ARE OUR TOP 10 ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS?
by Whit Gibbons
March 26, 2006
the top 10 of a group is always appealing. Ten most-wanted fugitives by
the FBI. Top ten songs, books, and best-dressed celebrities. And David
Letterman, with his list of items such as Top Ten Reasons You Are Not
Looking Forward to the NBA Playoffs. So why not list the top ten environmental
problems facing America and the world?
I asked two
dozen ecology graduate students what their list would be. If anyone knows
what the real threats are, these people will: their opinions are science-based,
not emotional. Using the Letterman approach of reading the list from 10
to 1, I present the top ten environmental problems in order of increasing
importance. The total number of major problems identified by the people
I asked ended up to be more than 10. Not surprisingly, some of the perceived
problems are similar and interconnect, so I consolidated the students'
lists to end up with the magic number 10.
plants and animals. The problems resulting from fire ants, Burmese pythons
in the Everglades, and many more regional environmental problems have
a human origin related to the introduction of exotic species.
climate change. Although "global warming" receives a lot of
press, University of Georgia graduate student Brian Todd pointed out that
"the global climate for the past 4 billion years has been one marked
by change and relative instability. The problem we face today is the crippled
ability of many ecosystems to appropriately respond to climate change
as they have for the past 65 million years because we have already compromised
the environment in other ways."
of marine habitats. The oceans are huge, but overharvesting and the degradation
of marine environments are proceeding at a steady rate around the world,
including a commercially extinct codfish industry and disappearing coral
reefs along our own coasts.
7. Air pollution.
Uncontrolled releases by industry and the excessive use of fossil fuels
have led to acid rain, dissolution of the ozone layer, smog, and the general
elimination of "clean air."
agriculture. The human world is dependent on food production, yet agricultural
siltation, pesticide runoffs, and loss of natural habitats are constant
threats to a healthy environment.
of disease. Bird flu, West Nile virus, and mad cow disease are examples
of how we could be affected overnight by unseen enemies, all a consequence
of human overcrowding, overconsumption, and invasive species.
quality and quantity. Sewage from cities, unregulated releases from industrial
and agricultural sites, and dumping of wastes in the oceans collectively
exacerbate the worldwide problem of water pollution. Overuse of groundwater
in many coastal regions leading to saltwater intrusion is a looming specter.
Water wars are now a reality in the western states and even in the wetter
Southeast, as evidenced in the court cases involving Alabama, Georgia,
loss, fragmentation, and degradation. The loss of natural habitats because
of human development and deforestation is viewed by most as the major
cause of the decline in biodiversity nationally and globally. Many species
are on an inexorable path toward extinction because their native habitats
are gone or despoiled.
overpopulation. Most of the students ranked unchecked human population
growth, which leads to overconsumption and associated world poverty, as
their top culprit of environmental problems. Virtually every problem from
3 through 10 can be traced back to our simply having too many people for
the resources available. Until political and religious leaders have the
courage to realistically address the issue of birth control on a global
scale, most of our environmental problems will worsen before they get
Dean Croshaw, a graduate student from the University of New Orleans, offered
what I rank as the number one environmental problem. A clear indicator
of our foremost problem is that world leaders seldom acknowledge, let
alone propose solutions to, environmental problems. For those leaders
around the world chosen by a democratic election process, that apathy
is condoned and mimicked by the people who elect them.
A major difference
between David Lettermans lists and mine is that none of mine are
you have an environmental question or comment, email