Revolution #199, April 18, 2010
The Dimensions of the Environmental Emergency
Snapshots of a Planet in Peril
Humanity and earth’s ecosystems face an environmental emergency. But that phrase doesn’t capture the scope of what we face.
Let’s imagine we are circling our planet by satellite—and then can zoom down to the earth’s surface to see the situation on the ground.
First we come to the outskirts of Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa. There we see children as young as five years old playing. But when we look closer, we see that their “playground” consists of vast piles of abandoned computers—what is called “e-waste.” We see them breaking up the computers and burning off foam. And when we ask, they tell us that they aren’t playing at all—they are salvaging metals to sell, in order to survive.
The computers were shipped from the U.S., Europe and Japan—as “donations.” But these donations are actually useless. Still worse, they are filled with lead, cadmium, organic chemicals and other materials that cause cancer, and that damage brain and reproductive development. These “donations” poison these kids, and when the rains come, washing the toxins into the rivers and lagoons, they poison life there too.
We get back in the satellite and move to the Amazon rainforest in northern Ecuador in South America. From above we see views of beautiful forest. Once on the ground, the lovely vistas give way to oozing pits of poisonous waste water. The rivers and streams are black with oil. People come out of their huts to tell us about many of their loved ones who are dead, or dying, from cancer. They cry about their children with leukemia and birth defects. Here, in Oriente, an area the size of Rhode Island, Texaco Oil has created one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. Texaco spilled and dumped 17 million gallons of crude oil and billions of gallons of toxic waste water into the rivers and rainforest. The people you meet live in these rainforests. They are members of six indigenous tribes, 30,000 people, that depend on it for life.
Now Chevron Oil Co. has bought out Texaco. Chevron tries to brand itself as “eco-friendly.” But Chevron is fighting in court to avoid responsibility for the devastation of the environment, and the hundreds of deaths, they have caused.
The eminent climate scientist James Hansen has warned, “Our home planet is now dangerously near a ‘tipping point’...an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and the trip will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet.... We must move onto a new energy direction within a decade to have a good chance to avoid setting in motion unstoppable climate change with irreversible effects.”
Next, we fly to the North Pole. From the air, amazing ice sheets seem to stretch endlessly. But if we could compare them with 30 years ago, we would see that during the late summer they are smaller by about the size of California and Texas combined. They are melting away as the planet warms. The sea ice also melts earlier now, making it harder for polar bears that hunt from the ice to find food at critical times. Bears are powerful swimmers, but now some are drowning, because they have to swim greater distances between floating ice floes to hunt. And it’s not just the bears—the entire Arctic ecosystem is threatened by global warming. What’s more, the melt of the Arctic will cause dangerous feedbacks, warming the planet even more.
We go to the South Pole. There we find that huge ice sheets have already broken up in the Antarctic Peninsula. A scientist stationed in Antarctica talks to us about the extreme but richly abundant ecosystem there, and then takes us on a tour where we see penguins, seals, whales, fish and many birds. She explains that these animals face present and larger future threats from two big changes: first, because the sea ice is melting; and second, because the numbers of small shrimp-like animals called krill are declining. Many animals depend on the vast amounts of krill to eat for survival. Krill form the base of the Antarctic food chain, but now their numbers are dropping. Global warming is melting sea ice containing algae that krill eat, and krill are also targeted by industrial fishing for food for fish farms and other uses. The further decline of krill would not only affect Antarctica, but marine ecosystems far beyond.
We fly from the Antarctic northeast to the island nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. We encounter amazing tropical rainforests but we also see forests on fire. As we get closer to the ground we make out huge swaths of land where the forests have been wiped out—with only some stumps remaining. In others, there are vast miles of palm tree plantations; such plantations seriously reduce biological diversity in favor of the single plant being cultivated.
Arriving in the forested region of Borneo, we come into a world alive with amazing plants and animals—beautiful orchids and other flowering plants, birds of many kinds. We meet an activist on the ground who has been part of blocking the destruction of the forests by developers. His eyes come alive as he describes the immense variety of creatures the forest still holds, including apes, tigers, amphibians, reptiles and even elephants. But he becomes visibly upset as he explains that all this rich life is rapidly being exterminated as the forests are being destroyed. Three-quarters of Indonesia’s once immense forests are already gone. If things are not stopped quickly, he says, this vast rich ecosystem will be no more—all these animals and plants gone—with consequences for all of us.
We keep flying over the planet, coming to the Khosi river that flows through Nepal and India. As we arrive, farmers show us their former farmland. Now the land is covered in six feet of sand after massive floods that killed 1,500 people and displaced three million. Now nothing grows. And there are worse droughts in some regions, more torrential monsoon rains in others, as the climate changes. The farmers say they don’t know what they will do to survive.
And then, finally, we arrive at our last stop—New Orleans. We walk through the 9th ward, where most of the people who lived here are either poor, Black, or both. We can’t believe it, but so many houses have been simply razed or are still lying in ruins—five years after being destroyed by the massive hurricane Katrina. These neighborhoods have been abandoned by a government and an economic system that does not provide for people’s needs. The people in New Orleans show us pictures of their loved ones who died, abandoned in their homes, and tell us about how the police and soldiers came at them with guns, when they needed help. Katrina was a monster—fueled by warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina is a sign of things to come—the type of more powerful hurricanes and storms that are likely already occurring and will become more common as warming of the planet proceeds.
The Larger Picture: The Destruction of the Ecosystems
These snapshots demonstrate the emergency, but now let’s look at the entire picture.
Many of Earth’s ecosystems—its complex webs of life—are being undermined, compromised and even destroyed. By ecosystem we mean the way in which all the living organisms in any area—the plants, animals, and micro-organisms like bacteria—interact with one another, and with the topographical area (the features of the land—rivers, mountains, desert, etc.)— in a complex web of life. These organisms are interdependent and interact with each other. If you “pull one thread in the fabric”—that is, if one or more key species are destroyed—you may very well unravel the whole thing.
How bad is this ecosystem crisis? The UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report of 2005 estimated that two-thirds of the “services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline worldwide.” This means that the things we depend on from nature for life—the production of food and water and many medicines, the air we breathe, the control of climate and disease, the supply of nutrients and pollination of crops, and cultural and recreational benefits—are being used up and degraded.
But how can this be so? When we go into nature or watch nature shows on television, in many ways things may seem the same as they always have been. And in fact there are still large swaths of the world with awe-inspiring natural wonder and rich diversity of life. But when we pull back the lens to see the whole view, and when we look under the surface at the changes that are actually happening to the environment, a staggering and extremely frightening picture emerges.
Consider these basic facts:
- About half of the world’s rainforests are gone, caused by clearing land for agriculture, timber and beef production. These forests are concentrated around the equator.
- Many areas where people used to farm have been turned into wasteland or desert by misuse and overuse. This is especially a problem on the 40% of Earth that is arid (very dry) and semi-arid. And these are lands in which a quarter of the people in Asia, Africa and Latin America live.
- Water and air pollution is a global problem—for instance, 80% of China’s major rivers no longer support aquatic life (fish, plants, etc.)! Air pollution especially hits hard at the elderly, the sick and young children—causing lung cancer and other lung diseases, bronchitis and heart disease. Three million people worldwide die each year from its effects.
- Then there is the warming of the planet. According to the World Health Organization, this already kills 150,000 people every year from worsening droughts, storms, flooding, heat waves and parasitic disease. From 2000-2008, when scientists were repeatedly sounding the alarm about global warming, greenhouse emissions (gases like carbon dioxide and methane that cause global warming) rose by 29% and the rate of their build-up has been increasing. Now the rising ocean levels caused by this global warming are threatening the very existence of many low-lying nations, from the islands of the South Pacific to nations like Bangladesh.
It’s important to note that in all the above examples, the environmental devastation is overwhelmingly concentrated in the areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is not just an accident, or bad luck. These nations have been dominated by the U.S., Japan and the European powers for centuries. Today, this means that the imperialist powers consume a hugely disproportional share of the world’s resources—and that the oppressed nations bear a terribly disproportional share of the brunt and burden of the environmental crisis.
Add up enough ecosystem collapses in local or regional scales and you can have collapse of the global ecosystem.
Governments have talked about this being a problem, as they did recently at the Copenhagen climate talks last December. But instead of taking action to solve this, they have actually increased the burning of fossil fuels, and increased the hunt for the coal and “dirty oil” that are the most dangerous polluters. These modern-day Neros are fiddling while the whole planet burns!
The eminent climate scientist James Hansen has warned, “Our home planet is now dangerously near a ‘tipping point’… an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and the trip will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet…. We must move onto a new energy direction within a decade to have a good chance to avoid setting in motion unstoppable climate change with irreversible effects.”
There are differences from region to region in how the environmental emergency is developing, with some regions affected more than others. But the crisis is real, global and advancing.
The Extinction Crisis and Ecosystem Collapse
[in order of appearance in the text]
The following are brief explanations of some of the terms used in this issue of Revolution:
Ecosystem: An ecosystem is a system that includes all the living organisms (the plants, animals and micro-organisms like bacteria) in an area, as well as its physical environment (the climate, land, waters, etc.). Organisms in any given ecosystem are interdependent and interact with each other.
Ecology: The branch of biology which investigates the interactions of organisms with one another and with their physical environments, and the larger patterns and dynamics of whole ecosystems.
Habitat: The location and features of the area in which an organism lives. For instance, many rattlesnakes live in a desert habitat.
Imperialism: Imperialism is the globally integrated system of capitalist production and exploitation, and political power relations, that emerged in the late 19th century. Imperialism means the domination of economic life by huge blocs of capital, where massive monopolies and gigantic banks are intertwined; the concentration of capital in a handful of wealthy countries (the U.S., the European powers, Japan, etc.) and the super-exploitation by that capital of the people of the impoverished world (Asia, Africa, Latin America) and the domination of those nations through war, occupation and colonial or neocolonial political control; and rivalry between the imperialist powers themselves, often leading to war or other forms of deadly competition.
Capitalism: A system of economic relations, and the political power that defends and extends those relations, which is based on the private ownership and control of socially worked means of production (the resources, factories, farms, laboratories, etc. through which society creates things to meet its needs). This system rests on the exploitation of those who own no such means by those who do, and the appropriation of the wealth produced thereby. This system of production is driven forward through the competition between competing owners of capital, leading to anarchic, unplanned expansion.
Tipping point: A point when the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. Tipping points in the warming of the earth refer to unstoppable climate impacts, irreversible on a practical timescale, such as the disintegration of large ice sheets, extermination of animal and plant species, and regional climate disruptions.
Global climate change: Changes in climate that may occur on a timescale of years and decades or over centuries, affecting earth as a whole. While climate changes vary from region to region, global climate change involves changes in average global temperature on land and in the ocean; regional temperature changes; changes in global rainfall patterns, storm intensities or frequencies; changes in ocean currents, ocean level, wind and weather patterns, etc. Climate varies naturally according to many factors but on earth today climate change is happening much more quickly than most natural variation or past climate change in earth’s history and is primarily the result of human activity. It is mainly caused by the warming of the planet from the build-up of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor and others). This buildup has begun over the last 200 years with capitalist production and is now accelerating, as a result of burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), as well as deforestation, and other causes.
Species: A basic unit of biological classification, involving a group of organisms that have common characteristics and that are generally capable of interbreeding (mating with one another) and producing viable offspring (young which will be able to survive and reproduce). To qualify as a species, a group of organisms has to be reproductively incompatible with all other species.
Organism: An individual living thing that can react to stimuli, reproduce, grow, and maintain a stable internal environment. It can be a virus, bacterium, protist, fungus, plant or an animal.
Biodiversity: The existence of a wide range, a large diversity, of different types of plant and animal life in a given place at a given time.
Today, more than 3,000 species a year are going extinct and this could reach tens of thousands per year. In Africa the lion population has decreased from 200,000 to 20,000 just over the past 30 years. Chimpanzees and gorillas, humanity’s most closely related cousins, are facing threats of extinction—totally going out of existence. They are being hunted as “bush meat,” their forest habitats wiped out, and they are dying of disease. In the world’s oceans, about 90% of the populations of the world’s predatory fish (such as tuna and swordfish) are gone, depleted through overfishing.
As bad as this is, this picture doesn’t capture the deep threat to earth’s biodiversity from many factors, and the degree to which entire ecosystems are being radically altered and in some cases already vanishing from the earth. There is real danger of a cascade of negative effects being set in motion that can affect the global health of the whole planet. Add up enough ecosystem collapses in local or regional scales and you can have collapse of the global ecosystem. To repeat: add up enough ecosystem collapses in local or regional scales and you can have collapse of the global ecosystem.
Today in the oceans, nearly all of the big fish, mammals and turtles, as well as many birds and other species—are being pushed toward extinction. Why? On the one hand, because capitalist companies trawl the bottoms of the oceans with huge nets. This trawling takes too many fish, and destroys their habitat (the environment in which they can live); but this is the most profitable way to do this for the capitalists, so that is how it’s done. On the other hand, these species are threatened by the overall pollution and climate change—which, as we’ll show in this issue, is brought on by the heedlessness of capitalist production more generally.
These changes in the oceans are widespread and a big problem. In some cases human activity has wiped out predators at the top of the food chain. With the predators gone, some species that they fed on expand out of all proportion and decimate other species they eat lower down the food chain. In other cases, such as in estuaries, pollution and overfishing have decreased oysters and other filter feeders. The problem is that in a healthy estuary, filter feeders keep algae and bacteria in check and without them, these organisms grow without limit, polluting waters and beaches with slime and toxins.
Entire ecosystems in the oceans are threatened and in some regions, already collapsing. Coral reefs are of particular importance. According to a recent article by Brian Skoloff, “Death of Coral Reefs Could Devastate Nations,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) says that 27 percent of the world’s reefs are already gone and if things continue as they are, another two-thirds will disappear by 2032. Coral reefs are being degraded because of pollution and development of coastlines, overfishing and bad fishing practices. These factors are increasingly interacting with warmer ocean waters from global warming to kill off the algae that live inside coral and feed them, causing the corals themselves to turn white and die.
Skoloff says, “Coral reefs are part of the foundation of the ocean food chain. Nearly half the fish the world eats make their homes around them. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide—by some estimates, 1 billion across Asia alone—depend on them for their food and their livelihoods.” Carl Gustaf Lundin of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says the death of coral reefs would mean “Whole nations will be threatened in terms of their existence.”
Kent Carpenter, a professor at Old Dominion who directed a worldwide census of marine species, said that if global warming continues unchecked, all corals could be extinct within 100 years. Carpenter said, “You could argue that a complete collapse of the marine ecosystem would be one of the consequences of losing corals…. You’re going to have a tremendous cascade effect for all life in the oceans.”
Similar things are happening on land. The rainforests of Asia, Africa and South America contain multitudes of species. Many of these species are not yet even known to the scientific community. But forests are being cut down and burned, threatening great extinctions of species and collapse of these rich ecosystems.
The Catastrophic Danger of Global Warming
Rainforests not only contain the greatest diversity of species, they also take large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is causing global warming, out of the air. In turn rainforests give off vast amounts of oxygen that organisms need to breathe. Rainforests have been called “the lungs of the planet.” Cutting and burning rainforests releases tremendous amounts of more carbon into the atmosphere, further increasing the planet’s warming.
Species in ecosystems have been compared to rivets in an airplane wing. Take out one and it’s not necessarily much of a problem (unless it’s some type of central or controlling bolt), but remove a few more and the wing weakens and goes out of whack. A few more, and the entire structure collapses... Humans depend on functioning living ecosystems for our own survival. Ecosystem collapse could eventually threaten human existence itself.
We have to confront this reality.
Rainforests affect climate. They take up water from the ground and use it to grow, then give off vast quantities of water vapor. The Amazon rainforest, the largest remaining expanse of tropical forest on the planet, has a tremendous impact on weather. The Amazon rainforest interacts with trade winds, forming weather systems that affect large regions and regulating ocean temperatures. But about one-fifth of the Amazon has been completely destroyed and more than 20% more has been damaged by logging. In some recent years with the planet warming, drought has hit the Amazon and there is real fear that more years of drought with increased climate change can cause a tipping point where the Amazon begins to die off, even being turned eventually into grassland or desert.
This deforestation and the burning of oil, coal and gas (known as fossil fuels) is causing the earth to warm. The burning of these fuels, and the cutting and burning of forests, releases carbon dioxide, which is the main “greenhouse gas.” The build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is warming the planet which is causing the climate to change. Polar ice and glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate. Whole island nations and coastlines where hundreds of millions of people live could be threatened in coming decades by rising oceans from melting of glaciers and ice sheets. The average temperatures on the planet as a whole are rising with some regions—especially concentrated in the oppressed regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America—affected more than others. Eleven of the past 14 years are the warmest ever recorded. There is evidence that climate extremes—more devastating floods in some regions, severe droughts in others, heat waves and more powerful hurricanes in certain regions—are already occurring and global climate models predict these things will become much worse as the planet continues to warm.
Climate is a key factor affecting ecosystems, including whether a particular plant or animal can live in a particular place. As the planet warms, many species are moving toward the poles and to higher elevations where they can survive. In the polar regions, species have nowhere colder to go. In “normal” periods, climate usually changes over thousands and even millions of years—and species can adapt. But now, Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology says, human-caused climate change “is racing faster than it ever has during the evolution of living species and ecosystems—many species simply aren’t biologically capable of adjusting their geographic range at the speed they would need to in order to survive.”
And on top of this, when many species respond by changing their range, they run smack into cities and development where they can’t survive and can’t travel through. The natural ranges of species have been fragmented and even eradicated by urban development, sprawl, and other destruction of natural habitat. Often, there is no more habitat to even migrate to. Climate change combined with habitat destruction means a double whammy threatening not just species but whole ecosystems. Barnosky says, “As a result, whole communities and ecosystems may fail to operate as they have evolved to do over thousands, even millions, of years.”
Ecosystem Collapse, and the Consequences for Our Future
Ecosystems are made up of complex webs of interacting and interrelating life. Extinction of key species, such as krill in Antarctica, wolves or other top predators, or groups of species, can cause whole ecosystems to be fundamentally transformed, or even to “unravel” in highly destructive ways. Species in ecosystems have been compared to rivets in an airplane wing. Take out one and it’s not necessarily much of a problem (unless it’s some type of central or controlling bolt), but remove a few more and the wing weakens and goes out of whack. A few more, and the entire structure collapses.
Some very important ecosystems—including rainforests and coral reefs that contain the richest life on earth, but also others—are being outright devastated and in some cases, already collapsing or being eliminated altogether. Others, such as the Arctic, are being severely affected. Ecosystems blend into, interact with and can tremendously impact each other, affecting the entire global ecosystem. Humans depend on functioning living ecosystems for our own survival.
We have to confront this reality. Taking out individual species and groups of species can unravel ecosystems, and ecosystem collapses can cascade like dominoes. Now many factors, with climate change being the leading edge, are coming together to confront us with the threat of not only massive extinction of species, but collapse of some ecosystems and the threat of a cascading impact on the earth’s global ecosystem and the transformation to a different kind of planet that potentially could even threaten human existence. We can’t predict all of the pathways and outcomes, but this is the trajectory we are already on and it must be stopped.
Scientists and organizations devoted to the preservation of nature have been studying all this and coming up with many possible solutions, many things to do to preserve species, to preserve cores of wilderness and corridors for species to migrate and move through, new technologies that could be sustainable and even ways to “sequester” carbon dioxide—to take it out of the atmosphere and help reverse climate change. Many others are actively fighting development and environmental destruction. Some important initiatives have already been taken that are having positive effects showing the potential to save nature. But many efforts and avenues are being frustrated by the workings of the system. Much, much more needs to be done, can be done, cries out to be done.
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