How is Humanity Affecting the Environment?
Hi, welcome to Enchiridion. I am more than happy to share with you these ideas of Environmental Science, because I’m an avid fan of everything environmental! A summary of the key ideas of this video includes the fact that: Humans dominate the earth with the power to degrade, sustain, or add to the natural capital that supports all life and human economies. They can stress ecosystems and affect the environment mainly because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.
Homo sapiens became the dominant species on the planet, not any other animal, not even any other species of early man, like Neanderthals. As our ecological footprints increase, we degrade and deplete more of the earth’s natural capital that sustains us. On the other hand, if ecological footprints decrease, problems like increased desertification, global warming, lack of fresh air, carbon emissions, and increased environmental pollution would be reduced.
Good News: Many People Have a Better Quality of Life As the world’s dominant animal, humans have great power to degrade or sustain the earth’s life-support system. For instance, humans impact the physical environment in numerous ways: pollution, burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and overpopulation. An additional example may be that humans decide whether forests are preserved or cut down.
Human activities affect the acidity of ocean waters, also known as ocean acidification, temperature of the atmosphere, also known as global warming, and which species survive or become extinct. Changes like these have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, and undrinkable water. We can either choose the common good, applying principles like intergenerational ethics; leaving the planet in as good or better condition as we found it, or we can degrade it and lead to the depletion of the natural capital that supports all life and our economies. At the same time, scientific research, political pressure by citizens, creative thinking, and regulatory laws have improved the quality of life for many of the earth’s people, especially in the more-developed countries. The environment directly affects health status and plays a major role in quality of life. For instance, in less-developed countries, poor air quality is linked to premature cancer, death, or long-term damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems. For that reason, less-developed countries are affected by rising economical inequalities.
We can also observe environmental racism, in which minorities like those of color and members of low socioeconomic backgrounds, are burdened with disproportionate numbers of hazards including garbage dumps, toxic waste facilities, and other sources of environmental pollution. Humans have developed an amazing array of useful materials and products. We have learned how to use wood, fossil fuels, the sun, wind, flowing water, the nuclei of certain atoms, and the earth’s heat or geothermal energy to supply us with enormous amounts of energy as well as wind energy, solar energy, and hydropower. We’ve developed materials like plastic, rubber, glass, and styrofoam.
Most people live and work in artificial environments within buildings and cities. This is known as built environment, or built world, referring to the human-made environment that provides the setting for human activity, ranging in scale from buildings to cities and beyond. The built environment encompasses places and spaces created or modified by humans to serve their needs of accommodation, organization, and representation. And while these environments have led to great progress, they have also given rise to new concerns like physical health, mental health, and healthy food access. The reality of cities -- people living in close proximity to one another -- creates opportunities for fully decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation and advancing along sustainable pathways to development.
We have invented computers to extend our brainpower through increasing our productivity, connecting us to the internet, storing vast amounts of data, organizing this data, and essentially functioning as portals to our education and work life. We have created robots to perform repetitive tasks with great precision, used in industrial, service, education, and even military settings. From materials handling and machine tending to working alongside humans in pick-and-place operations, robot precision is transforming the manufacturing, medical, logistics, among other sectors significantly.
We have built electronic networks to allow for instantaneous global communication. This instant connection allows individuals to send vast messages to loved ones and strangers from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, within seconds. It is the first stage of an evolution that has seen social media rise as one of the most prolific and impactful innovations in recent history. Today, social media can do it all, from personal announcements, instant global communication in seconds, and even to industry and business marketing campaigns on a worldwide scale. Globally, life spans are increasing, and they currently are roughly up to almost 73 years in age. Infant mortality is decreasing, and in the U.S. it has declined from 6.89 deaths per
1,000 births in 2000 to 5.79 in 2017, according to a relatively recent study. Education, widely accepted to be a fundamental resource both for individuals and societies, is on the rise, and global literacy rates have been climbing over the course of the last two centuries, mainly through increasing rates of enrollment in primary education. Numerous diseases are being conquered, with diseases like Guinea worm, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio, among others and their effects being gradually alleviated.
The population growth rate has slowed. For instance, the Census Bureau recently reported in a preliminary estimate that the U.S. population grew 0.35% through July 1, 2020, marking the fifth consecutive year of slowing growth. Despite the fact that one out of seven people live in extreme poverty, we have witnessed the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10% in 2015, down from 11% in 2013, reflecting progress. During this period, the number of people living in less than $1.90 a day fell during this period by 68 million to 736 million.
The food supply is generally more abundant and safer, as Americans for instance enjoy a food supply that is abundant, affordable overall and among the world’s safest, largely due to the efficiency and productivity of America’s farm and ranch families. Air and water are getting cleaner in many parts of the world, allowing many areas of the world to meet national air quality standards set to protect public health and the environment. Exposure to toxic chemicals that affect our health is more avoidable. You come into contact with an array of chemicals every day, and this is called chemical exposure. These chemicals have varying
degrees of toxicity, and the fact that they are becoming more avoidable is great news because these substances may cause lethality to the entire body, specific organs, or even cause cancer. People have protected some endangered species and ecosystems through acts, which make the federal government for instance responsible to protect endangered species, threatened species, and critical habitat. We have restored some grasslands and wetlands, which is essential because it makes up a quarter of the world’s land and about 70% of its agricultural land. Grasslands are threatened by habitat loss, which can be caused by human actions like unsustainable agricultural practices, overgrazing, and crop clearing. Almost half of all temperate grasslands and 16% of tropical grasslands have been converted
to agricultural or industrial uses and only 1% of the original tallgrass prairie exists today. What we are doing to solve these problems includes the protection and restoration of wetlands. Forests are growing back in some areas. This is important because countries with annual
increases in the amount of trees typically score highly on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), meaning that they experience higher levels of general wellbeing. Scientific research and technological advances financed by affluence helped achieve these improvements in life and environmental quality. This may be known as sustainable development, meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. This is also related to intergenerational ethics, as
sustainable development can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Education also spurred many citizens to insist that businesses and governments work toward improving environmental quality. We are seeing more widespread awareness of the climate crisis and issues like ocean pollution and acidification. With the widespread interconnected network of social groups, environmental activism, or environmentalism, is rising, and to the great benefit of humanity. We are a globally connected species with
growing access to information that could help us to shift to a more sustainable path. For instance, as secondary cities in developing countries develop, they have particularly promising opportunities to follow sustainable pathways, through investments in infrastructure and urban design to advance climate change mitigation, social inclusion, and liveability. Bads News: On the Whole, We Are Living Unsustainably According to a large body of scientific evidence, humans are living unsustainably. In other words,
economic growth has increased national incomes significantly, yet unevenly, across countries. While that has contributed to advances in human, social, and economical well-being, the effects on human societies and the environment are currently unsustainable. People continually waste, deplete, and degrade much of the earth’s life-sustaining natural capital. This is known as environmental degradation, or natural capital degradation, the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources like air, water, and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution. In a nutshell, it is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment
perceived to be undesirable or deleterious. It is estimated that the human ecological footprint has affected 83% of the global terrestrial land surface and has degraded about 60% of the ecosystem services in the past 50 years alone. Land use and land cover, or LUCC change, has been the most visible indicator of the human footprint and the most important driver of loss of biodiversity and other forms of land degradation.
Recent trends on global demand for food and bioenergy change -- which are intimately tied to food and energy price spikes and volatility -- have raised concerns on the impact of land use and land cover change on biodiversity and other environmental impacts. This land is used for important purposes like energy production, urban development, grazing livestock, growing crops, timber cutting, and mining. In many parts of the world, however, renewable forests are shrinking, as deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which in turn contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity.
Deserts are expanding, as the range and intensity of desertification have increased in some dryland areas over the past several decades. Desertification is a type of land degradation in drylands in which biological productivity is lost due to natural processes or induced by human activities whereby fertile areas become increasingly arid. Topsoil erosion is also becoming a major environmental concern. It occurs when the topsoil layer is blown or washed away. Without topsoil, little plant
life is possible. This is an issue because public and environmental health loss costs are involved. Unfortunately, the estimated annual costs related to soil erosion exceed $45 billion. The lower atmosphere is warming, as measurements from satellites and weather balloons indicate that the lowest layer of the atmosphere -- where airplanes fly, weather occurs, and we live -- is warming. Greenhouse gases are building up in this layer, trapping heat radiated from Earth’s surface and raising the planet’s temperature. Floating ice and many glaciers are melting at unexpected rates, which may lead to increases in sea levels, which in fact are being underestimated by scientists. From the thin ice shield covering most of the Arctic Ocean to the mile-thick mantle of the polar ice sheets, ice losses have soared from about 760 billion tons per year in the 1990s to more than 1.2 trillion tons per year in the 2010s, almost double the amount.
Sea levels are rising, and global mean sea level has risen roughly 8 to 9 inches, or 21 to 24 centimeters since 1880, with about ⅓ of that coming in just the last two and a half decades. The rising water level is mostly due to a combination of meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of seawater. Ocean acidity is increasing. This is known as ocean acidification. It is the ongoing
decrease in the pH of the Earth’s oceans, with its source being the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. This is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. There are more intense floods, droughts, severe weather, and forest fires in many areas. This may be known as extreme weather, or extreme climate events and includes unexpected, unusual, severe, or unseasonal weather. There is evidence to suggest that human-induced global warming
is increasing the periodicity and intensity of some extreme weather events. In a number of regions, rivers are running dry. From the American West to China, Australia to India, some of the world’s most important rivers have been drained dry for drinking water, industry, and agriculture. For instance, the Colorado River, the Indus River, and the Amu Darya River. 20% of the world’s species-rich coral reefs are gone, and others are threatened. Over the next 20 years, scientists estimate that about 70 to 90% of all coral reefs will disappear as a result of warming ocean waters, pollution, and ocean acidity. Degradation of normally renewable
natural resources and ecosystem services like the atmosphere, water, land, vegetation, and animal life that support us and human economies caused by growing human ecological footprints is mostly the result of population growth and rising rates of resource use per person. Now, more than ever, there is greater and greater demand for resources, with the UN’s International Resources Panel projecting that resource use per person will be 71% higher than today in 2050. Species are becoming extinct at least 100 times faster than in prehuman times, and some even estimate 1,000 times faster than in pre-human times. A rough estimate revealed a rate
of 100 to 1,000 species lost per million per year, mostly due to human-caused habitat destruction and climate change. And that is the good news, because future rates are likely to be much higher. Extinction rates are projected to increase at least another 100-fold during this century, creating a 6th mass extinction caused by human activities. This is known as the holocene extinction, or the sixth mass extinction or anthropocene extinction, with the included extinctions spanning numerous families of plants and animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and invertebrates. The current rate of extinction of species
is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background extinction rates. In 2005, the United Nations released its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year study by 1,360 experts from 95 countries. It is a major assessment of the human impact on the environment that since popularized the term ecosystem services. According to this study,
human activities have overused about 60% of the earth’s ecosystem services, mostly since 1950. This is rather unfortunate if we acknowledge that the key ecosystem services like nutrient cycling, food, climate regulation, and spiritual and aesthetic services lead to personal safety, strength, social cohesion, and mutual respect, among other elements of well-being. According to this assessment, “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” This idea is related to intergenerational ethics, or responsibility to
future generations and the stress human activity is applying on Earth’s natural processes. Another conclusion yielded from the assessment includes that political, economic, and scientific solutions to these complex problems could be implemented within decades, which is an aspect that underscores hope for humanity and Earth’s future. Unfortunately, since that study, the harmful health and environmental impact of human activities on the planet’s ecosystems has increased. But fortunately, with the rise of education
and awareness about these essential issues, we are paving the way for a more sustainable future. Degrading Commonly Shared Renewable Resources: The Tragedy of the Commons Some renewable resources, called open-access resources, are not owned by anyone and can be used by almost anyone, with examples being things like the ocean and array of fish as well as the atmosphere -- all of which provide some form of ecosystem services. Other examples of less open, but often shared resources, are streams, forests, grasslands, and aquifers, which are underground bodies of water. Many of these renewable resources have been environmentally degraded in some form. In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin famously called such degradation the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation in economic science when individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action. Users reason that it doesn’t matter whether they pollute
or take from the resource, because it’s renewable. Yet, when this occurs in large quantities, it leads to degradation of the resource, eventually leading to exhaustion or ruining the resource. After this occurs, no one benefits and everyone loses, thus the tragedy of the commons.
Hardin wrote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” It has proved to be a powerful idea. To Hardin, the same grim logic was behind many of our greatest challenges. Common resources like forests, air, and fisheries are threatened by selfish individuals and nations taking what they can, even though they know the resource will be wiped out if everyone does the same. Hardin’s solution was to cede our freedoms to the state, to be bound by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”. One method to alleviate this challenge is to use a shared or open-access renewable resource at a rate well below its estimated sustainable yield. As a review, the sustainable yield of natural capital
is the ecological yield that can be extracted without reducing the base of the capital itself. Thus, if we apply this, we are using resources in a quantity that doesn’t reduce the base of the natural capital. This is done by regulating access to the resource, mutually agreeing to use less of the resource, or doing both. Doing both essentially allows for greater control of the specific resource in question.
Another way is to convert shared renewable resources to private ownership, as it is thought that if someone owns something, they are more likely to protect their investment. Nonetheless, history has proven that this isn’t necessarily the case. Additionally, this approach is not possible for open-access resources such as the atmosphere, which cannot be divided by and sold as private property, so this solution has its limitations. Nonetheless, recent interdisciplinary
work offers hope that the tragedy is not so inevitable after all. Instead, governments and institutions can design systems for people to join collective schemes, protect endangered resources, and help control their selfish impulses. Our Growing Ecological Footprints The effects of environmental degradation by human activities can be described as an ecological footprint -- a rough measure of the total harmful environmental impacts of individuals, cities, and countries on Earth’s natural resources, ecosystem services, and life-support system. In other words, it’s a measure of human demand on natural capital, and it is tracked through an ecological accounting system. A per capita ecological footprint is the average ecological footprint of an individual in a given population or defined region. An important measure of sustainability is biocapacity, or biological capacity -- the ability of an area’s ecosystems to regenerate the renewable resources used by a population, city, region, country, or the world in a given time period and to absorb the resulting wastes and pollution. In other words, it's an estimate of an ecosystem’s production of certain biological
materials like natural resources, and its absorption and filtering of other materials like carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If the total ecological footprint in a defined area (such as a city, country, or the world) is larger than its biocapacity, the area is said to have an ecological deficit. Such a deficit occurs when people are living unsustainably by depleting natural capital instead of living off the renewable resources and ecosystem services provided by such capital. Ecological footprint data and models have been used since the 1990s. Despite the fact that they are imperfect, they provide useful rough estimates of individual, regional, national, and global scales of environmental impacts.
In 2016, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Global Footprint Network estimated that we would need the equivalent of 1.6 planet Earths to sustain the world’s average 2014 rate of renewable resource use per person far into the future. This means we would need the equivalent of almost two Earths to sustain life on Earth into the future. They estimated that by 2030, we would need the equivalent of two planet Earths and, by 2050, three planet Earths. The current
and projected future overdraft of the earth’s natural resources and ecosystem services and the resulting environmental degradation will be passed on to future generations. For this reason, intergenerational ethics is an essential principle of sustainability, making us responsible for our actions with a view towards future generations. 1.6 is the number of earths needed to sustain the 2014 global rate of renewable resources per person use indefinitely. We can reduce our harmful ecological footprints and increase our beneficial environmental impacts by working with rather than against the earth such as restoring degraded wetlands and grasslands, planting forests on degraded land, and protecting species from becoming extinct. IPAT Is Another Environmental Impact Model Another environmental impact model was developed in the early 1970s by scientists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren during the course of a debate.
It is the mathematical notation of a formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment. This IPAT model shows that the environmental impacts (I) of human activities is the product of three factors: population size (P), affluence (A), or resource consumption per person, and the beneficial and harmful environmental effects of technologies (T). Impact (I) = Population (P) x Affluence (A) x Technology (T) The T factor can be either beneficial or harmful. Some forms of technology like polluting factories, gas-guzzling motor vehicles, and coal-burning power plants increase our harmful environmental impact by raising the T factor. Other technologies like fuel-efficient cars, wind turbines and solar
cells, and pollution control and prevention technologies reduce our harmful environmental impact by decreasing the T factor. By developing technologies that mimic natural processes, scientists and engineers are finding ways to have positive environmental impacts. This is known as biomimicry or biomimetics, which is the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. In a moderately developed country like India, population size is a more important factor than affluence, or resource use per person, in determining the country’s environmental impact. In a highly developed country like the United States with a much smaller population, resource use per person and the ability to develop environmentally beneficial technologies play key roles in the country’s environmental impact. Cultural Changes Can Increase or Shrink Our Ecological Footprints Until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans were mostly hunter-gatherers who obtained food by hunting wild animals or scavenging their remains, and gathering wild plants.
A hunter-gatherer is a nomadic human living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging, or collecting wild plants and pursuing wild animals. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small groups, consumed few resources, had few possessions, and moved as needed to find enough food to survive. Since then, three major cultural changes have occurred that have re-defined culture and whether it can increase or shrink our ecological footprints. First was the agricultural revolution. It began around 10,000 years ago when humans learned how to grow and breed plants and animals for food, clothing, and other purposes and began living in villages instead of frequently moving to find food. They had a more reliable source of food, lived longer, and produced more children who
survived to adulthood. The agricultural revolution is also known as the Neolithic Revolution, and it was a wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, making an increasingly large population possible. These settled communities allowed humans to observe and experiment with plants to learn how they grew and developed. This new knowledge led to the domestication of plants. Second was the industrial-medical revolution, beginning about 300 years ago when people invented machines for the large-scale production of goods in factories. Many people moved from rural villages to cities to work in the factories. This shift involved learning how to get energy from fossil fuels like oil and coal and how to grow large quantities of food. It also included
medical advances that allowed a growing number of people to have longer and healthier lives. Third, about 50 years ago, the information-globalization revolution began when we developed new technologies for gaining rapid access to all kinds of information and resources on a global scale. As mentioned in the introduction, this global network connects most of the world nowadays and leads to rapid communication and diffusion of information. Each of these three cultural changes gave us more energy and new technologies with which to alter and control more of the planet’s resources to meet our basic needs and increasing wants. They also allowed expansion of the human population, mostly because of larger food supplies and longer life spans. In addition, these cultural changes resulted in greater resource use, pollution, and environmental degradation and expanding ecological footprints.
On the other hand, some technological leaps have enabled us to shrink our ecological footprints by reducing our use of energy and matter, resources and our production of wastes and pollution. For example, energy-efficient cars and buildings, recycling, the use of energy-efficient LED light bulbs, sustainable farming, and solar energy and wind energy to produce electricity are on the rise. Many environmental scientists and other analysts see such developments as evidence of an emerging fourth major cultural change: a sustainability revolution, in which we could learn to live more sustainably during this century. This would involve avoiding degradation and depletion of the natural capital that supports all life and our economies and restoring natural capital that we have degraded. Making this shift would involve
learning how nature has sustained life over 3.8 billion years and using these lessons from nature to shrink our ecological footprints and increase our beneficial environmental impacts. We can contribute to this by applying the six essential principles of sustainability, taking action, and educating ourselves about environmental challenges.
Outro Thank you for watching this extensive documentary of How Humanity is affecting the Environment we live and care for, essential because of the ecosystem services it provides and part of our responsibility as caring citizens. I love Environmental Science and will continue working to provide high-quality content. This program episode belongs to the Sustainability and the Environment Section and I plan to provide the scripts via a website for you guys! As always, this is Enchiridion, see you next time. #Enchiridion #EnvironmentalScience #EnvironmentalDegradation