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Humanity is Rapidly Degrading Its Most Vital Resources

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If you ask somebody in a developed nation to identify some of the most valuable materials on earth, they will most likely mention gold, silver, jewels, and oil. While it is certainly true that these resources have long held a high monetary value, their objective value to human life is actually significantly below that of other, more mundane, resources that many developed societies have taken for granted and devalued.

Conversely, people in less sheltered societies are more likely to understand what is truly valuable, if only because they lack these resources. For example: poor workers living in a Chinese industrial city understand the value of clean air and the ability to breathe without worrying about developing cancer with every breath; people living in urban India understand the value of clean water and the knowledge that they aren’t drinking toxic runoff or sewage; and farmers in Southeast Asia understand the value of sustainable soil, free of toxic heavy metals that will despoil it and destroy their livelihood.

Residents of developed nations have such a comfortable existence that we no longer need to consider the rule of three for human survival: The average human body can only survive three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

These people assume that access to potable and fresh water, clean air, and unpolluted land are the norm and have let themselves become complacent in the idea that these life-sustaining resources will be sustained in the future. This complacency is dangerous and has not only let people justify living a lifestyle that personally contributes to the degradation of these resources (e.g. using toxic chemicals to green their lawn), but also stopped them from protesting when large corporate interests degrade the environment on a massive scale.

Unfortunately, healthy and sustainable air, water, and land resources are under threat in many developed nations, none more so than in the USA. We are letting the short-term profits of our corporate interests overshadow the long-term health of our entire nation. This will only get worse as vital resources are increasingly damaged and, sadly, a lot of the damage which is being inflicted is almost impossible to repair.

Water Pollution

Fresh water promises to be one of the most valuable resources in the coming century. Climate change will deliver droughts and sea level rise (which causes salt water to infiltrate previously fresh water) that reduces access to fresh water across large swathes of the planet, while human pollution will render much of the remaining water unsafe to drink.

Corporations like Nestle are extracting as much water from the ground as possible to sell on the open market, even where there are water shortages (e.g. CA). In some cases, the water being extracted is coming from aquifers that are being drained and will not recover for many years—this lowers the water table and threatens the long-term health of these water resources for people living in the vicinity.

A large percentage of the water being extracted by these private companies in the USA is sold to fracking companies so that they can create fracking fluid. Fracking operations are mixing billions of gallons of water every year with toxic chemicals and injecting it into the earth in order to extract natural gas from shale rocks. The water that is used in this process is rendered poisonous and often must be sealed into “retention ponds” to prevent it from poisoning anything to touch it.

While the USA faces a significant water crisis, it pales in comparison to the threat facing the Middle East, Africa, and large portions of Asia. Droughts in the Middle East and Africa can render entire regions uninhabitable, which can force large populations of poor people to simply leave their homes. These migrations and resource shortages breed civil unrest and fuel extremism, which is why the military consider this issue to be a top “threat multiplier” (problem that worsens other existing threats).

Air Pollution

Since the industrial revolution, humans have put innumerable tons of material into the atmosphere, including a great deal of material that threatens the health of the planet. In addition to the carbon molecules (e.g. carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, etc.) that drive climate change, human industry has released numerous sulfur compounds, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic materials, and particulate matter, all of which threaten to harm living organisms.

Beijing on a good day vs a “super smog” outbreak
Beijing on a good day vs a “super smog” outbreak

There are numerous sources of air pollution, including cars, coal power plants (sulfur and carbon molecules), agricultural operations (methane and ammonia), manufacturing (toxic chemicals, VOCs and particulate), each of which creates its own set of problems.

Coal fired power plants release massive amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen compounds, both of which cause respiratory damage and asthma, as well as aerosolized mercury, which is a toxic heavy metal. In the USA alone, thousands of Americans die early every year due to health conditions caused by these chemicals—these deaths disproportionately occur in poor communities and communities of color because land prices are typically reduced due to proximity with a power plant. The worst example of this on earth today is in China, where coal power plants have generates “super-smog” that is over 40 times more toxic than allowed by law, and makes it hazardous to step outside for more than a couple minutes without breathing protections (during flare-ups).

Cars release tons of particulate matter, ozone, and carbon pollution (carbon dioxide and monoxide) into the environment every year. These impacts tend to be concentrated in cities, where many cars operate in proximity, and the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that up to 30,000 Americans die every year due to illnesses caused by this exposure.

Agricultural and farming operations emit huge quantities of various nitrogen compounds and ammonia gas, largely a product of the large quantities of crop fertilizers that are applied to industrial fields. These chemicals contribute to respiratory disorders because they combine with other materials in the atmosphere to produce particulates which infiltrate the human lungs.

Degrading the Soil

Soil pollution is an extremely large issue in many areas of the world, as corrupted soil can destroy farming communities and harm human life. Heavy metals like lead, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury leach into the soil around factories, polluted waterways, garbage dumps, and hazardous waste depositories, corrupting the soil. Because these metals are denser than the surrounding soil, they only slowly leach out of the environment and remain a serious threat for years after they stop being deposited.

Heavy metal toxicity can impact numerous vital body systems, including the nervous system, digestive system, and immune system. Unfortunately, heavy metals are stored in the soft tissues and bones, thus will accumulate in your body—this means that symptoms are often not felt until the damage is irreversible.  

In the United States, there are numerous super-fund sites—such as the East Chicago neighborhood that was built on top of an old lead-smelting facility—that have horrifyingly polluted soil. Not only are these areas toxic to humans living in the vicinity, but they are wholly unsuited for farming, as most crops are unable to grow in toxic soil.

Sadly, many poor nations on earth have acted as the dumping ground for developed nations’ electronic waste, much of which leeches heavy metals into their soil. In one MIT study, researchers put GPS tags on old electronic devices that were about to be turned into recycling and waste disposal centers to see where they would end up. China was the single largest dumping point for these electronics, however several other nations in South Asia, Central America, and Kenya were also the final homes for this waste.

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