We don't need to ask experts to know that our planet is slipping into a deep crisis. We see daily news of people dying from increasing natural disasters all over the world - floods, hurricanes, storms, droughts, heat waves, and earthquakes. We feel the weather in each approaching season getting extreme - hotter, colder, dryer, or wetter. We hear reports of an alarming rate of animal, insect, and plant species on the brink of extinction. And we fear the spread of deadly viruses that have surfaced among animals as well as humans. It's irrefutable that global warming has already set in motion the detrimental effects around the globe. How many more lives and billions of dollars in damages will it take for businesses and political leaders to take full responsibility in carrying out drastic measures to save our planet?
Global warming is caused by the excessive amount of trapped greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Human activities have been blamed for 95% of global warming - 75% of annual CO2 emissions from burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) and 20% from cutting and burning of forests (trees trap and store carbon). The scientists claimed in just 10 years' time the Earth's temperature will rise by 2°C above the average Earth's temperature, a tipping point-of-no-return. The consequences of such an increase could lead to widespread water shortages and major droughts, agricultural failures, loss of forests, epidemic diseases, and rising sea level. The ultimate climax would be the melting of the polar caps, triggering the cooling effect throughout the globe to advance the onslaught of another ice age. After earlier warnings have turned into realities, why would anyone doubt the scientific conclusions now?
The urgency in dealing with the global warming phenomenon no longer allows world leaders and corporations to continue their lackadaisical attitude in tackling severe environmental problems. Many governments have already been bombarded with numerous social and health problems caused by natural disasters, and some businesses have already suffered immense losses directly and indirectly related to these natural catastrophes. The wailing cries of Mother Nature will only worsen as the Earth's temperature edges upward in the coming years. How much more proof do they need to understand that dire actions are the only options left to alleviate the escalating global warming effects?
Since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, humans have been so preoccupied with improving their living conditions that they have been callously plundering the natural resources of this planet without a single thought of the consequences for the natural environment, diverse co-inhabitants, or the whole fragile ecosystem of the Earth. As civilizations become more complex, sophisticated, and technologically advanced, science has enabled humanity to understand that their precious surroundings are based on the equilibrium of interconnected ecosystems. If one ecosystem falters, it would instantaneously prompt the collapses of other ecosystems.
Common sense tells us as the human population grows and the use of fossil fuels soars around the world - we must plant more trees to absorb superfluous carbon dioxide in the air. Instead, deforestation has been the routine of some companies that aggressively pursue profits at all cost. Evidently, some self-serving political leaders, supported by profit-driven corporations, seem indifferent or reluctant to implement effective measures against the ongoing destruction of our environment.
In the Earth's teeming biosphere, forests play a pertinent role in regulating the balance of nature - preventing soil erosion, moderating world climate, and maintaining natural habitats for biodiversity. The loss of trees, which anchor the soil with their roots, leads to widespread erosion as riverbeds rise, increasing the severity of floods. When a heavy load of sediment dumps into the ocean, it not only badly damages mangrove forests but also destroys coral reefs, indirectly affecting coastal fisheries. In addition, denuding the forests strikes a heavy blow to human welfare, for plants - some of which are located only in forests - serve as the primary source of medicine for three-quarters of the world's population.
To keep the Earth's atmospheric carbon in check, trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. Within just two centuries, billion tons of greenhouse gases have been spewing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, subsequently destabilizing the global weather system. As a result, the physical evidence of global warming is seen everywhere - the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, sea-level rising, and shrinking glaciers at the poles, including the melting snowcap of Mount Everest.
Rainforests, covering only 6 percent of the planet's surface, perform two important roles - function as a climate monitor by regulating rainfall to cool the tropical regions and prevent desertification; and provide the breeding grounds for biodiversity. Clearing and burning rainforest not only adds vast amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere but also causes the luscious paradise to desiccate, as observed in arid Madagascar after years of severe deforestation. A widespread deforestation could end up with a significant decline of precipitation, which in turn could hasten the expansion of desiccation throughout the globe. As statistics slowly trickled in, the deforested areas of West African countries have shown declining annual rainfalls in the last decade.
The biological wealth of Earth lies in the fate of the tropical forests as the single colossal reservoir of biodiversity on this planet. The rainforests sustain about 50% of all species on Earth. Without the presence of variety and abundance of species, the ecological imbalance of nature would result in devastating consequences for all life forms. Because of the drastically climatic changes and the dramatic loss of natural habitats, extinctions of species are occurring not only on a massive scale but also at an unprecedented accelerating pace. According to the World Resources Institute, 100 species become extinct every day due to tropical deforestation.
Without a doubt, industrial logging is the primary cause of global deforestation, converting trees into pulp, wood and paper products at an alarming rate within the last three decades. As the wealthy nations continue to exploit the underdeveloped countries for their natural resources, 78% of the world's ancient forests have already been destroyed or degraded, according to the World Resources Institute. Although logging techniques have improved and a growing international awareness of the plight of rainforests, unsustainable logging of tropical rainforests persists without any concrete policies of replanting trees for future harvests, preventing forest fires, losing biodiversity, tackling poaching, or banning farmers from clearing wooded areas for plantations. After having depleted their own countries' tropical forests, some Asian multinational logging corporations are encroaching the last remaining forest wilderness in South America while stepping up their logging of the Congo Basin, the South Pacific, and Central America.
Worse still, illegal logging is rampant - surreptitiously supported by corrupt officers or poorly managed by government officials of developing nations. Environmental groups claimed that illegal logging has been expanding worldwide, naming some of the countries - Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Cambodia, Russia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Congo, Cameroon, and Brazil. One well-known example of deforestation, as much as 90% of the timber cut in Indonesia is illegally harvested. Two indigenous species - orangutan and Sumatran tiger (found only in Borneo and Sumatra, respectively) - are now threatened with extinction. Many of these countries finally realized that the scale of illegal logging often exceeded legal logging and that they suffered major losses of revenues as the price of timber dropped due to the flooding of illegal timber in the global market.
The blame of destroying the natural forests doesn't just fall on the obvious parties - avaricious timber companies, political leaders with poor governance, and corrupt officers - but on the consumers. After all, the trees are cut to use for mass consumption. It is for our needs that drive these timber companies to exploit the sacred forests. Being ignorant or uncaring is no longer an excuse for buying wood products without knowing where the wood originated. Purchasing cheaper wood products (most likely illegal) would only bring doom to the precious forests. Despite the overpopulation of the Third World countries, the growing populations in wealthy industrialized nations are actually responsible for much of the exploitation of the Earth. In fact, the bottom 20% poorest countries consume only 1.3% compared to the top 20% richest nations that consume 86% of world resources.
Common sense tells us limited natural resources will eventually be depleted if nothing is done to replenish them. Instead, we seek out the last pristine frontiers, such as Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drill for oil or South America to log timber. Although the world leaders recently have feebly agreed to curb about 3-5% emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide at the Kyoto Protocol, the scientists declared that it was significantly not enough - 60% cut is needed in every nation to prevent the onslaught of global warming. The United States under the Bush administration, the biggest polluter (25% of world's emissions) not only shunned the Kyoto Protocol but also snubbed the call to halt illegal logging for 'economic reasons' at the G8 world meeting. With this kind of national protectionism against the world's concerns, perhaps Bush with several allies invaded Iraq for the same 'economic reasons' - to control the oil reserves in the Middle East. If the Iraq War is any indication of a few nations fighting over oil reserves in the world, one could imagine what would happen when the Earth is down to its last bit of oil or timber.
As technology becomes more sophisticated and advanced, man has the means more than ever to stop the detrimental collapse of the Earth's ecosystem. The most sensible solution is to seek renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuel, such as solar, wind, and biomass. Renewable energy sources have already proven to be clean and effective, such as homes powered by solar panels or wind turbines. In addition, to produce recyclable products is essential, not a choice, in order to preserve the remaining natural resources. If man could send a robot powered by solar cells to roam Mars, why can't he build a solar car to run on Earth?
We have reached a turning point where the future of the world depends on our generation to correct the havoc humans created on this planet. Drastic times call for drastic measures: 1) ban all timber industries - substitute wood for houses with other building materials, and recycle all paper products; 2) join Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, in her crusade of planting trees in every part of the world; 3) governments must immediately enforce companies to manufacture recyclable products, and invest heavily in research on renewable energy sources for practical purposes; and 4) consumers must conserve and use only recyclable products.
(First published on UniOrb.com, April 2005)