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Environmental Problems Beyond Climate Change

7 interconnected problems worth solving



The environment is everything that surrounds us—air, water, land, plants, animals, and other natural resources. It's the world we interact with daily, and we both affect it and are affected by it. Preserving the environment and ensuring it remains healthy and functioning as it has evolved is necessary to ensure the long-term survival of civilization and other life on Earth.


The natural environment is made up of individual ecosystems. An ecosystem refers to a specific environment and all its living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) components functioning together. Forests, oceans, and deserts all contain different ecosystems that each serve as habitat for countless plant, animal, fungal, and microbial species. These systems are complex and interconnected, where the change in one element affects the entire system.


Every component of the environment is linked. For instance, bees pollinate plants, which produce fruits and seeds, feeding various animals and helping to propagate plant species. Disrupting one part of this chain, such as the decline in bee populations, impacts food sources and plant reproduction.


While we humans are just one species of animal that has evolved and adapted to survive in different ecosystems, we are the only species that has come to have the evolutionary success and power to change the environment on a global scale. With this enormous collective power comes the responsibility not to harm the environment from which we evolved—if long-term survival is important to us.


Climate Change


These days the majority of environmental discussion centers around climate change. The concept is that by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gasses, notably carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere that was previously locked away underground in the form of fossil hydrocarbons, we are changing the net energy flow from the sun. Greenhouse gases trap more of the infrared radiation emitted by the surfaces on Earth, which normally escapes out into space and cools the planet. The result is that more of the sun's thermal energy remains on Earth, leading to higher global temperatures on average. This global warming effect causes changes to sea ice and glaciers, sea level rise from the expansion of ocean water, and changes in weather and rainfall patterns.


To be clear, we know humans are causing climate change; we have the data, and we know it's a huge problem that will affect ecosystems and involve massive damage to human infrastructure. But environmental problems go way beyond climate change. Here are some of the big ones that need immediate attention:


 

Deforestation


The removal of vast areas of forests for agriculture, logging, mining, and urban development disrupts ecosystems and can even destroy them entirely. Forests serve as massive carbon reservoirs that actively pull carbon dioxide out of the air as long as they remain healthy. Clearing forests releases not only the carbon stored in the trees and plants but also the huge quantity of carbon stored in the soil. Cutting down forests also destroys habitats for countless species, leading to a decline in biodiversity—meaning fewer different kinds of organisms can survive. Additionally, without tree roots to anchor fertile soil, deforestation can result in severe erosion and the loss of fertile land for agriculture. This harms the local environment and affects humans, who rely on forests for resources and a stable climate.


When I refer to deforestation, I use the term to encompass several of Earth's biomes that provide habitat for many species, such as boreal forests, tropical rainforests, grasslands, savannas, tundra, etc. These wild lands are regularly clear-cut or burned to make room for growing crops, palm oil plantations, grazing livestock, building houses, and other urban development.



Forests remove pollutants from the air, clean the water, provide soil fertility, and heavily influence the hydrologic cycle by moving water across continents. These are all important services for humanity. Natural forests take thousands of years to fully develop, but we can completely destroy them in days. Forest preservation is paramount for civilization's long-term viability.



Biodiversity Loss


Biological diversity refers to the variety of different species living in an ecosystem—from plants and animals to fungi and microorganisms. The decline in the planet's species and genetic diversity is alarming. Habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources, pollution, pesticides, and climate change are driving the loss of biodiversity.


Biodiversity loss is a problem because it weakens the resilience of ecosystems, making it harder for them to recover from disruptions like diseases, natural disasters, or climatic changes. A rich variety of species ensures that natural systems can maintain balance, supporting processes like pollination, water purification, and carbon storage. Ecosystems and the species in them have all evolved to fill particular niches where no species dominate because overproliferation is kept in check by competition and predation from other species.




When biodiversity is reduced, ecosystem dynamics are compromised, which can lead to poor ecosystem health and problems for humans, such as crop failure, pest infestations, disease, and increased vulnerability to changes in climate. Additionally, losing biodiversity means we lose potential sources of medicine, food, and materials that could benefit society.


Many human innovations have come about through biomimicry (flight, bullet trains, Velcro, cement, LEDs, etc.), where we study an interesting species and how it adapts to its ecosystem, and we copy it. Losing species, especially the rarer ones that haven't been extensively studied, reduces the opportunities to learn about nature and develop technologies to improve human lives—especially in the fields of medicine and disease control. And how about species preservation for the sake of the species themselves?


Pollinators

Many cultivated crops depend on or partially depend on pollinators to produce food. Loss of pollinators such as bees, other insects, birds, and bats will lead to a decline in food yields from many crops, and some foods will not fruit at all.  Due to the excessive use of pesticides and other toxic substances, we are losing pollinators. Imagine a world without chocolate or watermelon.



Land Pollution


Improper waste disposal leads to land pollution. There's the obvious trash we see on the sides of the roads, at trailheads, and in parking lots. Some of this trash ends up deep in forests, carried by winds, careless campers, or inconsiderate partiers. I often see bullet casings, appliances used for target practice, bottles, millions of nails from burning pallets, and other trash strewn about the environment. While much of this trash is deliberate negligence and disrespect, much trash blows out of the bed of pickup trucks and even waste disposal trucks themselves.


Beyond the obvious trash we see, industrial toxins and heavy metals contaminate the soil and groundwater. Harmful chemicals from pesticides, industrial waste, and litter can make the soil toxic, preventing plants from growing properly and potentially entering our food through crops. This contamination also affects wildlife and can disrupt entire ecosystems. Moreover, pollution on land can seep into groundwater sources, affecting the quality of drinking water and leading to health problems.



Water Pollution


Water supports all life on Earth. The same litter and industrial and consumer wastes we find on land eventually make their way into waterways when it rains. Many companies discharge their toxic waste streams directly into rivers and ponds. Water runoff from large industrial farms contains pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, livestock feces, and pathogens. When fertilizer runoff enters waterways, it causes a phenomenon called eutrophication, where the excessive nutrients cause enormous algal blooms that kill off the local plant and animal life from a lack of oxygen.



Plastics wash into rivers and lakes and do not decompose but rather break apart into very small pieces called microplastics. Microplastics have been found virtually everywhere on Earth, including in rivers, lakes, oceans, soil, the Arctic and Antarctic, food, drinking water, air, animals large and small, and even our bodies.


Water polluted with microplastics and other harmful substances can cause diseases and damage ecosystems by killing aquatic plants and animals. It also affects recreational activities like swimming and fishing and complicates water treatment for safe human use.



Many parts of the world lack proper waste disposal systems, so people just dump their trash directly into the rivers. Of course, much of the trash and chemical pollution washes from the rivers into the oceans. Microplastics and other pollutants wash into the ocean and can poison fish and plants, disrupt their reproductive systems, and lead to the death of marine species. This not only affects the animals and plants that live in the ocean but also impacts the millions of people who rely on the ocean for food, recreation, and jobs. Additionally, pollutants can eventually make their way up the food chain to humans, leading to health problems. Most of us don't realize the scale of this problem since any pollution we see is just the tip of the iceberg.




Air Pollution


Combustion (burning things) releases air pollutants in the form of toxic gases and particulate matter. As a civilization, we burn a lot of stuff. We burn coal and natural gas to produce electricity and gasoline and diesel in our vehicles. We burn heating oil, propane, and wood to heat our homes and buildings, we burn coke to produce steel, we burn charcoal to cook, we burn diesel for trucking, we burn marine diesel oil for shipping, we burn jet fuel for air travel, and we burn trash in irresponsible ways.


All of these combustion sources produce gases and particulate matter that harm our health. Particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) is small enough to enter the gas exchange part of our lungs (alveoli) and get into our bloodstream, where it causes a plaque-like buildup. This leads to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, COPD, stroke, and even cancer.




Diesel engines, in particular, emit high levels of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Many of these toxic substances are carcinogens.


When rain reacts with sulfur and nitrogen oxides from burning fossil fuels, it creates solutions of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. Carbon dioxide also reacts with rainwater to form a weak solution of carbonic acid, although this is not as strong as sulfuric and nitric acid. Coal is a heavy emitter of sulfur dioxide, as is diesel. When these acids are incorporated into rain, it leads to the phenomenon of acid rain. This acidifies ecosystems and many organisms are unable to carry out basic functions in overly acidic environments.



Acid rain can be extremely harmful to forests. It seeps into the ground and dissolves nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium, that trees need to be healthy. Acid rain also releases aluminum into the soil, making it difficult for trees to take up water. When sulfuric and nitric acids in acid rain react with the calcite in marble and limestone, the calcite dissolves. This leads to roughened surfaces, removal of material, and loss of carved details in buildings and statues.



Freshwater Scarcity


Without freshwater, we all die. We need unpolluted fresh water not only for drinking and household use but also for manufacturing stuff and growing food. Agriculture takes the most freshwater by far, accounting for 71.8% of the world's freshwater use, and most of that is used in the production of dairy, beef, and pork.


Just like fossil hydrocarbons are finite and exist in reservoirs underground, we have reserves of fossil water in the form of freshwater aquifers. If we use more water from these aquifers than is naturally replenished by water seeping through rock, the freshwater supply in the aquifers declines. This is exactly what's happening in many parts of the world. Communities are having to drill deeper and deeper wells in order to access water as the level of the aquifer falls.

It's important to realize that water is a shared resource. If a farmer uses water from a river that runs through his property to water his crops, that leaves less water for those downstream. Similarly, if someone drills a well on their property to supply water to their house, they are pulling from the same aquifer as their neighbors since the groundwater is all connected. It's not creating more water, it's sticking another straw in the shared milkshake.


To maintain sustainable levels of water resources, rates of water withdrawals must be below rates of freshwater replenishment. 'Renewable internal freshwater flows' refer to internal renewable resources (internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) in a country. Renewable internal flows are, therefore, an important indicator of water security or scarcity. If rates of freshwater withdrawal begin to exceed the renewable flows, resources begin to decline. – Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser


As a civilization, we are using water at an increasing rate. Our rate of groundwater extraction now exceeds nature's ability to replenish it. Using less water to get usage to sustainable rates is critical to our long-term viability.



Soil Degradation


Soil is not dirt. Dirt is just various-sized rock particulates, whereas soil is rich in carbon-containing organic matter and microorganisms, making it suitable for plants to grow in.


When forests are clearcut to make room for cropland or livestock grazing, the soil is no longer held together by the vast web of tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This leads to soil erosion, and more is washed away each year. Tree roots also create porosity in the soil, allowing more rainwater to be absorbed into it.



The soil fertility from the former forest is high, but as the years pass using conventional degenerative agricultural practices, the soil fertility declines. Farmers put down synthetic fertilizers made from fossil hydrocarbons containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in order to make up for declining soil nutrients. Often, "to be safe," farmers use more fertilizer than their crops need. The excess, along with pesticides and herbicides, runs off with the topsoil each time it rains, where it ends up in rivers and the ocean, damaging those local ecosystems.



The soil on the agricultural land slowly deteriorates, losing much of its organic carbon content and microorganisms that help plants to grow. This leads to ever higher requirements for synthetic fertilizers, even as crop yields fall.


Soil health is intimately tied to the health of our civilization. Without healthy soils, we won't be able to produce enough food to feed our growing population. Regenerative agricultural practices do exist and work quite well; however, they have not been widely adopted primarily due to a lack of education and financing for the transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture.


 


Solutions Require Thinking in Systems


Humans need resources. We turn those resources into products we want, enriching our lives for a time, and then dispose of them. We need to figure out how to extract, manufacture, use, and dispose of resources without damaging the environment and reducing its ability to supply our resources and absorb our wastes in the future.


Each of these issues must be addressed to create a thriving, sustainable civilization where the environment that supports us is preserved. As is evident by now, these issues are not isolated but rather part of an interconnected web of complex systems. Some connections are easy to see, some are only known by scientists and researchers, and some ecosystem and climate dynamics are unknown to us all.


I won't discuss specific solutions here, saving some ideas for future articles. However, we know that addressing these environmental issues requires a deliberate collective effort between individuals, businesses, and governments. Personally, I'm optimistic we can solve many of these challenges. The questions are: How long will it take, and what level of environmental degradation are we willing to tolerate? Necessity is a powerful forcing function.


One thing is certain: we need to take action. Whining won't cut it. Education helps drive awareness of these issues. One can't be motivated to find solutions to a problem he or she doesn't know much about. You can help right now by sharing this information with friends. Start conversations over a meal about these issues, and forward this article to 2 people you think should read this.


The first step towards positive change is understanding the problem.


I say,

See the world. Make it better.



Questions for you:
  • Which of the environmental issues above do you think is the most important to solve and why?

  • What is one idea that can be implemented, either technological or socio-political, that can meaningfully address several of our environmental challenges?

  • Which environmental issue would you like me to write about in more detail?


Please comment, I highly value your feedback.

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