Are humans | ruining the Earth?

As a species, we seem to be having a negative impact on things such as other wildlife, the oceans and the atmosphere. But what about the beauty and complexity of human art, technology and engineering - surely that’s something to be proud of? Do we give back more than we take? 

Should we look after the planet?

One of the key topics to consider when tackling our Big Question is climate change - but what does it mean and what can governments do to manage and combat it? 

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Human impact 

The effect of human activity on the Earth is hotly debated – but Dr Rob Bellamy (University of Oxford) says that there are tipping points from which the planet would find it tough to recover.

“Climate change is one of these planetary boundaries, where we’re dangerously teetering on the edge of causing some serious damage,” he says. “There’s the widespread loss of biodiversity and the extinction of various fauna (animals). There’s chemical pollution. There’s ocean acidification.”

Some people are even suggesting that we’re in a new era of the Earth’s history – the Anthropocene. 

“The idea is that the world has reached a point now where humans are having such a massive impact on the world we can consider this as being a new epoch (a new geological age of the Earth),” he says. 

Switching off lights that aren’t needed, using public transport instead of driving, recycling our rubbish … most of us know about the environmentally-friendly things we could be doing each day.

But how necessary is it for us to be saving the planet’s resources – and how serious are the effects of climate change?

To refresh your knowledge of the science behind climate change and the Greenhouse effect, take a look at the video below – which compares the process to a big game of Tetris!   

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztWHqUFJRTs

Technology to the rescue..?

Dr Rob Bellamy works in the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at the University of Oxford, and specialises in research projects about climate change and potential solutions. He explains that there have been two main approaches to dealing with the problems of climate change: 

•    adaptation -  dealing with its effects. 
•    mitigation - dealing with its causes.

He adds that there is now a third approach which consists of radical ideas about ways in which climate change could be controlled. For example, some have suggested putting a mirror into orbit around the Earth, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, like a big sunshade.

This concept of intervening in the climate is called geoengineering. And since the 2015 Paris Agreement - when governments agreed that they would aim for limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels - it seems more and more likely that such technology will be used. 

“So much of the concern really is rising from the fact that scientists and policymakers are realising that we’re not actually going to be able to avoid dangerous climate change through mitigation,” says Dr Bellamy. “We’ve had quite a long time already of trying to reduce our CO2 emissions, but they keep going up, and this geoengineering idea is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system - it’s basically a technological fix.”

There are two types of geoengineering. The first is greenhouse gas removal: removing and storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The second is solar radiation management, reflecting a level of sunlight away from the Earth, but not actually doing anything to deal with greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

Making change happen

There’s plenty that governments can do to help protect the environment – making laws that work well in their own countries - but actually getting this done is a slow process.

“Unfortunately what has been proposed so far falls quite dramatically short of what we would need,” explains Dr Bellamy. “It’s this massive gap between what’s been pledged in terms of emission reductions and the ambitions in the Paris agreement that leads people to start thinking about geoengineering.”

He adds that all the plans for the future that see the Paris agreement targets being met require the use of technologies that haven’t been invented or invested in yet.

A model earth sitting in a person's hand

So can individuals really make a difference? 

Yes, they can – explains Dr Bellamy - but often you’re preaching to the converted. The biggest challenge is to convince others who don’t think in the same way to you.

Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of agreement when it comes to managing the problems of climate change across the world. This is simply because people have different interpretations of how stable the climate is and different preferences for how climate change should be solved.

Dr Bellamy says that humans are ruining the Earth and we need to reduce our footprint – but humans are also improving the Earth for human benefit and we can adapt to some of the negative side effects of this, and humans are also capable of managing the Earth in balance. 

With so many different viewpoints, it’s no wonder that there’s no agreement on what to do next.

“There’s a great quote by political commentator Walter Lippmann, who said that the “the goal of politics is not to get people to think alike. The goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike”, says Dr Bellamy. 

So what do you think? 

A path of human destruction?

The rise of humans

Humans have come a long way since their cavemen ancestors. But how did we get from there to here? Historian, Yuval Noah Harari suggests some of the reasons for the rise of humanity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkSsuViqslY

Can Artificial Intelligence (AI) help or hinder humanity?

  • Solutions to our challenges

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) describes the act of computers solving tasks like humans. AI has achieved minor successes so far, from winning at chess to beating people on arcade games. But complex algorithms (computer instructions) can offer much more than gaming victories. Through crunching huge amounts of information, AI could discover cures to deadly diseases. We could even point algorithms at our skies and learn the secrets of the universe. And through special systems called ‘neural networks’, we are developing ways to artificially simulate how our brains work. It was claimed by French philosopher René Descartes that: “I think, therefore I am”. But no matter how clever we are, we all think like humans. Are there problems that only a non-human could solve?
     

  • Possible discrimination that's tricky to spot

    AI could make amazing discoveries, but be unable to explain how it found them. Algorithms turn mountains of data into an answer, with the part in the middle being blurry. What if their decisions are incorrect or discriminatory? How can we challenge their logic if their logic is unknown? We have passed laws to punish discrimination based on gender, race or sexual orientation. However, algorithms can misinterpret data and have life-changing consequences. AI is being used in the US to predict whether prisoners will commit crimes. A mistake (a bug) could mean years of extra prison time for some offenders. And we shouldn’t confuse correlation (two things occur together) with causation (one thing causes the other). For example, global warming has grown as the number of sea pirates have decreased. But this is because times have changed, not because pirates were protecting the environment!
     

  • An easier life?!

    Only the rich and famous can afford butlers. But AI can give us our own digital equivalent. Amazon’s Alexa speakers can cleverly reply to their owner’s voice. Even Facebook Messenger has chatbots, allowing it to respond naturally to requests. Why treat a computer like a computer, when we could talk to it like a human? As AI becomes smarter, it will be able to learn and adapt to our habits. Imagine a system turning on your heating, without it being instructed. It might even interact with the Internet-of-Things - the crazy collection of Internet-connected devices. But how intelligent could these algorithms become? Could they book a cheap flight and hotel when you choose a holiday? AI might eliminate the boring parts of life – giving us more time to do what we enjoy.
     

  • Increased unemployment

    What if algorithms removed the need for jobs? This might sound like a dream, but AI expert, Prof. Moshe Vardi (Rice University, US) believes that “work is essential to human wellbeing”. And AI has been predicted to have a major impact on peoples’ jobs. In the 1700s, over 80% of us were working on farms. The Industrial Revolution led to advances in technology, and therefore millions moved to towns and factories. Now in the 21st century, retail and administration jobs are threatened by AI. Oxford researchers, Dr Michael Osborne and Dr Carl Frey, estimate almost half of US roles will be at risk in 20 years. Even legal and medical tasks are being replaced by algorithms. Would you trust your illness being diagnosed by a digital doctor? Some countries are planning how to deal with AI unemployment. Finland is exploring Universal Basic Income, where everyone gets money regardless of their job. But bright ideas are needed. AI might simplify our lives, but would we feel satisfied with nothing to do?
     

  • Predictions of the future

    Imagine you had a crystal ball that could predict the future. And instead of finding lottery numbers, it could forecast the environment or the economy. This is the promise that AI holds. Technology has always helped us uncover the unknown, and algorithms could potentially let us predict climate change, allowing floods and famines to be avoided. Politicians could analyse our societies, testing decisions before they hit the real world. Driverless cars could even make roads safer, as danger could be detected in an instant. AI can take us from descriptive analyses (what has happened?) to predictive analyses (what will happen?). But could it ever become prescriptive – telling us how to achieve our goals? If so, human intelligence might be overtaken by machines.
     

  • A rise of the machines!

    What does Terminator, The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey all have in common? Crazy killer robots! For decades we’ve heard that humanity is threatened by intelligent machines. And even top tech businessman, Elon Musk, believes that AI could lead to World War three. But rather than panicking, it’s worth considering the real risks of algorithms. AI brings helpful automation, freeing humans from difficult tasks. But what happens when these big decisions go wrong? As systems become interconnected we experience a ‘butterfly effect’, where small mistakes lead to disastrous consequences. We have already seen stock exchanges crash when algorithms run out of control. And ‘bots’, small pieces of AI, operate millions of accounts on Twitter. Just think how much technology has changed over the past 30 years. In 1990 there was no World Wide Web, yet now we have smartwatches and virtual reality. We are, arguably, the smartest lifeform on our planet, and we’ve commanded control. Will we still be on top in another 30 years?

How are we treating our oceans?

Our oceans provide us with so much but how is human activity affecting them? And how does this measure up to the natural changes the Earth is undergoing?

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Our oceans cover around 70% of the Earth’s surface, yet there’s still lots to discover about the life they support and their fragile eco-systems. In fact, we have better maps of other planets like Mars than we do of our seabed, which remains 95% unexplored. Researchers at the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute have been working to find out how our oceans function and how healthy they are. Principle Scientist at Nekton, Dr Lucy Woodall explains that when trying to understand our relationship with the oceans it’s important to start by asking what do our oceans do for us? 

Oh, I do love to live by the seaside…

Everyone – even those who don’t live anywhere near the coast – is affected by the activities of our oceans. This is because its algae produce 50% of the Oxygen we breathe and absorbs large quantities of carbon dioxide – ensuring that our air is chemically balanced. The fish found within them also provide the largest source of protein in many diets across the world. And the seas control our climate and weather. 

More than this, the ocean holds social and cultural value to many of us too. The seas are used in the transportation of goods, and they play an important role in the travel and tourism industry…just think about the continued popularity of cruises and seaside holiday resorts.
 

Beach

So how are we treating them? 

Well, this is a big question in itself. Through the ongoing process of man-made climate change – largely linked to the burning of fossil fuels, and ongoing deforestation – our oceans are being significantly affected by human activity. An increase in sea temperature has led to large areas of coral bleaching in the sun. This happens when the tiny algae that make up the large mix of colours seen on coral are ejected (as in the picture below). As a result, the coral is left without its key source of food and energy and is at risk from disease. 

Coral bleaching at Heron Island Feb 2016_credit The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers
Coral bleaching at Heron Island, February 2016. Credit: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers CC-BY 2.0 

Likewise, ocean acidification due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in seawater has also contributed to coral bleaching. This occurs when some of the greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere are absorbed by the oceans and form a mild acid when dissolved in water. A growing concern is that this increase in acidity - which in turn means less calcium carbonate available in the water - can make it harder for coral and some plankton species to create their shells or plates. Ongoing research is taking place but its believed that coral bleaching and ocean acidification may pose threats to species who live and breed among coral reefs, and namely, microscopic plankton which form a vital basis to most marine food chains. 

Another area researchers are taking a look into is large-scale deoxygenation i.e. reduced oxygen levels in the ocean. It's not entirely clear what's responsible for this shift but it's thought to be mostly due to changes in ocean circulation. In other words, it could be a result of less oxygen-rich water coming from the surface ocean which could be linked to the Greenhouse Effect and ongoing processes of climate change.  

Plus, our sea levels are rising. This is due to two factors: thermal expansion (water warming up and expanding) and melting ice sheets. This has started to affect animal populations - placing those living in the Poles and along our coastlines most at risk. 

Intensive fishing is another issue our oceans face. Modern technological advances and increasing demand for food mean that seas are being fished continually and at greater depths - not giving fish populations the time to replenish. Sea mining and drilling for precious metals – which are used in electronic items like smartphones – can also disrupt ocean life and damage the seabed. 

Research has shown that pollution is damaging sea life even further. This stems from the chemicals offloaded from ships, inland fertilizers and untreated sewage which leak into our waterways, and even sunscreens that wash off swimmers on the beach. Not to forget a large amount of plastic waste inappropriately disposed of that is then swept away by the sea. Dr Lucy Woodall explains that many plastics break down into a ‘soup’ of smaller pieces – similar to the size of your small fingernail – and can be ingested (eaten) by a wide range of wildlife. 

A plastic glove with a sea creature coming out from underneath it

Photo C/O AD Rogers from JC66 cruise funded by NERC and the IUCN Seamounts project.

But what about the natural changes our planet is going through?

So let’s revisit our Big Question…what does it really mean to ‘ruin’ the planet? After all, the Earth has always undergone large natural variations and even abrupt shifts in which humans played no part at all (often because we didn’t exist yet!) 

These natural changes are caused by a combination of external and internal factors to the Earth’s climate system. External factors (also known as ‘external forcing’) can include variations in the Earth’s orbit around the sun and any changes in the amount of radiation coming from the sun. While internal factors (commonly known as ‘internal variability’) can refer to the after-effects of large-scale volcanic eruptions, natural changes in the make-up of our atmosphere and variations in the way our oceans operate. 

And so in light of all this...

How can we work out whether human impact measures up against ongoing natural changes?

To start with, we need to work out what these natural changes look like. Paleoclimatologists gain this knowledge by reconstructing the climate of the past from modern-day records. These records might come from air trapped in the ice over Antarctica or Greenland, stalagmites from ancient caves, or the remains of ancient coral reefs. From these, researchers can determine how different parameters of the climate, such as temperature, sea level and rainfall have varied in the past. 

Equipped with this information, we can then ask whether recent changes are extraordinary in comparison. For example, records show that atmospheric temperatures have been increasing steadily since the end of the last ice age - around 20,000 years ago. However, since the 1950s, they have been increasing at a faster rate. This suggests that something has changed in the Earth system.

Even if we convince ourselves that recent changes are extraordinary, we still have some work to do before deciding that they’re a result of human activity. Since scientists have to try and establish which of the many possible contributors (both natural and human-induced) best explain these extraordinary changes. In the 'recent' case of the increased rate of atmospheric temperature rising, possible explanations include (amongst many others): 

•    more intense solar radiation (external forcing) 
•    higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (almost entirely due to human activity)
•    a decrease in the amount of heat stored in the ocean (internal variability)

In this instance, scientists have found that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide explains the large majority of the recent change. And so we can conclude that human activities are affecting at least this aspect of the Earth system in a way that goes beyond natural variability.

But what about other trends such as the rise in our sea levels… is this extraordinary, and if so, is it due to human activity, natural variability or a mix of the two? 

This is a tricky subject...Whatever your thoughts are on our Big Question, it’s important to consider all sides of the argument and the different factors at play (both natural and man-made). After all, it’s never that straightforward when it comes to Mother Nature…

Musician and ecologist, Bernie Krause once said: "A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening". 

Musician and ecologist, Bernie Krause once said: "A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening". 

6 ways we're protecting our wildlife

As new species evolve to adapt to their changing environments, older ones naturally fade away. And several mass extinctions have occurred over time due to natural causes e.g. asteroid collisions, volcano eruptions and sea level falls. But one of the fastest mass extinctions is currently underway and it's largely linked to human activity (e.g. land clearing, pollution and overfishing). By 2100, it's believed that more than half of the world's marine and land species will be driven to extinction as a result. This is where conservation comes in... here are some key examples...but is it enough? 

  1. Changing our laws 
    1. When we talk about conservation, we may be talking about the practice of protecting animals, plants and their habitats from the negative impacts of human activity, or the study of these effects on populations and environments. Without laws in place, many species and habitats wouldn’t stand a change of preservation. Most countries nowadays offer conservation legislation. This can be tailored to a country’s particular needs and interests, ensuring that it is as effective as possible. These laws usually cover things like which species are protected, the designation of nature reserves, and how we use and interact with wild species. For example, the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act - introduced in 1981 - serves to protect both species and sites of interest from harmful human activity. However, species - of course - don’t have to obey country borders, and habitats can cross multiple boundaries. The Amazon rainforest, for example, covers 9 different countries! International conservation agreements are therefore really important for effective conservation. Biodiversity refers to the variety of plants and animals found in a particular place – across the entire world or in a specific habitat. In general, high levels of biodiversity are good, because it means that a particular area can provide a home to more species. One of the largest international conservation agreements ever signed is the Convention of Biodiversity. In 1992, this was signed by 156 different nations – and has since been signed by many others – and requires the signatory governments to prepare and manage a national biodiversity strategy to protect that country’s species and habitats.
  2. Using risk categories 
    1. While many species are affected by human activity, some are more at risk than others. By categorising those which are most threatened, we can target our conservation efforts more effectively – and often help those which are less at-risk in the process. The Red List of Threatened Species, developed and maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is the world’s most extensive list of the conservation status of plant and animal species. It highlights the individual species, or types of biodiversity, which are most in need of protection, and runs on a 7-point scale from ‘Extinct’ to ‘Least Concern’. These categories are updated every 5 years, allowing us to carefully track changes in extinction risk for individual species. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the Red List can also help us identify where our conservation efforts have been successful. For example, in 2016, after over 30 years resting in the category of ‘Endangered’, the conservation status of the giant panda was downgraded to ‘Vulnerable’ – proving that this sort of international cooperation can really make a difference!
  3. Working together with local communities 
    1. As the range and size of the human population expands, the interests of people and wildlife are increasingly coming into conflict. To reduce this, solutions must be found which are beneficial both to the communities and the species they interact with. Conservation legislation that doesn’t account for the needs of the community often don’t work. For example, a law declaring a ban on lion killing by the Tanzanian government in the 1970s had little impact on killings by the Maasai people. This community has longed suffered repeated livestock attacks from the big cats and ‘revenge killings’ of lions are considered a symbol of strength and power. Increasingly, conservationists are realising that rather than dictate laws from afar, working with local people can lead to better protection measures. By providing information on the plight of African lions, many local Maasai people have been recruited to help with their conservation. At the same time, more effective measures have been developed to reduce the impact of lion attacks on livestock. Now known as the Maasai Wildlife Warriors, the Maasai have gone from lion-killers to lion guardians. By monitoring numbers, reporting poaching and warning villagers when lions approach their farms, they have been directly responsible for ensuring a brighter future for lion populations.
  4. Zoos 
    1. No longer sites of pure entertainment, zoos are now important institutes for conservation. By maintaining populations of a variety of wild species, zoos provide ‘reservoirs’ of endangered animals which may be released back into the wild if the population ever needs a boost – or declines completely. Relying on captive populations does have its difficulties: many species can’t survive in captivity, or if they can, won’t or cannot breed. And reintroduction programs are expensive and not always successful. So it can be more beneficial to try and help wild species before reintroduction is necessary. One of the key ways zoos can contribute to this is by educating the general public. By engaging visitors with conservation, zoos can raise awareness of the threats faced by many species and inspire people to do what they can to help. A recent survey by the UN Strategic Plan for Biodiversity found that following a trip to a zoo, visitors felt they better understood biodiversity and that they could identify actions to help protect it. As well as being a fun day out, zoos are really important educational hubs. 
  5. Reintroducing animals into the wild 
    1. Reintroduction is tricky. Not only do we not know how once-captive animals will get on with being back in the wild, we often can’t tell if it might cause more problems down the road. So, while reintroduction can be a very effective conservation measure, conservationists only tend to use it as a last resort. For reintroduction to have the best chances of success, it should involve a large and genetically diverse population that should help the population expand when returned to the wild. A single male and female is unlikely to be enough to save a species from extinction. When reintroduction works, it can work very well indeed. One of the most well-known examples is probably that of the Arabian Oryx, which was declared ‘Extinct In The Wild’ in 1972. In 1982, a reintroduction program was initiated which realeased Oryx from populations in a mix of zoos and private collections. Nowadays, Oryx population numbers are increasing steadily and the species’ threat category has been upgraded to ‘Vulnerable’ – the first time an animal had ever reverted to this status after previously being declared as extinct!
  6. Creating protected areas 
    1. By taking care of the habitats in which animals and plants live, we can protect entire ecosystems made up of hundreds of different species. This can be especially beneficial to less-attractive species who may not receive as much funding and support. For example, while a love of tigers may encourage you to support the preservation of Indian rainforests, the less attractive – and highly endangered - purple-nosed frog will certainly appreciate your efforts too! Sometimes areas are protected by their remoteness. For example, despite its cold and seemingly-inhospitable appearances, Antarctica is an important site for biodiversity. However, as human range and technology expands and develops, this passive protection is rapidly disappearing. For example, in 2012, the conservation status of the emperor penguin was downgraded from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Near Threatened’ – in a large part due to habitat destruction, human disturbance, and tourism. So, while establishing protected areas can be helpful for reducing biodiversity loss, they need to be complemented by good legislation to be truly effective. 

What about human art? The creativity goes way back...

Archaeologists from the University of Oxford create a piece of artwork on deerskin using natural pigments as ancient civilisations would have done. Some would say that art like this is a key example of positive human impact on the Earth's cultural history. What do you think?  

Are humans ruining the Earth?

  • We're now seeing the negative effects

    Marine biologists have noticed key changes in our oceans from increased acidification to a rise in sea levels and temperatures. This along with other factors such as plastics pollution is having a harmful impact on marine wildlife. In particular, we're seeing large areas of coral bleaching and dying. Many scientists believe that this is a direct result of human activities - namely those which release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation etc.). These have been linked to the Greenhouse Effect and ongoing processes of climate change.   

  • Changing is different to ruining

    Humans have made a big impact on the Earth - it would be difficult to disagree with this. However, many would argue that over time through our advancing knowledge and technical capabilities, we've been able to make positive and artistic changes to the world around us. Whether this be the striking cityscapes we've created, innovative Artificial Intelligence systems we're developing or creative pieces of artwork that form our global cultural history, some would say this is something to be proud of rather than dismiss. After all, this is, arguably, one of the ways we've set ourselves aside from other animals. What do you think?  

  • Serving our own needs at the expense of others

    Some types of species extinction are considered natural. This is because when new species evolve to adapt to their changing environments, some older ones fade away. And several mass extinctions have occurred over time due to natural causes e.g. asteroid collisions, volcano eruptions and sea level falls. But one of the fastest mass extinctions is currently underway and it's been largely linked to human activity (e.g. land clearing, pollution and overfishing). By 2100, it's believed that more than half of the world's marine and land species will be driven to extinction as a result.

  • Working to achieve a better balance

    Indian activist, Mahatma Gandhi once said: "You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops...are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty". What does this mean in this context? Well, for all the damage some human activity may cause, there are many people out there who are actively trying to protect our planet. And many who are taking measures to try to reverse the negative impact of others. This might be through trying to reduce their carbon footprints on an individual level (disposing of waste responsibly, using public transport, eating less meat etc.) or contributing to an official conservation management programme (see '6 ways we're protecting our wildlife'). While some are conducting research into geoengineering options to manage and reduce the negative effects of climate change. But is this enough? That's for you to decide.