This summer I had the pleasure of visiting the East Coast of the United States for the first time in my life. I had heard that it is not nearly as scenic as the West Coast but it was only when I looked at it from the plane that I understood why, just like I understood why Americans consider themselves as a great nation. It was quite difficult for me to spot a green patch of land; the color grey was dominant in hundreds of kilometers (or should I say miles?) of freeways with thousands and thousands of cars contributing to the traffic. It was all a proof of how much we have transformed the environment to our initial benefit. Right now, however, the time has come for us to pay the price for all the resources we have taken and we’re constantly being reminded of it.
When I used to think about protecting the environment I would think about recycling. Bikes instead of cars. Energy-saving domestic appliances and lightbulbs. Staying away from plastic bags and holding on to the reusable ones. These are the basic things that help protect the environment and my generation has been taught to do that from the very beginning of our education. We know about freon and CO2 emission, about greenhouse effect and ozone depletion. But there are also other aspects of the environmental damage we’re causing that we are way less aware of.
A few years ago media covered the “bee crisis” that, as a matter of fact, we created. Nutrition of bees is dependent on flowers – carbohydrates are obtained from nectar, protein comes from pollen. We’ve slowly transformed colorful meadows into flowerless landscapes, therefore limiting bees’ possibilities of obtaining proper nutrients. Increased application of pesticides causes the toxin to move up the plant into pollen and nectar, putting the insects in danger of obtaining a lethal dose of the chemicals or at least significantly weakening their immune system. Pollination is necessary to maintain stable crop productions and therefore stable food prices – but it is only possible while maintaining stable bee populations.
Another issue that is far from common knowledge is the problem of red tides. The term is interchangeable with a harmful algal bloom (HAB), which occurs when colonies of algae grow out of control, causing harmful effects on marine life as well as humans. As a result, fish is killed and shellfish is dangerous to consume. Although most of the algal blooms are beneficial, as they are eaten by marine organisms and therefore provide energy to the food chain, there are blooms that simply kill. Apart from releasing toxins, when large masses of such algae die and decompose, they use up oxygen, causing its percentage in water to be so low that the organisms around suffocate or are forced to leave the area. Algae become so numerous that they cause discoloration of coastal waters. Factors that are most likely to contribute to the formation of the phenomenon indicate that they are mostly results of human activity. High nutrient content (phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen) coming from lawns and farmlands flows down the river to the oceans “and build up at a rate that ‘overfeeds’ the algae that exist normally in the environment.” (NOAA). HABs are also linked to high temperatures and furthermore, low salinity which is also a result of melting glaciers. I first learned about red tides in the States, as living in Europe on the regular basis I have never seen such phenomenon. Red tides occur frequently in 3 places: on the Atlantic coastline from New England to Canada, on the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska and finally along the coasts of Australia and eastern Asia. Authorities in these regions may decide to shut down fisheries in order to prevent food poisoning. Moreover, HABs are noted every summer along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The typical period of blooming used to be from July to October. Along with the intensification of effects of global warming, the time in which conditions for blooming are favorable is expanding.
One more issue connected with marine life receives significantly less attention than its size would suggest. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of rubbish that ends up in large bodies of water. Also known as Pacific trash vortex, it actually consists of two garbage patches: the Western Garbage Patch near Japan, and Eastern Garbage Patch situated between Hawaii and California. The two are connected by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The gyre, created by motion of 4 separate currents, covers the area of 20million square km. This “island” cannot be detected using satellite imagery because a large percentage of the debris is made up by microplastics – tiny fragments of plastic. “About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year,” reported National Geographic. Humans use significant amounts of plastic because it’s convenient and it’s everywhere – its costs of productions are lower than other, biodegradable materials. But it doesn’t disappear; instead it travels thousands of miles away from its origin to finally finish its journey in large bodies of water. At this point it constitutes a serious threat to marine life. Sea turtles take plastic bags for jellies, their regular food. Marine mammals, including seals, get entangled in fishing nets and often drown, without the possibility of getting out. Besides directly affecting fish and marine mammals, plastic patches also block access to sunlight for algae and plankton, which are the fundamental organisms in marine food web. This may have a dangerous effect on populations of marine life.
People have found ways of dealing with results of anthropogenic change in the environment. In places where bee populations are on the verge of disappearing, people are hired to pollinate flowers manually. More and more buildings are “enriched” in bee hives on their rooftops – this is especially common for hotels, but in essence any person can take the same initiative at their own house with some help from professional firms. But there are also issues we try hard not to pay attention to. Because of the relatively long distance of the plastic patches from essentially any country, no nation wants to take responsibility of at least attempting to clean it – and nothing is heard about a possible agreement on the topic. We double the amount of Nitrogen and Phosphorus flowing in the world just by using fertilizers, which contribute to the contamination of waters and loss of biodiversity, as well as already mentioned red tides. Agriculture produces commodities, which are essential for people to survive. But the way it produces them is far from sustainable. Expanding farmland leading to burning of tropical forests, releasing of methane by cows and rice and use of water on agricultural production and processing accounts for 30% of emitted greenhouse gases, making agriculture the largest emitter than any other human activity, including transportation and electricity.
The baseline continues to shift – what used to be a sign of threat to the planet Earth in the 1950s now becomes a plan for sustainable future. We’ve experienced a great acceleration of land degradation, biodiversity loss and content of CO2 in the atmosphere. A planet is supposed to be a self-regulating system. But ecosystems once damaged are very likely to function in a way that will prevent out social and economic growth, just like we have inhibited its biological development. Every citizen of developed countries can make choices that stand up for better future. We don’t have to wait for governments to take action in our name.