‘What are some environmental issues’ has a list of usual suspects — pollution, water, biodiversity loss, food production and security, waste, energy sources, land degradation, climate change… and, of course, there is the enigmatic sustainability.
Except that none of these are issues for the environment at all.
The environment chugs along on its merry way with any amount of these things.
In the eons before humans evolved and expanded to our numerical dominance the world has been drier, wetter, hitter and colder than it is now. It has been polluted by dust clouds from large meteorite strikes and by gases released from volcanic explosions. The seas have risen and fallen and the continents have drifted around the planet taking a changing climate with them.
This means to answer the question of ‘what are some environmental issues’ requires a shift in perspective.
It is humans who have issues, not the environment. And our issues are with what the environment provides for us [clean air, water, food, shelter and a sense of wellbeing] and the uses that we put to those provisions [goods, services, a place to be in and a sense of wellbeing].
We have environmental issues when the environment is compromised in its ability to support our needs — often because we have exploited what it has to offer to the point that environmental services are not renewed or replenished.
A fine example is the protection of the watershed that supplies water to New York city. A few sensible calculations established that by keeping the watershed vegetated water would be filtered and released steadily at an opportunity cost that was a fraction of investment needed for an engineering solution.
This shift in perspective may sound rather green — even a bit socialist in tone — but it is the reality.
Humans are a remarkably successful species crashing through the 7 billion barrier at a rate of 9,000 per hour because we have the skills, intellect and intent to bend the environment to support our needs. Once fed and watered we then set to keeping ourselves alive, educated and commercially viable… and ever more comfortable.
It is this success that puts a strain on the goods and services extracted from the natural world.
If we clear a patch of forest to grow food what we are doing is channeling the ability of the environment to allow plants to grow [technically called net primary production or NPP] into produce that we eat or sell. NPP ends up in our stomachs, tissues and waste.
Our manipulation and management of the environment means that NPP might become faster and more efficient for what we need [ears of wheat] but before the original vegetation was cut down what it produced was eaten by animals [especially insects] or fell from the trees and decomposed in the complex world of microbes.
Humans simply change the flow of NPP and where it ends up. Only we have done it at serious scale.
conversion of net primary production to food in NSW Australia
All very fine but …
In alphabetical order, here is what usually makes the list of environmental issues..
Ask Alloporus has a rather different list of top 5 major environmental issues…
These are the issues that impact most directly on how natural capital will deliver the goods and services we need.
Do you disagree with the Ask Alloporius list of environmental issues? Why not share your own top 5?
Use this form to submit your own major environmental issues.
rice paddy converting NPP to food in Bali, Indonesia
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