There is more than one way to talk about the behaviors and attitudes needed for preserving and improving the planet as a habitable environment for people and other living beings. One can speak of priorities and consumerism, or about population control, or about technology that helps preserve or create energy. And these are just a few aspects that people discuss, all of them having value for different kinds of goals.
I would like to point out a dichotomy which needs some attention: there are two physical aspects to taking care of the planet.
One aspect is ensuring that the planet can support the population of people living on it, over a long period of time. This is the current, dominant concept of sustainability, and involves preserving and fostering arable land, fresh (i.e. non-salty) water resources, fish stocks, and biodiversity, while controlling and perhaps reducing global population.
However, another aspect needing consideration is what used to be the mainstream of environmentalism in the 1970s and 1980s; that aspect has receded in the last fifteen or twenty years in the face of threats to availability of food, farmable land, and fresh water. The earlier focus of environmentalism was the preserving of nature to be free of toxic materials, as well as keeping large blocks of land in as close to pristine condition as possible. It is time, in my opinion and based on information that has been gradually rising to the top, time to bring the earlier environmentalism back to the forefront along with the resource focus and the global warming focus.
For example, many people are aware that plastic debris is ugly and lasts a long time, and maybe that it endangers wildlife. Still, that seems less urgent than the thought of our entire planet heating up 10C (19F). But what is less known despite occasional reports that appear on television or some other news media, is the pervasive effect of the plastic and other chemical industries on the entire planet, in a more profound manner than making streets and oceans uglier than they should be.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch not only makes a huge area of the Pacific Ocean surface an ugly garbage dump, it also threatens the very existence of some species of birds, turtles, and fish that eat plastic fragments thinking they are food. One study has shown that particles of plastic now exceed the biomass of true food of smaller fauna by a factor of about six, meaning that more and more wildlife at the base of the food chain is consuming toxic plastic fragments instead of food. And, perhaps more alarming, the evidence is now visible that many of the plastics throughout the oceans and land are gradually breaking down and releasing quite dangerous chemicals into our entire ecosphere. Even organic food grown will be of little value when it is grown in contaminated soil, and yet, more and more soil and "fresh" water is laced with cancer-inducing, autoimmune-aggravating, and nervous-system attacking chemicals.
Will we be Rome? The "lead pipe" theory says that Romans lost their energy, skills, and fertility because they gradually poisoned themselves with lead plumbing and by cooking with lead pots and pans and storage containers. This has not been proved or disproved, but there is some significant evidence in its favor.
Of course the major errors of history are usually not repeated literally and precisely. Although we did in fact place lead into gasoline for many years, with terrible health results, our overall society is not now at risk from lead even though some families and children remain exposed. But in our age, plastic waste can now be seen as not only an ugly mark on the surface of the planet, but as a possible source of the current global dramatic increase in autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, intestinal ailments, and others (about 100 different autoimmune diseases exist, quite a few of which are in a dramatic increase). Some of these diseases can be fatal in an acute outbreak, others can cause early death, while for others the auto-immune illnesses change their entire lives, limiting range of action, and bringing on repeated or even constant pain, exhaustion, and weakness.
As described in the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, about 23.5 million Americans, out of a total population of 300 million, suffer from one or more autoimmune illnesses. Yet surveys also show that fewer than 10% of all Americans can name even one specific autoimmune ailment.
My children both happen to have type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes. This is the kind that is not brought on by being overweight or sedentary; it is considered to be caused by a genetic susceptibility plus an environmental trigger such as a virus infection. But there is no known history of type 1 diabetes in any of their family members, going back three generations. This is the kind of strange and sudden appearance of what was thought to be a primarily genetically-caused condition, that has puzzled endocrinologists for the last 20 years or so.
The unexpected appearance of type 1 diabetes in our family might still be seen as just a repressed gene showing up by chance, if I did not also know that childhood diabetes is increasing 6 percent per year in children under age 4, and 4 percent per year in children aged ten to fourteen. In the last 40 years, the rate of type 1 diabetes overall has increased by a factor of five times. This should be major news for the public! And with type 1 diabetes the rate of reporting or age distribution is not the issue, since it is always diagnosed. Untreated type 1 diabetes rapidly (within weeks of the first symptoms appearing) results in death, so it is always discovered. Age is not a factor, as the great bulk of the disease occurs before age 20.
And yet, few people know of the wide-range of expressed autoimmune diseases that have been rising rapidly in frequency. The prime suspects for causing this are: 1) chemical contamination of the environment, 2) poor diet consisting of processed foods, sugar and fat, and chemically-contaminated food, and 3) excessive or badly designed immunizations applied to very young children.
Rather than the cause being just one of those, it is quite possible that the accumulation of damage to our bodies from all three of these, as well as lack of exercise and fresh air, can be additive and work together. These ideas are discussed in detail in the excellent book, The Autoimmune Epidemic.
The title of the current PlanetThought says that it matters that we see TWO aspects to environmental change. I hope you now see that excessive production of plastics and toxically-produced paper and insecticides and other chemicals, are not just an eyesore, do not simply result in a river burning as was famously reported in 1970, but rather are a pervasive threat to our global health. And we do not yet know enough to predict the rate of further chemical breakdown and spread, and what the health results will be.
We must give as much urgency to developing compostable replacements for plastic, to reducing packaging wherever possible, and to enforcing the use of cloth shopping bags. Plastic shopping bags are still used without even a question by stores throughout the United States, even for items as small as a pack of gum.
Aside from talking about this on the Internet and at occasional talks, I also try to do my small part in daily life: I do not accept plastic shopping bags even if the store insists, and I keep about six cloth bags in my car and I also carry items by hand when appropriate. At the supermarket, I balance factors such as local production, or made-in-USA (for environmental benefit) status, organic growth, humane growth (fair trade, organic, free-range, etc), and packaging when selecting what food to buy. And if family members want items that come wrapped in plastic, I try to find containers stamped with the recycling triangle and the number 1 or 2. Those two types can always be recycled in parts of the world that provide recycling. Some communities also accept plastic with 5 in the triangle (ask in your community). The other types of plastic, 3, 4, 6, and 7, are not recyclable. And remember, it is better to reduce or reuse, since plastic is only "downcyclable" not truly recyclable.
I hope governments worldwide, especially in the upcoming Copenhagen meeting of December 2009 (and the meetings leading up to it) will pay attention not only to global climate change and CO2, important as that topic is, but to energy, to contamination, and to the creation through all means available of a sustainable way of life and awareness for as much of the world as possible.