Crash Course Chapter 24: The Environment: Increasing Waste

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Transcript

The other disheartening part of the story of the environment concerns the things we put back into it and the impact they have on the ecosystems that support all of life, ours included.

Going by the overly-broad name of ‘pollutants’, the sorts of disruptions and disrupters that we are introducing to the environment are extraordinarily diverse.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the massive trash gyre in the pacific, which we can clearly see killing marine animals as they ingest or get entangled in the plastic remnants of our lives.  While tragic, many fewer are aware that these same plastics eventually erode into tiny bits that are wonderful at adsorbing a variety of toxins that then get ingested by the smaller players such as minnows, plankton and marine worms – resulting in concerning die-offs at the bottom of the ocean food chain.

Or perhaps you’ve heard that the monarch butterfly -- which has migrated by the tens and hundreds of millions from Canada and the US to overwinter in Mexico each year -- is in danger of its first ever recorded migration failure.  A migration pattern that's been in place for millions of years has fallen apart in just a few years.

What’s causing this is not yet well-understood, but it's a safe bet the habitat destruction and the new and overly powerful classes of pesticides we are using in the name of so-called modern farming are big parts of the story.

Or perhaps you are aware that honeybees and wild pollinators are dying off precipitously.   There again we strongly suspect a combination of new pesticides, herbicides and fungicides combining with a loss of wild pollen sources to stress the bees into an exhausted, confused loss of vitality. 

By the time the bees and the butterflies are disappearing, we should be urgently asking ourselves; what other lesser known, less obvious -- but just as important -- organisms are disappearing too?

In the Pacific ocean, mammals and starfish, sardines and sea salps are dying en masse and nobody really knows why.  But here we not that the organisms mentioned cover the gamut from invertebrates to fishes to echinoderms and mammals.

When such a wide range of creatures are dying off, isn't it time to sit up and take notice?

Here's one possibility for all of the observed stresses, on land and at sea.

Each year, we release hundreds of thousands of different compounds into the environment which are either intentional or accidental disrupters of everything from sexual hormone regulation to fertility to mood control. 

Some of these we put into the environment on purpose, as part of our industrial farming and chemical production practices,. We introduce others accidentally, as well as incidentally, as part of our daily lives

And the awkward part of that story?  We don’t have the slightest clue what the combined ecosystem effects are of all those thousands and thousands of human-created and released compounds. And we don’t know what the impacts, in terms of human health, are either.

But we do know that there are lots and lots of signs that increasing damage is being done.  Whether we measure that damage in disappearing butterflies, or in the rise in obesity, or in the soaring rates of clinical depression, we should own up to the reality that the waste we wantonly dump into the world we live in has consequences.

Our situation is not so much the result of any one particular insult, but rather it's a case of death by a thousand cuts.  A little pollution can be handled by the earth's natural disposal and clearing mechanisms, but too much can overwhelm even the most robust of systems. 

Our own bodies can handle a little bit of lead, a dash of chromium, a pinch of pesticides, and the occasional lack of food.  But not all at once.  The combined stresses can add up and lead to an overwhelming event.

Again, we have to confront the idea that the earth is not limitless in what it can provide or what it can absorb.   The World Bank projects that global waste levels will triple by the end of this century. How much is too much? And what will it take to change our ways before we do something really harmful and effectively irreversible?

And so, this brings us to the issue of putting too much carbon into the atmosphere. This is a direct result of our exponential consumption of fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and natural gas.

I get asked a lot to weigh in on the global climate change story. It's an enormous subject that's quite complicated, which to-date has allowed for opponents to question the validity of the data, and the climate change thesis, in general. But there is one facet of the story that is direct, observable, and scientifically irrefutable - and concerns me enormously.

And that’s ocean acidification.

The science is crystal clear on this; the more carbon dioxide that exists in the atmosphere the more acidic the ocean becomes.  This is simple chemistry.

CO2 dissolves into the ocean and forms carbonic acid.  More carbon dioxide = more acid = more acidity.   This process is mathematically linear and not subject to any sort of debate. 

Because of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the world's oceans are now acidifying at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years.

Higher ocean acidity destroys coral reef formation and inhibits repair. At current rates of carbon dioxide release and ocean acidification we may lose all – all -- the world's coral reefs by the year 2050.

The tiny creatures of the ocean that form the base of the food pyramid, the various planktons that are the literal base of the food pyramid, have tiny shells made out of material that is very sensitive to oceanic acidity levels.  The more the Ph changes, the harder time they have making their shells.

Why should we care?  Because nearly half of all the oxygen we breathe comes from the phytoplankton floating about in the ocean.

Frighteningly, the amount of plankton in the ocean has dropped by about 1% per year for the past forty years, which means that there is 40% less phytoplankton in the ocean today than in 1950.

Soon we will have lost half of the very foundation of the ocean's food chain. And we're on track to lose even more.

So if anybody is wondering why there are fewer salmon swimming in the ocean these days, it’s because there are fewer baitfish. And there are fewer of those because there’s less plankton for them to eat.  At least that's part of the story – there are also issues like overfishing and terrible resource management exacerbating the situation.

Along with ocean acidification, there cannot be any doubt that climate events are becoming more and more extreme.

In the United States, some 2,284 high temperature records -- records! -- were broken in June 2013.

In all the many, many decades of keeping careful temperature records, these were the highest ever recorded on certain days in June.

If various animals were already on the edge of survival because of the thousand cuts already inflicted by environmental contaminants, then record high heat at a sensitive time of the year may have pushed them too far.

Just seven months later, new records were set in January 2014, this time for record cold and snow in the east, and record heat in the west.

On the other side of the world, Australia suffered through both its hottest year and it's hottest summer in the 2013-2014 season shattering old records.  With temperatures of over 115 degrees Fahrenheit, reports of bats literally dropping from the sky unable to properly keep cool and trees dying even when watered as they were no longer able to function metabolically. 

Ecosystems and their intricately linked webs of animal and plant life are clearly no longer able to handle the combined insults of temperature variability outside their adapted ranges, loss of food and habitat, and thousands upon thousands of new chemical toxins and disrupters.

Humans are disrupting entire ecosystems to the point of failure. We’re doing this without really taking into account the possible consequences, which is no real surprise because the consequences are virtually unpredictable.  But our failing lies in not appreciating that we cannot predict what will happen, and that we might do something that is irreversible.

Wiping out the bottom of the ocean’s food chain certainly qualifies in my mind as a very bad thing to do; and simple common sense suggests that we should avoid such a disaster at all costs.

In fact, so many specifies are being driven to extinction by human activity that biologists are calling the age in which we live the “Sixth Mass Extinction”. So, “Congratulations” humans, your global contribution is now on part with a gigantic meteor slamming into the Earth.

Like the economy, ecosystems are complex systems.  That means that they owe their complexity and order to energy flows and, most importantly, they are inherently unpredictable.  How they will respond to the change by a thousand rapid insults is unknown and literally unknowable. 

Like any complex system an ecosystem will tend to remain in a stable form until the pressures become too great and then they will suddenly shift to a different baseline and exist there for a while.  That is, instead of having some magical preferred equilibrium, they have many -- and some of those will be decidedly less or more awesome for humans to exist within.

If the world tips from a stable climate to a less stable one, as it has done many times in the past, then growing enough food for everyone will become difficult if not impossible.

An ocean acidified will remain that way for possibly hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.  Overly-depleted cod fisheries will take many decades to recover, if and only if they are not fished in between.   A species wiped out remains that way forever.

An aquifer overpumped will take thousands if not tens of thousands of years to recharge.

So where some might be tempted to think, yeah, well, who needs pollinators anyways?  We need them because we need intact ecosystems and bees and butterflies are simply the canaries in our coalmine. We need them because they essential for growing one-third of the world’s crops  - and 80% of those in the US.

But we need them, too, because they are beautiful and a world without beauty is a world diminished.

There are a hundred flashing red warning signs coming to us from the environment, the Earth, and all of its supporting ecosystems.   Either we get off the 'growth at any cost' express train or we risk wrecking important, valuable, essential and beautiful species, ecosystems and support systems that we rely upon for our health, our wealth, and our happiness. 

Once again, you and I do not have any particular need for constant exponential economic growth, it is only our money system that has that demand.

Either we figure out a way to live on our own terms or we'll simply default into doing the things that our money system demands of us.  The former has a possible future, the latter does not.

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