Sundin column: The importance of saving our own planet
Since it is virtually impossible for humanity to migrate to another planet, doesn’t it follow that our future depends entirely on preserving the livability of the one we‘re on? Shouldn’t we be concentrating our entire effort on taking better care than we have been (and are still not doing) of the only planet we have, before it is too late — if it isn’t already?
The Earth is a finite place with finite natural resources. Yet we have been and continue to act as though the Earth has unlimited resources to support our civilization indefinitely. That supposition is challenged by an exploding population and a rapidly increasing demand for Earth’s resources in our own country, and even greater in China and India, as hundreds of millions of people are rising into a middle-class lifestyle.
In 1900, the population of the world was 1.65 billion and the U.S. population was 76 million. In just a little more than a century, both have more than quadrupled to 7.3 billion and 322 million, respectively. Projections for 2040 are 8.9 billion and 380 million.
In 1900, there were very few automobiles and no airplanes. Now there are 1.2 billion automobiles in the world, projected to increase by 1 billion by 2040. Starting from zero in 1900, there are now 300,000 private airplanes (two-thirds in the U.S.), and 20,000 commercial and 90,000 military aircraft, consuming as much as a gallon of jet fuel per second (3,600 gallons per hour).
Worldwide consumption of all fossil fuels is projected to increase 15 percent by 2040, raising the atmospheric carbon dioxide level from 390 in 2010 to 450 parts per million (ppm), predicted to cause a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise. The result could be a further shrinkage of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps and glaciers worldwide, raising ocean levels and flooding seaports and hundreds of thousands of square miles of inhabited and agricultural land.
Melting ice caps and glaciers are only half of the story of rising ocean levels. The other is thermal expansion. As the oceans absorb more heat from the rising temperature of the atmosphere, the water expands, doubling the rise in ocean levels caused by melting ice — just another reason to reduce CO2 emissions.
Both rising temperatures and acidification of our oceans caused by increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere can also adversely affect the multitudes of phytoplankton, copepods and krill, interrupting the food chain that supports the fish, which are an essential food source for over a billion people. Acidification threatens the ability of crustaceans — copepods and krill and also shrimp, lobster and crabs — to form shells, endangering their survival. The obvious conclusion is that stopping and reversing the rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is critical to our long-range survival.
We are also messing up our oceans with our thoughtless disposal of plastics, creating huge accumulations in closed circulation areas called gyres. The largest of these is the North Pacific Gyre covering an estimated 3 million-5 million square miles and containing millions of tons of trash mostly from China, Japan and our West Coast. Twenty tons a year are washed up on the Midway Islands, an area of just 2 square miles.
Ninety percent of the trash is plastics, some of which is recognizable — but most of it has been broken into small particles, which are seen as food and ingested by organisms near the bottom of the food chain. These are eaten by fish and the plastic ends up in their flesh; then we catch and eat the fish — not a very appetizing prospect.
Our enormous and growing population and rapid advances in technology and the global economy have been fueled by a seemingly endless supply of cheap and abundant resources. How long can that continue? Demand is beginning to exceed our ability to find new resources. No large-scale oil reserves have been discovered since 1970. We may soon be faced with a steady decline in petroleum production, ultimately leading to the end of the “Petroleum Age,” made more serious by the explosive world population growth in the past century.
Is the failure to control population evidence that mankind’s ingenuity has exceeded its wisdom? Will that ingenuity be capable of supplying the needs of a population approaching 10 billion, or will nature resolve the population problem? Earth is the only planet we have, and its future livability for our children and grandchildren is up to us.
Hal Sundin’s As I See It appears on the first Thursday of each month.
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