Man’s Industrialization Heats up the Environment. The Upside and Downside to Man’s Inventiveness

Published by Leita Hermanson on

 “Man’s Industrialization Heats up the Environment: The Causes and Effects of Atmospheric Pollution.” was written in 1991. The paper started off by stating: “Since the mid-1800s, man has been continuously altering the global environment through his industrialization. Today, industrialized societies such as the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union are releasing atmospheric pollution in unprecedented proportions. The ensuing results are global warming, depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect among other phenomena. As more and more nations strive to become industrialized causing increasing releases, these pollutants are creating a new environment on a global scale. In turn, many environmental changes which will follow will occur on a scale large enough to result in widespread adverse physiological aspects to man, such as an increased rate of cancer and other diseases – impacting his future.”

Indeed, man’s inventiveness has led to the industrial revolution, such that during the past 150 years, economies, agriculture, and population have benefited, increasing the quality of life for many people on the planet. By some accounts, 700 million people are alive today, due to advances in agriculture alone. It’s hard not to sing the praises of such advances. However, at the same time, this growth has used up natural resources in unsustainable ways. While we’ve been basking in our innovation, the planet has suffered from the unintended consequences of this industrialization such that the “degradation of water, atmospheric and terrestrial ecosystem services” now threatens to reduce quality of life for both man and other species on the planet.  Widespread environmental issues have caused species extinctions, fallow land, pollution, erosion and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide among others. (MA Synthesis, 2005, 1, 5).

In 1968, Hardin called the phenomena of rapidly using up resources the “tragedy of the commons.” Due to this tragedy, we are now in a new revolution, the sustainability revolution where many smart minds around the globe are working on sustainable design and on developing ways to employ the triple bottom line so we can live on the planet, “in health and prosperity for the foreseeable future.” In his article, Innovating Our Way to the Next Industrial Revolution, Peter M. Senge, states: “What’s so new about the New Economy? Our real future lies in building sustainable enterprises and an economic reality that connects industry, society, and the environment.” (Senge, 2001, p. 24)

Nature already creates connections in the web of life, where all things within ecosystems are interrelated. So in a sense, what Senge is describing is a way to look at all of life from the perspective of an ecosystem. From this vantage point, we can address the tragedy of the commons, through the triple bottom line and Robert Gibson et al’s requirements for sustainability. In Sustainability Assessment: Criteria and Processes Gibson et al (2005) state there are eight “essential requirements for progress towards sustainability.” (Gibson 2005 p. 95) These requirements include: Socio-ecological system integrity which works to build ecological relationships and to maintain vital ecosystem services; Livelihood sufficiency and opportunity so that everyone (current and future generations) has enough for a “decent life and opportunities to seek improvements” (98); Intergenerational Equity, which reduces the “dangerous gaps in sufficiency and opportunity between the rich and poor” (101); Intragenerational Equity which “favors options and actions that are most likely to preserve or enhance the opportunities and capabilities of future generations to live sustainably” (103); Resource Maintenance and Efficiency which reduces the damage from the extraction of raw materials, incorporating the idea of waste equals food by avoiding waste altogether and dramatically reducing “overall material and energy use per unit of benefit” (105); Socio-ecological Civility and Democratic Governance which builds the “capacity, motivation and habitual inclination of individuals” within our society, communities, and world to apply all the principles of sustainability through collective responsibility” (107); Precaution and Adaptation which ensures that decisions made are the ones which make the most positive contributions to sustainability while using the precautionary principle which integrates social, economic and environmental considerations on a local, regional and global scale, for the long-term.

Much of today’s efforts toward sustainability stem from the work of people such as Aldo Leopold, and the many scientists working on the MA Synthesis. In 1933, when Leopold wrote The Conservation Ethic, he was heralding a bold new thinking, calling for a “third” ethic whereby people considered land as more than mere property, thereby considering cause and effect in their interactions with nature. Civilization, he said, was “a state of mutual and interdependent cooperation between human animals, other animals, plants, and soils, which may be disrupted at any moment by the failure of any of them.” (Leopold, 1933, p. 183)

Indeed, 50 years after Leopold made these statements conservation has become a household term. With the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) initiated in 2001, conservation has now expanded around the globe. Today, we have a language to describe the many benefits we derive from nature, called ecosystems services, which helps us to consider the consequences of our actions in relation to these benefits. It might sound simple, but using a term such as “ecosystems services” has helped us to make progress towards beginning to control what Leopold said were “reactions resulting from the interplay of ecological and economic forces.”

Today, to encourage responsible use and management, conservationists, scientists and others, including the writers of the MA synthesis, have adopted terms such as “ecosystem services” to describe the benefits such as food, fuel, fiber, and timber that people obtain from nature. The MA divides ecosystem services into four categories, (provisioning, regulating, cultural and support) (MA Synthesis, 2005, v.) such that we can begin to think more consciously about them in our everyday lives. As “consumers” we can easily relate to thinking about the various benefits we derive from nature as “services.” Thus, this language tool has made a dramatic difference in helping ordinary people grasp the consequences of the use and misuse of ecosystem resources. For example, by thinking of ecosystem services in the provisioning category, we can link benefits such as food, water, timber, and fiber to the specific ecosystems of forest, oceans, or grasslands. Regulating services are those ecosystem dynamics that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality. Benefits such as recreational, aesthetic and spiritual are categorized as cultural ecosystem services. Soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling are support services. (MA Synthesis, 2005, v.)

Further, we can relate ecosystem services to what the MA calls “constituents of well-being,” such as “security, basic material for a good life, health, good social relations, and freedom of choice and action.” For example, provisioning services such as food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel have a direct impact on security, basic material for a good life, and health: a lack of food can lead to poor health, lack of timber may result in housing issues which reduce security, lack of fibers can result in lack of clothing or trade items, etc. To a lesser degree all of the ecosystem services affect at least four categories of the constituents of well-being. (MA Synthesis, 2005, v, vi)

Thinking of our planet in terms of ecosystems services and the triple bottom line is important because the problems caused by our industrialization are complex. One of the problems which has gained considerable attention in the last decade is greenhouse gasses and global warming, and for good reason. Geological records show that for hundreds of millions of years the earth has experienced climate changes, warming and cooling, warming and cooling. In fact a warm planet sustains life. Furthermore, “without greenhouse gasses, the earth’s temperature would be at 0 degrees Celsius” and unable to support life as we know it. (Beall, Climate Lecture, 2012.)

However, something is different now and it is a cause for concern. According to scientists who have contributed to the Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, the concern today is the acceleration in the rate of global warming when compared to the past, combined with widespread changes in ecosystem biodiversity and other issues that impact ecosystem services. Scientists have found that “global GHG emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004….and that C02 emissions have grown annually by 80%, from 21 to 38 gigatonnes (Gt). …Of the more than 29,000 observational data series from 75 studies that show significant change in many physical and biological systems, more than 89% are consistent with the direction of change expected as a response to warming.” (Synthesis, 33, 36.)

These and other factors have set the earth on a warming trend, where the earth is expected to warm as much as .177 degrees Celsius per decade, which could amount to an increase of from 2 to 10 degrees Celsius within the next 100 years. In addition, due to the earth’s wobble and shape of orbit, warming is not necessarily uniform or evenly distributed. A surface temperature anomaly exists such that the arctic and northern hemisphere warm faster. (Beall, Climate Lecture, 2012.) In fact, according to the Climate Change 2007 report, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” (Synthesis, 30.)

The earth is equipped to balance natural greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere that occur from such things as plant photosynthesis and plant and animal respiration. However, as humans have increased industrial activity primarily from the 1750’s to present, this human activity has resulted in increases in GHGs, disrupting the earth’s natural energy balance. To maintain the balance, or energy equilibrium (the quantity of radiation absorbed by the earth must be equal to the quantity of radiation leaving the earth), the earth’s temperature rises, a principle known as negative feedback. Thus, the planet has been warming at an increasing rate that outpaces the planet’s ability to remove C02 from the atmosphere. (Climate Lab, 2012)

According to the 2007 Climate report, the causes of climate change are “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, atmospheric concentrations, radiative forcing, climate responses and effects.” Since the 1800s scientists like John Tyndall and others have been tracking global temperatures and from the 1960s scientists such as Keeling have also been measuring C02 emissions and other climate variables. Using ice core samples to create proxy data for atmospheric concentrations of C02 in the past, we have been able to compare past with present, creating a graph that is accurate back to around 400,000 years or more. From this data, scientists have noticed changes in global temperatures and C02 concentrations, and, a notable difference in the rate of change. This, combined with sea levels rising, polar ice melting, and a warming acceleration that coincide with human activity leads scientists to attribute the latest warming trend to anthropogenic causes. (Beall, Climate Lecture, 2012.)

The primary causes of anthropogenic climate change include those human activities, which produce greenhouse gas emissions and alter land cover, such as clearing forests.  “Human activities result in emissions of four long-lived GHGs: C02, methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons.” (Synthesis, 37). Various industrial activities, which rely on fossil fuels, are the primary source of GHGs. Fossil fuel burning, forest clearing, agricultural fertilizers, and other factors cause GHG emissions. We drive cars, fly in airplanes, make products from fossil fuels and use fossil fuels to run many industrial activities and this burning of fossil fuels adds surplus carbon dioxide into the system, upsetting the natural equilibrium of the earth. (Beall, Climate Lecture, 2012.)

As global warming cause’s climate change and other disturbances such as flooding, drought, wildfire, insect infestations, and ocean acidification, it also poses major threats to ecosystem services globally. As the health of ecosystems erodes, this will cause a disruption in food provisioning, water availability and quality, as well as lead to extinctions and loss of biodiversity. Our entire planet is a system of interrelated parts (biotic and abiotic), including the plants and animals, insects, bacteria, the soil, water, air and minerals and more, which create a biodiversity, or “nature’s tool shed.” Humans rely on ecosystem services such as habitat, carbon sequestration, water storage, provisioning (food, fiber) and medicine (such as Taxol) (genetic resources, biochemical) and fresh water. The components of an ecosystem and each species play an important role in maintaining a balance that creates a healthy ecosystem. Some provide shade, or places for nests, others such as worms break down soil, and others repair nitrogen or perform other important functions such as pollination. Without these important roles being performed, a chain reaction occurs, where the habitat can begin to break down and species begin to die. (Beall, lecture, WSU, 2012)

In 2005, according to NASA, the lowest level of polar ice was recorded. The melting of the ice caps concerns climate scientists because of what is known as positive feedback, especially with respect to albedo in the Polar Regions. This is because albedo, which is a measurement of reflectiveness, decreases as polar ice melts and exposes more land and ocean, which absorb heat rather than reflect it. This causes further warming of the earth and surface temperatures. A positive feedback is somewhat like a multiplier effect. As the earth has warmed, it has set into motion other events, such as an increase in wildfires, increases in soil respiration and other positive feedback items, which emit C02 and further warm the planet. This, combined with the reduced ability of the planet to offset C02 emissions through absorption by oceans and plants, further exacerbates the warming trend.

Another concern is ocean impacts due to global warming such as sea level rises, changing circulation patterns, severe weather, changes in weather patterns and ocean acidification. Sea levels could rise up to 40 inches, due to thermal expansion. (Beall, Climate Lecture, 2012.) In fact, according to Robert B. Gagosian, a potential cause for concern that is often overlooked is an abrupt and dramatic climate change caused by changes in ocean currents, especially the Ocean Conveyer. “Fossil evidence clearly indicates that abrupt climate changes have occurred in the past,” he states, and due to disruptions in the sensitive threshold of ocean currents, Gagosian believes we could see large, global, abrupt climate changes in the future, due to global warming. As temperatures warm, changes occur in the Thermohaline conveyor belt effect of the oceans. This conveyor helps to move water and nutrients and warms the planet. As the sun hits the water, the water warms, and the current moves north, and as it evaporates, it releases moisture. The cooler salty water sinks and these temperature deviations drive the current. It takes 1,000 years for the water to move all the way around the planet, meaning that even if the earth were to cool after warming, it would take a very long time to do so. 

To offset these global warming issues, scientists are studying potential mitigation and adaptation measures. Adaptation measures work to reduce vulnerability to climate changes, while mitigation works to reduce or reverse the causes, such as reducing emissions. Various strategies for adaptation include expanding rainwater harvesting, adjusting planting dates and crop variety, relocating seawalls and storm surge barriers, heat-health action plans for humans along with emergency medical services, diversification of tourism activities, realignment, relocation and redesign of transportation systems such as roads and rail, and changes to energy. While there are constraints, many of these changes could occur as we educate people to better understand the impacts of climate change and the need to act now. (Synthesis, 57)

Mitigation could include reducing emissions or improving energy efficiencies. For example, one scenario calls for reducing C02 emissions by about 6 GtC02 equivalents per year by 2030. This would require changes in policy, technologies, and energy infrastructure investment. (Synthesis, 58,59) Scientists are also studying ways to implement mitigation strategies in energy supply, transportation, buildings, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste systems.

Thankfully, there is good news, and it comes from new innovations in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, ocean thermal conversion, ocean wave power, geothermal power, and hydrogen among others. For more than 36 years, one of the people on the forefront of this endeavor, Amory Lovins, has been working to wean “hydrocarbon man” off fossil fuels. In a Foreign Affairs piece in 1976, Lovins described “two energy choices then facing the nation: The ‘hard path’ (more of the same) and the ‘soft path’ (efficient use and a shift to renewable supply).” Today, Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) remains optimistic, recently stating that “business and society can pull off this transformation even if the U.S. Congress keeps failing to act.” In a recent interview, Lovins explained “the oil industry will ultimately forego fossil fuels and jump aboard the green bandwagon. One system is dying and others are struggling to be born.”

To map the way, Lovins recently published Reinventing Fire, “his step-by-step blueprint for how to transition to a renewable energy economy by mid-century.” Two of the renewable “green” energy sources that are emerging, and which seem to make the most sense are solar power and wind power, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy is actually a form of solar energy. (Wind program) Since we are already harnessing the sun’s power through the stored energy of fossil fuels, it makes sense to transition to a more sustainable way of using the sun’s power. And solar power is abundant. “More energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year,” states the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in its “Solar Energy Basics.”

            While solar power has very little impact on land, air pollution, or CO2 emissions, it can’t provide all the necessary elements to provide a consistent supply of electricity. Other downsides are that solar panels are expensive and can be affected by weather, thus it is difficult for the average individual to install them and maintain consistent production. The other renewable power to consider is wind power, where the wind’s kinetic energy is converted into mechanical power which drives the turbine. In turn, the mechanical power can be converted to electricity. A small, single turbine can produce about 100 kilowatts of electricity, and a larger turbine can produce several megawatts of electricity. Like solar power, wind turbines have little impact on land, air pollution and CO2 emissions, but they are expensive to make and install, and are dependent upon wind patterns, and thus do not produce a consistent amount of power all the time either. This is why they need to be combined with other technologies.

            Like Amory Lovins, I believe it will take a combination of efficiencies and renewables to solve our current energy issues. We can start by educating each person to be wiser in his or her individual use, and, continue to create better efficiencies in the production and transmission of electricity and other energies, and in building and transportation design and infrastructure. These efforts should be conducted in tandem with developing and implementing wide scale new renewable energy technologies by private industry and the government. Even today, we lose approximately 60% of our electrical energy per kilowatt produced, due to inefficiencies in design and other issues. (Beall, lecture.) Much work remains to be done to turn the tides begun a century and a half ago.

And then there’s water. It is one of life’s miracles. A compound made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, the only chemical substance that occurs naturally as a liquid, solid and a gas. All of terrestrial life depends upon it. It is water. And only a “minuscule share of the world’s water—less than one-hundredth of 1 percent” is available for drinking. (Postel) And therein lies the problem.

The statistics concerning water on earth are dire and overwhelming. The reports read almost like science fiction. Lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and huge seas like the Aral Sea in Central Asia, once “the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water,” (Postel, 19) are drying up. Human cultures, indigenous tribes dependent on waters for fishing, such as the Cocopa Indians, are going extinct, while others are on the brink. Wars are being threatened in places like Egypt over access to water from the great Nile River. Millions of people are dying of painful, yet treatable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. (Postel)

All over the world a common theme is emerging, and it has been culminating for thousands of years, problems with water resources, which, as Postel states are “rapidly emerging as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the decades to come: how to satisfy the thirst of a world population pushing nine billion by the year 2050, while protecting the health of the aquatic environment that sustains all terrestrial life.” Thankfully there are solutions, in both old and new technologies, which might avert disaster if we can implement them in time. But are we too late?

Like any resource, which seems abundant (like fossil fuels) water is also something that has been taken for granted in most places on our planet since the dawn of civilization. With oceans and rivers and lakes surrounding most cultures, and rain and snow falling, water has appeared to flow inexhaustibly, leading to its use for agriculture and human consumption, often in ways that are not sustainable. And if we didn’t have a stable supply of water nearby, either via a waterway or through precipitation, we simply diverted water sources from elsewhere to meet our needs, creating entire civilizations in places where, without water, no one would survive, such as Phoenix, Arizona.

It is true that water is abundant. However, what is alarming is that “only 2.5 percent of all the water on earth is freshwater, (the kind we can drink) and two-thirds of that is locked away in glaciers and ice caps,” states Postel. This leaves only a “minuscule share of the world’s water—less than one-hundredth of 1 percent” available for drinking or renewal “through rainfall and other precipitation.” I doubt many of us have stopped to consider this fact. So we use water in excess, for crops, to drink, to cook, to bathe, for leisure and more because we do not realize that quite simply, our freshwater supplies, what we depend upon for life, are not abundant and finite.

Thus, the major threats to both water quality and quantity are directly related to humans, either through our use or improper management of water and sanitation. In some cultures, such as Ethiopia, the source of the Nile River, where water has been abundant, local people have not known how to access the water properly, and thus suffer from disease, poverty and death. In other places, peoples have not made the connection between animals and even humans defecating upstream of drinking water, leading to disease and death related to poor sanitation. And in places where we have learned how to harness water, populations increase, forcing food production to increase, and thus agriculture places an increasing burden on water supply. At the same time, there are more people using water for drinking, cooking and bathing, further increasing the burden. This leads to rivers and streams and aquifers and groundwater being used, often at rates that exceed sustainability. At the same time, many of mankind’s efforts, from agriculture and farming to mining and industry, and lack of proper sanitation, lead to poor or toxic water quality. Thus, “more than a billion of the world’s people lack a safe supply of drinking water, and 2.8 billion do not have even minimal sanitation,” states Postel.

Indeed, the number of people globally facing drinking water stress is in the billions. According to Montaigne, “1.2 billion people drink unclean water and about 2.5 billion lack proper toilets or sewerage systems. More than five million people die each year from water-related diseases such as cholera and dysentery.” Slaughter cites similar statistics, stating that in 2009, “almost 1 billion people lacked access to potable water. Each year, 3.575 million die from waterborne diseases.” According to Montaigne, the United Nations has recently said: “2.7 billion people would face severe water shortages by 2025 if consumption continues at current rates.” Put into the perspective, that the world population is predicted to grow to nine billion by 2050, while the earth’s water supply is not increasing, one can see an enormous dark cloud in the future. While this potential shortage lies on the horizon, according to Postel, global ground water depletion through over pumping continues, at an estimated “160 billion cubic meters a year, an amount equal to the annual flow of two Nile Rivers.” According to Slaughter another issue that contributes to water problems is that “traditional water treatment approaches are not effectively meeting …growing needs.”

As water is essential to life, so is food. Presently agriculture accounts for “70 percent of all water use,” according to Montaigne and many agricultural practices have been and still remain inefficient, using more water than is necessary for crop production. These practices include over pumping water from aquifers or diversion of rivers, and streams, to supply “conventional flood or furrow irrigation systems,” which according to Postel, provide only 50 to 70 percent of the water to the crop, resulting in huge waste of water.

And while people suffer from water miss-use, so do eco systems, which play an important role in life, through the ecosystem services they supply. Examples of what happens when eco-systems are left out of the equation, as they mostly are, include California’s diminishing San Francisco Bay delta, “home to more than 120 species of fish…which “supports 80 percent of the state’s commercial fisheries;” and Florida’s Everglades, “which has shrunk by half,” (Postel) or “China’s Yellow River,” which “has failed to reach the sea most years during the past decade,” the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, which also are drying up and the Ogallala aquifer beneath the Great Plains, which has been severely depleted. (Montaigne.)

To solve these issues of water over use and shortage, of access to water and of providing clean drinking water, many people across the globe are stepping in to offer solutions. Some of the most promising are based on localized efforts. For sanitation and water treatment, solutions include water recycling and the desalination of seawater or “networked water treatment systems, and on-site energy generation systems,” which augment the traditional large, centralized systems, to better meet demand, such as those recommended by Slaughter. To improve efficiency and increase water supply for agriculture, locally designed solutions include reviving ancient but abandoned techniques, such as johads, the earthen dams and reservoir systems which collect rainwater during monsoon seasons, dating “back to 5,000 years in India,” or extracting water from “seasonal wetlands called dambos,” using the treadle pump. Others are high-tech, such as using super-efficient drip irrigation, which supplies crops with “exactly what they need every day.” (Postel and Montaigne)

Montaigne traveled across the globe, visiting villages and places where these technologies are being implemented, such as in Goratalia, Rajasthan, India, where Rajendra Singh helps villagers build earthen dams and reservoirs, known as a johad, of which Singh and his company have helped to install “an estimated 4,500 dams in about 1,000 villages, all built using local labor and native materials.” In Katuba, Zambia, a region north of Lusaka, the capital, another man is helping. Paul Polak has helped many villages install the treadle pump, to gain water from dambos. He has helped install many of the 1.3 million treadle pumps in Bangladesh and hopes to bring the pumps to “30 million farm families in the developing world.”

Supplying the world with water for drinking, sanitation and agriculture is challenging, and the trade-offs of providing water have boosted family incomes and national GNP’s while destroying ecosystems and cultural diversity. Still, successful and sustainable solutions are being implemented, such as those on a local basis, including drip irrigation, dams and reservoirs, and treadle pumps, to name a few. New legislation, such as the National Water Act in South Africa, the National Hydrological Plan in Spain, and the National Energy Policy Act in the United States, among others are addressing the issue from a broader rule and policy basis. What remains is a “new ethic: all living things must get enough water before some get more than enough,” states Postel.

 “Use of water resources, impacts to aquatic ecosystem services and agriculture have always been tightly linked,” states Allyson Beall in her lecture notes on water. (Beall, 2012, lecture) More than seventy nine years ago, Aldo Leopold talked about the link between humans and our natural world in his 1933 essay, The Conservation Ethic. (Leopold, 1933, p. 183)

Nowhere is this delicate balance between man and nature more evident than in the interplay between farming, soil fertility and water resources and the demand for and impacts of fossil fuel use in the agricultural sector. While what is known as the green revolution increased productivity, it didn’t take into account the delicate interdependence between man and nature that Leopold talked about. Instead, its reliance on large-scale monoculture farming dramatically increased the impacts to water and soil. (Beall, 2012, lecture).

One place the impacts of the green revolution can be seen is in India, one of the fastest growing places on earth. (Beall, 2012, lecture.) Norman Borloug, an American plant breeder took the green revolution to India in the “mid-1960s” when he brought a high-yield variety of wheat there to help the country “feed its people during yet another crippling drought.” (Bourne, 2009, p. 6) To get high yields, these methods rely on a special plant type that not only requires water but is also dependent on fossil-fuel based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Borloug’s dwarf wheat, for example, required a lot of water and synthetic fertilizer as well as “little competition from weeds or insects” in order to produce its high yields. (Bourne, 2009, p. 6) Still, the green revolution farming method can be credited with helping to feed many people who may not otherwise have been fed. “Some scientists credit increased rice yields alone with the existence of 700 million more people on the planet.” (Bourne, 2009, p. 8)

One can’t blame Borloug or anyone else for that matter for wanting to share something that could feed millions of starving people. Indeed, the green revolution turned vast swaths of land into productive green crop land through what is known as large-scale monoculture farming, a practice where large fields are planted with the same crop, such as Borloug’s wheat, or “miracle” rice, or cotton or other crops. However, because the monoculture farming relies on unsustainable practices, such as over irrigation and lack of crop diversity (planting the same crop in vast quantities), many places such as Punjab, India, where Borloug’s wheat was initially planted, began to experience a wide range of problems, such as drops in their water tables and negative impacts to soil fertility such as salinization and waterlogged soils. (Bourne, 2009, p. 6) The irrigation methods of the green revolution changed the soil profiles from a desert profile (a soil which had received little rain, thereby creating a middle layer comprised of minerals that had soaked down from the top) to something which, when over-irrigated, causes the mineral water on top to mix with the minerals in the lower layers. This causes the soil to accumulate excessive salt. Eventually, this can result in desertification, a soil degradation where the cropland is converted to desert-like land with a drop in its productivity. (Beall, 2012, lecture.)

The other problem with monoculture farming results from the use of the large, heavy combines, cultivators and tractors (Mann, 2010, p. 1) which literally smash the soil into hard, impenetrable slabs. This eradicates the soil’s natural, loose heterogeneous properties, air pockets and space, which enable plant roots and other organisms to flourish, a necessary component in healthy soil. (Mann, 2010, p. 1) This leads to a degradation of the soil, and a subsequent drop in crop production because the plants are not able to thrive in poor soil. In addition, the fertilizers and pesticides used in monoculture farming can have negative impacts on important beneficial insects, such as bees, spiders, worms, ladybugs, praying mantis and others, which function in the ecosystem world, by providing various services, such as making soil (worms), pollination, or fending off harmful pests, such as aphids. A single crop planted in succession over many years also depletes the soil of important nutrients, leaving the soil unable to sustain crops.

Large-scale monoculture farming also impacts water resources because it often depletes aquifers, rivers and streams, and results in the diversion of streams and rivers, which in turn changes wetlands and other ecosystems. (Beall, 2012, lecture) This is of concern because once the groundwater or aquifer is damaged or depleted, or a wetland is lost, it often cannot be restored. Diminishing wetlands has a widespread consequence on many waterfowl and other aquatic species. The Aral Sea, at one time the world’s fourth largest lake, provides an example of what can happen when rivers are diverted for farming. (Beall, 2012, lecture) Today, the lake is perhaps only 30 percent of its original size and it has become salinated, contaminating the groundwater with salt, which in turn is a source of drinking water, which curdles milk. The salty dust on the dry lake bed also blows away in the wind, causing widespread health problems. (Beall, 2012, lecture)

These are examples of ways in which irrigation practices can cause non-point source pollution, through what is known as the return flow, when the irrigation water carries the pesticides and fertilizers used on the crops into the ground water or streams, changing water chemistry. (Beall, 2012, lecture) Irrigation can also cause erosion, which reduces soil fertility and which can impact water quality as it carries particles away. As soil or dust runs off the land and into nearby streams, it creates greater turbidity in the water, which can greatly impact aquatic life, by changing the ecosystem. In addition, water temperatures and flows can be altered as streams or rivers are channeled, straightened or dammed. For example, a straightened stream has a faster water flow than a winding stream, (Beall, 2012, lecture) and this faster moving water can have higher oxygen content. Withdrawing water from a surface water system (streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and estuaries) can permanently deplete ground water supplies, as well as the surface stream. Hirsh, 1998, p. III.)

The green revolution was a marvel of its time: It enabled us to dramatically increase crop yields, thereby feeding people when they might not otherwise have been fed. This improved quality of life in many drought-ridden areas of the world, such as in India, China and Africa. However, this practice did not consider many of the other components of the ecosystem, and thus has negatively impacted water resources and soil quality. To solve these issues, we now need sustainable alternatives to large-scale mono cropping, perhaps ushering in a new green revolution that can address inequities in food distribution, price and quality, especially in urban areas, without destroying the planet. And with the global population expected to reach between 9 and 9.5 billion by 2050, we have no time to waste. Thankfully, solutions are being studied and developed ranging from low-tech urban or city gardens, to high tech vertical farms cultivated in city high rises, among others.

One example is Cuba, where a food crisis spurred a “focus on agro ecological technology …supported by the state/university research, education and extensions system.” (Zepeda, 2003, 1) In response to the crisis, which was created in part due to U.S. isolationist practices beginning in the 60’s, followed later by the fall of the Soviet Union which cut off needed imports of food, oil and fertilizers to the tiny country, Cuba’s people established a “self-sustaining system of agriculture that by necessity was essentially organic.” (Buncombe, 2006, 1). By 2006, Cuba had “7,000 urban allotments…which fill(ed) perhaps as many as 81,000 acres.” (Buncombe, 2006, 1). Some of these plots are in the capital of Havana, and they not only provide food, but also jobs and a sense of community. The country was able to transform its agricultural systems, because the Cuban government created a national policy which supported the new farming method. Cuba was essentially forced to make a radical decision, since it was dependent on imports for a significant portion of its staple food and energy products. (Zepeda, 2003, 1) With the new policy, “anyone wishing to farm could do so rent free,” and, get fair prices for foods sold at markets, boosted by a focus on local production to reduce transportation and energy costs. (Zepeda, 2003, 2) Now hardly anyone goes hungry in this very poor country and in fact, calorie intake has risen to 2,580 per capita per day (Zepeda, 2003, 2) up from “between 1,000 and 1,500 in 1993. (Buncombe, 2006, 2).

In Chicago, where the Department of Planning and Development created a program called “Chicago: Eat Local Live healthy,” several organizations are using sustainable farming methods, or urban agriculture, to feed people. Growing Power and Growing Home are two among many, which are part of an “urban agriculture movement” that is growing (Doster, 2008, 2). These nonprofits turn land on city lots into community gardens where they employ “high-intensity food production” methods where, at Growing Power, they “cultivate 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.” The urban gardens also provide vegetables to restaurants, operate at farmer’s markets and support local school gardens. These gardens not only provide food, often in areas known as “food deserts,” (“large geographic areas with no or distant grocery stores”) (Doster, 2008, 2) they also provide added benefits to the community, including a sense of place and the renewal of neighborhoods, which helps people create bonds and reduces crime. (Doster, 2008, 3)

On the high tech side of the new green revolution is an idea called vertical gardens. According to Dickson Despommier, “growing crops in city skyscrapers would use less water and fossil fuel than outdoor farming, eliminate agricultural runoff and provide fresh food.” (Despommier, 2009, 1) Vertical gardens rely on the use of three techniques, “drip irrigation, aeroponics and hydroponics, … which have been used successfully around the world.” (Despommier, 2009, 2) Using hydroponics, plants “are held in place so their roots lie in soilless troughs, and water with dissolved nutrients is circulated over them.”  The advantages to using these methods in skyscrapers, is that high yields can be produced year-round, avoiding problems such as drought and floods, while also reducing human pathogens. These gardens also are not dependent upon climate. (Despommier, 2009, 2) Despommier cites as an example the “318-acre Eurofresh Farms in Arizona, …which produces large quantities of high-quality tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers 12 months a year” in a desert climate. These farms could also transform empty buildings into productive urban gardens, providing fresh foods in urban areas. “A one-square block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as a 2,400 outdoor acres, with less subsequent spoilage.” (Despommier, 2009, 3) Of course some of the downsides might include providing water and energy to the skyscraper farm, as well as the potentially high cost to purchase and convert the high-rises, but these could be overcome.

These food alternatives need to be considered, because both low tech urban farms and high-rise farms could reduce our carbon, water and waste footprints by eliminating the reliance on fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, as well as using water more efficiently than large-scale monoculture farms (using water wise systems like drip irrigation or hydroponics). In addition, by allowing cultivated lands to return to their natural state, we can also reduce carbon because in “temperate and tropical zones the regrowth of hardwood forests could play a significant role in carbon sequestration.” (Despommier, 2008, 2).

While large-scale agriculture helped us grow large volumes of food to feed not only ourselves but the world’s starving people, it also created widespread negative impacts to our environment. Now that we have come to understand these issues, many urban areas are turning to urban gardens, where gardens are planted on city lots, front yards and more. In areas where space is an issue, large cities might consider turning skyscrapers into vertical farms using hydroponics, aeroponics or drip irrigation. Architect and founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Andres Duany sees a new urban landscape called agrarian urbanism, “settlements where the society is involved with food in all its aspects: organizing, growing, processing, distributing, cooking and eating it.” He describes his idea in his new book, Garden Cities: The theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism.

Back in 1991 when I wrote my essay on the topic of global warming and environmental issues, I concluded by saying: “The consequences of global warming are under dispute. According to Anzaas, Rhys Jones, a prehistorian at the Australian National University in Canvera, people have the flexibility to cope with enormous changes in their environment. They should have little trouble adaption to the greenhouse effect. (Feb. 24, 1990. P. 24.) Others, according to Richard Kerr, such as Richard Lindzen, Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say “both the data and our scientific understanding do not support the present level of concern. (Dec. 1, 1989, p. 118.) They are in the minority. From the evidence which is being discovered there does appear to be need for concern, but widespread panic is not warranted. It would be wise to look at the effects of past environmental changes on man, to determine what course will now occur as a result of the enormous impact man is having on his environment.”

            Today, I would agree that, while panic is not warranted, a deep concern certainly is. Today, we’ve come much farther on the path toward damaging the environment than in 1990, and we now have more evidence and models which can predict the future in a much accurate way. Reading my report from 1991 makes me feel sad, since it seems the damage has been going on at such a rate, despite knowledge even then, that we needed to do something, and do it quickly. If I didn’t have such hope and confidence in man’s inventiveness, I might panic.

What makes me most hopeful is that we have so many truly smart, caring and compassionate people from so many disciplines working on many, many projects to make our world a different place. From volunteerism like, make a difference day and many more, to people finding cures for diseases, to those working on environmental and regional planning, we have a synergy of good work. If we encourage people to incorporate gardens into their daily lives, either through raised bed, container or traditional kitchen gardens, or turn lawns into gardens, using the idea of the victory garden or kitchen garden, we could also reduce our food’s carbon footprint. Community gardens and growing at least some of your own food helps people get back to nature so they have a better understanding of the inter-relatedness of human activity and ecosystems, the environment and more. Another component is for people to live closer to the grocery stores so that we can bike and walk (or use public transit) to get to necessary services. Cities were once planned and developed with a 1.5 mile walking radius, and streets were configured on a grid.



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