By Pat Wilson| Palm Coast

A revealing look at the planet under the magnifying glass of ten words: Apes, Cows, Crops, Food, Disease, Heat, Water, Carbon, Climate and Extinction.

Photo Credit: Flickr by dankulpinski

Since the late 19th century in this nation, it was apparent to a few, that something needed to be done to preserve some of the natural wonder of the American wilderness. Even then, it was fast disappearing. John Muir, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thoreau, among others, raised public and political awareness and started movements for conservation and preservation that would gather worldwide popularity. In 1864, Lincoln signed a law preserving Yosemite. Nothing was known at the time about the effects of industrialization and burgeoning populations upon air, food and water quality, let alone weather patterns. Yet even when our country was only 100 years old, some saw that we were just using it up too fast, and we needed to consume less of it so that there would be something left for the generations to come. We are those future generations.

So what have we learned and what have we done with that legacy that was so wisely saved for us? Looking at the planet under the magnifying glass of ten words is revealing.

1. APES.
We can start here because we are part of the family of great apes. Apes, unlike monkeys, do not have tails and have bigger brains. Of the many species of apes that have ever lived on the planet, only a few remain, and except for one, it is expected that all wild apes may be extinct within our lifetimes. Better adapted to outcompete every other ape for food and territory, and better at keeping our offspring alive, homo sapiens will number 9 billion by mid-century. 9 billion of anything is a crowd, but 9 billion of the most manipulative and ravenous creatures the world has ever known is simply unsustainable.

2. FOOD.
What to feed so many guests at the table? There are three basic things that omnivores eat. Crops, meats, and fish and there are systems problems in each category in trying to serve so many hungry people. As we see on a daily basis, the fishing industry is finding it harder to locate fish in adequate numbers or size. We have exploited wild stocks, and as the oceans turn more acidic and lakes and rivers swallow up more pollutants, the volume of all fish caught by the large fishing companies is down by 70% since the 1980’s. This leaves very little for the subsistence of poor populations who fish to provide themselves a primary protein source, let alone the other creatures that depend on the things that live in the sea. Our other main foods, meats and crops are intertwined in agribusiness and health issues, so each gets a word.

3. COWS.
Much of the meat that the people of the world eat is from animals that chew grass or other grains. As these animals digest, a huge amount of methane is produced. Carbon dioxide helps to trap the heat in the atmosphere like a solar blanket on a pool, but methane does an even better job of holding heat. We often think of automobiles, not hamburgers, when considering climate change. But 30% of all greenhouse gas is produced via agriculture, and 20% of it is from ruminants such as cows. Cows in developed countries eat between 6 and 20 pounds of corn per pound of edible beef produced, and lots of fresh water. Forests are cleared for grazing and the farmland needed to grow corn for feed. This puts a strain on the ecosystem and as people in developing countries also find tasty beef the meat of choice, forests are cleared. Other bush meats, such as chimpanzee and monkeys, are not connected to warming per se, but rather with extinction as habitats are destroyed and traditional sources of food in poor areas vanish. Both exotic meats and western diets are associated with various health problems.

Genetically Modified Crops are how large agribusinesses such as Monsanto see the future of farming. Putting fish genes in tomatoes is an interesting exercise, but when those crops are the only ones grown, the naturally occurring diversity of fruits, vegetables and grains is diminished, and those species and the secrets they hold, may be gone forever. In addition, cross-pollination is occurring, and farmers growing ‘natural’ products may find that they won’t be able to grow the seeds that result from a crop contaminated with GMO pollen. For a hungry planet needing to increase yields to feed both livestock and people, this is a tempting venture, but at what risk?

Public health organizations around the world are fighting the effects of a warming world. As things warm, diseases that were only equatorial are coming into the temperate zones. Look at Miami and find Dengue fever, malaria, and encephalitis, all spread by mosquitoes that did not live in temperate areas before. As weather changes, storms and flooding are more intense so that cholera and parasites become more prevalent as drinking water is compromised. Even something like HIV crossed a monkey/human barrier as bush meat was slaughtered to feed hungry humans in poor places. HIV, influenza and other viruses, are life forms that can adapt even faster than us. As habitats and disease vectors change, these life forms are one of the biggest threats to mammalian life. Paradoxically, the richest nations, and the richer emerging economies are starting to get sick due to excess corn fed beef and sugar in a rich diet while sedentary lifestyles take hold. The trifecta of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure present huge public health expenses in an already over burdened world health care system.

6. HEAT.
How hot is too hot? Turns out it may not be how hot, but how fast it changes. We are now experiencing climate change that is heating the planet up and changing ecosystems faster than at any time in the Earth’s history. Humans are the only species that can significantly alter every aspect of their habitat, and can also make rapid moves to accommodate many of these changes. Other animals and plants however, can’t adapt fast enough to change migration patterns and eating habits, and thus great numbers of them are dying off due to a temperature rise of only two degrees. This seemingly slight temperature rise also is melting the permafrost of the tundra regions. As the boggy tundra melts, not only are mammoth skeletons exposed, but enormous amounts of methane are released, further warming things up.

So two degrees means a lot? If the winter in Canada has an average temperature of 34 instead of 32, it still seems cold, but more snow melts each summer and at 34 degrees, each winter too, than is accumulated. One of many examples is Glacier National Park, a once snowy, glaciated place that is not so anymore. The annual summer melt from these glaciers supplies water to the farms, ranches and cities of California, Idaho and Montana, as well many other states and Mexico via the river tributaries that the melt water feeds. There is less water melting off these snow packs each year, so droughts and struggles for water are becoming more intense. States and nations are fighting about water (see the issues between Florida and Georgia for one.) At the same time, the fresh water ice packs of Greenland and Antarctica are melting so fast that the salinity of the oceans is being affected in addition to sea level rise. Change the salinity, acidity and temperature, and again, sea life cannot adapt quickly enough. Plankton is the single most important building block of sea life, and it’s dying.

When fossil fuels are burned, they give off products of combustion including carbon dioxide. Forests provide habitat for a diversity of animals, control flooding and something else. As we started to burn coal and oil, the forests were there to capture much of the carbon because trees take carbon in and give off oxygen. As people have prospered, they have cut down huge swaths of forests for agriculture and to use the wood. An area the size of Costa Rica is lost each year to deforestation, although management is just starting to slow this loss. Carbon in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning hangs in the air a very long time. At present, there is no efficient way to remove carbon from the air. Thus, as we rapidly burn through the millions of years of stored carbon in fossil fuels, we put it back into the air with resultant warming effects, even as we remove the trees that protect us, to grow crops and raise cows.

Weather2 = climate. As greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere increase, weather patterns change. Over time this changed weather becomes the climate. Slightly warmer air causes more evaporation, even in winter. As the atmosphere becomes more laden with moisture, storms become more intense. In winter, a huge amount of snow may fall one week only to melt the next. Then melt water runs off too fast, and the slow, nourishing melt of spring and summer does not happen. Currently, there is a net loss of snow pack each winter and the glaciers are melting. Heat is energy, so a warmer planet has storms that have more energy. High-energy storms are stronger and carry more moisture resulting in more damage and flooding. This is water that can’t be used. It carries off topsoil, sewer and fresh water supplies become contaminated, crops are ruined and there is substantial economic impact. Heat impacts plants and thus droughts become more common even as we suffer floods. We, as a species, rely on the complicated web of life that supports the planet, and the web is in trouble. As the cycle feeds back upon itself and drought, disease and famine outpace even our ability to meet these changes, we may be around to record our own demise.

99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Over the millennia, there have been 5 distinct periods when there were mass die-offs. We now appear to be in the midst of another. From the fossil and geological records, we know that this extinction is happening much faster than any before, and the greater combined stresses on Earth systems that this imposes, means that it will be difficult for the dominant species to survive. Ironically, the current die-off is due in no small measure to human activities such as deforestation, pesticide use, fertilizer run-off, ocean acidification, selective breeding of food and animal stocks, overuse of antibiotics and green house gas production. These have all occurred within the last 150 years.

All of these changes do not spell doom for the planet, because “life will find a way.” But life as we know it, and our ability to survive, is looking ever more perilous. Many of the current species that we depend on for life, are stressed and are in danger. It is hard to understand the denial because if the few, but loud deniers are right and we do nothing, we put off for a relatively short time dealing with the problems of population, food and fuel. But if the scientists are right, and we do nothing, game over.

For further thought:
Food Matters, Mark Bittman, Simon and Schuster 2009, ; statistics on climate and forests; statistics, articles and views on climate change from the global scientific community; The Natural Resources Defense Council
Meditations of John Muir, Nature’s Temple, Wilderness Press, 2001
National Parks, America’s Best Idea, Ken Burns, DVD and Book, PBS

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