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Why Do We Have to Protect the Environment?

What are we doing wrong? Mostly the problem is destruction of habitat by:

  • industrial pollution
  • mining
  • farming
  • transporting species into habitats where they had not been

What are some of the consequences?

  • One billion people in the world have no clean water
  • Two billion people have inadequate sanitation
  • One and a half billion people (mostly in large cities of newly industrialized countries) breath air that is dangerously unhealthy
  • Hundreds of millions of poor farmers struggle to make a living on poor land
  • Whole countries are on the verge of famine

People don't like to be ridiculed as "environmental wackos" or "tree huggers." But it is important to care about the environment. Thoughtful people can care about the environment and at the same time see the need to exploit or use nature for resources to satisfy the needs of our species.

The human species needs food and water. We need energy. But we also need to protect the ecosystem niches that make survival of our species possible. Beyond that, we need to protect the niches for other species too.  Why do niches need protection?

  1. It's not nice to try to fool Mother Nature. Ecosystems are complicated. We have seen in these lessons that complexity grows as  we move up the ladder from cells to organ systems to ecosystems. The history of our attempts to manipulate ecosystems shows that we often make mistakes and fail to see the unintended consequences of our actions. Rich ecosystems are those with many occupied niches. A change in any one niche is likely to affect other niches and their occupant species. Extinction is forever. We don't get a second chance.
  2. Environmental hazards are dangerous. Especially our lakes and oceans have become dumping grounds for dangerous chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, oil and refinery products, industrial wastes, and heavy metals). Some of these toxins actually concentrate in food webs, such as mercury in fish.
  3. Moral obligation. Our species owes its existence to the living world that we share with other species. We owe the living world a chance to perpetuate the life-creating processes of natural selection, population dynamics, and exchange cycles. We can only pay this debt by protecting the environment.

We humans are doing well as a species (see graph below). But our success comes at the expense of other species. The United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Center predicts that 25% of all the earth's species of mammals may become extinct in the next 30 years. Over 10% of the bird species face extinction in that time. 

Environmentalism and Politics

Many people in the world like to blame industrialized nations, especially the United States, for destroying world ecosystems. It is true that industrialized countries create much of the air pollution. But the problem will not be cured by treaties that punish American companies for air pollution when competing companies in other countries are exempt from regulation. 

World population is now at 6 billion. Over a 100-years, the world population has tripled and the growth seems to be continuing at the same rate. How long can the human species sustain such growth?

The really frightening prospect is the rapid pace of industrialization in many Third World countries where unregulated industries expand to serve the growth of the already huge populations. China has 1.2 billion people. India has about 1 billion people. What will world pollution be like when countries like these become fully industrialized and modernized?

People who wish to protect the environment often become politically active. They may come to believe that animals, and even plants, have "rights." What do you think? 

The idea of "rights" originally came from perceived inequalities in power and privilege among humans. "Rights" are something we United States citizens have to pursue "life, liberty, and happiness."

To extend the idea of rights across species quickly creates problems for ecosystems. Does the wolf have a right to kill sheep? Or do sheep have a right to be protected from predators? Does any species have a right to use Nature's resources to perpetuate itself as a species? Does a species have a right to destroy niches of other species in the process of exploiting nature for survival of the species? And if we could agree on any of these rights, we must answer the question, "Who issued these rights?" 

To argue in the political terms of "rights" misses the point about how Nature's ecosystems work.  Competition between and within species is not only natural but necessary for ecosystems to function well. Competition and exercise of power becomes a problem only when it is so destructive that an ecosystem itself becomes threatened. Because humans have the greatest power to damage ecosystems, humans also have the greatest duty to protect ecosystems. 




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