You probably take pretty good care of the place you live in: you clean it, you keep it warm, you carry out repairs when they need doing, you
tidy the garden, you're nice to your neighbors and help them when you
can—generally speaking, you look after your home and its environment
because your home looks after you. Our planet, Earth, is just as much
our home, but we don't look after it anything like as well. We use
its resources, we pollute it with trash, we plunder from our
neighbors (other animals and plants) without a care, and we give little or no thought to what
things will be like in the future, never mind what shape things will
be in for our children.
Environmentalism is a different way of thinking in which people try to care more about the planet and the long-term survival of life on Earth. It means
recognizing the planet's environmental problems and coming up with
solutions (individually and collectively) that try to put them right.
Photo: Earth from space—magical, isolated, and
fragile. When astronauts showed us scenes like this, they paved the way
for the modern environmental movement.
Picture by courtesy of NASA on the Commons.
Earth can seem an enormous place—it's a giant ball almost 13,000km
(8000 miles) in diameter. Walking constantly at a steady speed, it would take you at
least a couple of years to go in a complete circle from where you are
now, right around the globe, back to your starting point (assuming it
were physically possible). When you live somewhere as big as this, it's easy
not to worry too much about the state of the environment; after all,
there's always plenty more environment where that came from, right?
Wrong! There are almost
8 billion people living on planet Earth,
consuming resources, making pollution, and using so much energy in
such an inefficient way that we're fundamentally changing how the
climate works, risking life in the future for hundreds of millions of people.
Here are just a few of the problems the environment is now facing...
Please note: The charts on this page are greatly simplified to show the overall trend in
different aspects of our planet's environmental health (such as energy use, population, and so on).
Typically, they show just two points, one a few decades in the past and one more recent, with a line between to
indicate the overall trend. The vertical axis usually does not start at zero. Presented this way,
the charts may look exaggerated, but they are meant to simplify rather than deceive.
We live by consuming—buying things and throwing them away, sometimes
without even using them. Elsewhere on the planet, millions of people
live in dire poverty with too little food, no proper water supply or
sanitation, and horrible health problems. Earth is a finite place
with limited resources, yet we live as though our supply of raw
materials will never end. Modern humans have successfully lived on
planet Earth for something like 200,000 years, but some of the
materials we now critically depend on—metals, minerals, and so on—will
last only a few more decades and many more will be gone in a few hundred years, at best. We've
become very short-sighted all of a sudden!
A basic law of physics (the conservation of energy) tells us it's impossible to do anything on
earth without using energy—even something as simple and effortless
as thinking needs us to consume food, which is simply energy we feed
in through our mouths. Our homes need energy too, for cooking,
heating, making hot water, and running all the appliances and gadgets
that make our lives comfortable.
Though a small amount of our energy
is renewable (things like
wind power, and tidal power
will theoretically never run out), most comes from burning fossil
fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. The planetary "fossil-fuel
tank" inside Earth took hundreds of millions of years to fill up, but
humans have emptied the vast majority of it in just the couple of
hundred years or so since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
How are we going to meet our energy needs in future when most of the
fossil fuels have gone, especially with more people living on the
planet (and in greater affluence) than ever before?
Chart: Developed countries such as the United States and UK use energy much more
efficiently than they use to. However, growing energy use in the developing world means
overall energy use per person is still increasing dramatically for the world as a whole.
Please note that the vertical axis of this chart does not start at zero.
Drawn in 2022 using the latest available (2014) data courtesy of OECD/IEA and World Bank DataBank.
Waste and pollution
There's almost nothing we do that doesn't create some form of waste as a
byproduct. Before the 20th century, that wasn't really a problem:
people were pretty good at turning things like food or animal waste
into compost—they certainly didn't have things like landfill sites
and incinerators. These days things are very different because we use
a far greater variety of materials, including plastics, which are
harder to recycle or dispose of. Even though most plastics are made
from petroleum (a finite and relatively scarce material), still we
tend to throw them away rather than recycle them. Waste is one thing:
if we can contain it and collect it, at least we can recycle it or
dispose of it responsibly. Sometimes, though, waste becomes
pollution: solids, liquids, or gases we throw out into the
environment without caring where they end up or what damage they do.
Some of the gases we hurl into the air stay in the atmosphere, trapping heat around our planet like a blanket.
This is known as the "greenhouse effect" and it's giving rise to probably the biggest
environmental challenge of all, climate change,
which could have a devastating effect on many of our planet's lifeforms in the coming
decades and centuries.
Chart: There's a widely recognized need to tackle climate change. Even so, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions causing it continue to climb.
Drawn using data from Climate Watch, 2020 courtesy of World Resources Institute
and World Bank DataBank, with original data published under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0) Licence.
Habitats and species
Chart: Deforestation (the loss of forest cover to agriculture and urban spaces) continues
to be a major issue. Between 1990 and 2015, the total forest area fell from 41.2 million square kilometers to
39.9 million square kilometers. Please note that the vertical axis of this chart does not start at zero.
Drawn using data from World Bank DataBank, published under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 Licence.
Humans have become dominant on Earth through the luck of evolution, but we
tend to regard ourselves as though we are the only species on the
planet—and certainly the only one that matters. With the exception
of the pets we keep for amusement, we give little or no thought to
other species—plants or animals—or their habitats (the places
where they're most suited to living). We happily build homes,
factories, and highways for ourselves by obliterating the homes of
other species. Mostly we consider animals have no rights at all,
though contrary views don't trouble us much: we
abhor cruelty and sometimes oppose things like laboratory
experimentation on animals, but we turn a blind eye to the billions
of creatures raised in appalling conditions and slaughtered in food factories to put cheap, convenient meals on our tables.
Map: Huge numbers of plant and animal species are currently at risk. This map shows the number of threatened bird species in each region. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has noted a steady, ongoing decline in the world's birds since it carried out the first complete assessment in 1988. Source: United Nations Environmental Program and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and International Union for Conservation of Nature, Red List of Threatened Species, published by World Bank DataBank under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 Licence.
Some environmental problems are caused not just by the way humans relate
to the natural world, and to animals, but to the way we treat one
another. People in the rich countries of Europe and North America
often frown on people in developing countries who
burn rainforests, have large numbers of children, or live in grossly polluted cities.
We conveniently ignore the fact that poorer people are often
condemned to live that way by the unfair rules of international
trade. If we pay people in developing countries a pittance for
products like coffee, cotton, or rubber, is it any surprise that they
have larger families to try to generate more income to help
themselves survive? If we don't share our medicines with them so
their children die, isn't it natural that they should have more
children to compensate? Politicians like to applaud themselves on how
much waste people are now recycling and how much fuss is being made
about cutting the greenhouse gases that cause global warming—but
we're doing those things partly by exporting our problems to
developing countries: we quietly ship our toxic waste to Africa and
much of the stuff we buy is manufactured in countries such
as China, so we've effectively exported our greenhouse emissions
and pollution overseas. We're very good at brushing environmental problems under
someone else's carpet.
Photo: Problems like pollution and climate change, which we might consider purely "environmental," are linked to much wider and more complex social issues. Photo by Vicki Francis/UK Department for International Development, published on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
What are the solutions?
Recognizing a problem is always the first step in finding a solution.
Environmental concepts such as "ecosystems," "sustainable
development," "biodiversity," and "peak oil" are examples
of how we can understand the fragility of our environment, frame our
environmental problems, and try to find solutions. The solutions we
actually come up with are a mixture of different approaches involving
conservation, law, economics, technology, education, social justice,
personal change, and activism. Let's look at these in turn.
Long before it was fashionable to discuss the environment, people talked
about "conservation": direct preservation of birds, wilderness
areas, national parks, open spaces, and so on. Most of the older
environmental groups, including the
National Audubon Society,
the Sierra Club,
and (more recently) the
World Wildlife Fund, came into being as
conservation bodies. Newer groups such as
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF),
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
and Friends of the Earth (FoE) have tended to take a broader view of a whole range of environmental issues; the older conservation groups
have also reoriented themselves to take account of the fact that
habitats and species are often threatened indirectly by such things
as global warming or energy policy. All the same, preserving
wilderness for its own sake remains an important part of
environmental protection, informed by concepts such as the ecosystem
(the idea that many species depend on one another for survival) and
biodiversity (Earth's dazzling range of different species, and the
habitats that support them).
If something people do harms the environment, why not simply make it
illegal? Laws and other regulations have become an important means of solving
environmental problems over the last few decades. We now have laws to
protect species, prevent pollution, mandate recycling, ban the use of
harmful chemicals, and much more besides. Since environmental
problems are often international or global, international laws and
agreements have a large part to play as well. In Europe, for example,
the member states of the European Union are bound by collective
environmental laws (known as directives) as well as their own
national laws—and the international laws take precedence. There have
been some notable successes, including the
London Dumping Convention (LDC) to prevent dumping of waste at sea and the Montreal Protocol (an agreement to ban chemicals
that harm Earth's ozone layer). But attempts to reach global
agreements on climate change
have so far been disappointing and ineffective.
Like it or not, money makes our world go round. One reason the environment
is often degraded or destroyed is that parts of it have little or no
financial value. If a new highway is planned, it's usually cheaper
to route it through a park or wilderness area (which has no value,
because no-one could build homes there) than through urban wasteland
(because that has a market value); in other words, there's often an
economic incentive to destroy rather than preserve the natural world.
In much the same way, it can make sense for a farmer in a developing
country to burn down rainforest to grow a cash crop such as coffee,
even though the forest may be home to a dazzling diversity of
important species. One solution is to put prices on harmful
activities. In the UK, for example, local governments who want to
bury waste in the ground have to pay so much
landfill tax per tonne and that
gives them an incentive to recycle more. Making people pay if they
harm the environment is sometimes called the polluter
Photo: Should we put our faith in technologies like solar power
to solve our environmental problems?
History suggests we can often find innovative, scientific solutions to the
problems we encounter as civilization progresses. For example,
agricultural machinery, pesticides, and fertilizers have made it
possible to produce vastly more food from the same amount of land
with a much smaller workforce. People with great faith in technology
believe we will be able to pull off similar miracles in future—perhaps
stopping global warming by fundamentally altering Earth's
climate through technological fixes known as geoengineering. Then
again, many people are deeply suspicious of technology and fear that
it causes more problems than it solves. Nuclear power, for example,
was originally billed as a virtually free, everlasting source of
energy, but it was developed at enormous expense, and with huge
amounts of highly toxic nuclear waste as a byproduct, largely so the
world's superpowers could develop nuclear weapons at the same time.
One reason people harm the environment is that they simply know no
better. How would you ever know that
polar bears in the Arctic are being polluted with PCBs (chemicals we've used to manufacture
electronic equipment in countries such as the United States) unless
you'd read about it in something like National Geographic or seen
it on TV? Thankfully, our scientific understanding of the environment
is improving all the time. And thanks to brilliant new tools like the
World Wide Web, it's much easier for people to learn about environmental problems and share their concerns than ever before. Environmental
topics are taught much more widely than they were 20 or 30 years ago,
so future generations will hopefully have a much better awareness of
the need to protect the planet.
Understanding the links between poverty, trade, people, and the planet that
supports them is a hugely important and often neglected part of
environmentalism. Initiatives such as fair trade (which means paying
producers more money for commodity goods like coffee and cotton) can
be a start in helping to reduce poverty. And when people aren't
struggling to survive, they can devote more attention to healthcare,
education, and protecting their environment. There's little chance of
protecting the planet unless we understand how and why people feel
they need to destroy it.
Chart: Looking up: It's not all bad news! The number of people living in slums continues to decline
in most countries. The percentage of the urban population who are slum dwellers
fell from almost half in 1990 to about 29 percent in 2014.
Please note that the vertical axis of this chart does not start at zero.
Drawn using data from World Bank DataBank, published under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 Licence.
A central part of environmentalism is recognizing the damage
you inflict on the planet yourself and
doing what you can to minimize it. That means
buying things more wisely (choosing organic food that doesn't
pollute the soil, for example); reducing, reusing, and recycling
things before you buy new ones; using public transportation instead of cars and taking trains
instead of planes; insulating your home; and opting for renewable energy over fossil fuels. Environmentalists sometimes invite ridicule by taking measures like these to extremes; and the idea that "every little helps" the planet is sometimes a cruel delusion: installing
a hopelessly inefficient, rooftop,
micro-wind turbine that consumes
more electricity than it produces is
an example of how our desperation to
do the right thing can lead us astray. Generally, though, "going
green"—making fundamental personal changes to reduce your impact
on the planet— is what environmentalism is all about.
Photo: An organically grown cabbage looks (and maybe tastes) no different, but it's better for the environment because it's been grown without adding artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers to the soil. Organic has other benefits too: organic growers have generally higher environmental standards and better standards of animal welfare.
Even if you could revolutionize your life to the point where you had zero
impact on the planet, you'd make absolutely no difference to
problems such as pollution and climate change unless you could
persuade lots more people to do the same. That's why many
environmentalists ultimately become activists:
people who campaign for wider change in society.
Eco-activists come in many different flavors—and strengths. Some are content to pay a
subscription to green groups and let them do the campaigning on their
behalf, while others form green parties to put environmental issues on the political agenda.
Some activists reject conventional politics altogether, preferring to confront
environmental threats head-on with direct action (for example,
locking themselves to bulldozers or chaining themselves to railroad
tracks to stop nuclear waste shipments). Others connect
environmentalism to broader social and political ideas.
for example, trace many of Earth's problems to our
male-dominated society, likening the plunder of planet to the
historic domination of women by men.
reject shallow, feel-good environmentalism in favor of
a much more philosophical and spiritual approach to our human-obsessed
(anthropocentric) view of the world and issues like the preservation
of wilderness for its own sake. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the
spectrum, green capitalists
believe our existing economic systems can
be tweaked slightly so companies can continue to make profit while
protecting the environment, and politicians talk of "sustainable
development" (a suspiciously hard-to-define phrase that often boils
down to muddling along, business as usual, and hoping things turn out
alright in the end).
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