Tue, 18 Apr 2000

Help save the planet by performing simple tasks

By Wiryono

BENGKULU (JP): As Earth Day approaches, it is timely to contemplate ways in which to keep the planet habitable.

Concern for the environment began to attract public attention in the 60's. This was primarily in developed countries. Over time, due to the improved communication among nations, environmental issues have become important internationally, both in developed as well as in developing countries. Because of globalization, in the coming decades environmental issues will be even more dominant in determining bilateral and multilateral relationships among countries.

Why have environmental problems become more serious in the modern world? Were our ancestors wiser in handling the environment? They, certainly, were not. In fact, we are more knowledgeable about the environment than our ancestors. Not until the 1960's did ecology -- the foundation of environmental science -- become a major branch of Biology.

Environmental science, as a scientific discipline, developed even later. The only reason why environmental problems have become more serious in the modern world is that the magnitude of destruction we inflict on nature is much more devastating now than in the past.

Nature, as an ecosystem, actually has a self-healing mechanism. But it takes time to heal. The greater the destruction the longer the healing time required. And, when the destruction becomes too great, the ecosystem may collapse. For example, when a family throws its waste -- meaning, its excrement -- into a small stream, the water will dilute that waste and the aquatic fauna will consume it. The stream, as an ecosystem, has cleaned the water. As more families dispose of their waste in this fashion, however, the longer the stream needs to clean the water.

Finally, when overburdened by too many people tossing their excreta into the stream, and when the volume of water is not sufficient to dilute the waste, the stream fauna will die due to toxicity and lack of dissolved oxygen, and consequently the stream will become polluted. Waste decomposition, known as cycles of material in ecology, no longer occurs. The destruction of a stream's ecosystem is even worse if people throw away not only human waste but any kind of waste.

Population growth

In the early human history, the population grew slowly. In the 20th Century it has grown much faster. In the year 1650 the population was around 0.5 billion, and grew at a rate of 0.3 percent per year. By 1900 the population had reached 1.6 billion and grew at a rate of 0.5 percent per year. By 1970 the population reached 3.6 billion and grew at 2.1 percent per year. Currently, the world population is more than 6 billion.

The growth of the population has a tremendous effect on pollution. When the population was low a lot of what we consider to be waste did not cause pollution. In fact, organic waste produced by humans became food for other animals, as shown in the above example.

Waste is an anthropogenic term. In natural ecosystems there is no waste. Human and animal feces, for example, are food for small animals and fertilizer for plants. Waste becomes a pollutant when the rate of production exceeds the rate of decomposition by nature. For centuries, rivers have functioned as sewage processing plants. However, when the human population becomes too large, the amount of waste thrown into the river becomes too great and some of it is not biodegradable, causing pollution.

But pollution is not the only environmental problem caused by population growth. As the number of people increases so does the need for natural resources, because every body needs food, clothes, a house, etc. More people living on the earth means more land needed for farming and settlement, more timber produced to build houses and make furniture, and more minerals and fuel mined to run our daily lives. In summary, population growth has caused resource depletion.

Population growth, however, is not the only cause of pollution and resource depletion. Another main cause of environmental problems is our luxurious life-styles. Progress in technology has made life more comfortable. Due to air conditioners, we can enjoy cool temperatures during the hot summer months. With computers we can produce documents faster and better. Our driving is more enjoyable because we have more comfortable cars. This increased comfort, however, is not free. We have to pay a high price for it. For example, fancier cars consume more fuel and produce more pollutants.

As everybody strives to have a luxurious life (to have a big house full of electronic appliances, big cars, etc.), more natural resource are consumed and more pollutants are produced.

Environmentalists agree that this trend is not sustainable. On one side of the coin, the rate of renewable resource utilization has exceeded that of natural regeneration, and the time remaining before nonrenewable resources are exhausted may not be sufficient for the development of new technology that can utilize substitute materials.

As a result, we are now facing resource depletion. On the other side of the coin, the rate of waste production has exceeded that of decomposition or recycling, causing pollution. If we want to sustain our (human) life on earth, we have no choice but to control the population growth and develop sustainable life- styles.

Save the earth

To stop the destructive trend above, governments in every country -- with the support of international environmental organizations -- should develop policies on natural resource management, trade, industry, and other sectors to achieve sustainable development.

Meanwhile, we the ordinary people can help save the earth by doing many simple things. Since population growth and our modern way of life are the main roots of environmental destruction, we have to work on these. To reduce the population growth, the most sensible way is to have fewer children. Statistics show that higher educated people tend to have fewer children. Improving education, therefore, may reduce the population growth.

We need also to change our perspective regarding what a comfortable life really is. While luxury gives us comfort, we should realize that this is not sustainable. What good is luxury if it isn't environmentally friendly and less resource-wasteful? Anything short of this is suicide.

Let it be said that you can change your style of living without giving up comfort.

You, of course, are entitled to have a better life, but you can improve your life without being resource wasteful. In summary, we all need to strive towards a sustainable existence: a life-style that can fulfill our needs without jeopardizing the quality of life for future generations; a life-style that offers us enough comfort but is not resource wasteful.

There are popular slogans among environmental activists that we may follow: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce our consumption.

Turn the television off when nobody is watching. Turn the light off when we leave the room. Walk or ride a bike if the place we want to go is not far. This will not only save the earth, but also save us from obesity. Go by bus, train or other mass public transportation whenever possible. Do not dispose of food; buy no more than you can eat. Consume less meat but more vegetables and fruit.

Our source of energy is sunlight. It is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis. When a cattle eats the plants, only a small portion of that energy goes to the cattle, much of it is released as heat, which is not usable. Therefore when we eat vegetables instead of meat, we increase energy efficiency. Again, this is not only good for the earth but for our health too.

When we want to build a house, design a house that has plenty of ventilation so it will be cool during the day, so you will not need an air conditioner.

We can also slow resource depletion and reduce pollution by reusing and recycling material. When we eat, use plates and cups that can be washed and reused many times.

Glass bottles can be reused as well as recycled. Paper is also reusable and recyclable, so do not dump or burn our telephone books or newspapers. In every city there are people who work as collectors of bottles or papers.

In the office, use envelopes several times. This has been a common practice in developed countries. Design envelopes with multiple address space. When you receive a document inside the envelope, cross out the address and use the envelope again, by filling in the new address space already provided. Also, do not throw or shred non-confidential documents that have been read. Use that paper for printing drafts. After both sides have been printed, that paper can be given to paper collectors to be reused (as wrapping paper) or recycled.

Those are examples of many simple things we can do to save the earth without too much compromise. They have no significant impact on the earth if only five people do them. But if we do them together, we will make a difference. So tell your family and your friends to do them too. Always remember, reduce, reuse and recycle, and we will help save the earth!

The author is a Ph.D. in ecology, currently teaching at the School of Forestry, University of Bengkulu.