ENVIRO NOTES: We're not doing enough to minimize environmental harm

It was a common belief amongst our ancestors that there were four elements to their universe – air, earth, fire and water.

Science shows this is a simplistic and inaccurate account, and modern chemistry now defines ‘element’ quite differently. Nevertheless, those four so-called elements provide a useful framework on which to build any environmental discussion. Asking how any proposed activity would affect all of them ensures a far-reaching environmental review.

Air, or atmosphere, is made up of approximately 78 per cent nitrogen, 21 per cent oxygen, one to five per cent water vapour, 0.04 carbon dioxide and with small quantities of argon and fine particulate matter.

As we breathe to supply oxygen to our blood system, we also take in whatever pollutants are in the air. So it’s important to keep our air as contaminant-free as possible.

Carbon dioxide, essential for plant growth, is at an historically low concentration, less than 400 ppm, so that some increase is much more likely to be beneficial rather than harmful.

About a third of the earth’s land surface can be classed as suitable for some kind of farming, and we depend on this portion for our crop production of foodstuffs and forage. Any time we cover a portion under concrete, asphalt, reservoir or salt deposition, or lose it to erosion resulting from poor farming practices or dramatic climate shift, we lessen our capacity to feed ourselves.

Good soil is virtually irreplaceable, yet we continue to build on it, harm it with ill-considered use of inorganic fertilizers or biocides and deplete its productive capacity by monoculture agriculture.

Much of this damage is preventable, so why is it continuing?

It’s an old cliché but true that ‘fire is a good servant but bad master,’ but we need to look also at what is being burned.

Global stocks and reserves of coal, gas and oil are finite so that, at some future time, they will be exhausted. However, that time is decades away, so we have the opportunity to consider managing without those particular energy sources and to develop alternatives that are efficient and environmentally benign.

Burning coal gives off pollutants, and processing tar sands requires large volumes of water, which make the point that the environment is indivisible and needs to be considered holistically. Water, like oxygen, is essential to life as we know it, so it should not be used recklessly for appearances, display or private profit. Sources should be protected, purification and recycling fostered, and pollution avoided.

Some countries, like Canada, have an abundant supply and are apt to be careless with water use; many others are thirsty and have learned to manage with limited resources.

Development proposals should be looked at for all their impacts on our air, earth and water supply and be subject to comprehensive examination.

Accepted proposals ought not to be subverted by short-term economics, a message too often lost on decision-makers who seem to think it’s enough to ask “how can we minimize any environmental harm?”

The proper question is: “can we live with possible environmental consequences of a proposed activity?”

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News.

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