Sundin column: What have we done to our planet?
As I See It
Mankind was given a marvelous and beautiful planet, and look what we have done to it! With the exception of indigenous peoples who have treated nature with care and respect, much of mankind has shown nothing but disregard for nature, but has exploited it for wealth with little concern for the consequences.
There have been five major extinctions in the earth’s past, each exterminating a major portion of life on the planet. The most recent occurred 66 million years ago, when an asteroid impact wiped out 75 percent of life on earth, including the dinosaurs. We are now experiencing a sixth extinction, almost totally caused by human activities such as destruction and invasion of habitats, worldwide deforestation, water and air pollution, over-harvesting, poaching and most recently, global warming. (Two hundred years ago there were so many passenger pigeons — estimated at 5 billion — that in migration they covered the sky for hours. But they were easily captured and were a source of cheap food, and were harvested to extinction in the early 1900s.)
In just the past 50 years, we have killed off over half of both the world’s wildlife and plant species. The numbers of all of the big animals of Africa have been drastically reduced by loss of habitat and poaching — thousands of elephants for their tusks and hundreds of rhinoceros for their horns every year. Over-fishing is threatening the food supply of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Every year, 100 million sharks are being harvested just for their fins, used to make shark-fin soup, considered a delicacy in the Orient.
Human destruction of habitats is a growing cause of extinction of wildlife and plants. Deforestation and development (both for profit) are pushing wildlife out of lands they need for survival, often reducing their numbers below what is needed for a healthy gene pool to ensure their propagation, and driving away the prey that predators need for their survival. Forests are being stripped of trees on a devastating scale throughout the world to provide cropland for growing populations and for lumber and firewood. Rainforests in the Amazon are stripped to raise cattle, and in Indonesia to produce palm oil. In our own country we are pushing deeper and deeper into wildlife habitat for residences and vacation homes.
Less than 50 years ago, the prevailing opinion was that the oceans were so huge and so full of fish that it would be impossible to fish them out. As the numbers of ever more species of fish are dwindling; we now know better. But we now have people claiming that there is no way human activity could possibly alter the earth’s climate. Climate change is having an adverse effect on wildlife. Increasing temperatures and drought are so rapidly displacing many species seeking a more habitable climate that it is disrupting food chains by separating predators from prey.
We are poisoning the environment with insecticides intended to exterminate pests. But many have unintended consequences, like DDT whose threat to the survival of birds was exposed in Rachel Carson’s book “The Silent Spring.” Pesticides are suspected of being responsible for the alarming decline in the number of honey bees needed to pollinate many of the crops we are dependent on. Insecticides can also disrupt food chains on which many species (like birds that feed on mosquitoes) depend. Water and air pollution, regulated by the EPA which was created in 1970 by the Nixon Administration, are now being undermined by the Trump Administration.
Another rapidly growing pollution problem is the millions of tons of discarded plastics that are ending up in the oceans every year, notably in the Pacific Gyre, an area twice the size of Texas, where it has accumulated to nearly 100 million tons, most of it from China and Vietnam. Even on tiny Midway Island, 20 tons of plastic are washed ashore every year. It is estimated that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Plastics take centuries to decompose. In the meantime, they disintegrate into small particles that are mistaken as food and move up the food chain into the seafood we eat. Sea salt is another way to ingest microscopic bits of plastic, as well as all of the other contaminants that are being dumped into the oceans.
Overpopulation is the cause of nearly all of these problems. It is a sobering thought that in my lifetime the world’s population has quadrupled from less than 2 billion to nearly 8 billion.
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Sticks in the mud. Overly cautious. Obstacles to progress.