From the 1950s, with the massive rise in the human population, the expansion of cities and towns, and the increasing use of natural resources, some scientists such as Rachel Carson have written about impending problems. However, most people only became aware of major environmental problems from the 1980s, with the environment becoming a major political issue from the 1990s.
After World War II, the increasing use of pesticides in industrialized countries, especially the United States, led to Rachel Carson writing her book Silent Spring (1963), which highlighted the side effects of D.D.T. on the local environment.
It led to the reduction in the amount of pesticides used, and this was followed by the banning of D.D.T. in the United States in 1972. Other environmental campaigns saw protests against the killing of seals in Canada, and also against whaling mainly undertaken by the Japanese and the Norwegians.
The International Whaling Commission introduced a moratorium on whaling in 1986, although Japan has continued to conduct whaling under the guise of science. International environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been prominent in leading protests around the world, the latter becoming famous for taking part in direct action.
Developing environmental problems around the world have been added to by many natural occurrences such as hurricanes in the Caribbean, in the United States and elsewhere, floods in Florence and Venice in 1966, the eruption of volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens in 1980, and the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004.
In some cases there were a combination of other man-made environmental disasters that have involved feeding sheep and cattle with substandard “food.” The destruction of forests either for timber or to clear land for cash crops continues, as does the contamination of rivers and the countryside by waste from mines.
Even natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina leading to flooding in New Orleans in August 2005 has subsequently led to an environmental disaster by creating a toxic stew of sewage, household chemicals, gasoline, and industrial waste that will take years to clean up.
In addition there have been a large number of manmade environmental problems. The one which has resulted in the largest number of deaths in the short-term was undoubtedly the Bhopal poison gas explosion in India on December 3, 1984. The biggest disaster on an international scale was the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident in the Soviet Union in 1986.
Others have included the venting of oil into the Persian Gulf by Saddam Hussein in 1991, and also a large number of oil spills around the world created by damage to oil tankers and the like, the largest being that of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989. In the 2000s, the major environmental issue became that of global warming, especially after the screening of former U.S. vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.
Assault on Forests
|Assault on Forests|
The assault on the world’s forests are as old as humankind. Early people were quick to learn the many uses of wood: fuel for cooking, warmth, and the smelting of metals; materials for durable shelter; and a sign of fertile lands for the growing of crops. Wood was abundant in most places where early humans chose to settle.
It was relatively easy to obtain and work with, and there was always more. Archaeologists are finding widespread evidence of wood-burning and log construction that began much earlier than anyone expected.
Clearing of the land was rarely mentioned in the chronicles of the Western or Eastern world in the early modern period, but it seems obvious that as the population grew, the forests shrank. In central and northern Europe an estimated 70 percent of the land was covered by forest in 900 c.e.; by 1900 it had shrunk to only 25 percent.
During this long period of growth and expansion, people learned how to fashion wood into sailing ships, opening up new sources of timber to exploit and new lands to settle. Clearing land in the tropics and subtropics helped the slave trade by creating vast plantations for the cultivation of sugar, coffee, tobacco, tea, rubber, rice, and indigo.
The birth of the industrial age accelerated the onslaught. Trees could suddenly be turned into pulp for paper, wood for mass-produced furniture, plywood for lightweight construction, and countless other useful products. Rubber trees produced the raw materials for automobile tires and other items for a growing consumer marketplace.
By the mid-20th century, the development of chainsaws and heavy machinery had made the clear-cutting of entire forests easier than ever before. Today, the clear-cutting of forests is driven by a need for both wood and cropland, as the swelling global population demands more and more food.
Our evolutionary ancestors faced widespread shifts in the climate as glacial periods, referred to as “ice ages,” came and went every 100,000 years or so. The impact of those early ice ages on human development are difficult to judge; it is likely that some proto-human species adapted and others did not.
Some scientists now believe that it was climate change that spurred the migration of humans out of Africa. The fossil record, incomplete as it is, shows that Homo sapiens had emerged between 150,000 and 120,000 years ago in southern and eastern Africa, yet it took another 100,000 years or more for them to move into Europe, Asia, and beyond.
Ice core samples and excavation of ancient seabeds indicate that the climate in that part of Africa underwent significant changes between 70,000 and 80,000 years ago, with annual precipitation rates fluctuating wildly for a long period of time, putting a strain on the food chain and forcing humans to look for new habitats.
There is some evidence that there was a major volcanic eruption at Mount Toba in modern Indonesia around 73,000 years ago, which could have caused most of the planet to suffer the effects of a “volcanic winter,” lasting up to seven years. Some believe this could have caused the mass extinction of proto-human groups outside Africa, reducing the competition when humans from Africa began moving into their territories.
In climatological terms, we are just coming out of the latest glacial period, known as the Little Ice Age. This period extended from between the 13th and 16th centuries to around 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere the period was marked by bitterly cold temperatures, heavy snowfalls, and the rapid advance of glaciers.
Unseasonable cold spells and precipitation lead to periodic crop failures and famines. Most notable was the Great Famine, which struck large parts of Europe in 1315. Heavy rains began in the spring of that year and continued throughout the summer, rotting the crops in their fields and making it impossible to cure the hay used to feed livestock. This cycle of rainy summer seasons would continue for the next seven years.
Food scarcity hit Europe at the worst possible time: at the end of a long period known as the Medieval Warm Period, where good weather and good harvests had led to population growth that had already begun to push food supplies to the brink. Few seem to have died from outright starvation, but an estimated 15–25 percent of the population died from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia, the natural result of immune deficiency.
The Great Famine had far-reaching effects on society. Crime increased along with food prices, with property crimes and murders becoming more common in the cities. There were stories of children being abandoned by parents unable to find food for them, and even rumors of cannibalism.
This was during the height of the Catholic Church’s hegemony in Europe, and people naturally turned to the church in times of fear. When prayer failed, the church’s power was diminished. It was the beginning of a long drift towards the Protestant Reformation of the 16th–17th centuries.
The Little Ice Age was releasing its grip in the early part of the 1800s when a massive volcanic eruption on Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia ejected a huge amount of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.
This ash cloud encircled the Northern Hemisphere over the next year or more, creating climatological havoc throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada. In May 1816 a killing frost destroyed newly planted crops. In June, New England and Quebec saw two major snowstorms, and ice was seen on rivers and lakes as far south as Pennsylvania.
The crop failures that year led to food riots across Europe. Many historians believe that the summer of 1816 spurred the process of westward expansion in America, with many farmers leaving New England for western New York State and the Upper Midwest.
At the beginning of the 21st century, signs of another great climate shift seem to be everywhere. Glaciers are receding at an unprecedented rate. Polar ice caps are shrinking. Sea levels are on the rise.
Severe weather events, including droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes, are growing in length and intensity. Controversy continues among academics and policy makers over the exact cause of the warm-up: Is it being caused by humans, or is it simply the latest in an long series of climate changes?
There is some support for the idea that this is an inevitable rise in temperatures growing out of the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-19th century, but the majority of scientists now believe that humans are playing a significant role in global warming.
World population has reached 6 billion, all of whom consume and burn biomass to survive. Whether from industrial smokestacks, millions of car exhaust systems, or open fires used to cook food across the developing world, more and more CO2 is being expelled into the atmosphere, creating a thick blanket of heat around the globe.
The threat to both the environment and human life cannot be underestimated. Up to a third of the world’s species may go extinct by the beginning of the next century. While northern climates may see an initial surge in crop yields, high temperatures and persistent droughts in the southern climates will reduce yields and increase the threat of widespread famines. Water scarcity will become severe.
The latest projections indicate that by 2030, hundreds of millions of people in Latin America and Africa will face severe water shortages. By 2050 billions of Asians will also be running far short of their freshwater needs, with the Himalayan glaciers all but gone as early as 2035. By 2080 100 million people living on islands and coastlines will be forced to flee their homes.
The struggle for an increasingly small share of food, water, and other natural materials could spark “resource wars” among nations. The possibility of reversing this trend is not clear, but many scientists believe we have reached the “tipping point,” making a full reversal unlikely.