Why Should We Care?

by Paul Donahue

17 June 1995

Is our world in trouble?  Is our environment being seriously degraded? Are many of the planet's ecosystems critically imperiled?  Are species of animals and plants rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth? Should we be concerned? Are we being slowly crushed by the weight of our own numbers and drowning in a sea of our own wastes? Is humankind already being seriously affected? Is the need for all of us to begin caring and helping extremely urgent? In short, is life as we know it on this planet seriously endangered? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding yes.

To quote Sandra Postel (State of the World 1994), our species has now become "an agent of change of geologic proportions." The opinions of our short-sighted leaders aside, not only are mounting environmental problems far and away the most serious threat facing humankind, they are the threat facing humankind. The evidence, for those who care to look, is overwhelming. Large segments of the world's population already grapple daily with very serious environmental problems - for them, the future has already arrived. Those of us fortunate enough to live in North America still have time to do something about the problems, but only if we act today. For those who are not convinced of the gravity of the situation, below is a small sampling of the evidence.


More than 10,800 people an hour, 260,000 people a day, or more than 95 million people a year are added to the world's population. This is equivalent to the populations of Great Britain, Iceland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland combined. Even here in the United States, discounting immigration completely, our population is still growing by over 2 million people a year. In 1950, world population was only 2.5 billion people; today the world's population is between 5.5 and 6 billion people. If birth and death rates remain what they are today, we will have 11 billion people by the year 2025.

The tropical countries of the world have the highest rates of population growth. Since between 40 and 50 percent of the present population in most tropical countries consists of individuals less than fifteen years of age, even the immediate adoption of consistent and sustained population control policies would not produce a stable situation until the latter part of the twenty-first century. Unless birthrates decline much faster in the future than they did in the l980's and early 1990's, world population will triple before it stabilizes.

Many biologists believe global life support systems would collapse long before that could happen. In fact, some biologists believe the long-term carrying capacity (the number of individuals of a species that an environment can support) of the earth to be only 2 billion people. With current technology and patterns of consumption, human populations are already undermining the earth's ability to support certain life forms, including our own. In 1992 it was estimated that 1.5 billion of the world's people lacked clean drinking water, 2 billion lacked sanitation facilities, and 42 percent of all young children suffered from malnutrition. We need only look to the once-forested countries of northeast Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan) for a vivid example of what happens when human numbers exceed the carrying capacity  of the land.   

However, it is not just a matter of numbers. While our population here in the United States is not growing as fast as in the developing countries of the world, we have a disproportionate effect on the planet. With only 5% of the world's population, the U.S. consumes 30% of the world's resources. Population biologist Paul Ehrlich estimates that a baby born in the United States has thirteen times as much impact on the Earth's ecosystems as a baby born in Kenya.

Resource Depletion

 In many ways, the depletion of resources such as soil, water, and wildlife is simply a problem of too many people putting demands on finite resources. In other cases, especially in our country, it is more a question of economics.

An example of the latter can be found with our vitally important farmlands in the midwest. For the sake of short-term financial gain, destructive agricultural practices are causing the loss of topsoil from our farmlands at an alarming rate. On many farms we are now losing more soil than we were losing in the years of the Dust Bowl. In 1983 the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reported that 33% of the nation's cropland was eroding at a rate of more than five tons per acre per year, the rate at which most fields are said to be able to replace soil; the General Accounting Office reported that 84% of the nation's farms had losses greater than five tons. The situation has gotten worse since. Iowa has the highest rate of soil erosion in the country with an average yearly loss of nearly ten tons per acre of farmland. This 260 million tons of earth a year is enough to bury Chicago twelve feet deep.

Outside the U.S., soil erosion is even worse. Throughout the developing world more than 90 % of the people depend on firewood for cooking and heating rather than fossil fuels. In many areas this has put an unbearable strain on forests and woodlands. In their quest for fuel and food, inhabitants of arid lands have cut down woodland for firewood as well as for pasture and cropland. Then overgrazing by livestock and over-farming of the fragile soils complete the destruction of the land, turning large areas that were once woodland into desert. In sub-Saharan Africa,  80% of the region's pasture and rangelands show signs of damage. In Ethiopia, where eroding land is tilled and trees are cut for fuel, topsoil is being lost at the rate of a billion tons a year. To quote Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, "Deserts are like a malignancy. They keep spreading and nothing is stopping them".  The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that more than 11.5 million square miles of world cropland and range has already been "desertified" by man, with the process continuing at the rate of 8100 square miles per year. About one sixth of the total world population is threatened with desertification and Jodi Jacobson of the Worldwatch Institute estimates that 135 million people live in areas undergoing severe desertification. She also estimates that already some 10 million people worldwide are refugees from environmental ruin. 

Water is of vital importance to humans everywhere but has become a very scarce resource in a number of areas. The U.N. estimates that 40% of the world's population suffers from a lack of sufficient water. In developing countries, ninety percent of diseases are caused by unsanitary water conditions or shortages. Countries across northern Africa, such as Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia are among those most severely affected. The Middle East is another area already experiencing water shortages. In fact, France has begun shipping freshwater to the Middle East by tanker. If these water problems are not resolved, experts fear that water crises will ignite world wars.

Most countries are consuming ground water several times faster than it is being replenished. One-fifth of U.S. irrigated cropland is supported by a water supply that is diminishing, the vast Ogallala Aquifer. Over the last five decades this underground reservoir has been steadily dropping. Pollution of the groundwater compounds this problem, making less and less available for use.

Our fisheries have been over-harvested. The per capita catch of fish is dropping worldwide, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization now estimates that all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have either reached or exceeded their natural limits, and that 9 are in serious decline. We need only look as far as the fishing banks off New England and the maritime provinces of Canada for a prime example. Because of seriously declining stocks, in September 1993 the Canadian government closed all of eastern Canada to cod fishing indefinitely. The cod fishery was the economic mainstay of fishing villages in this area for the previous four hundred years.   

Loss of Biodiversity

It is estimated that between 4 million and 30 million species remain to be discovered, mostly in the canopy of tropical rainforests, but plant and animal species are now disappearing from the planet faster than they can be found and described. Biologists estimate that we are now losing animal and plant species at the rate of up to 100 per day. This may be as much as 10,000 times the natural extinction rate, and far, far greater than any previous rate of extinction seen on the planet, including the period of dinosaur extinctions 65 million years ago. In the United States alone, more than 480 species have vanished in the past two centuries. Ornithologists estimate that one out of every ten bird species on the planet is at risk of extinction. Tropical rainforest is the most biologically rich habitat on earth, and also the most endangered of all the major habitats. More than half of the tropical rainforest we once had has already disappeared, and the remainder is disappearing at the rate of more than 1% or 142,000 square kilometers per year. At the current rate of extinction, we will lose 25% or more of the planet's biodiversity in the next 20 or 25 years.

Pollution of the Environment

 In the United States, a wide range of toxic chemicals including pesticides, dioxin, PCBs, arsenic, cyanide, nitric acid, phenols, benzene, gasoline, rocket fuel, dry-cleaning fluids and many, many others have seeped into the soil and contaminated the groundwater. They come from landfills, toxic waste dumps and other of the 1200-plus Superfund sites, leaking underground gasoline storage tanks, and careless disposal by industry. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified 60,000 of the chemicals used in the United States as potentially, if not definitely, hazardous to human health. Toxic dumps where steel drums have been left to rust and leak, letting poisons seep into the earth for decades, are scattered in virtually every county of every state. The Office of Technology Assessment has contended that there may be at least 10,000 hazardous-waste sites in the U.S. The General Accounting Office has gone further, predicting that there may be more than 378,000 waste sites in need of cleanup. Industry might deserve most of the blame, but U.S. homeowners dump 1 million tons of toxic trash into the environment each year. Because of all this contamination, thousands of communities across the United States no longer have their own supply of safe drinking water.

The area of the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana has been nicknamed "Cancer Alley". The area has the highest concentration of manufacturers, users, and disposers of toxic chemicals in the United States. Millions of pounds of toxic chemicals go directly into the Mississippi each year. Millions of pounds of these chemicals have been buried or dumped in landfills, and untold quantities of toxic chemicals are spewed into the air. The state ranks 50th in total toxics released per capita. Not coincidentally, the area also has the highest cancer rates in the country, especially cancers of the lung, stomach, gallbladder, intestine, liver, pancreas, bladder, thyroid, esophagus, and skin. The area has been described as a "Bhopal waiting to happen."

Our use of toxic pesticides is staggering. Between 1989 and 1994 we used 2 billion pounds of fungicides, 5 billion pounds of insecticides, and 11 million pounds of herbicides. Ten percent of the world's pesticides are used in California. Not surprisingly, a fifth of the wells in California's Central Valley, the state's main agricultural area, have been declared contaminated with the pesticide 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane. Maine's Washington County is the wild blueberry capital of the country. The herbicide Velpar used on the blueberry barrens shows up in a majority of the wells tested in the county. According to United Nations estimates, 1 million people, most of them farm workers, suffer from acute pesticide poisoning each year and 20,000 die from it.

Along Mexico's border with the U.S. is the maquiladora zone where many U.S. companies have relocated because of Mexico's more lax enforcement of environmental laws. Canals running through densely packed residential neighborhoods here are so badly polluted from industry that some of the locals stick their dogs in to rid them of fleas. To quote one resident, "All the hair falls off, too, but gradually it comes back on."       

Due to thinning of the ozone layer, partly caused by man-made chemicals released into the atmosphere, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts an increase of 12 million malignant melanomas over the next 50 years in the U.S. alone.

Forests throughout the northeast United States and adjacent Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick are slowly dying due to acid rain. Lakes throughout this same region are also dead or dying due to the increased acidity. Damage from acid rain has been found in every forest east of the Mississippi River that has been checked, and some biologists believe that all of these forests will eventually succumb. Elevated ozone levels contribute further to the problems caused by the acid rain.  A similar situation exists in northern Europe. In Germany the term waldsterben - or forest death - is now a household  word.

Bald Eagles from Maine, a relatively rural state, show the highest levels of dioxin contamination ever recorded. Fish from the lower stems of Maine's three major rivers are unsafe to eat because of dioxin contamination, and this contamination has spread to nearshore waters making it unsafe to eat the tomalley from lobsters. 

Mercury is one of the most toxic substances known. Minute quantities of it can cause central nervous system damage. In the Amazon Basin, gold miners pollute the region with some 90-120 tons of mercury annually. For people living along the rivers contaminated with the mercury, fish is their main source of protein. The bioaccumulation of the mercury in the fish, however, has made it unsafe to eat. Unfortunately, that has not stopped the people from eating it.

Global emissions of mercury to the atmosphere are estimated at 4,500 tons a year. In May of 1994 Maine's Department of Human Services issued a strong advisory against eating fish from any body of freshwater within the state due to mercury contamination. In doing so, it joined at least 30 other states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, that also have health advisories for mercury.

In March 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went off course, hit a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, polluting about 1000 miles of Alaska's coastline. This was the worst oil spill the U.S. has had, but not its last by any means. In 1991 alone there were 677 spills of varying sizes in the Port of New Orleans; 398 spills in New York Harbor; 239 spills in the Port of Hampton Roads, Virginia; 235 spills in the Port of Philadelphia; 130 spills in Seattle; and 116 spills in Boston Harbor. Worldwide, just in the last two years, 23 million gallons of oil spilled off the coast of Spain and 24 million gallons spilled off the Scottish Shetland Islands. The toll that oil spills take on our marine environment is staggering. Oil contains highly toxic and carcinogenic substances which can impact entire ecosystems for years, probably decades.

We are at the point where cancer is contracted by 30% of the population, with the cancer death rate having increased 26% in just two decades. Some types of birth defects, especially those associated with early developmental stages of the fetus, have shown a similar marked increase. While it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to prove that these increases are at least in part due to increased levels of toxins in our environment, many experts believe that there is a very strong link. Estimates of the share of cancers attributable to toxic exposure range from 7 percent to more than 20 percent. A Russian scientist studying the Chernobyl disaster once said, "When it comes to science and safety, there is nothing worse than an optimist."        


Any one of the many things listed above might not be too worrisome all by itself. However, if you add them all up, and keep in mind that these are just a very few examples of what is happening around the world, then the picture of where we are heading should become crystal clear. These environmental problems - overpopulation, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution - are not just isolated questions of biology or chemistry. As well as being closely interrelated - with overpopulation the dominant force at work - these problems are also intimately linked to politics, economics, religion, culture, philosophy, psychology, geography and history. To understand how we got where we are and to find effective solutions, we must consider the problems in this broad social context.

While it is easy to become depressed by the scope and magnitude of the problems facing us, the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by them. There are solutions to all of our environmental problems. However, it will take lots and lots of time and ingenuity and patience and energy to first find and then implement those solutions, overcoming obstacles all along the way. In the end, there is no guarantee of success, but, more importantly, we are guaranteed to fail if we do not try. Napoleon Bonaparte may have said it best - "He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat." As humans, we are fortunate in that we have a choice. We can let things happen, or we can make things happen. The only way to accomplish the seemingly impossible is to attempt it, with the will to persevere often being the only difference between failure and success.

Paul Donahue
Machias, Maine