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#450 - The Big Problems -- Part 1, 12-Jul-1995

As we wobble toward the 21st century, there can be little doubt that
repairing the environment will require effort and sacrifice from nearly

The work to be done is substantial. To celebrate earth day this year,
William K. Stevens of the NEW YORK TIMES put together a summary
overview of our situation.[1] Mr. Stevens tried to be optimistic. He
pointed out that industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) say that the annual release of toxic chemicals has been reduced
43% in the past seven years even as the yearly manufacture of toxic
chemicals increased 37% during the same period.[2] (EPA has no staff
assigned to checking the accuracy of the "toxics release
inventory" [TRI] data that industry reports to EPA each year, so
everyone has to accept industry's 43% claim at face value. Furthermore,
these figures make us ask, where are the increased quantities of toxic
chemicals going if they are no longer being released directly into air
and water? Do they perhaps wind up in products that eventually go down
the drain or into the local dump?)

In any case, there is definite cause for celebration of some big
accomplishments over the past decade or two. Many incinerators have
been successfully opposed; many filthy dumps have been closed; within
the U.S., nuclear power has not experienced the growth once predicted
for it (though overseas is another story); the air in many cities is
cleaner than it used to be; the flow of sewage and industrial waste
into rivers and streams has been substantially reduced.

But even as Mr. Stevens was trying to maintain an optimistic spin, bits
of gloom crept into his text: Two out of every 5 Americans still live
in areas where the air is unhealthful (and, though Mr. Stevens did not
say so, those affected are disproportionately people of color). Forty
percent of the nation's rivers and lakes are not fit for drinking,
fishing or swimming. Last year, EPA issued more than 1000 warnings
against eating fish in chemically-contaminated waters. (And many states
issued their own warnings, in addition.)

Mr. Stevens went on: Despite reductions in sewage and industrial waste
reaching waterways, "...scientists say that biological quality [of
rivers and streams] has continued to decline anyway because of farm and
urban runoff, destruction of streamside vegetation, erosion,
introduction of exotic species, straightening of streams, and building
of dams." (In other words, the direct and indirect effects of what we
traditionally call "development.")

"People commonly equate environmental protection with conquering
chemical pollution," Mr. Stevens wrote. 'They say we've put a lot of
time and resources into reducing pollution and everything's O.K.,' said
Dr. James R. Karr, an aquatic ecologist who heads the University of
Washington Institute for Environmental Studies in Seattle. But when the
actual state of aquatic biology is added to the assessment equation, he
said, it 'doubles the proportion of waters that are in violation of
water quality standards.' In other words, he said, 'the situation is
not getting better.'"

Mr. Stevens went on: "As a result, freshwater fish and invertebrates
face particularly serious perils, and 362 species of freshwater fishes
have been extinguished or are endangered as a result of human activity,
said a broad group of scientists who met at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York City recently to assess the dangers to
biological diversity," Mr. Stevens wrote.

"The fate of the American landscape and waters and the creatures who
live there is perhaps the biggest domestic environmental problem on
which the nation is not yet getting a good grip, a number of experts
say," according to Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Stevens then describes a recent report titled ENDANGERED ECOSYSTEMS

AND DEGRADATION, available from the National Biological Service (NBS),
a research organization within the federal Department of Interior. We
obtained the report over the Internet,[3] and its conclusions are

** 81 percent of the nation's fish communities have been harmed by
human actions, while 98 percent of the streams in the lower 48 states
are degraded to the point they can't qualify as wild or scenic rivers.

** 90 percent of its ancient or "old-growth" forests have been lost.

** 95-98 percent of the virgin forests in the lower 48 states had been
destroyed by 1990; 99 percent of the virgin Eastern deciduous forests
have been eliminated.

** In the Northeast, 97 percent of Connecticut's coastline is
developed; 95 percent of Maryland's natural barrier island beaches are
gone; and almost all of Ohio's bottomland hardwood forests are gone.

** In the South, 99.99 percent of Kentucky's native prairies have
disappeared; 98 percent of the Southeast coastal plain's longleaf pine
forests are gone; and 88 percent of southwest Florida's slash pine
forests have been eliminated.

** In the Midwest and Great Plains, 90 percent of the tallgrass prairie
has disappeared, as has virtually all of the prairie in Michigan and
Ohio, 72 percent of Minnesota's northern hardwood forests, and 86
percent of Minnesota's red and white pine forests.

** In the West, 99 percent of California's native grassland is gone, as
are up to 90 percent of western Montana's old growth forests and low-
elevation grasslands; half of Colorado's wetlands and 90 percent of
Hawaii's dry forests and grasslands are gone.[4]

The NBS report was prepared by Reed Noss of the University of Idaho's
Department of Fish and Wildlife, the late Edward LaRoe III of NBS, and
J. Michael Scott, working with NBS's Idaho Cooperative Fish and
Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Idaho.

An ecosystem is a community of species in a specific area. An ecosystem
can range from a very large territory defined by specialized plants,
such as hardwood forests or sagebrush, to a much smaller area defined
by varied plant and animal life, such as a fen or wetland.

"Loss of biodiversity is real," the authors said, adding that the
general public is aware of damage to tropical forests but less familiar
with losses of woodlands, swamps, and grasslands.

Regionally, 58 of the troubled environments were in the Southeast, 37
were in the Northeast, 23 in the Midwest and Great Plains, 11 in the
Northern Rockies, 10 in the Southwest, 17 in California, and two in
Hawaii. "The extent to which various ecosystems have declined in the
United States --despite uncertainties and unevenness in the data --
portrays a striking picture of endangerment," the NBS report says.

"Our results indicate that more biodiversity has been lost than is
generally recognized in environmental-policy debates. A continually
expanding list of endangered species seems inevitable unless trends of
habitat destruction are reversed soon through a national commitment to
ecosystem protection and restoration," the report says.

Rutgers University biology professor David Ehrenfeld has a different
take on it. A national commitment to ecosystem protection will be
necessary, he says, but not sufficient. "The ultimate success of our
efforts to stop ruining nature will depend on a revision of the way we
use the world in our everyday living when we are not thinking about
conservation. If we have to conserve the earth in spite of ourselves,
we will not be able to do it," he says.[5] The destructive changing of
nature ceases, he says, "when people who are not actively trying to
save the world play and work in a way that is compatible with the
existence of the other native species of the region. When that happens-
-and it happens more than we may think --the presence of people and the
changes they bring may enhance the species richness of the area, rather
than exert the negative effect that is more familiar to us," he says.

An alternative, Mr. Ehrenfeld says, "is a transformation of the dream
of progress from one of overweening hubris, love of quantity and
consumption, waste, and the idiot's goal of perpetual growth to one of
honesty, resilience, appreciation of beauty and scale, and stability --
based in part on the inventive imitation of nature. We have already had
examples of what this alternative can be like: the CHINAMPAS, or swamp
gardens, that were the glory of pre-Columbian Mexican farming and which
might again sustain the Mexican people; the city of Florence in the
Renaissance and the city of Toronto before the building boom of the
1970s and 1980s; the hedgerows of post-Elizabethan England; old
Jerusalem and the terraces of the Judean hills; and the ingenious
multicrop gardens of tropical west Africa, to name a few. The changes
that people inevitably work on the earth do not have to be destructive

"If this alternative way of living grows and prospers, I doubt that it
will do so by some master plan or protocol," Mr. Ehrenfeld says.
"Instead, it will be advanced by countless people working separately
and in small groups, sharing only a common dream of life. They will
tend to be flexible, inventive, and pragmatic, and most will have
practical skills--carpentry, the building of windmills and small
bridges, the design and repair of engines and computers, the
recognition and care of soils, the ability to teach.... They will
devote their first energies to the places where they live. They will
come to authority not by violence but by their evident ability to
replace a crumbling system with something better. And they will share
an awe for a power nobler and larger than themselves, be it God,
nature, or human history."[5]

--Peter Montague


[1] William K. Stevens, "Earth Day at 25: How Has Nature Fared?" NEW
YORK TIMES April 18, 1995, pgs. C1, C5.

[2] Mr. Stevens gives the 43% figure; we calculated the 37% figure from
data on U.S. synthetic organic chemical production, 1967-1988,
appearing in Table 77 of Appendix E in the President's Council on
Environmental Quality's report, ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY 1970-1990
(Washington, D.C.: President's Council on Environmental Quality, 1991);
during 1967-1988, annual U.S. chemical production increased at the rate
of 4.5% per year. If that growth rate held during the last 7 years
(probably a good assumption), those years saw a 37% increase in annual
output. For a primer on such calculations, see REHW #197 and #199.

[3] To receive an ascii copy of this report via E-mail, send E-mail to:
nbsitclib@mail.fws.gov. In the SUBJECT line, put these words: send
ecosystem ms. (Omit the final period, and leave the body of your
message empty.) You can also get a copy of this report in Wordperfect
format, including graphs and other illustrations, by anonymous ftp to:
ftp.its.nbs.gov; from the subdirectory /pub/nbs-series, download the
file ecosystem.manuscript; make sure your ftp client is set for binary
transfer. The Wordperfect version is 2.7 megabytes. Thanks to Sue Maret
for alerting us to this report.

[4] This summary of the NBS report appeared on the Gannett News Service
wire July 1, 1995, under Ken Miller's byline.

MILLENNIUM (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pgs. 175-194.

Descriptor terms: tri; epa; water quality; water pollution; air
pollution; human health; fish advisories; development; species loss;
extinction; national biological service; forests; wildlife; barrier
islands; prairies; grasslands; biodiversity; endangered species; david
ehrenfeld; william stevens; new york times; mexico; italy; africa;
great britain; jerusalem;

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