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.