Our Future Environment
"The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations."
--Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day
"The world's environmental problems will get resolved, one way or another…in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice..."
--Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist
Credit: TOPEX/Poseidon Team, CNES, NASA
El Ni~o Earth, 1997, with Warm water shown in white
No matter how much mastery we gain over the inner workings of our bodies, we cannot escape the effects of our environment. We have altered the world in radical ways, sometimes making conditions more hospitable for humans. But we have also degraded Earth's environment through the destruction of forests and other natural habitats, the introduction of invasive and harmful species, the depletion of wildlife and fisheries for food and the release of pollutants into soils, water and the atmosphere.
Such damaging effects are not necessarily intentional. A rapidly growing human population of more than six billion needs sufficient resources to survive. Yet humans, both individually and collectively, can reduce consumption, conserve energy and preserve natural habitats. We can choose a healthy environment, but only if we learn to look beyond our immediate, individual interests and needs.
Despite our poor track record in maintaining the environment, some argue that humans have the unique ability to understand and predict the future consequences of our actions, and we will rise to the challenge.
Some scientists predict that human impact on the environment could cause the extinction of half the world's species in the next 100 years.
As the human population continues to increase, and developing countries strive to raise their standard of living, human demand on global resources is rising steadily. At the same time, many of these same resources are being depleted. In the past, scarcity of resources such as oil or food has at times led to war, famine, epidemic disease and the collapse of civilizations. Solutions must be found for sustaining resources in ways that minimize the potential for such conflicts.
Credit: GOES 12 Satellite, NASA, NOAA
Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, August 2005
Barring a radical change in our behavior, human activity will cause the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere to double in this century compared to preindustrial levels, significantly warming the global climate and likely causing more frequent storms, flooding, drought and reduction of habitat, especially in coastal areas that are now inhabited by millions of people.
Can We Fix It?
We will have to move to much greater use of alternative and renewable energy sources. In addition, several countries are exploring ways to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a way to reduce global warming. Potential strategies include pumping carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean or into other rock layers where it can be stored.