What We Leave Behind — Blog 3

Now is the time for change. We must decide what we want our legacy to be: one of triumph, or one of failure. If we don’t take the degradation and exploitation issues of our most vital ecosystems seriously, we will lose everything.

Reading Summaries & Critical Thinking Questions:

1. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems by Peter M. Vitousek, Harold A. Mooney, & Jerry M. Melillo

The first reading, an excerpt from Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems, takes a harsh look at the negative impacts humanity has had on a variety of ecosystems and natural processes worldwide. The idea that humanity looms as a presence on the globe [1] is shown to be shockingly true throughout the course of the reading as many effects of our dominance are quantified in staggeringly devastating figures. The except sheds light on an array of our damaging practices that are driving climate change, which is in turn causing irreversible losses of biological diversity [1]. We are made aware that the most damaging process leading to species loss is land transformation [1], and that land is not the only system that we, as a global community are affecting. The excerpt also discusses humanity’s effect on ocean systems which include wide spread cases of overexploitation and depletion of fish stocks, as well as eutrophication [1]. Our effects on Earth’s biogeochemical cycles are also discussed. These include the carbon and nitrogen cycles as well as the hydrologic cycle [1]. Carbon emission and carbon dioxide pollution problems are well known facts but our effects on the nitrogen and hydrologic cycles are less known and must also be brought to light. The piece also discusses the negative effects our synthetic chemicals can have once they have been released into the environment, most of which are persistent and can cause serious damages to ecosystems by ultimately leading to the death of top predators due to bioaccumulation and by extension, biomagnification. To top off all our other practices the excerpt also reminds us that we have been a huge force in the movement of species across the globe putting our already fragile ecosystems at further risk of desecration through species introduction. As is said, the growing scale of human enterprise [1] has lead us to the point of no return by bringing about these colossal issues and perpetuating them all around the globe. All in all if we are to continue to live on this planet, we must commit to playing an active role in ecosystem conservation and protection to combat the extensively damaging changes we have already caused.

Almost 50% of the land surface has been transformed by human endeavors and more than half of all available freshwater is presently being used by humans. We thus have a long way to go before we run out of land and water. What is wrong with that statement?

This statement takes a very narrow look at the earth and what using half of the available freshwater and transforming almost half of the land surface would look like. Imagining it like a simple pie chart is not enough to explain the intricacies and important details of the problem. First off the majority of the water on earth is either salt water or frozen [1]. This means that the amount of freshwater is quite small when you think about the physical amount of water present on the globe. Secondly, over 70% of the freshwater currently in use is used in agriculture for things such as crop irrigation [1]. Meaning that less than 30% has to be divvied between the remaining of global activities that require water. Furthermore, as water resources are used up, water quality declines in the region [1], which can lead to further species loss or displacement [1]. Also, many communities are pumping fossil waters [1] out of their wells, meaning that the reservoir from which they are taking, cannot replenish itself. Not only that but the global human population grows everyday and each new person means that humanity, as a whole, requires more and more resources from our natural environment and ecosystems. We require more space and energy to be able to live comfortably, which means that we would run out of resources immediately, laying complete waste to the planet if our population were to double. We would not be able to sustain ourselves then and we can barely sustain ourselves now with a small portion of the global population using a large portion of the global resources, much of the “developing world” is disproportionately poor compared to the people who live in developed countries. In short, if our global rate of water and land use continues to escalate in the same way it has in the past, a time may come when our species may no longer be able to survive on Earth.

Degraded vegetative cover consisting mostly of grasses, on the Pat Sing Leng Range in the Eastern New Territories of Hong Kong. The grass cover is typical of areas subjected to frequent fires; 2015, http://fas.org/china_lands/images/hk21.jpg (accessed April 3, 2016).

2. Ecosystems and Human Well-being — Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005

The second reading is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 entitled Ecosystems and Human Well-being. This reading, as the title suggests, presents an assessment of ecosystem changes and the effect that those changes may have on human wellbeing [2]. The report states that about 60% of the ecosystem services that were examined were being degraded [2], which is a wholly devastating statistic. The report presents four major findings with supporting statistics and data in each case. The findings include: how humanity has contributed to widespread species diversity loss in 50 years at a scale more rapid then had been ever noted in earlier human history [2], how economic growth for some countries and peoples have come at a high cost as ecosystems have been extensively degraded and poverty has increased for other groups of people [2], as well as that the degradation of ecosystem services could worsen in the first half of the 21st century, which could become a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations [2], that combating or reversing the degradation of ecosystem services would involve many changes to policies, practices, and institutions that are currently not underway [2], and that conservation and enhancement options exist and would be beneficial to reducing negative trade-offs [2].

In what ways does damage to ecosystems affect human wellbeing?

Damage to ecosystems can affect human wellbeing in many ways such as: increased hunger or food insecurity, increased disease and child mortality, and poverty [2]. All of which can be caused by a variety of ecosystem services issues. Increased hunger and food security can be caused by degradation or loss of freshwater systems or arable land, increased drought or flooding. Disease and child mortality can stem from similar problems since both issues can stem from malnutrition, which occurs, in many cases, due to a lack of food resources or clean, safe drinking water. Poverty on the other hand is being perpetuated globally by the degradation of all resources and ecosystems causing some groups of people to lose what little they had in means of food and shelter resources to begin with, creating further disparity and increasing separation between the rich and poor classes of the globe.

3. Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber

The third reading is a selection by Sandra Steingraber from the book Living Downstream. In the selection she explains how families and people share environments with a fast array of organisms and increasingly, chemicals. Throughout the selection Steingraber explains how she, and many other members of her adoptive family contracted cancer from exposure to the chemical concoction that was the environment in which they lived and worked. The selection also talks about Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring and how Steingraber became inspired by her extensive work and research on the topic of chemical carcinogens and therefore began collecting research papers and articles which show and discuss where and how known carcinogens are used and how in many cases there is a synergistic effect where exposure to multiple different chemicals together can cause damages that the people who created or released them did not even know would or could occur. Steingraber pushes for and emphasizes the need for further research into the environmental factors of cancer incidences [3] and the synergistic effects of chemicals being released into the environment.

What is wrong with the present system of regulating the use, release, and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens?

First of all if something we are currently using is a known carcinogen, therein lays our first problem. We should not be allowing the use of known carcinogens, ever. It seems crazy to me that there would even be a debate over whether or not using such a thing is a good idea, the answer is simple: if it is a carcinogen, we do not use it. If we reduce the amount of carcinogens we release into the environment, we can reduce our national and global costs of healthcare, we can reduce the mortality rate of people who are dying as a result of cancer since it would, in theory, become a less widespread problem, and we would be emitting less dangerous, harmful chemicals into our environments that react negatively with the natural organisms and processes. I see no reason to use known or even suspected carcinogens, ever. No one wants to contract a deadly disease, much less one that is as devastating as cancer. Secondly, many carcinogens are persistent in the environment meaning that they do not break down or take many years possibly decades to do so. This is a serious problem in the disposal department since they are essentially being left out in the environment for animals, plants, and potentially humans to eventually pick up and store in their bodies which can obviously lead to serious health issues when concentrations reach a certain level of toxicity ultimately causing the death of many good, innocent people. Furthermore, with many chemicals that are released into the environment, they are only tested for the effects that only that single chemical will have, not the effects it may have once it is combined will all the other chemicals which are already present in the environment in which the new chemical is being released. In many cases, the synergistic effects of chemicals are much worse and can have serious health effects on many living organisms that come in contact with the potentially lethal concoctions.

4. Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Durmanoski, & John Peterson Meyers

A group of newborn babies; 2012, https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Money/Pix/pictures/2012/1/26/1327573540193/A-group-of-newborn-babies-006.jpg?w=620&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=10ed913f8f7d191c4f13be4cf419b847 (accessed April 5, 2016).

The fourth reading by Theo Colborn et al entitled Our Stolen Future, is a piece which discusses the connections between endocrine disruptors that have been detected in the natural environment due to chemical release, and potential endocrine disruption in human populations. The researchers talk about the example of DES [4] and how toxicity can be high even at low doses of the chemical as was displayed in the inverted U graph presented by Frederick vom Saal [4]. It did not conform to the classical theory of toxicology, which said that a biological response always increases with dose [4]. The excerpt also sheds light on how valuable animal research and studies have been in providing insight into the effects that endocrine disruptors can have on young as well as mature members of animal populations. It also shows how it is possible that the effects may be extrapolated to humans or at least used as a warning that potential negative effects may occur when humans come into contact with a certain chemical since endocrine systems are relatively similar across the board.

What is an environmental hormone mimic (or disruptor)?

An environmental hormone mimic or disruptor is typically a chemical that imitates a naturally occurring hormone, a chemical messenger that is naturally produced by the body. The problem with this is that hormones are used primarily in signal transduction; essentially it is their job to relay the message to turn on or off a biological process or to help regulate things such as blood sugar level or even breast milk production in nursing mothers. Hormones are also in charge of biological changes such as which sex we are born as and at what point animals or humans become sexually mature and so on. When a hormone mimic or disruptor enters into the system or environment of a living being it is pretty evident that things can start to go haywire pretty quickly. Do to the vital role that hormones play if a hormone mimic or disruptor is introduced into ones body, a certain process could be turned off when the boy wanted or needed it to be on or vice versa which could lead to some serious complications. One of the most alarming dangers of hormone mimics and disruptors is the dangerous effects that they can have on human embryonic development. Endocrine disruptors and mimics are especially dangerous for developing babies because their crucial signal transduction pathways are being developed in utero and if mimics or disruptors are present while the connections are being created, the child could have serious effects or strange health anomalies if it does not end up a stillborn child. It is the future generations, our children and grandchildren, that we live for, we strive to make the world a better, safer, happier place for them to live, research into the effects of hormone mimics and disruptors will help to give them a fighting chance today.

5. Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Our Ocean Ecosystem Services by Boris Worm et al.

Okada, Y. Manatee And Fish; 2010, http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-of-the-day/manatee-and-fish/ (accessed April 6, 2016).

The last reading, Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Our Ocean Ecosystem Services is pretty much what it sounds like. It is an extensive look at the effect of marine biodiversity loss on its ability to provide the ecosystem services it has been providing for a long time. The excerpt explains that the main causes of biodiversity change in the oceans are: exploitation, pollution, and habitat destruction [5], and that climate change and related perturbations of ocean biogeochemistry [5] can also indirectly cause diversity to fluctuate. The researcher examined a variety of closed experiments to gauge the effect that variation in marine diversity would have on: primary and secondary productivity, resource use, nutrient cycling, and ecosystem stability [5]. They observed that increased diversity in primary producers and consumers enhanced all examined ecosystem processes [5], with the biggest enhancement occurring in primary and secondary productivity. Next, they looked at long-term trends in regional biodiversity and services of a variety of coastal ecosystems, which verified the findings of their small closed experiments [5]. The excerpt goes on as they continue to apply their hypothesis to larger ecosystems and again their findings are supported by the results achieved from examining the available data [5]. From this they were able to observe the general trend that high-diversity systems consistently provided more services with less variability [5].

What can we do to prevent a catastrophic decline in ocean fisheries by the mid-21st century?

There are a wide variety of thing that we can and should do if we wish to prevent a catastrophic decline in ocean fisheries by the mid-21st century. In the selection from Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Our Ocean Ecosystem Services, they talk about methods to help restore ocean biodiversity through: sustainable fisheries management, pollution control, maintenance of essential habitats, and the creation of marine reserves [5]. To me these are global, national, and perhaps even municipal objectives because other than perhaps personal pollution control, it is difficult for individual people to create whole marine reserves though we should still strive to push our governments to protect our global marine ecosystems. For individuals, things such as buying certified sustainable fish or donating to an organization that protects marine ecosystems would be a great place to start. Voting with your dollar on which companies you support and encouraging other people and businesses to do the same can generate global movements for sustainability. The biodiversity of marine ecosystems is an increasingly important area of research as the ocean is a vital food resource for millions of people worldwide [5]. The oceans have sustained the human race as well as our ancient ancestors for thousands of years and it is imperative that we work to maintain the integrity our vital ocean resources for generations to come.

Activity Summary & Reflection — A Green Audit of Household Electronics:

My family has many electronic devices lying around the house, we also have a tendency to keep a lot of old stuff rather than throw it away. In the past this was mostly due to the fact that we had very little understanding of where to take our old computers and other various electronics and we inherently knew that throwing them in the trash would be wrong some how. Since joining the faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources, and taking some classes based on environmental issues and such, I have been able to better understand what is in the products that we own and where to take them to make sure that they are properly and safely dismantled. Due to the plethora of various electronics present in the house I decided to stick to electronics that we use on a regular basis.

What I did was I broke down all our household electronics into categories based on the companies present in the green electronics ranking by Greenpeace. I found that my family owns:

  • Sony — 6 products
  • Apple — 11 products
  • Acer — 2 products
  • HP — 2 products

In the survey I included cell phones, landlines/home phones, laptop and desktop computers, tablets, music devices (i.e. MP3, iPod, etc.), printers, clock radios, the television, DVD player, and gaming system. I then calculated my family’s weighted average rating based on the rating of each of the companies and the amount of products we owned from each company and discovered that we scored an average of 4.93/10. It seems like a rather sad rating but when compared to the ratings of companies present in the list, the highest, and Indian company called Wipro, only scores 7.1 [6] and the next highest, HP, scores 5.7 [6]. If we were a company on the list we would rank fifth, which is not terrible but it is also not great. It is difficult to purchase green electronics since many metals and other elements go into making the many different components and it is difficult to know which companies are at least trying to be sustainable or have recycling programs for their products. There are also few affordable options that are “green” options when it comes to electronics, which greatly increases the difficulty in buying environmentally friendly electronics.

As for the our future purchases and disposal plans, we typically try to purchase things of quality which we can use for many years, as we try our best to take good care of our things. As more electronics companies allow for older models to continuously have their software upgraded rather than becoming slow, obsolete, and useless overtime, the longer we are able to keep our products, and the less new products we are required to buy. We also have been doing more and more research into the recycling of e-waste, where we can take it in and what happens to our electronics depending on which recycling depot we drop it off at. We also try to purchase from companies that have good trade in policies or recycling programs, though some still do not have those kinds of programs in place many are starting to be implemented which is, in our opinion, a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction.

Electronic Devices; 2012, http://www.universitybusiness.com/sites/default/files/field/image/HiRes_6.jpg (accessed April 7, 2016)

In-Class Blog Questions:

What I am doing to promote sustainability and happiness in my life:

Due to the fact that I still live at home with my parents and siblings, I try to promote sustainability and happiness in my life as well as the rest of my family’s. To do this, I encourage and help my parents make grocery lists for when they go shopping to try and minimize our household food waste. We also purchase certified sustainable seafood when you purchase fish. I also encourage my family to recycle more, buy products that use less wasteful packaging, and use reusable bags and lunch containers rather than purchasing prepackaged lunches or eating out all the time, it not only promotes sustainability but also helps us live healthier happier lives. I have also encouraged my parents to think about purchasing a more fuel-efficient vehicle when the time comes that we are in need of a new one, to replace the old roof shingles with a greener, more recyclable option, which we are currently researching. We also have installed dual-flush, low flow toilets in all the bathrooms of our house to decrease the amount of water wasted with each flush.

What I would like to do:

I would like to reduce our food waste even more by creating weekly, or even monthly meal plans as well as create a refrigerator/freezer inventory so that everyone is aware of what is in the fridge, how long ago it was made, and how much is left so people can plan and pack their lunches and “on-the-go” dinners. I would also like to encourage my family to buy more local produce to support local organic Manitoban businesses. I also would like to commute less, or figure out a way to take my bike or rollerblade more, essentially find ways to incorporate, non-motorized, human powered transportation into my life. It is a difficult task because I live on the outskirts of the city, which makes it difficult and sometimes dangerous to bike or walk from my home. There is also limited bus travel to a destination near my home making it nearly impossible to use the transit system as an alternative to driving.

I pledge to do:

I pledge to reduce my footprint by trying to incorporate alternative modes up transport into my daily commute to school and anywhere else. And when the bike or bus is unfeasible, I pledge to carpool as much as possible.

What are your primary concerns about the oceans? What if anything do you plan on doing about it?

I have a wide variety of concerns about the ocean but what worries me the most is the substantial rate at which we are losing species diversity in aquatic ecosystems and the overexploitation of global fisheries. We, as a global society, need to regroup and start to seriously discuss our plans of action when it comes to fisheries and their practices as well as restoration programs and designated aquatic reserves where fishing is prohibited. I hope to become more involved with oceanic research and conservation in the future but for now I plan on voting with my dollar and purchasing only certified sustainable seafood, as well as contributing or donating to organizations dedicated to the conservation and restoration of biological diversity in marine systems. I also have been trying to work summer volunteering in the area of oceanic conservation into my schedule sometime in the next couple years to learn more about the industry and what more I can do to help contribute more to a solution and less to the problem. I want the oceans to remain a beautiful place teeming with an abundance of biological diversity.

Howells, D. Bay Breach; 2015. http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-of-the-day/humpback-whale-breach/ (accessed April 7, 2016).

References:

  1. Vitousek, P.; Mooney, H.; Melillo, J. Human Domination Of Earth’s Ecosystems. In Classic Edition Sources: Environmental Studies; Easton, T., Ed.; McGraw-Hill Education, 2012; pp. 45–52.
  2. Ecosystems And Human Well-Being. In Classic Edition Sources: Environmental Studies; Easton, T., Ed.; McGraw-Hill Education, 2012; pp. 53–59.
  3. Steingraber, S. Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At Cancer And The Environment. In Classic Edition Sources: Environmental Studies; Easton, T., Ed.; McGraw-Hill Education, 2012; pp. 153–157.
  4. Colborn, T.; Durmanoski, D.; Meyers, J. Our Stolen Future. In Classic Edition Sources: Environmental Studies; Easton, T., Ed.; McGraw-Hill Education, 2012; pp. 158–160.
  5. Worm, B. Impacts Of Biodiversity Loss On Ocean Ecosystem Services. In Classic Edition Sources; Easton, T., Ed.; McGraw-Hill Education, 2012; pp. 92–95.
  6. Guide to Greener Electronics http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/cool-it/Campaign-analysis/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/ (accessed Apr 5, 2016).
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