Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Impact Of Human Activity

For decades now we have been told that we are gradually destroying our planet with pollution. The message has been repeated so often that two different responses have become commonplace. One is simply disbelief. Having been told about the risks of environmental degradation since before many of the population were even born has led some to feel that the hazard has been overstated. Sure, there’s plenty of litter in the environment, carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere, and refuse in our waterways, but it’s a big world out there. Surely, it is still possible to get out of town, out into the wide open spaces and the fresh clean air and see for ourselves that there is still plenty of pristine environment out there and all this apocalyptic doom and gloom is exaggerated. Surely, the world is so big, and humanity is so insignificant in the overall scheme of things, that we can’t really be doing that much damage. That’s the disbelief.

The other common, but mistaken, belief is that we are already on the right track because we have heeded the warnings and have begun to take the appropriate action and is perhaps even more insidious. With the best intentions in the world, ordinary everyday people have become faithful recyclers and loyal participants in Clean Up Australia Day every year, doing their best to make a difference. But while those contributions are important and do make a genuine difference, it still may not be enough to save us all from ourselves. While you and I busily separate our glass and cardboard from the veggie peelings, other more powerful forces are undermining our efforts.

Climate change is only one part of the challenge that we as human beings are now confronting. For those who doubt that humans can have an impact on something as big as the atmosphere it is only necessary to look to the oceans to see an example of human activity creating a runaway disaster beyond our own control. Even leaving aside the enormous problems of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other similar events, the impact of human refuse has already changed the nature of our oceans, possibly forever. The recently concluded voyage of the Plastiki, the catamaran constructed of recycled plastic bottles, has been staged to deliberately highlight the problem of ocean pollution, and provides the opportunity to inform ourselves of the true extent of the problem.

In 2006, a United Nations study concluded that every square mile, or about two and a half square kilometres, contains an average of 46 000 pieces of floating plastic. That’s every square mile, and there are 130 million square miles of ocean. That’s a man made disaster of an unimaginable scale, and a sure indication that we are indeed capable of messing up something as big as an ocean or an atmosphere. The trouble is that for the most part it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Not all of the plastic floats on the surface. Much of it is fragmented and hangs suspended in the water, aggregating in some places to form a dangerous inorganic sludge that might never be fully cleaned up. Much of it is swept by ocean currents out of the regular shipping lanes and into remote parts of the ocean such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, often described as covering an area the size of Texas.

But that’s not all. As well as the destructive contamination of the ocean, as well as the dangerous warming of the atmosphere, there is the unending devastation of modern warfare. Iraq is riddled with depleted uranium used in both Gulf Wars, contributing to a massive increase in cancers and birth deformities. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance, including indiscriminate cluster bombs. Misguided national leaders in control of countries such as North Korea and Iran are actively pursuing the acquisition of nuclear arms, and other including Pakistan already have them. A pessimist might be tempted to suggest that it’s only a matter of time before someone is mad enough to actually use them.

Either way, the truth is that the impact of the actions of human beings has already become a significant threat not only to ourselves, but to the planet overall. Climate change is just another one to be added to the list.

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