As the world's 16.62 trillionth sunrise slowly appears over Lake Michigan, we once again come together to spread support and awareness for environmental issues on Earth Day 2015. Everyone from Bill Nye to the Pope to Ted Cruz wants to talk about climate change – but that’s old news, or at least news well-read. Here are five lesser-known environmental crisis facing our society today.
Though you might not know it if you’re not involved in the world of agriculture, bees are integral to the success of farmers and their crops. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that bees contribute more than $15 billion annually to crop production. So it’s easy to understand why, several years ago, when scientists announced that bees were dying off in huge numbers, the news didn’t put a smile on too many faces.
Most worrying of all, top farmers and scientists still aren’t really sure what the problem is, let alone a solution. Leading theories include pesticide contamination, bacterial disease or habitat alteration. But none of these can explain the magnitude or the suddenness of what is officially called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
The problem has cooled down now from its initial panic-inciting proportions, but it’s still substantial. A massive push for awareness by the agricultural community has led to some groups taking action, such as increased federal funding for bee research and some exterminators beginning to relocate hives instead of destroying them, but the fight is far from over. Scientists will soon have to identify a permanent solution, or the strain could begin to show in fresh food markets across the country.
A world without chocolate
The chocolate market has been running a deficit for a while now, meaning consumers eat more of it than cocoa farmers can produce. This could mean that the near future could see a world without chocolate. Chocolate of course will still exist, but the discrepancy between demand and supply, 70,000 metric tons according to Bloomberg, could force prices up much higher than normal, transitioning it from your average grocery store item to more of a luxury good, which no cash-strapped college student (or out-of-touch celebrity) ever likes to hear.
Unfortunately, growers will be hard-pressed to ramp up output. Trees can only grow in a range roughly 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and bad weather can hinder production significantly, unusually commonplace in recent years. Compare this to demand which has been growing rapidly, driven by ever-wealthier economies in nations such as Brazil, India and especially China.
Some projections show that by 2018 market conditions could improve, but the fact remains only so many cocoa trees exist and can exist, while China’s GDP continues to surge onward at nearly 8 percent annual growth. So brace yourselves, chocolate lovers, because the chocolate winter is coming.
The insatiable appetite for ivory
As China’s economy grows, its population doesn’t just crave chocolate. Research has pointed the finger almost directly at China as the cause for what remains a rampant illegal ivory trade. For much of history, ivory has been a coveted luxury good, valued for its durability and texture and used for products from silverware to piano keys. Much like diamonds, society has assigned a massive value to the material, and despite modern replacements (such as plastic piano keys) the high demand remains, especially in China, where a pound of ivory can go for $1,000.
Recent government action has illustrated just how big the numbers are. In November 2014, the United States, a nation with a minimal ivory trade, publically destroyed their stockpile of more than six tons of confiscated ivory. China followed suit three months later by publicly destroying a six-ton portion of their own stockpile, and on April 21, Thailand seized their largest haul of smuggled ivory ever.
Conservationists have made gains on other fronts: Humpback whale populations in the Pacific Ocean have grown enough in the recent past that some regulators have proposed removing their endangered status, and tiger populations in India have increased by nearly a third in the past three years, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). But the plight of ivory animals, especially elephants, remains a serious concern.
Factory farming is eating the world
Capitalism is a ubiquitous force in our lives, and while it has clear benefits, like creating a constant drive for innovation and improvement, it has harsh consequences as well. The need for ever-cheaper costs and more efficient production processes has driven industrial farming to new heights.
The massive amount of resources used by industrial farming is slowly but surely stripping the planet down. Farmers have cleared incredible numbers of acres to create room for crop fields used to grow livestock feed, including 260 million in the U.S. alone and millions of acres of Brazilian rainforest. Livestock contribute to nearly 40 percent of methane emissions, a substance 20 times more effective at global warming than CO2. But don’t worry about CO2 production on farms, because their energy needs mean the industry also releases 41 million metric tons of CO2 into the air each year as well. Massive amounts of manure from livestock and poultry make soil barren and toxic, which harms local plant life. Industrial farming consumes an estimated 70 percent of human freshwater use. Animal cruelty is rampant and living conditions are intolerable.
The list goes on, but big agriculture’s huge lobbying influence and incredibly powerful position at the bargaining table – a few massive companies control the production of much of the livestock and poultry supply in the United States – mean that large-scale reform is nearly impossible.
Drawing on inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and newfound environmental awareness catalyzed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the environmental justice movement emerged in the late 20th century to combat a new aspect of discrimination.
Consistent data by researchers has shown that both racial minorities and lower income communities are more likely to live nearer to landfills, toxic waste, contaminated water supplies and other environmental hazards. In 1992, a joint effort by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced a government report recognizing the issue.
But recognition isn’t a solution, and much like education and other racially charged issues, the situation has seen little improvement.