The Five Biggest Threats to the Environment
Mass extinction. Arctic sea melts. Collapsing world fisheries. Raging fires. Crippling droughts. And modern dust bowls.
The environment-and our ability to survive on it-is being pushed to the brink.
I interviewed long-time environmental professional and community activist, Tim Vendlinski, to discuss the five gravest issues facing the environment today and-more importantly-what each of us can do to help to save the planet.
Tim Vendlinski began his career as an environmental advocate when he was 10-years-old. “In the elementary school I attended there was this big oak forest behind us. Then one day, all these bulldozers showed up and started tearing the oak trees down,” Vendlinski said. “Well, to the horror of the school principal and teachers, I led a band of students to the construction site and stopped them from cutting the trees down.”
Vendlinski later earned his associate’s degree from the American River College, saved Arcade Creek-the last intact watershed forest in Sacramento as a teenager, and completed his bachelor’s degree in environmental policy and planning from the University of California.
Now at age 53, Tim has been fighting for the environment for over 40 years.
1. The Loss of Biogenetic Diversity
The earth is now experiencing one of the greatest mass extinction in the planet’s history. The rate of species extinction is now 1,000 times as great as it was before the coming of humanity.
“This is the biggest ecological disaster-in terms of sheer extinction,” Vendlinski said. “We have lost more plants and animals today, then when the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.”
Although extinction is a natural process, human activities like deforestation accelerate these natural processes. In the past, an individual species disappeared naturally at a rate of about one species per year and was replaced by a new species. Scientists are now calling this environmental disaster the “modern extinction crisis.”
If current extinction rates continue, one half of all species on earth will be extinct in 100 years. “It’s a philosophical and spiritual problem. We should be protecting life. Life has an intrinsic value. We should honor life,” Vendlinksi said. “But practically speaking, almost all of the pharmaceutical chemicals on the market were derived from natural sources.”
At the heart of these modern environmental disasters lie corruption, greed, and economics. Lumber, petroleum, and mining companies build roads into the jungles. Governments encourage the poor people to settle in these regions, who must clear it for farming. Cattle ranchers require vast expanses for their herds, and land speculators clear huge areas for expected profits.
However, the recovered land is fragile creating a cycle of further destruction.
This process is known as deforestation.
Tropical rainforests cover about 7 percent of the earth’s dry land. But those rainforests are being cleared at a rate of about 8.5 million hectares per year. “When you look at the rate of the Amazon deforestation each year, it’s 100s if not 1000s of miles each year,” Vendlinski said.
According to the National Geographic’s website, “Deforestation has many negative effects on the environment. The most dramatic impact is a loss of habitat for millions of species. Seventy percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.”
Deforestation is also responsible for regulating water cycles, absorbing greenhouse gases, and stabilizing the earth’s climate.
3. Climate Change:
The earth is warming. The arctic ice is melting, glaciers are shrinking, and sea levels are rising.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international coalition of the world’s top scientists, declared climate change real and man made. According to their data, IPCC concluded warming of the climate system is “unequivocal.”
“We have the highest temperature ever recorded in the United States,” Vendlinksi said. “In fact, every year now breaks the previous record.”
These increased temperatures are also causing more extreme weather across the country.
“We have accelerated temperature increases with human activities, and we make the weather more extreme,” Vendlinski said. “So events like droughts, record highs, or hurricanes are now more extreme.”
Climate change is now creating an unstable world and affecting global food production.
4. Unsustainable Energy Policy and Overreliance on Fossil Fuels:
During the Industrial Revolution, human beings harnessed the power of fossil fuels-coal, oil, and natural gas. For the first time in history, machines replaced man and animal power. Global populations skyrocketed. Economies flourished. And empires were born.
But progress came at a heavy price.
First, fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source. They take millions of years to develop, and they are being depleted much faster than they are being formed. And second, the burning of fossil fuels produces approximately 21.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year.
This is where the lines begin to blur. Fossil fuels, deforestation, and global warming are so closely related, it’s hard to see where one issue ends and the other begins. Like the glaciers, the distinctions melt away.
After all, carbon dioxide-caused by the burning of fossil fuels-is the prime contributor to global warming.
And when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions today, the United States is public enemy number two, behind China. Indeed, the U.S. economy is built on fossil fuels. In fact, we consume more oil and natural gas than any other country, and we rank second-behind China-in coal consumption.
“When Vice President Dick Cheney was in office, the Bush Administration energy policy was crafted by oil companies,” Vendlinski said. “The administration formulated their energy policies just with the energy companies.”
Although the United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, it produced 18 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
For years, scientists and climate experts around the world have warned us 350 parts per million was the upper threshold of CO2 in the atmosphere. Once beyond 350 ppm, they cautioned global warming could spin out of control.
Today, the planet has 392 parts per million CO2. According to 350.org, we need to act fast if we want a livable planet.
“While the Bush Administration was belittling scientists and environmentalists on climate change,” Vendlinski said, “they were simultaneously preparing to take advantage of the melting ice sheet to exploit the oil resources.”
Our voracious appetite for fossil fuels has many other consequences including: polluting local environments by drilling for oil, leaking pipelines, discharging underground tanks, spilling oil from shipping accidents, the routine flushing of tanks, and deep-sea drilling accidents.
5. Depletion of Water and Soil Resources:
Across the planet, a thin, three-foot layer of topsoil provides food crops for 6.8 billion people and grazing for about 4 billion domesticated animals, but this nutrient-rich topsoil is in jeopardy.
“All life relies on the first foot of soil around the planet,” Vendlinski said. “We have the atmosphere, and we have that foot of soil.”
Scientists now estimate that we are losing roughly one percent of our topsoil every year because of careless husbandry, urbanization, plowing, overuse, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers.
“In addition, we are destroying our fresh water supplies around the world,” Vendlinski said. “Through direct pollution, mismanagement of our rivers, and the depletion and poisoning of our groundwater.”
Our rivers, lakes and oceans are being polluted by industrial waste, farm byproducts (such as herbicides, fertilizers, and animal waste), city sewage, and oil spills.
Today, contaminated water kills more than 5 million people worldwide and nearly 1.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.
Like the rest of these issues, the distinction between land and water issues evaporates upon inspection.
“Rivers are expressions of their terrestrial surroundings,” Vendlinski said, “The rivers are there because of everything around it. The trees. The forests. The way the water moves off the land.”
In addition, fish populations are on the verge of extinction, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and coral reefs are disappearing. According to Environmental Protection Agency’s website, a watershed is “the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is: “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”  Husbandry is the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals. It’s also the management-or mismanagement in this case-and conservation of resources.