By Donella Meadows
–November 13, 1986–
Last week a spill from a pesticide plant turned the Rhine into a “dead river” the entire length of Germany.
That’s just one of hundreds of human-generated assaults upon the environment. Acid rain falls on Scandinavia. Oil spills destroy the coral reefs of the Red Sea. Air pollution kills vegetation in the Los Angeles basin. Radioactive waste dumped into the Irish Sea can be traced up to the Arctic Circle and over to Denmark.
We think of these problems as separate, and we try to deal with them one at a time. But earth’s ecosystems are not separate. They are woven together by flows of energy, water, nutrients, and air into one fabric, which links all living things, and which makes all life possible.
Even the most tightly woven fabric will fall apart if it has enough holes poked in it. Are we close to that point? How much abuse can the planet take?
A month ago an assemblage of field ecologists got together in Woods Hole on Cape Cod to address that question. They are people who study all the creatures that live in a lake or a forest, what eats what, how the beautiful, intricate machinery of nature fits together. Each of them is an expert on the Arctic or the peat bog or the prairie. Together they form a community of monitors, documenting what is happening to the living systems of the earth.
These are some of the stories they told:
Lichens are like the canaries that warned miners of bad air quality. An undisturbed lichen can live for hundreds of years, but in polluted air it dies. Parts of England have already lost 89% of their lichens. Southern California has lost 50%. The “lichen desert” around the city of Zurich has increased in area by a factor of 9 since 1936.
Satellite photos of Amazonian Brazil show the expanding grid pattern of settlers’ clearings. The pastures that replace the forests erode so rapidly that after 12 years their productivity drops by half. No forest can grow there again.
As the western United States is overgrazed, the native bunchgrasses decline, and foreign cheatgrass moves in. Cheatgrass, unlike bunchgrass, dries in summer, which makes it poor for grazing and a fire hazard. The fires destroy juniper and pine forests on the uplands, opening more room for cheatgrass. Thousands of square miles of the West have been converted from bunchgrass, sagebrush, pine, deer, and elk to cheatgrass, cheatgrass, and cheatgrass.
Most damaged ecosystems are not lifeless. But the life forms are changed and simplified. Sedges, grasses and insects are survivors. Trees, mammals, and birds are not.
The changes can be irreversible. The 100-mile swath of devastation downwind from the International Nickel refinery in Sudbury, Ontario, has not recovered, though pollution emissions dropped by a factor of five after 1972. On the fringe of the damage zone red maple roots are sending up shoots again, but the shoots do not survive. In some places so much vegetation has been lost that the soil has washed away. Once there were farms and forests; now there is nothing but bare rock.
A lake in Canada was deliberately acidified to study the effects of acid rain. As the pH went down, species after species disappeared. When the lake was restored to normal, many did not return. An acid-resistant stickleback that had never been seen in the lake took the place of the fathead minnow. The lake trout, which had nearly starved, grew fat again but did not breed.
Environmental destruction is usually justified by economic arguments. But Robert Repetto of the World Resources Institute challenges those arguments. For example, the companies clearing the Amazon forests are realizing about 250% on their investment, which explains very neatly why they are there. But the Brazilian government is subsidizing the logging through road-building, tax-reduction, and other incentives. Counting the whole cost, including that to Brazilian taxpayers, the enterprise is losing 55% per year!
As the meeting went on, the stories began to add up to a clear message. From tundra to rainforest to ocean depths there is piecemeal degradation. No one knows how many such holes the fabric can sustain. And some human activities, such as fossil-fuel burning, are now so pervasive that they are changing the atmosphere and the climate. For the first time the damage is not only local, but global.
I came out of the conference filled with a peculiar mixture of excitement, resolve and dread.
Surely, I thought, if the ecologists’ message is delivered to the world’s people, we will all insist that the environmental damage be halted. We have been endowed with logic; we know it is irrational to destroy our resource base. And we also have a moral sense, to tell us that our planet is a temple, full of magnificent communities of life that we do not understand, that we did not create, and that we have no right to destroy.
All that needs to be done is to communicate the message, and then we will wake up and start managing ourselves and the planet wisely. Right?
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011