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Saving Our Planet

Dangers Facing Our Planet - I

Philip Eisner

Saturday, August 28, 2010 • 8:53am

This is the first of a series of articles on Saving Our Planet. You may ask, "Saving it from what?" The answer is: the dangers facing our planet due to our own environmentally destructive activities here on earth. Our growing population, our food, shelter, clothing, and transportation needs, along with our fairly recent (last 200 years) industrialization, have made us the most dominant large animal on the planet. As a direct consequence, we have despoiled the planet with our wastes and destroyed or mutilated precious environmental and ecological resources. We are also the cause of the recent rise in global temperatures. In fact, we have begun to seriously damage our own lives and the lives of all living creatures on earth.

Besides the destruction of our environment, we are now being forced to face for the first time our planet's limitations on crude oil, natural gas, fresh water, fresh air, arable land, and wild fish in the sea. It is worth pondering this statement because our children and grandchildren will have to live with these limitations and their consequences. Note that I have not included energy in general among the limitations because the sun supplies us with more than enough energy for millennia to come. I will have much more to say about energy in future columns.

These first paragraphs contain dire statements. However, as a scientist who has studied aspects of many of the problems facing our planet, I feel morally impelled to write what I believe, and virtually all scientists on earth believe, is the truth about our environmental, ecological, and climate problems. The facts I will discuss are not political facts, neither liberal nor conservative; rather they are scientific and engineering facts. To deny them is to deny science and the hard work of tens of thousands of dedicated scientists throughout the world who are warning us of the dangers we will face due to our harmful actions.

Many people argue that we have too many people in the world; our present population of 6.8 billion needs a lot of resources and food! But there are more people to come; the U.N. expects 9 billion by 2050! The world must reduce its population! Our planetary life as we would like it may not be sustainable with such a huge population. Basically there has been an exponential growth of the world's population from mankind's beginning to the present time. Our population on earth has been estimated at 200 million people 2000 years ago. It is now about 6.8 billion and continues to grow rapidly. During the last half-century, the world's population more than doubled. Between 1950 and 1999, the world population rose from 2.5 billion to 6.0 billion. In other words, there has been more growth in population in those fifty years than the previous 2 million years that humans have been walking the earth. At current rates of birth and death, the world's population is on a trajectory to double in 49 years according to the population experts at the United Nations.

This exponential growth is frightening. It was frightening to Malthus in the mid-nineteenth century and it should be frightening to us now! It is not just food supply but many other resources, especially fresh water and energy, that are in inadequate supply. Can we meet the food demands of a rising population? So far we have done so with constant improvements in agriculture through science and technology. But arable land is growing scarcer and we are presently overfishing our oceans. 75% of major marine fish populations are already seriously depleted. Remember when W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan wrote in the opera, Mikado, "There are lots of good fish in the sea!"

Consider that the U.S. population uses 4.5 square-miles per person to obtain food and all the other resources for its standard of living. If the whole world did the same, we would need four planet earths! Clearly, the rest of the world will not be able to have the same standard of living or the same type of material culture as the USA has now. The earth is too small (or the earth's population is too large).

Our total human impact is changing the planet's ecology dramatically both in the types and size of new ecological and environmental changes and the speed of change. Factories, buildings of all sorts, dams, roads, highways, railroads, deforestation, pipelines, mining, and mono-culture farming change the environment, usually for the worst, for most living creatures. Mankind produces and carelessly disposes waste and pollution of all sorts as well.

Let's take a closer look at some of the dangers mankind is producing for our planet. First, I'll write about a couple of very toxic materials, mercury and PCB's, and then I will describe the looming shortage of fresh water. The future of crude oil, and natural gas I will write about in forthcoming columns. The many dangers of global warming caused by our emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere will also be discussed in future columns.

Mercury is a neurotoxin and is especially dangerous to the fetus, young children, and pregnant women. The most common way Americans are exposed to mercury is through tuna fish because mercury, like most long-lasting pollutants such as PCB's, slowly makes it way to streams and then to the sea. Tuna does not contain the highest concentration of mercury of any fish, but since Americans eat much more tuna than they do other mercury-laden fish, such as swordfish or shark, it poses a greater health threat.

Two of the biggest sources of mercury pollution are coal-fired power plants globally and chlorine chemical plants, especially non-U.S. plants. Coal power plants emit around 50 tons of mercury pollution annually and chlorine plants a couple of dozen tons. Facilities that recycle auto scrap are another big source of mercury pollution, pouring 10 to 12 tons of mercury into the air every year until all automobile companies worldwide stop using mercury switches. The pollution occurs from automobiles when mercury-based light switches from automobiles are scrapped and melted down for recycling. As the switches melt, the mercury they contain vaporizes into the air. Public pressure forced American auto manufacturers to stop using mercury in January 2003. But as long as older cars are incinerated, mercury pollution will continue to escape into the air.

Coal is naturally contaminated with mercury, and when it is burned, mercury is released into the air. Most of this mercury pollution is eliminated with suitable pollution-control devices, but the U.S. has been slow to enforce low-levels of mercury pollution by regulation and only this year have good regulations been developed and begun to be enforced. China has become the largest coal-burner for electricity. I do not know how well they are controlling mercury emissions but they are building one or two coal burning plants a week!

Unfortunately, other uses of mercury are on the rise. High demand for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from China's booming construction industry has fueled growing demand for the mercury catalyst used in PVC production. Small scale (artisanal) gold miners around the world, especially in Asia, Africa and South America, use mercury to bind with gold contained inside ore, and then burn off the mercury, leaving just the gold behind. This low-tech practice releases a significant quantity of mercury to the air. Mercury is also still commonly used around the world in batteries, fluorescent lights, measuring devices, electrical switches, dental amalgam, and some traditional medicines and arts.

Time is on our side with mercury pollution if we can stop, or greatly reduce, the amount of mercury emitted as pollution. Mercury is an element and is indestructible. However, its dangers lessen considerably over time, because it and its compounds eventually settle into the beds of rivers, lakes and oceans and are covered over by successive layers of sediment. At some point, fish stop consuming the mercury so eventually it ceases to be a hazard to humans.

PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) are another persistent pollutant. Marla Cone has written an informative book about PCB's called Silent Snow, The Slow Poisoning Of The Arctic, Grove Press, 2005. She describes how these pollutants end up concentrated in the Arctic after their long journey from US, European, and Russian cities.

Fresh water is a limiting resource; only through the cost of considerable energy can we make fresh water from salt water. To some extent this is being done in the Mid-East today. But fresh water supplies are rapidly depleting on the globe. Even though, from an orbiting satellite's point of view, most of the earth's surface is covered in water, 97.5% of all water by volume on Earth is salt water and nearly 70% of the fresh water is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland where it is largely inaccessible. Actually, less than 1% of the world's fresh water (approximately 0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. It is in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and those shallow underground sources that can be tapped easily. Only those sources are regularly renewed by rain and snowfall, and available on a sustainable basis.

Asia has 60% of the world's people but only 36% of its water. Only North and South America among the continents have enough water today for their people's daily living needs and to accomplish all the industrial processes and farming they need or wish to have to grow their economies. The world's economists, financial analysts, and futurists have already singled out the coming water shortages as the next large problem. It will cost money and require lots of energy to collect, recycle, clean, and pump water to where it is needed. Vast new infrastructures must be built. The dozens of growing megacities in the world urgently need more fresh water.

Now I come to perhaps the greatest danger of all facing us, with the obvious exception of nuclear war, namely global warming caused by "greenhouse gases". These gases, primarily the CO2 from burning fuels, are causing global warming with future disastrous consequences. This is a big and most interesting topic and I will discuss it in detail in the next couple of columns later this month. But I will end this column with a brief introductory description of Global Warming's dangers:

  • Global economy will shrink 20%. (Predicted by Lord Nicholas Stern several years ago.)
  • Accelerated biotic extinctions. Harvard professor E. O. Wilson's book, The Creation, (2006), is an eloquent plea to save all life and diversity on our planet.
  • Acidification of oceans destroying corals and shellfish. To give some sense of perspective, for the last 44 million years, the average pH of the water has been 8.2. The scientists at Scripps measured levels off the north coast of California and Oregon at a pH of 7.75. Coral polyps that make reefs and everything that makes a shell are now beginning to suffer from a kind of osteoporosis because of the 25 million tons of CO2 absorbed by the oceans every 24 hours.
  • Tropical diseases spread to present temperate zones.
  • Deaths increase: disastrous storms, forest fires, droughts, floods, heat waves (cooling mega-cities very costly; maybe impossible), and disease.
  • Increase in ocean levels; floods in port cities globally.
  • Agriculture and H2O sources disrupted; mass migration of people seeking food, water, cooler weather, and dry land.

 Phil Eisner writes about environmental issues.  He is a resident of Summit, NJ.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TheAlternativePress.com or anyone who works for TheAlternativePress.com. TheAlternativePress.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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