Environment Science & Physics Society & Culture

When it comes to the environment, not in my back yard!

So you let your dog loose. Running across a mist-shrouded field on some autumn morning. He disappears into the distant trees emerging eerily from the blanket of fog to tend to his early morning ablutions. Moments later he re-emerges, and the two of you return home.

An act repeated not just once that morning in your locale, but many times over, and not just by your pet dog, but also by yourself (although the venue for your ablutions will no doubt be a little warmer and maybe a little more refined) as well as a host of other people and just about every other animal besides.

We make waste. And we make lots of it.

Most of the time, we don’t concern ourselves too much with how this waste is managed, we simply trust that it is. Your pet dog however, he doesn’t give a moments thought to the act. Nor does he care what will happen to his waste. He’s happy enough to know that it’s no longer inside him.

Waste is a by-product of all biological life. Be that the infinitesimally small microbes to be found at the bottom of some oceanic abyssal, or nestled inside the looping, supple tubular coils of your lower intestinal tract. Or the elephant, the whale or even the long since extinct Liopleurodon.

In short: we’re all just full of shit.

However, this only becomes a problem when the waste produced of our feverish existence becomes so much that our environment can no longer deal with the volume.

Here’s a question for you: which creature polluted its own environment to such an extent that it caused a massive change in the whole of the global climate? A creature that destroyed almost all of its contemporaries by poisoning them with its effluence. A creature that ruined the oceans, leaving them almost barren of life.

Why a strain of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria some two and a half billion years ago, of course!

“At first the damage was limited to the oceans’ ecosystems. The underwater oxygen began to chemically react with the abundant iron, eventually scrubbing the seas clean of the element through oxidation. The oxidized iron settled to the ocean floor, and the oceans’ green tint began to fade. This series of developments was nothing short of an ecological disaster– oxygen was poisonous to most of primitive Earth’s inhabitants, and many bacteria relied on the iron as a nutrient.

Once the oceans’ supply of iron was exhausted, oxygen began to seep from the sea into the air. With very little competition for resources, cyanobacteria continued to proliferate and pollute. The free oxygen they produced reacted with the air, gradually breaking down the methane which kept the Earth’s atmosphere warm and accommodating. It took at least a hundred thousand years– a short duration in geological terms– but the Earth was eventually stripped of her methane, and with it her ability to store the heat from the sun. Temperatures fell well below freezing worldwide, and a thick layer of ice began to encase the oxygen-saturated planet.”

Now you see, I had an epiphany some years ago. An epiphany like most others which was born out of observation. An observation of a dog defecating, of all things. Like I said earlier, he doesn’t care where or when he does his defecating, he just does it. Simple as that.

But surely that’s wrong? Well, the natural question is: why is that wrong? Why should the dog even care? And then another question emerges: why should we care? An alarming question, you might think. But it’s not an unreasonable question, and neither is the logical answer, which is that the dog really shouldn’t care.

My theory was a simple enough concept: all creatures are polluters, just on different scales. Our particular brand of pollution is on a far bigger scale than the dog, but the problem is just the same.

Then I read the article about the cyanobacteria on Damn Interesting, and I felt that my theory had been given credence. A theory that I had fleetingly explored earlier on this very ‘blog.

It is in our nature to not care of the consequences of some of our lesser actions & functions. These are seen as being trivial, after all.

However, because our trivialities are so compounded by our great numeracy around the world, we have to care, whether we like that fact or not.

Knowing the extent of a problem is part way towards a measure of the solution needed to fix the problem.

We are that much closer to fixing the biggest problem we have ever faced in our fleeting, yet spectacular existence. We have identified that we are the problem, and that we have not just the knowledge to appreciate the scale of the problem, but also the technology to solve it.

A problem that is truly massive, but also truly achievable. Now is the time that our ingenuity is put to the real test.

This is a problem that not just technology is to have a hand in, society too must play a part. And the two must work hand-in-hand…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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