain sulphides. While sulphides are in the ground they cause no harm, but when they are brought to the surface and exposed to air they are converted gradually to sulphuric acid, which dissolves heavy metals in the tailings and releases them into the environment.
The oxidation of sulphides can go on for hundreds of years. Once the dirt is dug out, it will cause trouble for several generations. However, this dirt means money. It also means progress, of a sort, so we continue to dig everywhere. Mining contaminates the soil and waterways, kills fish and other forms of life, pollutes the air, and is harmful to people. Tailings from hundreds of mines all over the world are stored on land, and now many mining companies are dumping their waste at sea or are planning to do so.
The idea behind disposal at sea is that oxygen is scarce in water, so oxidation of sulphides is slow. It is slow, but not absent. The disposal of tailings at sea creates impoverished marine ecosystems. The effect of extensive dumping can be devastating.
The dumping areas are mainly around the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. There are about 20 sites in that small region of the globe, and the scale of environmental damage can be appreciated if we consider that in just one of them 22,000 tonnes of tailings are dumped each day, and that a single mine can produce about 270,000 tonnes of waste a day.
Intensified use of energy. Technology requires enormous inputs of energy. As we progress and develop, our use of energy increases. This creates environmental problems, because our main source of energy is in the form of fossil fuels, which generate large amounts of pollution. In principle, cleaner sources of energy could be made available, but they would have to be developed. This is not a preferred option for profit-oriented operations, so we use what is easily available. We still have large deposits of fossil fuels, mainly in the form of coal. We prefer to use this source of energy, even though it harms the environment and in the long run can result in serious economic loss.
Excerpted from The Little Handbook by Ron Nielsen, Ken Rosenbloom, Henry Rosenbloom. Copyright © 2006 Ron Nielsen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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