ARE OUR TOP 10 ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS?
December 18, 2011
Q. A few
years ago you conducted a poll of ecologists to identify the top 10
causes of environmental problems. Would you comment on your original
list in the context of today's world?
A. Listing the top 10 sources of environmental problems is one way to
put them in perspective. The original list included seven that were
somewhat interchangeable as to how they should be ranked. One, two,
and three were the same in almost everyone's list, although not always
in the same order. Following is the original ranking of environmental
problems, in order of increasing concern, with my current comments.
plants and animals. Recently reported problems of fire ants around the
world, ambrosia beetles that infect red bay laurels, and pythons in
the Everglades confirm the ongoing problem with introductions of exotic
climate change. A problem today is the impaired ability of some native
species to respond appropriately to climate change as they have in past
millennia because humans have compromised natural environments. "Global
warning" has become such a volatile issue that debates between
advocates and disbelievers about potential impacts and solutions are
seldom productive. Nonetheless, numerous credible scientific studies
have documented changes in recent decades.
of marine habitats. The oceans are huge, but they cannot withstand the
current rate of worldwide pollution and unsustainable harvesting. Reports
of commercial extinction of once common fish such as cod and grouper
and the decline of coral reefs around the globe focus attention on the
severity of the problem.
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 degradation of "clean air."
agriculture. Humans are dependent on food production, but agricultural
siltation, pesticide runoffs, and loss of natural habitats are constant
threats to a healthy environment. "Dead zones" of oxygen-depleted
waters in the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water are attributed
primarily to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers by agricultural
of disease. This category in the previous list focused on impacts of
human diseases. But disease is also an environmental concern for countless
native species in many regions of the world. Included among the devastating
invasive diseases is the Asian fungus that drove American chestnuts
almost to extinction. Chytrid fungus, believed to have been introduced
from Africa, is held responsible for widespread die-offs of frogs in
many parts of the world.
quality and quantity. Sewage from cities and unregulated releases from
industrial and agricultural sites collectively exacerbate the worldwide
problem of pollution in freshwater ecosystems. Saltwater intrusion resulting
from overuse of groundwater in many coastal regions is a looming specter.
Water wars between states are now a reality in the U.S. West and Southeast
following long-term droughts.
loss, fragmentation, and degradation. The loss of natural habitats because
of human development and deforestation continues to be the major cause
of the decline in biodiversity nationally and globally. Many species,
especially in tropical rain forests, are on an inexorable path toward
extinction because their native habitats have been destroyed or despoiled.
overpopulation. Unchecked human population growth, leading to overconsumption
and associated world poverty, is one of the top culprits of environmental
problems. Virtually every problem from 3 through 10 can be attributed
to there simply being too many people for the available resources. At
least in part because of religious or cultural constraints, most political
leaders do not address the issue of birth control on a global scale,
ensuring that most of our environmental problems will worsen before
they get better.
I still consider this our number one environmental problem. As proof,
you need look no further than the majority of U.S. politicians, who
seldom acknowledge, let alone propose solutions to, environmental problems.
Sounds like apathy to me. Unless they are ignoring the public good for
their own personal gain--which would be even worse than apathy.
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