Environmental Problems: Top 10 Facing the Planet

Ever wonder about which current environmental problems are the big ones? Here’s an article to sum them up.

Our planet has its share of challenges. Delicate and valuable ecosystems are being polluted and destroyed. Our transportation and industrial systems are fed by fossil fuels that are finite and produce greenhouse gasses. While home-scale conservation solutions exist, our leaders are having a hard time adopting a unified strategy for  solutions to environmental problems.

Top 10 Environmental Problems
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Here’s a top ten list of current environmental problems. The entries were prioritized for their far-reaching nature and potential consequences. We want this to be a list that you can use get informed and to take action. Don’t forget, many people are doing just that.

10. Invasive Species: If you’ve ever driven in the American south and seen Japanese kudzu vines clinging to trees and telephone poles, then you’ve had a run-in with an invasive species. Invasive species are plants and animals that are released into ecosystems that they quickly exploit, causing severe impacts. A famous example are rats. Native to tropical Asia, rats stowed away on ships in the first century and were carried all over the world. Their plague-carrying fleas helped spread the Black Death in 14th-century Europe. Rats have also led to declines in seabird species worldwide. Here is a list from the Nature Conservancy on the steps you can take to stop the spread of invasive species.

9. Oceanic Pollution: Below the ocean’s surface are vast and incredible ecosystems. Many people depend on the ocean’s health for food and a livelihood. Unfortunately, industrial accidents, like oil spills from tankers or off-shore rigs and garbage dumping have depleted important habitats and threatened ocean life. Here’s a short documentary about a Texas-sized patch of degraded plastic and other pollutants floating in the Pacific Ocean.

8. Overfishing: Fish and fish-products are a vital and lucrative industry. But overfishing disrupts fragile ecological systems that oceanic life depend on for survival. Some overfishing occurs in catches of predatory fish that we eat. Thirteen American coastal states have barred the capture of menhaden, a forage fish commonly used in fish oils, because of the impact that the loss of this fish has on the oceanic food web. Overfishing.org is a great place to start learning more.

7. Rapid Urbanization: Cities, in their modern form, are unsustainable. Cities import much of what they need and have to export their waste. Globally, there are many examples of rural populations being displaced and having to move to cities, where health crises and crime are exacerbated by poor living conditions and poverty. When the dramatic world population rise is considered, the problem gets worse. A UN report from 2005, estimates that 49% of the world’s population (about 3.4 billion people), live in cities, up from 13% in 1900. For more information on global urbanization, read Planet of Slums by Mike Davis.

6. Water Scarcity: Access to potable drinking water is becoming an increasing problem. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to improved drinking water. Human beings need water to survive. But drought diminishes available water and waste-water from industrial processes and agriculture contaminates aquifers. The WHO is currently campaigning to address these problems. They have also declared March 22 World Water Day.

5. Industrial Farming: From its dependence on fossil fuels, to its insistence on using genetically-modified organisms, and its reliance on chemical herbicides and pesticides, industrial agriculture is problematic for the planet in many ways. It has supplanted the traditional family farmer to produce vast quantities of corn, grain and soya, most of which is used for feeding livestock. Industrial farming also contributes to deforestation when landowners slash and burn forests to grow crops or graze cattle. To learn more about our food system, watch Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. For examples of small, community-based agriculture solutions, check out Farm Together Now by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker.

4. Deforestation: National Geographic states that, at current rates of deforestation, all forests would disappear in 100 years. Forests filter the Earth’s air. Trees breathe in CO2 and release oxygen. Trees help store carbon and retain atmospheric water. Forests are also vital habitat for many species. The Rainforest Action Network is an organization that seeks to prevent the loss of our rainforests. Sustainable forestry groups like the Forest Stewardship Council offer certification for sustainably-sourced lumber. I’m also a huge fan of Trees for the Future, a non profit that plants useful trees and promotes agroforestry around the world. My company has donated enough to plant more than 250,000 trees over the past several years. Please click through and make a small donation of at least $5 right now, and you can plant 50 trees.

3. Fossil fuels: Fossil fuels are composed of vast, decomposed deposits of organic matter buried deep below the earth. They are rich in carbon, which is burned as a fuel source. They are a part of almost everything we can buy, use, or consume. The cars we drive and the ways in which we generate energy depend on fossil fuels. Plastics are petroleum products. The food we eat and the products we buy are transported in trucks and ships that burn diesel fuel.

When fossil fuels are burned, they produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. Natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, still creates toxic leakage during extraction that contaminates groundwater. To learn more about the oil industry, how it works and the influence on energy policy that it exerts, read Antonia Juhasz’s The Tyranny of Oil. For what you can do to reduce your dependence on fossil fuels, check out Climate Culture.

2. Climate Change: This can be understood as the end result of many of the problems we’ve mentioned. Through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, by-product greenhouse gasses are trapping the sun’s heat in our atmosphere. The overall temperature of the earth is rising. This is causing the melting of glaciers and the disruption or amplification of global weather and will cause long-lasting, hard-to-predict impacts. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a great wealth of information about climate change.

1. Political Inaction: While there are numerous and encouraging examples of community, grassroots efforts to remedy many of these problems, governments need to adopt comprehensive strategies to reduce their carbon footprints and make the necessary changes to industries that are the biggest polluters. Some headway was made at the 2009 United Nations summit in Copenhagen, but more needs to be done to achieve an international agreement on combating climate change. For further reading about climate change and the global campaign to halt it, visit 350.org.

What do you think of our choices for the top 10? Did we miss anything? Leave a comment!