In the last 100 years, the planet has gone through dramatic and detrimental environmental changes due to industrialization and urbanization. Population growth and modern living standards have increased energy demand, driving widespread environmental degradation as we still rely on fossil fuel to meet the vast majority of energy needs.
These environmental issues are a global problem that every country is responsible for addressing, but it’s especially pertinent to those of us in the United States. In honor of Earth Day—which falls on April 22nd—we encourage you to find out what you can do to reduce your impact and make changes for greater sustainability.
From pollution and deforestation to global warming and habitat loss, our environment’s health is looking increasingly grim as the years go by—but all is not yet lost. We can still turn things around if we make a serious commitment to changing our habits and investing in sustainability.
Focusing our efforts on wildlife conservation is more pressing than ever. Due to an unfortunate confluence of factors—like habitat loss, invasive predatory species, and disease—wildlife populations have declined at a rate 1000 to 10,000 times faster than what would be expected without human impact. Indeed, 99% of the current at-risk species are directly threatened by human activity.
Wildlife conservation is vital to our ecosystems to preserve our planet’s biodiversity, the variety of life found in a given ecosystem. Every species native to a specific ecosystem has a specific job to do, no matter how small. Biodiversity ensures survival across species, from animal, to plant, and even insects. Consider bees. Population collapse of bee colonies around the world imperils not only insect biodiversity, but as pollinators, bees also ensure the survival of thousands of flowering plants and the animals that consume them—including humans.
Massive Coral Reef Die-offs
Coral reefs only cover a small percentage of the vast ocean, but they’re home to about 25% of all ocean species. Ocean acidification, overfishing, physical destruction, and human pollution bleach and destroy reefs. Climate change disrupts corals’ food chain, compromising their ability to survive while encouraging the proliferation of opportunistic fungi that transform these colorful coral forests into underwater graveyards.
In addition to warming oceans, ocean acidification poses another dangerous threat, hindering coral reefs from building their skeletons and even breaking apart existing reef structures and causing corals themselves to crumble when touched. Humans have a more direct and harmful influence on the decline in coral reefs by overfishing, which disrupts their ecosystems and leads to an overpopulation of invasive species that can dominate the coral reefs. Additionally, even activities that seem totally unrelated like pesticide runoff from lawn care and sewage can all reach our oceans and make water inhospitable for marine life.
Water pollution is any kind of pollutant found in lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, and human water systems that contain harmful compounds. This pollution is caused by human sewage, improperly disposed of toxic waste, accidental oil spills, and even sediment from soil erosion. Water pollution presents a clear danger to marine life, but it affects all life. Sewage and agricultural runoff encourage the growth of algal blooms that rob the water of dissolved oxygen. Synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and other medications often end up in water, leading to unfortunate side effects for animals that are exposed.
Emissions from vehicles, industry, and power plants are what come to mind when most people think of air pollution, but methane and other gases from landfills and animal agriculture are significant contributors as well. The release of heat-trapping air pollution perpetuates a positive feedback loop that further increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Beyond climate change, these air pollutants endanger our health, but children and the economically disadvantaged often face the most serious health consequences.
But it’s not just large companies that release these harmful gases into the atmosphere—your taste in consumer products also contributes. Even small things like cleaning products, cigarettes, and air fresheners release toxic gases called volatile organic compounds, more commonly called VOCs, that have been linked to cancer in humans and hormone disruption in wildlife. . Natural disasters like dust storms from new desertification, wildfires, and volcanoes all compromise the air quality even thousands of miles away.
Unsustainable Waste Generation
We are encouraged to create a lot of waste with little insight into how it affects the world at large. We produce and consume at an incredible rate, stripping natural resources from the environment. Hyperconsumption leaves trash nonbiodegradable trash in the form of plastic packaging, toxic e-waste, and harmful chemicals that leach into our waterways. When making new purchases, think about the life cycle of the product—from its manufacture to the end of its useful life. Many of the things in our homes will one day end up in a landfill takes dozens of years if not centuries to degrade.
Minimalism and zero waste are becoming more mainstream since modern technology allows us to have significantly fewer things today. With our lives lived increasingly in digital environments, belongings like books, music collections, art, and even what need to work and study can all fit neatly in the cloud. Consider your purchases carefully before making them and buy things that serve multiple purposes and last for years.
Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs are released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels that power our cars and houses, fertilizers, deforestation, and decomposing waste. An increase in these gases leads to a warming planet that promises to drown the large coastal cities where much of the world’s human population lives.
Climate change causes extreme weather such as heat waves, storms, and forest fires. These effects endanger our safety and our economic welfare. In the long-term, it will have adverse effects on public health, ecosystems, and water and food resources.
Deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate all around the globe. Between 1990 and 2016, we lost about 502,000 square miles of forests—the equivalent of the landmass of South Africa. The rate of deforestation is due in large part to animal agriculture, mining, and drilling. Forests are also being replaced to grow palm oil, a common ingredient in mass-produced processed food, soaps, and cleaning products, that’s destroyed what was once the habitat of orangutans.
Since 1950, the human population rose from 5.3 billion to 7.3 billion people worldwide. By 2050, it’s expected to grow to 9.7 billion people. This population growth is due to the increase in survival rates for mothers and their children, increased availability in life-saving medicines and vaccines, longer life spans, and greater access to nutritious food. A growing population puts a greater strain on our natural resources to produce more to keep a greater number of people healthy and productive.
Natural disasters include hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and drought. The economic costs of these disasters are staggering. From 1980-2018, natural disasters caused $1,537.4 billion in damages in the United States alone. These disasters also affect the survival of entire ecosystems and the plants and animals that rely on them. As the world continues to warm, scientists expect the effects and costs to worsen if global warming continues unabated.
Ignoring That There Is A Problem
We all know that our planet is in danger, but many people, especially those in power, prefer to put their heads in the sand rather than alienate or frighten their supporters. Climate change over the past 50 years has been easy to write off since these changes are difficult to see year over year—especially in areas that have yet to experience the devastation wrought by climate change—but the hard evidence, like extreme weather and severe droughts, is increasingly difficult to refute.
Responsible organizations and companies can drive the way to greater sustainability with responsible resource management and transparent manufacturing practices. Customers like you can likewise refuse to buy products and services that are produced irresponsibly, while supporting companies whose ethos align with yours. We only have one planet and it’s up to all of us to take better care of it for the generations to come.
What can you do about the issues facing Earth today? Here are some of the practices that will help you reduce your overall impact.
- Consume less overall: commit to buying fewer things and trying to make your belongings last.
- Declutter: find new homes for the items you don’t use.
- Compost: set up a vermicomposting bin or drop your organic waste off to be composted.
- Invest in renewable resources: buy recycled products or offset your energy usage with a green energy plan.
- Turn off the AC: open the windows when it’s nice out and reduce your energy consumption.
- Spend more time walking, biking or using public transportation when you can.
- Avoid single-use items: skip the take-out and dine in.
- Buy mindfully: support sustainable and environmentally-conscious businesses or buy used items.
- Get informed and vote: support green initiatives, especially those concerning waste disposal and renewable energy.
1 “The Extinction Crisis”. The Center for Biological Diversity. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/
2 Shah, Anup. “Why Is Biodiversity Important? Who Cares?” Global Issues. January 19, 2014. Accessed April 02, 2019. http://www.globalissues.org/article/170/why-is-biodiversity-important-who-cares.
3 “Corals and Coral Reefs.” Smithsonian Ocean. December 18, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/corals-and-coral-reefs.
4 “Climate Change Causes: A Blanket around the Earth.” NASA. February 05, 2019. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
5 Greenfield, Nell. “Study: 634 Million People at RIsk from Rising Seas”. National Public Radio. NPR.org, Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9162438
6 Nunez, Christina. “Deforestation and Its Effect on the Planet.” Deforestation Facts and Information. February 25, 2019. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/.
7 “Population.” United Nations. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/population/.
8 Vahedifard, Farshid, and Amir Aghakouchak. “The Risk of ‘cascading’ Natural Disasters Is on the Rise.” Phys.org. October 22, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://phys.org/news/2018-10-cascading-natural-disasters.html.
Also published on Medium.