The Environmental Challenges We Face

While there is obviously much popular, political, and scientific disagreement on the extent of the various environmental problems facing humankind at the dawn of a new millennium, there is also a growing consensus that many of these problems have reached a stage of crisis. Since "proving" that such a crisis exists is beyond the scope of this webtext, I will simply refer here to the growing and unavoidable body of evidence that the condition of our planet represents a real and significant threat to the survivial of humans and other life forms. Specifically, let me point to three of the more obvious and worrisome environmental challenges that have emerged as we enter the new millennium:

  1. An atmosphere that is apparently warmer than it has been in millions of years, almost certainly as a result of human activity, with potentially disastrous social, economic, and political consequences.

    In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a Special Report on the Regional Impact of Climate Change, which surveyed dozens of scientific studies of the effects of "global warming" on various ecosystems. Although this report indicated that global climate change is likely to result in benefits to some regions of the world, the net effect of global warming is likely to be devastating to many other regions. To get a sense of the complex and far-reaching nature of the impact of climate change, here's an excerpt from one section of the report:

    Inland aquatic ecosystems will be influenced by climate change through altered water temperatures, flow regimes, water levels, and thawing of permafrost at high latitudes. In lakes and streams, warming would have the greatest biological effects at high latitudes-where biological productivity would increase and lead to expansion of cool-water species' ranges-and at the low-latitude boundaries of cold- and cool-water species ranges, where extinctions would be greatest. Increases in flow variability, particularly the frequency and duration of large floods and droughts, would tend to reduce water quality, biological productivity, and habitat in streams. The geographical distribution of wetlands is likely to shift with changes in temperature and precipitation, with uncertain implications for net greenhouse gas emissions from non-tidal wetlands. Some coastal ecosystems (saltwater marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls, and river deltas) are particularly at risk from climate change and other stresses. Changes in these ecosystems would have major negative effects on freshwater supplies, fisheries, biodiversity, and tourism (Special Report 2001).

    This report, which draws on the latest scientific research, leaves little doubt that global climate change, induced by human activity, may threaten the very survival of life on earth. (It is worth noting here, that the United States, which recently pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty that was signed by 167 nations to address the problem of global climate change, is commonly estimated to discharge 25% of the world's carbon dioxide--an important greenhouse gas believed to contribute to global warming--with only 5% of the world's population.)

  2. The disappearance of hundreds of plant and animal species annually as a result of the destruction or degradation of ecosystems.

    According to the World Conservation Union, "103 extinctions [of plant and animla species] have occurred since 1800, indicating an extinction rate 50 times greater than the natural rate" ("Confirming" 2000). (These findings mirror sources of evidence of such extinction.) A 1998 survey of 400 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences indicated that 70% of the scientists polled believed that "the world is now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction of living things in the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet" (Ayers 1998). Most of these scientists attributed these losses to human activity (Warrick 1998, A4).

  3. Increasing economic and political tensions over decreasing water resources in places like the Middle East and the American West, where identifiable environmental effects of the overuse of water are evident.

    According to Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Last Oasis (1992), a widely cited study of water scarcity, "Water scarcity will affect everything from prospects for peace in the Middle East to global food security, the growth of cities, and the location of industries" (Worldwatch Institute). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the report cited above, also noted that "changes in climate could exacerbate periodic and chronic shortfalls of water, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas of the world" (Special Report 2001).

    I could cite many other such environmental problems, such as the long-term dangers from industrial and nuclear wastes or the dramatically diminished ocean resources as a result of pollution, over-fishing, and destructive fishing methods. But my purpose here is simply to establish that what David Orr calls the "crisis of sustainability" is something more than an academic catchphrase: it is, as Orr asserts, "about the terms and conditions of human survivial" (83). This point is critical, because I am suggesting that literacy and the technologies we use for writing, reading, and communicating are implicated in this crisis. Thus, literacy as a technology and technologies for literacy, such as computers, are inextricably linked to our survival.

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