To some, it seems incomprehensible that 7 billion people can have lasting influence on our planet, inducing harmful changes to our environment. Climate change cannot exist, say some folks.
Humans have an impact on the environment. I think most would agree. But the argument that extends from this concept is the line, the threshold at which our species can impact parts or all of our world. What is the threshold of our influence? How far does the impact of humankind extend? At what level do we stop having an influence? And what are the consequences of our evident influence?
One person can affect one tree by topping it, inviting disease and early death. The pathogen spreads to nearby trees, plaguing the neighborhood. One person generates 4.4 lb of trash per day, which goes into a landfill. If one person dumps old batteries, old cleaners, plastics, construction material, it quickly fills and pollutes the landfill. While the intent is to entomb the used goods for good, landfills inevitably leak concentrated, harmful, and radioactive materials into our air, soil, and waters. One person has an influence.
A handful of people can harvest a forest through clear-cutting. The immediate impact is on the forest, of course. As decaying stumps now fill the landscape, the loosened soil, once held fast by living root systems, invites erosion. The rains erode precious soil and decrease the chances of repopulation and natural succession. The streams that now lie unshaded, devoid of forest canopy, become opaque and inhospitable for aquatic life. Back in the stump-filled field, with the native plants in peril, invasive exotic weeds claim the upper hand. Before natives get the chance to establish, they are crowded out and shaded out by invasive species (Honeysuckle, Tree of Heaven, Russian Olive, Autumn Olive, Kudzu, Wintercreeper, etc.). Unless tree harvesters replant the forest, or more selectively and sustainably harvest it in the first place, it is doomed to inadequate or impossible ecological revival. A handful of people have influence.
Thousands of people have the capacity to move mountains and burn a train-car of coal in minutes. Thousands mine, transport, and burn coal. They break apart entire mountains for bituminous bounty and toss the tailings into adjacent valleys. If you fundamentally understand hydrology, or just gravity, it’s obvious that the valleys tend to carry surface waters. Once geologically locked in the mountain, the inert, toxic, acidic, and contaminating materials now contaminate the valley and its waters. Downstream is riddled with fish kills, dead zones, undrinkable waters, and unswimmable waters. Then of course, there’s the impact of transporting coal, incinerating it, and ‘disposing’ of its byproducts. Thousands of people have influence.
A metropolitan area, facilitating millions of people, is wrought with real environmental problems. Urban areas are warmer than their surrounding rural areas (UHIE) because of automobiles, industry, heating/cooling systems, and man-made impervious surfaces (asphalt, concrete, brick, etc.), which absorb and re-radiate large quantities of solar radiation instead of reflecting it. Walking down a city street in mid-summer, pavement is everywhere and relatively few trees and plants are available to provide evapotranspirative cooling and shade. Pavement also prevents stormwater from penetrating the soil and recharging groundwater. We try to pipe away stormwater in sewers (sometimes combined wastewater/stormwater sewers). Yet relentless, careless urbanization practices result in more runoff, flash flooding, the first flush phenomenon, combined sewer overflows, contaminated downstream waters, inedible fish, and a moisture deficit between rains.
Cities thrive on progress, an economic measure of power and wealth. Suburbanization widens the city’s grasp and creates the need for strip malls, highways, gas stations, leveled forests, channelized streams, and homeowners associations that find line-dried clothes ‘unsightly’ instead of ‘environmentally friendly.’ Indeed, oak-hickory forests become Oak-Hickory Estates, filled with boring bradford pears and boxwoods. A river floodplain becomes waterview mall, a vast ocean of concrete that covers fertile land (and inevitably will be inundated during a 100-year-flood). Millions of people have an influence.
Billions, with a B, certainly have an influence.
Why is it so difficult to widen the scope of environmental influence from individual (local) to millions (regional) to billions (worldwide)?
Sure, the Earth is big. Most of it is covered by water, and plants like CO2. But what about our collective impacts, the synergism of diverse contamination and innumerable smoke stacks, the millions of automobiles on the road, the boats transporting our ‘cheap’ goods across OCEANS (circumnavigating state-sized garbage patches)? Is it so unfathomable that, in the relentless pursuit of progress worldwide, we are causing worldwide problems?
See the increases in cancer, respiratory illness, and general unhappiness as we wipe entire forests for toilet paper, burn anything and everything we find, throwaway reusable and recyclable things that never fully decompose, and import bottled water when locally-sourced (usually) tap water is available?
Do we continue down ruts until they run so deep that we cannot steer away when we see a cliff? Do we invest in heavily subsidized, outdated, continually short-sighted technologies or consider developing technologies that become increasingly efficient, sustainable, and cheap in the long-term?
Who are we kidding? Let’s not kid our kids or our kids’ kids; let’s invest in our future and their future responsibly, sustainably, as stewards for God’s masterful work.