Approximately seventy-two percent of the surface of Earth is covered in water, of which only three percent is freshwater. In 1960 the Aral Sea was the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, in the 1950′s in an effort to irrigate the desert to grow cereals, melons, rice and cotton the two main rivers feeding the sea were diverted away. It worked, today Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, but it came at a high cost. During the early 60′s roughly sixty thousand people were employed in the thriving fishing industry, by 1977 fish harvests had declined by seventy-five percent and the 1980′s saw the elimination of the entire commercial fishing industry. As the Aral Sea declined fertiliser and pesticides polluted the remaining, increasingly salty, water. Agricultural chemicals and salt, that contaminated the lake-bed, were blown in dust storms, settling on farmland, degrading the soil. Farms flushed with greater and greater amounts of river water, which feed the lake, only worked to exasperate the problem.
The Aral sea is not the only place we can see fresh water decline, twenty-five percent of the world’s river systems no longer make it to the oceans for at least part of the year. Causing the destruction of wetlands, drying of the landscape and destroying fisheries.
Our voracious appetites for cheap energy has lead to increasing levels of carbon in our atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels to meet those needs. Not only does carbon work to retain solar energy, increasing temperatures on our planet, it also has direct impacts on the world’s oceans. As carbon levels increase in the atmosphere, escalating amounts of carbon are absorbed by our oceans which is increasing ocean acidity. While the impacts of this increased acidification are not known for certain, scientists from the University of Chicago who studied ocean ph levels for 8 years (the first detailed dataset on variations of coastal pH at a temperate latitude) expect the accumulation will have severe impacts on marine food webs and could interfere with coral reef building. Researchers are warning higher acidity levels in the world’s oceans could directly impact on the development and reproduction of marine organisms such as; jellyfish: sea anemones: plankton and coral. It has also been found that this increase in C02 in the ocean can make marine animals more susceptible to ocean ‘dead zones’.
We are cutting down our forests faster than we can regrow them and stripping our oceans of fish so quickly they have no chance to repopulate. Scientists estimate that we will have fished out most edible fish species inside the next 40 years.
Vertebrate populations have declined by a ⅓ from 1970 to 2008
Tropical species have declined by more than 60% since 1970
Since 1970 Marine species have declined by over 20%
Globally freshwater species have declined by more than 37% since 1970
Terrestrial species have declined by 25% from 1970 numbers.
“Ultimately our ability to survive on this planet depends on a series of ecological processes which provide us with food, with water, with air. Everything you can name as a life necessity comes out of ecosystems and ecosystems are based on biodiversity.”
Dr. Robert Scholes
C.S.I.R. Natural Resources and Environment
Plastics enter the ocean when they fall from ships, are carelessly discarded, are blown by wind into waterways, or escape from water treatment plants. The waste we see on the side of the road or in fields can make its way into storm-water systems and pass out to the sea.
Plastic never breaks down completely, even after breaking down to the smallest particles (microplastics) it remains plastic. In the ocean these very small plastic particles are eaten by sea life at the bottom of the food chain, such as Sandhoppers. These creatures are eaten by larger ones, and so on until finally ending up as the fish on our plate. Researchers have also found corals to be ingesting tiny plastic particles, which could prove to be fatal should they fill the digestive system. Coral reefs provide shelter for twenty five percent of marine species while only occupying two percent of the ocean. Over 500 million people rely on coral reefs for both food and resources, most of which live in the poorest nations on our planet.
Pesticides contaminate land and water when it escapes from production sites and storage tanks, when it runs off from fields, when it is discarded, when it is sprayed aerially, and when it is sprayed into water to kill algae. Fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns is a huge problem for coastal areas. The extra nutrients cause eutrophication – flourishing of algal blooms that deplete the water’s dissolved oxygen and suffocate other marine life. Eutrophication has created enormous dead zones in several parts of the world, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea. Oil spills cause huge damage to the marine environment but in fact are responsible for only around 12% of the oil entering the seas each year. According to a study by the US National Research Council, 36% comes down drains and rivers as waste and runoff from cities and industry.
Among the many chemical and biological toxins found floating in the ocean, scientists have identified a number of particularly harmful compounds called “persistent organic pollutants” or P.O.P.’s, exposure to them can cause death and illnesses including disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. After a heavy rain, coastal rivers and streams carry many different pollutants to the sea. As rainwater washes into gutters and storm drains, it carries with it all that we have carelessly left behind.
Most plastics in use today, excluding the few plant-based alternatives slowly reaching the market, are made of petroleum and as a result they float like oil on or near the surface of the ocean. When exposed to sunlight over prolonged periods of time, these plastics break up (photodegrade) into smaller and smaller particles until all that remains is a fine plastic dust. Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless plastic dust retains all its chemical components and will never biodegrade. In fact, unless it was incinerated, all of the plastic ever made remains in the environment to this day.
Researchers, such as Dr. Hideshige Takada, are now learning that floating plastic particles attract P.O.P.’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) from surrounding sea water like a magnet. As these plastic particles make their way through the oceanic currents, they accumulate P.O.P.’s and transport them around the globe. Many of these pollutants are known carcinogens and are potentially harmful to animals when ingested. Studies have also shown that these plastic particles contain P.O.P. levels up to a million times higher than in surrounding sea water.
As plastic builds up in the food chain carrying with it increasing amounts of toxins, there is the potential that it could reach food organisms that are harvested by humans. We are the apex predator of the sea and when we consume fish and seafood, we consume everything that they have consumed. There is growing evidence that some of the toxins associated with plastic particles in the gyre are responsible for an increase in health problems in humans such as endocrine cancers and brain damage, as well as reproductive and cardiovascular damage.
It stands to reason that if plastics are found in the North Pacific Gyre in all probability they are present in every Gyre around our planet. Scientists announced the existence of a garbage patch in the Indian Ocean, another in the North Atlantic Ocean, and in February of 2015 National Geographic reported that plastics are turning up everywhere from the deep sea to Arctic ice.
As we pave over, pollute, introduce foreign species and generally destroy ecosystems in order to harvest natural resources, we are doing severe damage to global biodiversity. This loss of global biodiversity, which in the 20th century occurred at a rate one thousand times faster than the average rate at any time in the preceding sixty-five million years, is predicted to create agricultural problems threatening food supplies to hundreds of millions of people. Continued loss of biodiversity is also expected to impact on human health, limiting the discovery of treatments for diseases and general health issues, as many pharmaceutical and medical treatments are made through understanding the earth’s biodiversity.
Our economy, based on continual consumption to drive greater and greater profit taking by an ever diminishing percentage of our population, is directly responsible for the damage being done to our planet. Should we continue to operate from the confines of this model it can only be expected our planet, the only one we and our immediate future generations have to live on, will be pushed past multiple tipping points leaving our children and grandchildren struggling to carve out a meager form of existence. If the planet can continue to support life at all, in the short term.
Read more in our free PDF Book, From the Ashes of Capitalism.