by Daniel Weber, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
I. Use of Natural Resources
All plant and animal organisms (including humans) utilize natural resources to survive, which is at the heart of many environmental concerns. However, three important usage differences exist between us and the rest of creation: 1) the amount used, 2) the rate at which they are used, and 3) the products we produce that have no natural correlates, i.e., we create non-biodegradable products from naturally occurring substances. We need to become familiar with the biological, economic, and social consequences (and solutions) of these differences.
II. Land Use Practices
The lack of clear scientific based policy on land use practices leads to conflicts among a wide range of users – including nature itself. Since the role of natural ecosystems is rarely considered in land use policy, uses that are antagonistic to nature become common (e.g., mining/forestry vs. wilderness), as do mutually exclusive human activities (e.g., agriculture vs. residential). It is important to learn the social and political background for land use policy decisions, as well as their ecological consequences.
Water is a fundamental requirement for life, and represents a special case of natural resource use. The amount of fresh, potable water on our planet is exceedingly small, unevenly distributed, and, increasingly unusable due to industrial, agricultural, residential, and recreational demands in many parts of the world. Humans have altered natural water systems by building dams to alter river flow, and channeling or burying entire streams in underground pipes in urban regions. Population pressures and urban sprawl are leading to declining amounts and quality of water sources with the consequent decline in native aquatic flora and fauna. Today, water is emerging as a basis for regional conflicts.
IV. Habitat Loss
Increasing pressure on our natural world causes the destruction of vital habitats and their dependent wildlife. One particular driving force behind habitat loss is habitat fragmentation, i.e., dividing ecosystems into smaller, isolated units due to human activity (such as new suburban housing, road construction, forestry & mining, agriculture, and industrialization of rural habitats), thus causing a shift in species composition. Since species utilize a variety of interconnected habitats for survival, fragmented habitats often lead to unforeseen regional and international consequences.
V. Urban Life
Since the founding of cities in ancient Sumeria, city life has caused the degradation in soil, water, and air quality, and the reduction and elimination of the natural systems and processes that regenerate nutrients and filter toxic substances. This causes impacts not only to the environment, but also to the health of humans who live in cities. Learning to manage our urban environment, through policies focusing on land use practices, transportation systems, urban and suburban development, and water quality, will be critical to overall environmental quality and health.
VI. Invasive Species
As human society uses its natural landscapes, we create conditions in which non-native species can invade, colonize and succeed in regions of the world they would not normally be found. The introduction of invasive species can be accidental, e.g., commerce (shipping via planes, trucks), recreation (hitchhiking species on boats, clothes, vehicles), or agricultural and horticultural (e.g., insect, fungal pests). But, non-native species are brought to other parts of the world purposefully, e.g., agricultural (Garlic Mustard, Brown Trout, Gypsy Moth) or horticultural (Purple Loosestrife, Honeysuckle, Buckthorn). Additionally, by physically connecting previously isolated habitats, humans allow species to mix and interact that normally did not, e.g., Panama (Atlantic-Pacific Oceans), Suez (Mediterranean and Red Seas), and Erie/Welland (Atlantic Ocean-Great Lakes) canals. The result is usually a loss in species diversity because the native organisms cannot compete and often become endangered or locally extinct.
VII. Toxic Chemicals
Every year, thousands of new chemicals are introduced into environment. While some of these chemicals are harmless, many can affect wildlife and become a catalyst for human diseases, such as cancer, birth defects and behavioral disorders. Testing and regulating these chemicals present numerous challenges. These chemicals often do not biodegrade readily and are easily transported across political borders inducing a range of biological disorders. While complicated, this story is critical for us to understand.
VIII. Waste and Recycling
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. How many times have we all heard that mantra? Today, the hallmark of the environmental movement is being challenged by some segments of both industry and government. This issue is important both in terms of how we use our natural resources and in terms of our land use policy. While much of the recycling controversy involves basic market-driven economics such as supply and demand, and self-interest, there is plenty that each of us can do as individuals.
IX. Global Climate Change
Throughout geologic history, Earth has undergone periodic increases and decreases in the average global temperature. It is today’s faster rate of change that has scientists concerned that human activity is causing the heightened global increases in average surface and ocean temperatures. Although scientists are not convinced it is the only cause, anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides), are clearly an important part of the picture. Documented changes in habitat structure due to rising temperatures have been recorded in such diverse places as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and Glacier National Park in Montana. Additionally, scientists have plotted changes in species distributions of cold vs. warm climate species in Europe and North America.
X. Environmental Justice
For too many people, environmental degradation is a way of life and the cause of deteriorating health and quality of life. Often these are the poor and disenfranchised of our society. Each of the problems in this list has its greatest effect on those who are least able to overcome the effects of such environmental disasters. Linking the cause of environmental protection to the cause of human justice, through what has today become known in the political and scientific world as “environmental justice,” is a critical step in advancing our role as stewards of this earth. As we move forward in the sacred task of improving the quality of life for all of Hashem’s creations, let us never forget our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us.
We hope our list becomes a source of spirited discussions, as well as a means to focus our energies. Let the dialogue begin by sharing your thoughts about our Top 10, and your suggestions for environmental professionals best able to share their expertise on these issues. Send your comments to Dr. Daniel Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally posted in “On Eagles’ Wings” November 6th 2003