The realities of human-induced global warming, or global climate change, are well documented and accepted by most thinking people, many governments, and an increasing number of corporations. But global warming is not the only global change wrought by humanity. This realization is not new to me, but a number of recent news stories have helped me visualize our planet in a different way.
Let's begin in space, the area surrounding the planet Earth. The recent destruction of a U.S. satellite by a US Navy missile, and the 2007 successful anti-satellite weapon test by China have prompted increased discussion about weapons in space, and their impacts. Human societies have become very reliant on satellite technology for everything from telephone calls to military weapons guidance and battlefield communication; and all of these systems are vulnerable to attack by land- or space-based weapons. One aspect of this topic is the increasing amount of space debris accumulating in orbit around the Earth. A good summary is presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The ever increasing amount of debris in orbit puts satellites increasingly at risk. In other words, space is becoming more and more polluted.
From space, we can head towards the planet and into the atmosphere, where everyone is aware of the problem of climate change created by carbon emissions from human devices. A warming climate is linked to many changes in the physical, chemical and biological systems of planet Earth, which in turn have a multitude of effects on human societies.
As we drop out of the atmosphere, we might land in the oceans of our planet (splash!). Media reports abound about the numerous signs of problems in the world oceans: the recent break-up of a huge ice shelf in the Antarctic - years before it was predicted by climate and ocean scientists; the ocean-bottom "dead zone" off the coast of Oregon that has appeared annually for the last few years, and appears to be spreading; fisheries collapsing in many parts of the world; a recent study that could find no place in the world's oceans free from human pollution; and many more.
We might have fallen out of the atmosphere and onto the land of Earth (ouch!). Here we find equally disturbing signs of human-induced changes: a large number of pharmaceutical drugs in the waters of rivers and streams and groundwater, including drinking water supplies; expanding deserts; huge losses of tropical rain forests; loss of topsoil; record floods; and etc.
As the human population has grown at a faster rate, and technology has facilitated the rate of change in earth systems, we have witnessed a remarkable new reality - the capability of the human species to foul it's own world to an unprecedented degree, and at a scale heretofore unimaginable. Those of us reading this blog will not be here long enough to witness the eventual outcomes of these changes, but if we pause and think, we can try to imagine the planet our future generations will inhabit.
What is to be done about the impacts of humanity on the planet Earth? Is it unavoidable? Are we destined, as a species, to live in a world that our own activities make less inhabitable? To me, this is one of the big contradictions about the human species; we have the capability of rational thought and reason, but our actions seem to contradict rationality and reasonableness. How do I say "I'm sorry" to future generations?