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10 SCARY FACTS

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The below information illustrates some important aspects concerning the state of the environment. While we could no doubt argue about the accuracy of some of the details, or argue about what is or isn't our responsibility, the inescapable conclusion seems to be that the global and local environmental situation is threatening our wellbeing in many ways. What is more, the situation is deteriorating fast. After reading this, remember to learn how to modify your lifestyle by reading the '10 things you can do' information.

FACT 1 (biodiversity loss)
FACT 2 (global warming and carbon dioxide emissions)
FACT 3 (deforestation)
FACT 4 (pollutants and toxic chemicals)
FACT 5 (waste accumulation and pollution)
FACT 6 (over exploitation of our oceans)
FACT 7 (fresh water)
FACT 8 (poverty and hunger)
FACT 9 (land degradation)
FACT 10 (the hole in the ozone layer)

What has this got to do with me?

FACT 1 (biodiversity loss):

Due to human activities, many of the world's great biological systems are in a state of collapse, and tens of thousands of animal and plant species are becoming extinct every year. Even if we stop now, the planet is expected to take about 10 million years to recover. Some quotes to illustrate…
Human beings have become 100 times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of the planet. We appropriate an astonishing 40 percent of all the solar energy captured in land plants, sharply reducing the resources available to other species. Extinctions today are estimated at 1000 times the natural rate, about 27000 a year, leading to a massive species loss similar in scope to the five major such periods in the last 500 million years. But unlike previous huge die-offs caused by climate, geology or stray meteors, the current crisis is the result of human activity. After each of these previous periods, it took life roughly 10 million years to establish a comparable level of diversity, albeit with a very different mix of species each time. Life will regenerate no matter what we do, but at a pace of 10 million years, time is not on our side. (Restoring the Earth, 1997, Kenny Ausubel, p 43).

"Extinction does not simply mean the loss of one volume from the library of nature. It means the loss of a loose-leaf book whose individual pages, were the species to survive, would remain available in perpetuity for selective transfer and improvement of other species." Professor Thomas Eisner, Cornell University (Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, 1993, p 158)

(a bit old, but still valid…) "The worst thing that can happen in the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us." Professor O. Wilson, Harvard University. (Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, 1993, p 159)

A study in 1975 showed that 60% of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which has the highest known concentration of plant species in any region around the world, had been destroyed in the previous 150 years. Now we have less than about one third remaining, and the pressures on it are extreme (Mossie Basson of Cape Nature Conservation, quoted in ENN article Poachers Plunder South Africa's Floral Treasures, 4 Sept 2000).

 

FACT 2 (global warming and carbon dioxide emissions):

There is overwhelming consensus that carbon dioxide and other 'green house' gasses emitted as a result of man's activity are raising global temperatures, and the resulting devastation from ice cap melting and weather pattern changes is expected to be phenomenal.

A simple explanation of global warming: The 'Greenhouse Effect' or 'Global Warming' is what happens when the CO2 (the main 'greenhouse gas') and other gasses (such as methane) get concentrated enough to form a gas blanket around the earth. This results in the earth heating up more than normal because less heat is allowed to escape from the atmosphere, but instead is reflected back to the earth by this 'blanket'. Already 50% more CO2 is in the atmosphere due to the emissions of the 'modern age'. Now it is not enough to simply stabilise CO2 emissions to stop the greenhouse effect, but rather emissions need to be reduced by 60 to 80%! So far, no country is managing anything near this. One of the main causes of the problem is energy use - by people such as you. You probably use electric energy throughout the house for cooking, heating and TV, and use fuel energy (petrol or diesel) in cars. You may not realise that generating electricity burns huge amounts of coal, which releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Petrol use and production also releases much CO2. Global warming is generally considered the most pressing environmental problem we face today.

Some quotes to illustrate…

Carbon emissions exceed the capacity of the earth's natural systems to 'fix' carbon dioxide. Since scientists began recording average annual Earth temperatures in 1996, the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1980, and the temperature in 1998 was not only the warmest on record, but also represented the largest increase in one year ever. If we fail to curb our CO2 emissions, it is estimated that by 2050 the Earth's temperature will rise 2-6oF, the oceans will rise 2-3 feet (submerging major cities and population areas), and extreme climatic aberrations like storms, flooding and severe hurricanes will become commonplace. (Solar Living Source Book, Real Goods, 1999, p4)

Global warming could fundamentally alter one third of plant and animal habitats by the end of this century, and cause the eventual extinction of certain plant and animal species. "This is a wake-up call to world leaders… [they] must give top priority to reducing levels of carbon pollution. They must not miss the chance … for stepping up action and preventing a catastrophe that could change the world as we know it" (Jennifer Morgan, WWF Climate Change Campaign Director, in ENN article: One Third of World's Habitat at Risk from Global Warming. 30 August 2000).

We have raised the temperature of the entire planet and set in motion a series of inexorable forces that will raise it a lot more before we can stop the climb. Even if we now act decisively, it will take many decades to undo the damage. (The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair, Denis Hayes, 2000, p3)

Based on calculations of carbon emissions balanced with the earth's ability to absorb at most 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, thirteen planet earths would be needed to bear 6 billion people (the world's total population) living an American lifestyle (Andrew Ferguson, Optimum Population Trust, in World Watch journal, Sept-Oct 2000)

In South Africa, almost all electricity is generated from coal-fired power stations. For each kilowatt-hour (or unit) of electricity that is used, about 0.54kg of coal is burnt in a power station somewhere, which releases about a kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. On average, South Africa releases 10 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per person per year - which is substantially higher than the world average of 4 tons per person per year. South Africans thus have a significant role in contributing to global warming. (Sustainable Living Centre)

FACT 3 (deforestation):

About half of the world's original forest cover has been destroyed by man, and we continue to wipe out the rain forests at a rate of about 2 acres per second.

Some quotes to illustrate…

The world's forests are being devastated. Nearly half the forests that once covered the earth are gone. In just 15 years, between 1980 and 1995, more than 400 million acres of forest were lost - an area larger than all of Mexico. Even more discouraging, the rate of forest destruction is accelerating. (Solar Living Source Book, Real Goods, 1999, p3)

Tropical rain forests provide between 25%and 40% of all pharmaceutical products. Three thousand plants have anticancer properties; of these 70% inhabit the rainforests. The rainforest contains such a plethora of life that humans have been unable to classify and name all of it. Many species are becoming extinct without their existence ever being recorded. Just under two acres of rainforest are destroyed every second. (www.therainforestsite.com).

It is estimated that if current wood consumption trends continue, all natural woodland in the former 'homeland' areas of South Africa will be denuded by the year 2020. (Enviro Facts - Energy and Environment, ShareNet, Howick, 1999)

FACT 4 (pollutants and toxic chemicals):

Tens of thousands of toxic chemicals are continuously being released into Earth's ecosystems, many of which cannot be effectively absorbed nor do they break down easily. What is more, we are largely ignorant about their longer-term effects on ecosystems and humans.

Some quotes to illustrate…

We mine cadmium because its useful for things like batteries, then we dump them and nature has no way of absorbing them. They become poisons in the system. In laboratories and factories we're manufacturing over 70 000 man-made substances, most of which cannot be broken down in nature. No one knows the long-term effect they'll have on the planet. It was originally thought CFCs were safe, and it won awards for being clean. No one dreamed that once it got into the stratosphere it would start eating our protective ozone layer. (Peter Willis of The Natural Step, interviewed by Melanie Gosling in the Cape Times, 2000)

Heavy metals are leaking from the stored accumulated metals of society, and they will continue to accumulate in nature even if we cease completely to mine them. (Robert et al, in International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 4, 1997, p83)

There are 70 000 chemicals on the US Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory. Many are produced in such volumes that the limits of the natural mechanisms by which they are turned into resources - or disposed of - are exceeded. (Robert et al, in International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 4, 1997, p83)

One litre of oil can contaminate 800 000 litres of water and each year we dump 3 177 million litres of oil into the world's rivers and oceans. (Reinnam website: www.polytechnic.edu.na/reinnam)

In 1987 the Mpumalanga area of South Africa, where most of the coal-burning electricity power stations and metal working industries are located, was responsible for 1.84 million tons of sulphuric acid and 0.84 million tons of nitric acid emissions, potentially resulting in destructive acid-rain. (Enviro Facts - Acid Rain, ShareNet, Howick, 1999)

Much radioactive waste from nuclear power stations remains dangerously toxic for thousands of years. Internationally there are no approved long-term storage sites for this waste, and the same applies to South Africa - which generates such waste at the Koeberg nuclear power station. It is amazing that people today take decisions to meet their short term energy needs which will leave heavily toxic trails for hundreds of generations to come. (Sustainable Living Centre)

FACT 5 (waste accumulation and pollution):

Humans are accumulating and dumping waste much faster than it can be broken down by natural processes, if it can be broken down at all. This results in burying waste in landfills, dumping at sea, or incineration, all of which lead to pollution - of soil, groundwater, or air.

Some quotes to illustrate…

Incinerators reduce the volume of solid waste but they do not make the problem of toxic substances in the waste disappear - incinerators emit a wide range of pollutants in their stack gasses, ashes and other residues: for example, they are still a number one source of dioxins (a carcinogen) worldwide. The filters used to clean incinerator stack gases also produce solid and liquid toxic wastes. (Greenpeace website, Oct 2000)

Americans throw away enough aluminium every three months to rebuild their entire commercial air fleet, and enough office paper each year to build a 4 meter high wall of paper from New York to Los Angeles (about 4000km). (What you can do, Southern African Nature Foundation draft publication, 1995)

In the USA, over 2 000 million zinc-carbon and alkaline-manganese batteries are discarded every year, needlessly adding to solid waste problems and causing serious environmental pollution in landfill sites and the surrounding water. The senseless waste occurs in South Africa as well, although we cannot report actual figures. (What you can do, Southern African Nature Foundation draft publication, 1995)

Volvo worked out that for every one ton of car they made, they generated 61 tons of waste. (Peter Willis of The Natural Step, interviewed by Melanie Gosling in the Cape Times, 2000)

50 million new cars are produced every year, and 11 million are junked each year in the US alone (Real Goods Solar Times Newsletter #7, 30 June 2000)

South Africans produce 540 million tons of waste each year (Enviro Facts - Waste Management, ShareNet, Howick, 1999).

250 000 cars are sold in South Africa each year, and about 10 million scrap tyres are produced in the country every year, which need to be disposed of adequately (Cutting case for scrap tyre problem, in Engineering News, 25-31 August 2000)

FACT 6 (over exploitation of our oceans):

We are overharvesting the oceans way above what they can sustainably yield, and all major fishing areas in the world are seriously over-fished or are in a state of collapse. South African waters are no exception.

Some quotes to illustrate…

We have exceeded the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Eleven of the world's 15 most important fishing areas and 70% of the major fish species are either depleted or overexploited. (Solar Living Source Book, Real Goods, 1999, p3)

All 17 major fishing areas in the world have either reached or exceeded their natural limits. (Robert et al, in International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 4, 1997, p84)

Fishing annually extracts more than 80 million tons of sea creatures worldwide. An additional 20 million tons of unwanted fish, seabirds, marine mammals and turtles get thrown overboard, dead. Overfishing has depleted major populations of cod, swordfish, tuna, snapper, grouper and sharks. Instead of living sensibly off nature's interest, many fisheries have mined the wild capital, and famous fishing banks lie bankrupt… (Time.com Earth Day 2000 website report - Condition Critical, April 2000)

The collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishers destroyed 700 economies and put 300 000 Canadians out of work. Collapsing fisheries internationally will hurt 1 billion people, particularly in Southeast Asia. Presently, fishing fleets are 40% larger than oceans can sustain - a very dangerous situation given our dependence on this resource. (People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life - UN report, 2000).

In South Africa, perlemoen are in danger of being wiped out and eight of the 10 most important line-fish stocks have either collapsed or been over-exploited. Catch rates of many fish species have dropped by over 90% during the last century and the surviving stocks of some fish species represent less than 10% of their former population levels. (Study by UCT's Marine Biology Research Institute)

FACT 7 (fresh water):

Fresh water use worldwise is fast outstripping its availability - a dangerous situation given the current exponential population growth. Yet in many water-scarce countries inefficient use continues amongst certain sectors of society - and South Africa is no exception.

Some quotes to illustrate…

Human consumption of water has risen sixfold in the past century, double the rate of the population growth, while half of the world's wetlands have been destroyed, and lakes and rivers have been poisoned by fertilizers, silt and sewage. Water scarcity may soon limit economic development, particularly in parts of China where supplies are already inadequate to meet the needs of people, industry and agriculture (People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life - UN report, 2000).

Fresh water is in rapid decline on every continent as a result of overpumping. Worldwide use has tripled since 1950. In India, with a population of 1 billion, the extraction of water from aquifers exceeds recharge by a factor of two, a dangerous situation in a country where population is expected to grow by another 600 million by 2050. (Solar Living Source Book, Real Goods, 1999, p3)

By 2025, between 2.4 billion and 3.2 billion people will face severe or chronic water shortages around the world compared with the 505 million people affected today (Population Action International, in Water Supplies to Get More Scarce, Study Says, ENN article, 24 August 2000).

It has been estimated that by the year 2025 South Africa's human population will have doubled, and that there will be insufficient water for domestic use, agriculture and industry. (Enviro Facts - Precious Water, Share Net, Howick, 1999)

It has been estimated that roughly 600 000 million litres of water is used per year to flush toilets in South Africa, and this could be cut at least in half by using dual-flush systems (What you can do, Southern African Nature Foundation draft publication, 1995)

FACT 8 (poverty and hunger):

The welfare of Earth's people appears to be decreasing, not increasing. Numbers of poor people are increasing, and the gap between rich and poor is growing. Half of the world's population is malnourished, and thousands die daily of hunger or related causes.

Aside from the ethical unacceptability of poverty and associated suffering, poverty is not sustainable because people who are concerned about their basic needs, such as how they'll be able to feed their children and themselves tomorrow, can hardly be expected to pay much attention to planetary ecological crises. Meeting of basic needs is an important component of a sustainable future.

Some quotes to illustrate…

More and more people are being drawn into the spiral of misery associated with poverty. Of the world's six billion people, 2.8 billion are living on less than US$2 per day, and 1.2 billion are on less than US$1 per day - if that can be considered living at all. The average income of the richest 20 countries is 37 times the average of the poorest 20. And even more concerning is the fact that the gap between the richest and poorest countries has doubled over the past four decades. The world economy is not only undesirable but unsustainable, and to allow this economic pattern to perpetuate itself is not only a recipe for disaster on a global scale, but seriously iniquitous. (The Inequality is Iniquitous, Engineering news, Sept 29 - Oct 5, 2000)

About 24 000 people die from hunger or hunger-related causes every day (8.7 million per year). 75% are children. (UNDP web site - www.thehungersite.org).

A survey by the Cape Times showed that a 5 person family in Constantia (Cape Town) consumed about 120 000 litres of water a year (66 litres per person per day), while a 5 person family in a Khayelitsha squatter camp consumed 2 600 litres a year - or 1.4 litres per person per day. (Humanity's footprint is a very heavy one, Cape Times, 20 October 2000)

One could argue that improving the status of women is the kernel action necessary to alleviate poverty and reduce population growth in South Africa. (What you can do, Southern African Nature Foundation draft publication, 1995)

There can be little doubt that our spiraling population growth and consumption or resources are fuel for conflict. Water, energy, land and food are the basic resources that all people will aspire to, and will try to take for themselves. The consequence of the spiraling population growth and consumption of resources has to be spiraling division, conflict and war. There can be little hope for the most basic of human aspirations - food, shelter, peace and security - without our all doing what we can to cut out the excesses of our lifestyles, and to promote planned parenthood. Affluence is not a sin if honestly earned. Decadence is. (What you can do, Southern African Nature Foundation draft publication, 1995)

The world's existing human population - six billion - is already three times as great as the planet's long-term carrying capacity if all people seek a level of affluence comparable to that currently enjoyed in, say, Sweden. (The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair, Denis Hayes, 2000, p3)

FACT 9 (land degradation):

Irresponsible and short-sighted land use practices have led to the destruction of alarming areas of the planets land zones, and millions of hectares are being rendered useless every year.

Some quotes to illustrate…

Over 40% of all agricultural land is badly degraded, 80% of grasslands are affected by soil degradation, 20% of drylands are in danger of becoming deserts and 58% of coral reefs are imperiled by human activity (People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life - UN report, 2000).

Between 60% and 80% of South Africa's wetter grasslands had been irreversibly transformed by the mid-1980s. (Enviro Facts - Grasslands, ShareNet, Howick, 1999)

Worldwide, about 12 million hectares of land per year are being rendered useless for cultivation. In South Africa, land mismanagement and associated desertification results in the loss of 300 - 400 million tons of topsoil every year. (Enviro Facts - Desertification, ShareNet, Howick, 1999)

In 1996 it was estimated that more than half of South Africa's wetlands had already disappeared (Enviro Facts -Wetlands, ShareNet, Howick, 1999)

Two thirds of all fish harvested depend at some point in their lives on coastal wetlands which are disappearing fast (People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life - UN report, 2000).

FACT 10 (the hole in the ozone layer):

The release of ozone-destroying chemicals by human activity has resulted in holes in the ozone layer, exposing humans, plants and animals to harmful radiation against which they have little defense. The good news is that these chemicals have been banned, and the ozone hole may recover.

Some quotes to illustrate…

Ozone levels over Antarctica are down 30% from the 'benchmark' 1964-76 levels, and the hold has drifted over populated areas in South America. CFCs and other ozone-destroying chemicals have been banned since 1996, but scientists say it will be decades before the ozone layer recovers (ENN article, Ozone levels over Antarctica down 30%, UN says. 30 August 2000).

We have carved two giant holes in the ozone layer, vastly increasing the exposure of people, plants and animals to damaging radiation from the sun. Although the industrial North, the source of most ozone destroying chemicals, has made important progress on this issue, much of the rest of the planet is not yet on board. (The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair, Denis Hayes, 2000, p3)

What's this got to do with me?

The above information has a lot to do with all of us because…
1. We are part of the problem - individuals contribute to environmental destruction through consumption of goods and energy, through building inefficient or efficient houses, through influencing business practices beneficially or otherwise, and sometimes through silent acceptance of government's environmentally destructive policies and actions.
2. We can't escape the consequences - slowly but surely, harmful effects of the way societies have abused the planetary ecology is affecting almost everyone's day-to-day lives, and this will intensify.
3. We are part of the solution - no change happens without people such as ourselves changing our behaviour and trying to influence society's behaviour constructively.
We need to change course. Fortunately there's much we can do easily and inexpensively. Often it's just a question of changing behaviour. The priority areas of attention are pointed out in the '10 things you can do' information. Please read it.