3 Global Environmental Crises (For students & adults who like to think)
Updated: Jan 9
For the vast majority of human history, people could not affect the condition of our planet or the strength of its web of life. People could disrupt their local ecosystem to the point where it no longer could support them. Their community either died or moved to a new location. Humans could cause a limited number of species to become extinct locally or across a continent.
About 40 times as many people live today compared with 2,000 years ago. Human population increased from about 0.2 billion people to about 8 billion people. Most of that population explosion has occurred in the last 100 years. At the same time as our numbers have soared, humans have also developed powerful technologies that we use to satisfy our needs and consumer desires.
About 50 years ago, humanity just barely lived within Earth’s capacity to produce the resources we use and absorb the wastes we create each year. Now it would take 1.6 planet Earths to sustainably provide the demands we are making on our planet. In other words, it now takes the Earth one year and seven months to recover from what we all do in one year. For example, we harvest fish and trees faster than they can come back, and we emit way more carbon dioxide into the air than natural processes can safely remove.
Humanity is now the dominant ecological force on our planet. The combination of our huge population and our powerful consumption technologies have changed the ways that our planet and our societies used to work. We experience the results in a global climate crisis, a global species extinction crisis, and an increasing pandemics crisis.
Are these three global crises related to each other or is it a coincidence that they are occurring at the same time? Human activities that burn fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) are the main cause of climate change. This fuel combustion and other human activities cause climate change by emitting into the atmosphere heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide.
Neither pandemics nor global loss of biodiversity significantly affect the rate of global climate change. While climate change is not the main cause of pandemics or species extinctions, it does significantly make both of those crises worse.
As a specific example, an ecosystem may have become too hot for a bat species that hosts dangerous corona viruses. The bats move to new locations with new neighbors, possibly including humans. New interactions give the coronaviruses new opportunities to change who they infect and how they can move from wild and domestic animals to humans. It is not a coincidence that global pandemics are increasing at the same time that ecosystems are being severely impacted by climate change and global losses of biodiversity.
These three global crises exist because we have been abusing our one and only home. Fortunately, we can still make changes that will significantly reduce the dangers of global climate change, the increasing frequency of pandemics, and the extinction of many species globally. We already have the technologies and strategies that can solve them. In addition, practically every strategy we implement to reduce the amount of global climate change also helps to reduce biodiversity extinctions and the threat of pandemics.
Our great challenge as individuals, communities and governments is to make the changes that are necessary for humanity to live sustainably on planet Earth. If we fail, those who are currently disadvantaged will suffer the most. That is environmental injustice. Children will lose the most while having the least responsibility for causing global disasters. That is generational injustice. Most species could become extinct. That is plant and animal injustice. These global issues can be solved only via equitable local and global collaborations on a scale that matches the enormity of the problems.
NOTE: Watch the short, engaging HGST video to learn more about the three global environmental crises.