Precarious Environment

Precarious Environment: While it’s always possible that a sudden tipping point could dramatically wreak environmental Armageddon, so far a steady diet of human abuses has only made nature’s balance ever more precarious. Even environmentalists cannot keep up with all the threats in detail. Dig into a few, and unknowns are of more concern than the problems already mapped. One reason is delayed effects. For example, the slow build up of dioxins in tissue was not discovered until well after they were widely dispersed (as from incinerators), which made large-scale remediation much more disruptive.

An illustrative issue now is the size of the Pacific Gyre garbage patch, and whether the tiny subsurface plastic particles that constitute nearly all of it contain plasticizers that are endocrine disruptors adversely affecting sea life. Several unknowns factor into clarifying this possibility: how much stuff is out there, what is in it, and will it seriously affect sea life or the carbon cycle? This will take a while. In the meantime, skeptics want to see evidence no one can ignore to believe that a patch “bigger than Texas” even exists. Debates on this are now limited to “crying wolf” arguments vs. “boiling frog” arguments. Without resolving every detail, however, one course of action is possible. Stop growing the garbage patch. Whatever problems it contains, why keep making them bigger?

The media cannot front-page many old issues that are still with us; like the ozone hole, or dead zones at the mouths of rivers. When not kept in consciousness, and when consequences appear in places far removed in time and distance from potential causes, both problem solving and remedial action are delayed.

Of all these concerns, ocean acidification and the carbon cycle are two with catastrophic potential. About half of all atmospheric oxygen is from the ocean, and here also, too much knowledge remains “gray box.” However, it is known that acidification damages coral reefs and inhibits calcification of zooplankton. Seriously depleting the activity of all oceanic plankton would not only disrupt the food chain at the bottom, but could start shutting down our own supply of oxygen.

Without the related uncertainties of climate change, plenty of evidence suggests how human activity could nudge the global ecosphere out of a Goldilocks zone. By conventional wait and see thinking, we will take little preventive action, and waiting for scientific investigations to be conclusive is like experimenting with the fuse of a bomb while sitting on it. We’ll never be able to foresee every unintended consequence coming. However, we can keep our problems to a minimum by making them smaller. Just produce and use a lot less stuff.

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