by Whit Gibbons

October 3, 2010

Top 10 lists are appealing, from top 10 books to top 10 YouTube videos to "top 10 news items you are not looking forward to this month," which for me would include political ads and hearing whether Lindsay Lohan is in or out of rehab. Getting young people to think about the environment is a worthwhile goal, and listing the top 10 environmental problems could be a good classroom exercise for grammar school through high school.

My top 10 environmental problems are listed below in order of increasing importance. The list has changed little from a consolidation of views by my ecology graduate students five years ago.

10. 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."

9. Invasive 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.

8. Global climate change. Although "global warming" receives a lot of press, as Brian Todd of the University of California, Davis, pointed out, "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 [in the past] because we have already compromised the environment in other ways."

7. Pollution 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 coasts. The recent BP oil disaster obviously comes to mind when the words "ocean" and "pollution" are mentioned.

6. Unsustainable agriculture. Humankind is dependent on food production, yet agricultural siltation, pesticide runoffs and loss of natural habitats are constant threats to a healthy environment.

5. Threat of disease. Swine flu, West Nile virus and mad cow disease are examples of ways we can be affected by unseen enemies. All are a consequence of human overcrowding, overconsumption and invasive species.

4. Water 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. In many coastal regions, overuse of groundwater, which leads 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 by court cases involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

3. Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation. The loss of natural habitats because of human development and deforestation is a 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.

2. Human overpopulation. Unchecked human population growth leads to overconsumption and associated world poverty. Many people would rank overpopulation as the no. 1 cause of our other environmental problems. Virtually every problem above can be traced back to our simply having too many people for the resources available. Until political and religious leaders have the courage to address the issue of birth control on a global scale, most of our environmental problems will worsen before they get better.

1. Political apathy. I consider this the no. 1 reason that the nine other environmental problems listed here are not being properly addressed. A clear indicator of this 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, voters are not just condoning such apathy, they are participating in it.

What would schoolchildren consider to be the top 10 environmental problems facing the United States and the world? Having a class offer their views should generate some interesting discussions. And one thing is certain, until we overcome our apathy, we will never overcome our other problems--environmental or otherwise.

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