What global problems does humanity have

The age of industry

In the industrial age, humans have acquired the ability to change the earth's ecosystem as a whole. The human population, the technical possibilities and the material demands of rich people cause environmental changes that affect the natural control circuits that control the earth's ecosystem. This is how global changes in the environment arise; one example is climate change. In order to avoid such consequences of our trading, we have to learn to recognize complex interactions and to take them into account.

The map shows the countries of the world according to their impact on the environment: The area of ​​each state corresponds to the >> ecological footprint of its inhabitants. It can be clearly seen that a) the countries of the north have a disproportionately large share of environmental consumption, and b) rich countries consume more than poor countries in relation to their population. Image: © Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan), >> www.worldmapper.org, with kind permission.

In 1979 the earth was first described as >> a single ecosystem; Today we know that oceans, air and mainland and life are actually connected to one another through a multitude of connections and feedback loops and influence one another (>> The earth as an ecosystem). At the same time we also had to deal with global environmental changes for the first time: In 1985 the first reports about the >> ozone hole appeared, at the same time the first signs of >> climate change became obvious. The resulting intensive research into global aspects has shown how the consequences of human activities can interfere with natural control loops and change the earth's ecosystem as a whole - to an extent that, if progress remains unchanged, could endanger the continued existence of human civilization itself.

Of the 130 million square kilometers of ice-free land on the earth, more than 100 million square kilometers have already been largely remodeled by humans (1090), largely uninhabited wilderness can only be found in parts of the Amazon region, in Siberia and northern Canada and in the great deserts of this earth (Sahara , Gobi, Victoria Desert). The influence of humans is also shown by the evaluation of the Vostok ice core, which was used to determine climate data from the past (>> The methods of paleoclimatologists):

Climate data from the Vostok ice core: Temperature profile (red) and carbon dioxide content (yellow) of the atmosphere over the last 400,000 years. Shown in white: changes in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit. Source of the Vostok data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/antarctica/vostok/vostok.html

The Vostok ice core made it possible to depict the temperature profile and carbon dioxide concentration in the Antarctic over the past 400,000 years. The temperature profile includes four ice ages, and the white representation of the changes in solar radiation as a result of the >> eccentricity of the earth's orbit shows that this triggered the ice ages. It can also be seen that the course of the temperature and the carbon dioxide concentration are very similar, with the carbon dioxide concentration always between 180 and 300 ppm - only in the present did it rise to 400 ppm. Responsible for this change is the person who, as a result of the >> industrial revolution, burns the fossil fuel reserves that have accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years in a very short time (>> more). In doing so, we cause carbon dioxide concentrations that have not occurred in the last 400,000 years. This >> climate change has a completely new geological cause - humans.

The Anthropocene

The Dutch meteorologist Paul Crutzen, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his contribution to the >> exploration of the ozone hole, suggested that the present age be called the “Anthropocene” due to the dominant influence of mankind on the entire earth - the epoch of man:

Global environmental changes of the industrial age such as climate change and overfishing of the world's oceans are due to a growing world population and the prosperity of part of this population. Graphics from Will Steffen and Susannah Elliot: Global Change and the Earth System. Executive summary. Stockholm: IGBP Secretariat 2004.

This era began with the Industrial Revolution, and since then humanity has left its mark on the scale indicated in the graphics above. The characteristics of the Anthropocene are the in ice cores (see above) noticeable increase in the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, to a certain extent chemical characteristics of human (industrial) activities.

The Anthropocene is characterized by the fact that the world population grew to over seven billion people, who reshaped the earth according to their ideas: About half of the earth's surface consists of settlements, arable land and pasture land; humans use about >> 40 percent of the earth's biological production. This was at the expense of the natural ecosystems and the species living in them: Among other things, half of all wetlands and half of all mangroves were destroyed, and species extinction is at least >> one hundred times stronger today than it would be without humans. The technical nitrogen fixation - especially for the production of artificial fertilizer - exceeds the biological one. Also the Oceans we have people conquered: There >> 90 percent of all fish stocks are used to the limit or beyond.

Which is another great influence besides the appropriation of the land and the ocean the use of fossil energy sources: They are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases, the >> energetic effect of which exceeds our technical use of energy by a factor of ten, and the amount of sulfur released from fossil fuels also exceeds the amounts circulating in the natural sulfur cycle.

The threat to ecosystems

In 2009 a group led by the Swede Johan Rockström attempted to assess the extent to which changes in natural ecosystems were already impairing their functionality. To this end, they examined nine basic ecological processes and set limits which, if exceeded, have negative consequences to be expected. This is already the case today for three processes (see figure):

Endangering the functionality of natural ecosystems through environmental pollution. The “pie pieces” indicate the extent of the environmental pollution, the circle shows the limit values ​​above which ecosystems are irrevocably damaged. If the cake pieces point beyond the circle, these limit values ​​have already been exceeded. No limit values ​​can yet be set for air pollution and chemicals in the environment. Own illustration based on Jonathan Foley: Boundaries for a Healthy Planet. Scientific American April 2010, page 39.

According to this, the limits have already been exceeded when it comes to climate change, changes in the nitrogen cycle and loss of biodiversity. The authors expressly point out that action is also necessary in the case of other environmental pollution, since these changes would also have serious consequences. Which can be seen in many places around the world, as the following box shows.

The 10 biggest environmental problems in the world

In 2008 the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross International compiled a list of the 10 greatest environmental problems in the world (from the human perspective - for ecosystems see above). After that these are:

  • Non-industrial gold mining: 10 to 15 million miners extract about a quarter of the gold using “artisanal” methods; they often use mercury to loosen the gold from the ore. In doing so, they damage their own health, and mercury enters the environment via air and sewage, where it accumulates in the food chain. For the consequences of mercury see also >> here.

    More information: National Geographic >> The Real Price of Gold
  •  Polluted surface water: According to the World Health Organization, polluted water causes five million deaths a year; mainly through bacteria and viruses that get into the water through faeces, through heavy metals or through organic compounds from industry. >> more
  • Polluted groundwater: Groundwater is the largest source of fresh water on earth (>> more), it is polluted by leaky waste dumps, by pesticides and fertilizers from agriculture and discarded waste oil; the stress is often only noticed after years or decades. >> more
  • Indoor air pollutants: The burning of coal, wood, charcoal and dung in makeshift (“three-stone”) stoves in poorly ventilated rooms leads to lung and eye diseases and it is estimated that up to three million people are killed every year. >> more
  • Industrial mining: Mining produces mineral waste (rocks) and fine-grained sludge. Metal sulfide compounds in rocks can produce acids; and if toxic chemicals are used to separate the ore from the rock, these too are found in the sludge. The rocks also affect the landscape and agriculture in the area due to their large amount. >> more
  • Metal melting and processing: In smelting the metal is extracted from the ores with the addition of reducing agents such as coke or charcoal; this can produce large amounts of heavy metals, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, which pollute the air and the surrounding soil. During processing, large amounts of sulfuric acid are often used, which is also often released; and toxic slag is produced as waste. >> more

    (Of the 10 dirtiest places in the world that the Blacksmith Institute identified in 2007, 5 were mining and metal smelting and processing: Tianying in China, Sukinda in India, La Oroya in Peru, Norilsk in Russia, and Kabwe in Zambia , >> more)
  • Radioactive waste and waste from uranium mining: Uranium ore is often found in low concentrations, so the amount of waste and sludge is very large, and they also contain a lot of radioactivity. Radioactive waste is mainly generated in nuclear power plants, in the military and in hospitals. Poor countries in particular often fail to adhere to the usual industrial safety standards when handling these materials. >> more
  • Untreated wastewater: Household wastewater contains faeces and cleaning chemicals and thus contributes to water pollution (see above). On earth, 2.6 billion people have no access to sanitary facilities that could avoid human contact with faeces. The result is the spread of diseases such as cholera, typhus, amoebic dysentery and worm infections. >> more
  • Urban air pollution: The sources of air pollution are concentrated in cities: fine dust, soot, nitrogen and sulfur oxides from power plants, cars and industry are responsible for 865,000 deaths every year, according to the WHO. According to the World Bank, the 5 cities with the dirtiest air on earth are Cairo (Egypt, Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta) in India and Tianjin and Chongqing (China). >> more
  • Recycling of batteries: Every year over 8 million tons of lead are produced, of which over 85 percent is used in the manufacture of car batteries. The recovery of lead from old batteries is a profitable business - and is practiced in many countries with incredible methods: the housing is opened with an ax, the battery acid runs into the ground and lead is sometimes melted in kitchens.

More: >> www.worstpolluted.org. See also the map with the ten most polluted places that the Blacksmith Institute determined in 2007 >> here.

The drivers of global environmental change

There are two fundamental developments behind this development: The >> increase in human population and the economic prosperity of the rich part of the population. All people have basic needs: water, food, a roof over their heads, clothing. In order to secure the food of more than seven billion people, about 40 percent of the surface of the mainland was converted into arable and grazing land and over the course of time cultivated more and more >> intensively; 40 percent of the earth's biological production is used by >> humans alone); agriculture became the largest >> water consumer on earth and contributes its part to >> water pollution and climate change.

Admittedly, not all of these resources are used to cover the basic needs for food, housing or clothing. The effects of the economic prosperity of the rich part of the world's population on the earth's ecosystem are even more clear. Most of the human resource and energy consumption covers the demand for goods that enable the lifestyle of the rich industrialized countries, where a multitude of electrical devices, cars and vacation trips have long become a matter of course. In the meantime, these two developments have come together: The two most populous countries in the world, India and China, are on the way to industrialization (>> more) and a consumption of resources that corresponds to that of rich countries.

None of this would be a problem if it weren't for the consequences of this use of resources and the associated pollution of air and water meanwhile endanger the nutrition of the world population and this prosperity. This happens on a local as well as global level. If Canadian fishermen can no longer fish because the cod stocks collapse off Newfoundland (>> more), the financial consequences will be mitigated by payments from the state, but the question arises as to how it can happen that a highly developed industrialized country with highly specialized fishery biologists can Problem does not come up in time to avoid the worst. And: if it doesn't work out there, how should global problems such as the deforestation of tropical forests, climate change or the extinction of species be solved?

How to get rich with fish

One of the driving forces is the economic lawswho have been so successful in creating material wealth. you reward the destruction of nature. An example (based on the Canadian ecologist Colin Clark):

Imagine you own a fishing ground filled with fish with a market value of $ 10 million. We further assume that you are a trained biologist and know that you are sustainable five percent of it could fish - the fish population would remain the same, they would have an income of $ 500,000 a year. Enough to pay for their expenses and employees and to live properly; and you could also be proud of the sustainable use of nature. Then one day you meet an old friend who studied business administration. He too got into fishing - and got rich in the process. Unlike you, he caught his fish as quickly as possible - his income was much higher than yours and he invested part of it where he got more than five percent return on investment. After a few years his fishing ground was destroyed - no problem, with the money he had made he could buy a new one, and he even had money left over.

In reality it is much worse with fish: Those who protect their fishing grounds will even deliver fish to their unrestrained exploiting neighbors, because fish are mobile. This problem was already in 1968 by Garrett Hardin as “Tragedy of the Commons”Described. Hardin's example: A shepherd who puts an additional cattle on a pasture benefits from the additional yield of the cattle. Possible damage from overgrazing, however, is shared by all users - the bottom line is that there is still a benefit for the shepherd. But since this also applies to all other shepherds, “logical” behavior would always lead to overgrazing (or overfishing or any other kind of overuse). In history, therefore, the use of the “commons” (as the medieval commons were called) was always precisely regulated. (See also >> here.) In many Swiss villages today only as many animals are allowed on the communal pasture as the owners can get through the winter on their own land.

Why it's so hard to lay down rules

Today the common goods (such as air, water, resources, ...) are used globally, and rules are not so easy to find. Take Canadian cod: Cod stocks - like almost all species in nature - have good years and bad years, and even today fisheries biologists cannot foresee these. If you set high catch quotas and the year is bad, the catch quotas must be very low in the following year: protests by fishermen, who still have to pay off the loans for their boats, are certain. If they set the catch quotas low, the fishermen protest immediately - low catch quotas prevent higher incomes. The politicians responsible therefore made a compromise between the fisheries biologists' proposals and the fishermen's demands - tending towards the fishermen, because the course of economic development does not remain without its effects on the votes. Everyone did the right thing from their point of view - but the result was the collapse of cod stocks.

"The environmentalist's paradox"

The unwillingness to listen to the warnings from scientists also has to do with the fact that the warnings have little to do with the actual lives of most people in rich countries: who is supposed to believe that the destruction of the efficiency of ecosystems is ours? Are prosperity at risk if we do not feel any of it in our daily lives? We're fine - and data on average life expectancy and child mortality show that humanity as a whole has probably never been as good as it is today. Food production is probably the economic sector that is most important to humans and at the same time most dependent on the services of natural ecosystems - but so far food production has grown faster than humankind.

This - apparent or real? - contradiction is as "environmentalist's paradox"(Paradox of the environmentalists) and investigated (940). An often heard assumption is that technical and social innovations have decoupled humans from natural ecosystems. In fact, it has been shown that these ensure that ecosystems are used more efficiently - One example is the increase in food production through artificial fertilizers, which so far could more than compensate for the loss of soil fertility - but have not eliminated the dependence on these ecosystems. this is shown by the >> ecological footprint - already our capital - but there is still enough of it so that we do not feel the consequences directly. The main reason for this "environmentalist's paradox"So there is a time lag between the damage to ecosystems and the effects on our lives. The British marine biologist >> Callum Roberts compares our behavior with that of debtors who are still indulgent - we still have the real price for ours I don't feel the action, but the bill is already on its way.

How we deal with complex interactions

The example of cod makes it clear that complex economic, social, cultural and technical developments of mankind have an impact on the regulatory systems of the earth's ecosystem, which are not easy to understand on their own. The diverse interrelationships have long since ceased to be intuitively graspable - see "the environmentalist's paradox"Instead, we rely on mathematical models to understand the possible effects of our actions. With the current state of our knowledge, the models and their results are fraught with uncertainties: on the one hand, the assumptions about possible developments of mankind are fraught with uncertainty, on the other hand the interrelationships in the control systems are by no means all sufficiently well known. And this will remain so for a long time to come. We will therefore have to live with having to make decisions on the basis of still existing uncertainties, moreover on the basis of a mathematical model, since our senses do not were created to grasp global interrelationships. Whether humans are able to do this remains to be seen.

Where we stand can be seen using the example of climate change: the scientific findings are made by a panel of experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (>> IPCC) and summarized for decision-makers who can make political decisions on this basis. The political discussion shows that existing uncertainties can also be a reason not to act: there is a small chance that everything will turn out very differently, while far-reaching measures would be felt immediately and by everyone. If the scientists are not mistaken, the consequences will add up: Due to the inertia of the huge masses of water in the oceans, the temperature increase will continue for decades even if the concentration of greenhouse gases does not increase any further. Callum Roberts is probably right: the bill is still on its way.

What we know for sure is: Today, the influence of humans is sufficient to change the earth's ecosystem. The condition over the past 10,000 years has allowed the emergence of a human civilization, but has also created the tools to saw off the branch we are sitting on. In history, some human civilizations have perished due to environmental changes (>> Diamond: collapse); but now it is possible that human civilization as a whole is at stake. In any case, the prevailing thinking so far leads into one terra incognita (Paul Crutzen), a state of the earth as we have never experienced it and which, according to everything we know, is also not worth striving for.

Preserve the carrying capacity of the earth's ecosystem

In order to reconcile our actions with the range of our influences, a new ethic of global responsibility for our livelihoods would be necessary. Many industries have managed to reduce their waste in the past; globally, resource efficiency is still far from sufficient. Energy efficiency has also increased in the past, and it is nowhere near enough. The transition to carbon-free fuels has only just begun. Major challenges remain, such as the foreseeable supply of (over) nine billion people with food and clean water.

The economic catch-up by India and China also shows that the industrialized countries are no longer alone in deciding the future of the earth's ecosystem: The globalization of the economy also leads to global dependencies and relationships; Global problems require global solutions - but these will always also mean local action. This, too, is a completely new challenge, because many emerging and developing countries have completely different priorities. But not only the exchange of goods, but also the exchange of ideas is now global, there have long been many people in India, China and other countries who are rethinking. There are enough ideas on how the load-bearing capacity of the earth's ecosystem can be preserved for people and how life can still remain at least as worth living for people as it is today. This is what the next section is about: >> Strategies for the future.

Further to:
>> Strategies for the future

Similar topics:
>> The earth as an ecosystem

© Jürgen Paeger 2006 - 2014