Having worked in ecology and dealt with applied environmental problems for 45 years, I think about what are the leading environmental problems that face us today in the 21st century. Climate change has captured people’s attention, but there are other issues that we need to consider. Here’s my start of a list, which I discuss in the postscript to my most recent book, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell. This isn't a complete list, just a way to get us a restart on what we need to do. Let’s take as the three overriding goals for us and nature (1) the persistence of the great diversity of life on Earth; (2) a sustained population of human beings; and (3) the continuation of human civilization, democracy, and human creativity.
From this perspective, as a start in what has to become a much larger discussion, I can list the following among the leading tractable environmental issues of our time:
- Finding enough energy for people with the fewest negative environmental effects;
- Ensuring water for terrestrial life, including ourselves;
- Ensuring sufficient phosphorus and other essential minerals required by vegetation (including agriculture);
- Greatly reducing large-scale habitat destruction
- Controlling invasive species
- Directly assisting the most endangered species that matter to us and play important roles in their ecosystems
- Reducing the spread of manufactured toxic substances, including radioisotopes
- Revising our ways of setting harvest amounts for fish and forests to likely sustainable levels.
These are just examples of what appear tractable. We must also think about sobering issues that have been intractable and continue to be major threats to life, including ours: the continuing growth of our own population on a finite world with finite resources, and the threat of nuclear war, other wars, and other large-scale social disruptions that will increase starvation and malnutrition and lead millions of people to do whatever they can to survive, no matter how detrimental to what we call the natural world. Of course, another very widespread war would dampen, if not completely halt, attempts to preserve large natural areas and save many threatened and endangered species.
Perhaps you have thoughts about this list in terms of what might be added, what might be modified, which may not seem to be among the important. I expand considerable on this discussion, as I mentioned, in the Postscript to The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.
Ken Glick (EEI) says
I couldn’t agree with you more that finding enough energy for people with the fewest negative environmental effects is our greatest environmental problem in this century and probably into the next one as well. It’s funny, but 25 years ago, everyone seemed to think we would have nuclear fusion by now, resulting in safe, affordable, and virtually limitless power but just like jet packs and flying cars, this technology has proven to be a lot harder to achieve then science fiction stories would lead you to believe.
My belief is that if and when we do achieve safe, abundant energy we will be able to solve just about all the problems you have in your list above, as energy discovery and production affects every human endeavor from food production to biodiversity and habitable land… to say nothing of climate change!
Lucy Weir says
I looked through your book, Discordant Harmonies, about four years ago, while standing in a library, and I made a few notes then. This indicates that I’m unqualified to comment on your work in detail, though I’ve just been through your site with great interest. I’m writing a PhD dissertation about what kind of agency we have, as humans, and therefore how much responsibility, and what kind, we have for managing the world we find ourselves in. It’s provisionally entitled ‘realisation as agency in response to the ecological emergency’ so that gives you an idea of my conclusions. The first idea I’m very interested in, in relation to your own work, is the idea of the ‘balance of nature’. This is an idea that was rejected by Paul Taylor in the early part of his book, Respect for Nature, although in a later chapter he seems to have decided that we should, after all, aim for some kind of balance. I’m totally with you on the idea that natural systems are not balanced around some notional central fulcrum. Even human awareness is not some static point that rebalances itself on a single point that is ‘I’. Yet systems have patterns that they follow in distributing energy, and in understanding those patterns, we, too, can realise (both in the sense of understanding and in the sense of making real) how enmeshed we are in those patterns and even what scope there is for our awareness to alter our relationships to those patterns. OK, that’s the heavy philosophical bit. The more pragmatic bit (and perhaps all I should have written) is that you don’t mention the human population issue. Another well known ecologist, Garrett Hardin, took the very brave step of naming this as a centrally important issue in how we tackle the anthropogenic impact (that, in my thesis, has come about through a lack of awareness, sometimes deliberate, more often simply through ignorance) the issue of human population expansion. This, coupled with the biological tendency, exacerbated hugely by the cultural tendency, to want to have more material cushioning between ‘ourselves’ and ‘the world’, is a path towards ecosystem ruin (and the degradation of the human experience too). I’d love to talk to you about this and other issues. I’ve moved around a lot in my thinking while undertaking this study and it’s really only now that what I think needs to happen is finally crystallising. Finding language that makes these thoughts clear and accessible for discussion is my current conundrum! (Out of interest, my father was an ornithologist who studied population fluctuations between species of raptors and their prey in south-western Alaska, although he was Scots by birth).
Daniel Botkin says
Lucy, Interesting comment and nice to see this kind of thoughtfulness.
* Regarding the lack of a balance of nature, you write “Yet systems have patterns”. Yes, the confusion that is most common is for people to believe there are only two possibilities for a system: complete stability and complete chaos in the Greek sense of without form or pattern. This is incorrect. There are many kinds of non-steady-state systems. As an example, a helicopter basically is unstable in all three dimensions, and modern helicopters, although giving the pilot the sense that he is completely flying it, depend on various autopiloting aids. But helicopters fly very safely. From the point of view of stochastic processes, there are a series of more and more random systems. Rolling dice is a very well behaved system in the sense that we know which numbers are most likely. This is because the probabilities of events are fixed in time and space, unless somebody cheats. The forest model I developed, JABOWA, has stochastic (random) events, but is very well behaved, as you can see from any of my papers about this model.
* Regarding the human population problem, in my textbook, “Botkin and Keller, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet,” we make clear that the human population problem is the underlying and fundamental problem. That just wasn’t the focus of what I was writing about here.
Lucy Weir says
This deserves a reply that is longer and better thought out than this one, but before it slips beneath the waves of the constant barrage of information threatening to drown all thought, I wanted to say thank you so much for your kind response. I really need to read much more of your work but it will have to wait until May. At least I can feel confident that I understand enough (and wholeheartedly agree) in general terms, of your statements on ‘the balance of nature’. I will use your observations, duly acknowledged, to shore up an argument against the ideological underpinnings that a) see no place in nature for humans and b) therefore fall back into a dualistic paradigm which has caused us such a problem in how we envisage our human condition in the first place. I wish you very well in your work. James Lovelock thinks humanity is ‘too stupid’ to change its understanding of, or relationship to, the rest of the world. I think we have little choice but to try. If he’s right, we will have spent our time on a fruitless but interesting quest (education, even if only of the self, is very much its own reward). If he’s wrong, we’ve all to gain!