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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 171 - May 1987

Green Politics - The Facts

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Planet in peril
Green activists hold that the quick-profit approach of
industrial decision-makers is creating a world that will be
uninhabitable for future generations. Evidence is mounting
that the Greens are right. NI takes stock of the
growing threat to our lives and livelihood.

Plundered resources

Photo: Cycholt / Camera Press Soil loss
A third of the world's people live in countries where cropland is shrinking. Topsoil is being lost due to overcultivation, improper irrigation, ploughed grassland and deforestation. In Africa the Shara desert gobbles up 30 miles a year in its relentless march southwards.

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Falling water tables
Though yearly rainfall remains fairly constant, the world's use of water is doubling every ten to twenty years. As a result the water table - the depth at which you will find water underground - is steadily falling.

  • In the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu irrigation is lowering the water table by one to four metres a year.
  • In the US, irrigated land decreased by 3% in the 1973-83 period. Parts of the giant Ogallala water basin under the Great Plains are at least half depleted.

Disappearing forests
The world's forest resource is quickly being depleted by lumber companies - or by those trying to keep warm or cook their food. The problem is particularly severe in the Third World where much more forest land is being cleared than planted.

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Shrinking fish stocks
One of the major sources of protein - the world's fish catch - is beginning to show signs of wear.

Growth in world fish catch
Per capita

Fouled air

The three main sources of air pollution are industry, energy production and the automobile.

A 1,000 megawatt power plant burning coal that gives off smoke containing 10% ash, 1.5% sulphur, and 1.5% nitrogen will produce per hour:

900 tons of carbon dioxide
12 tons of sulphur compounds
5 tons of nitric acid
3 to 5 tons of soot particles
30 tons of ash.

Severe urban air pollution or smog causes respiratory problems in people and plants. There is high daily variance in urban smog density.

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Sulphur Dioxide
(milligrams per cubic metre)7
Milan (Italy)
Brussels (Belgium)
Madrid (Spain)
Sao Paulo (Brazil)
Santiago (Chile)
* air quality standard is 80 milligrams.

Acid rain
Many lakes in North America and Europe receive up to 30 times more acidity than they would if rain and snow fell through clean air.

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· In Canada 14,000 lakes are dead Some 40,000 more are dying. Also 90 of Ontario sugar maples in a 20,000 sq. kilometre area are dying. In the province of Quebec 14% of sugar maple trees are already dead.9

· Current trends suggest that atmospheric pollutants and acidity in precipitation will increase in much of the industrial and developing world.10

Climate in crisis

The waste products of industrial society are beginning to threaten the global climate.

Greenhouse effect
Accumulated pollutants in the atmosphere - primarily carbon dioxide, methane and chiorofluorocarbons - are blocking solar heat rays that normally travel back into space. This is causing global temperatures to rise. By early in the next century the global temperature could be higher than any time in the last 100,000 years. This would alter growing seasons and cause the polar ice caps partially to melt. Sea levels may rise by as much as three feet by the year 2050 causing flooding in low lying areas.

Ozone layer depletion
Ozone protects life on earth from ultra-violet radiation given off by the sun. The ozone layer is gradually being broken down by 655,000 tons of chlorofluorocarbons released by industry every year. US scientists report a 30% reduction of the ozone layer over the Antarctic. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a 2.5% reduction in the ozone layer could cause 15,000 human cancers per year as well as extensive damage to crops.

Radiation damage
[image, unknown] Fall-out continues from nuclear bomb tests that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. And there have been nuclear power reactor accidents and Three Mile Island and in Chernobyl where 29 people died from exposure to high levels of radiation. The Swedish Academy of Sciences estimates that up to 8,000 European cancers will be caused by Chernobyl.

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Photo: Prentice / Camera Press

Fragile ecosystems

Tropical rainforests
These are complex ecosystems with a large diversity of plant and animal life They are important in maintaining global oxygen levels.

Threat: The destruction of the rainforests is being engineered for the creation of more grazing acreage, for fuel, for roads and military installations, and in order to build a monocrop fast-growth forestry industry. By 1986 tropical forests were disappearing at the rate of 68 million acres a year.

The Arctic regions
The Arctic possesses a very fragile eco-system with slow decomposition of wastes and thin acidic soil. Precipitation falls in desert-like quantities. There is little species diversity - of 30,000 types of fish only 50 live in the Arctic. Large populations of few species (caribou, seals) are very vulnerable to environmental stress. The Arctic and Antarctic regions play an important role in cooling the earth's climate.

Threat: The Arctic is threatened by potential oilspills in the Beaufort Sea and other Arctic areas where drilling is currently under way.There are also substantial oil reserves in the Antarctic. Oil and gas pipelines in areas such as Canada's Mackenzie Valley disrupt caribou migration patterns and native trapping economies. Military installations and air strips in Canada, the US and the USSR are also a threat and military activity will increase if US Star Wars plans go ahead.

Poisoning the water

Today much of our water is contaminated. Most contaminants become more concentrated and dangerous as they move up the food chain. For example, 1/50 of a part per million of a chemical insecticide in lake water becomes 1,600 parts per million in fish-eating birds.

Water pollution sources:
Domestic sewage
is dumped into lagoons onto land, into rivers and into the sea. In Canada 270 chemical pollutants pass through Ontario sewage treatment plants into Lake Ontario.

Toxic chemicals are sprayed on farms, fields and forests. They run off into streams and lakes and seep through the soil into groundwater.

[image, unknown] Industrial wastes include synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that are poured into rivers and lakes and dumped into landfill sites such as Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York. There are thousands of toxic landfill sites across the industrial world. It is impossible to estimate how many are leaking into ground or surface water.

Oil and chemical spills such as the highly- publicized spill of toxic chemicals into the Rhine river in 1986 or the Torrey Canyon oil spill into the Atlantic in 1967 are just the tip of the iceberg.

Radioactive particles are part of the waste-stream of reactors and some hospitals, and are a contributing factor to human cancers.

Toxins in drinking water
A worldwide survey of drinking water
found among the 1,600 chemicals detected:
Recognized carcinogens
(cause cancer)
Suspected carcinogens
Tumor promoters/
Recognized mutagens
(cause birth defects)
Suspected mutagens

1 The Nature of Things, CBC, Toronto, 1986.
2 State of the World, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, 1985.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 B. Appleman. Epitaph for Planet Earth. Frederick tell Publishers Inc., 1982; NY.
7 World Health Organization, Air Quality in Selected Urban Areas 1979 - 80, Geneva 1983.
8 Ibid
9 Micheal Keating, Globe and Mail, Oct. 3rd 1986.
10 Ibid.

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New Internationalist issue 171 magazine cover This article is from the May 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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