The destruction of our environment is taking place at an alarming rate, unprecedented in the known history of the earth. Much of this destruction is due to society’s addiction to fossil fuels. Our insatiable thirst for oil, coal and natural gas has allowed companies to pollute and degrade the earth while being held largely unaccountable for the damage caused in the name of profiteering. Such recklessness has caused disasters on a near-apocalyptic scale, and at an ever-increasing rate. One thing is clear: this is unsustainable.

Climate Change, Extreme Weather Patterns & Biodiversity Loss

Climate change is arguably the most commonly understood environmental threat of our time. In addition to its effects on the sustainability of civilization, particularly the increase in extreme weather patterns, huge effects on biodiversity have been observed, and still worse is expected in the near future if we continue to develop as we are.

Most people can point to extreme weather events of recent decades simply from their own experience. The increase in incidences of hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, heatwaves and droughts are only a few of the major examples. Australia, being a land of extremes, already suffers regular tropical storms, often with the effect of disastrous flooding, extreme heatwaves, often with the effect of devastating bushfires, and in in the midst of a long-term period of drought that has seen the depletion of large stretches of the Murray-Darling basin, the country’s largest river system and source of a large proportion of food-producing arable land.

The cost of rebuilding communities and businesses, not to mention re-establishing the viability of devastated land for food production, is astronomical, and in recent years Australia has seen more than its fair share of disaster relief being used to restore large parts of the country to operative normalcy. In this time of economic crisis it is unlikely that budgets will stretch to be able to cover the costs of future disasters. However, Australians are more fortunate than many of our less-wealthy neighboring countries, many of which, such as islands of the South Pacific, are low-lying and in great threat from rising sea levels. Such countries are devastated not only environmentally, but also economically, by natural disasters, a situation that cannot continue. Australia is also, in many ways, as an economically developed country, ideally positioned to receive climate-change refugees from neighbouring countries, an issue that is a political hot potato at best, and a legal grey-area.

Drought caused by climate change may well be one of the key issues facing the future of Australia. With a steadily increasing population the landbase will be unable provide sufficient food and clean water to sustain future generations as it is increasingly damaged and impoverished. The need to import food from other countries due to low capacity to feed ourselves only has the ironic knock-on effect of increasing levels of the emissions responsible for climate change in the first place.

Ways in which species have reacted to the modest amount of climate change that has occurred so far include migration to cooler climates, the establishment of colonies of marine species of birds and fish further toward the poles, and earlier migration outside of normal patterns. Species that rely on each other are also becoming dislocated from one another, interfering with nature’s symbiosis. Heatwaves, which are becoming increasingly common, are drastically affecting species due to a disproportionate increase in hot weather, with mass-deaths occurring in extreme cases. Climate change has also led to slowed growth of coral as well as bleaching, a phenomenon that has disastrous knock-on effects on marine ecology.

The future may visit us in two possible forms. The more positive future will only occur if we manage to control greenhouse gas emissions well. However, the other, less promising future, associated with a business as usual approach, is more likely if we do not make drastic changes.

Business as usual is predicted to incur results including loss of optimal climate for many species, and increasing rates of species extinction. With every degree of warming being estimated to cause the loss of 100-150 bird species among countless other losses it is clear that we cannot afford the four degree increase that is predicted within the next 100 years. This four degree increase in average temperatures is likely to cause extreme climate differences in Australia including causing Adelaide’s climate to become like that of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Cairns to become like Weipa in Cape York, and the Snowy Mountains to nolonger retain snow. Coastal wetlands are expected to greatly decline, and mangroves to move inland, replacing fresh water. In what is already the driest continent on Earth Australia cannot afford these impacts.

The damage incurred by climate change extends well beyond the interests of environmentalists to the sphere of economics. Simply regarding economic interests, costs of between 18 and 54 trillion dollars per year are incurred in damage. The world’s annual GNP is in the region of 18 trillion dollars, indicating that even economic rationalists should be paying attention to the financial impacts of a loss of biodiversity.

On a level of less interest to economists, but of even greater importance, our society treats biodiversity with little regard, somehow disconnecting from the fact that it is our life support system – we simply will not survive without it.

As regards Australia, loss of biodiversity is an issue of great concern. 7-10% of global biodiversity is in Australia, with 93% of reptiles endemic, 94% of frogs and 92% of flowering plants. Australia has already lost more than 5% of plant species and is suffering the highest rate of mammal species extinction in the world, with one third of extinct mammals being Australian. These are not world records for Australia to be proud of. With approximately one million years needed for a species to evolve, and faced with the possibility that it can take only weeks, days, or even hours for a species to become extinct due to a heatwave, it is clear that we cannot afford further increases in temperatures.

One of the main factors in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is the contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, from three main sectors: industrial production, transportation, and animal agriculture. Deforestation is another main cause of CO2 emissions increase due to the fact that more CO2 escapes into the atmosphere to become trapped there when there is reduced vegetation to absorb it. However, deforestation is subject largely to the needs of animal agriculture, which is the direct cause of 60-80% of all deforestation.

It is widely understood that industry is responsible for a large portion of climate change, often pitched at 25%. The burning of fossil fuels for energy is the primary cause of CO2 emissions, and is increasing, not decreasing, due to the industrial development of many developing countries. Developed countries such as Australia, however, are not slowing their rate of production, and are still responsible for vastly more CO2 emissions than any developing country, even those with huge populations such as China and India. Australia currently holds the world record for per capita CO2 emissions, at just over 25 tons per person per year, a staggering rate when compared with the 1 ton per person per year emitted by India.

In addition to having the largest homes in the world, a huge drain on energy that is sourced from burning fossil fuels, Australians drive some of the biggest cars, and cover long distances. With private transport being largely preferred over public transport, and most households owning at least one private vehicle, Australians contribute greatly to CO2 emissions through private vehicle ownership. With vehicle emissions accounting for approximately 18% of the total worldwide this is clearly something that should not be perpetuated due to wealth and cultural vanity.

Global GHG emissions attributable to livestock production are estimated to be between 8 and 51% of the total. This variability suggests, on the face of it, that there is a lack of consensus among scientists. However, organizations such as the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are in close agreement, with variation mainly arising according to whether the emissions total includes all, or only some, stages in the production of animal-based foods. A FAO report from 2006 identifies animal agriculture as a major threat to the environment, responsible for 18%, of human-caused GHG emissions, which is slightly higher than the transportation sector. This figure is conservative compared to the findings of many impartial studies including Worldwatch Intstitute’s 2011 study, which pitches the figure at 51% when all factors contributing to production are accounted for. With approximately 56 billion land animals being reared and slaughtered for human consumption annually across the globe, and this figure being expected to double by 2050, it is easy to see, however controversial it may be, that our consumption of animal-based foods, with production methods being as they are, is a factor in environmental degradation that cannot be safely ignored.

Various studies have been carried out which indicate the relative emissions levels associated with various food items. Legumes are some of the lowest emitting foods whereas beef, cheese, and pork are among the highest. High levels of emissions associated with foods produced from ruminants such as cows are explained mainly by methane emissions from enteric fermentation. Animal protein production also requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein, while only being 1.4 times as nutritious per kg, indicating that levels of fuel consumption and its associated GHG emissions are closely tied to our personal and cultural food choices.

Environmental problems that are directly the result of human activity, such as land-clearing and deforestation, among other devastating actions, have lessened the resilience of the human species in the face of climate change. What is needed now is the implementation of conservation measures in a manner more effective than we have managed before. It is also imperative that society return to the level of zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as is viable, in order to mitigate the disasters that have been all too clearly predicted. In Australia we have the knowledge, science and technology to achieve this – all that seems to be lacking at present is political will. However, we cannot afford to wait for that to change.

Ocean Acidification

Greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change are also responsible for the acidification of our oceans, a trend that has devastating potential for damage to the marine ecosystems that are essential to all life on earth. Although less widely acknowledged, it has been suggested that ocean acidification could be even more disastrous for the Earth’s environment that climate change due to the chain-reaction that is likely to take place if acidity reaches a certain level. This chain reaction will be irreversible, leading to widespread extinction, nothing short of our 6th mass-extinction period, the 5th being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Water Resource Management

Freshwater suitable for drinking constitutes only 1% of the world’s total water supply, and most of this is concentrated in only a few of the world’s largest lakes. Freshwater resources are being depleted and contaminated due to excessive uses for industry and agriculture, which use far more water than total domestic usage. Droughts induced by climate change put future water supplies in jeopardy due to the low rate of replenishment of our already impoverished resources.

In Australia the mining industry accounts for huge levels of water-waste, with one single mine, Olympic Dam, located at Roxby Downs in South Australia, being responsible, on a daily basis, for the same level of consumption as all Australian households combined. So great is the extent of water consumption that the mining industry has been draining the Artesian basin, leading to extreme levels of salinity in the water that is left. The knock-on effect of this increased salinity is hyper-saline soil, in which it is either difficult or impossible to grow anything.

In Australia, according to statistics from Urban Ecology Australia, of the total annual use of 22,186 gigalitres (GL) of water, the largest percentage is consumed by the agricultural sector, which accounts for the use of 15,502 GL, or 70% of the total. 38% (8,360 GL) of this water is used for livestock and pastures whereas, by comparison, fruit and vegetables, which account for the majority of human nutritional needs, only account for 6% (1,320 GL) of the total agricultural water demand. An average animal-based diet requires more than 16,000 litres of water per day whereas a plant-based diet only requires 1,140 litres in comparison. In Australia the dairy industry uses the largest percentage of irrigation water in the Murray-Darling Basin. Again it is clear that our cultural dietary choices are closely related to the condition of our environment.

The livestock sector, like the industrial sector, is a major contributor to water pollution, contributing to damage through animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed cereals, and sediments from eroded pastures. Contamination from industry comes in the form of waste, much of which bears highly toxic chemicals. This contamination, when coupled with receding water levels, has caused the problem, as can be witnessed in the Murray-Darling basin, of insufficient water to flush out the toxins, which go on to contaminate groundwater in the surrounding regions. It is the level of toxicity as well as the drop in water levels that have led to the deaths of 90% of the Murray Cod and 70% of River Red Gums in the lower reaches of the river system. The effects of this, in turn, on the biodiversity of the region may turn out to be disastrous.

In a world where freshwater supplies are dwindling, and in a country where we are poisoning what little is left, the future does not look promising unless huge changes are made to industrial and agricultural practices.

Land Degradation

Land degradation is one of the less acknowledged environmental issues that is, again, a by-product of the various practices of civilized society. Land degradation generally takes the form of soil erosion, which can lead to desertification, and soil toxicity, which inhibits the capacity of the landbase to sustain life.

Deforestation is a leading cause of land degradation. The removal of vegetation strips the soil of the roots necessary to hold it together and retain water supplies. In addition the stripping of vegetative cover removes vital nutrients from the soil due to the breakdown in symbiosis – i.e. the removal of a link in the ecosystem causes breakdown. In extreme cases, as witnessed in increasing areas of China, desertification ensues. Indeed, many of the areas of the world that are now desert were once densely forested, including areas of Australia, which is now largely desert and semi-desert.

One of the largest contributors to land degradation is the agricultural sector, due to its conversion of wooded areas to grazing land or cropland for feed production. Emissions resulting from this deforestation are estimated at 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of this practice beyond the immediate. Areas of the world particularly affected by deforestation due to land-clearing for animal agriculture include Latin America, where cattle ranching is the reason provided for the greatest proportion of deforestation. Desertification is also responsible for a percentage of CO2 escaping into the atmosphere due to reduced productivity and vegetative cover.

Livestock are also directly or indirectly responsible for soil erosion. Soil loss in the United States is at an average of 13 tons per hectare per year on lands where feed grain for livestock is produced. Pasture lands are being eroded at a pace of 6 tons per hectare per year on average. However, on overgrazed pastures soil erosion may be upwards of 100 tons per hectare per year, and with large percentages of pasture land (levels of 54% in the  U.S.) being overgrazed this is highly concerning.

The mining industry is also responsible for a large proportion of land degradation through subsidence, or collapse of land which has been mined. Mining practices, as well as other industrial and agricultural practices cause high levels of soil toxicity due to the leaching of toxic waste chemicals into water systems. Levels of toxicity as seen in Australia take decades, even centuries, to clean up, and are only being added to at an accelerated pace.

Damage Incurred by Natural Resource Extraction

The extraction of natural resources including minerals and fossil fuels is a practice that has, since its inception, valued profits over preservation, and damage is now reaching alarming levels. The mining of minerals and fossil fuels is a practice that is extremely carbon—intensive, meaning that huge amounts of CO2 are emitted during the extraction process. This is true for natural gas just as it is for coal, oil and minerals such as iron ore, gold and nickel, the most carbon-intensive resource mined in Australia.

In addition to damage incurred by the release of excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere toxic waste from resource extraction processes poisons our water systems and soil. The most sinister threat to the Australian environment to date comes from the extraction of a resource in abundance in this resource-rich land — natural gas — which poses a new threat to our water systems. The gas extraction process, hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as “fracking” is being promoted as the latest method for providing a so-called clean energy alternative to coal, and is already being implemented in New South Wales and Queensland, despite popular protest. Estimates from the National Water Commission are that coal seam gas extraction will drain 300 billion litres of drinkable water from the Great Artesian Basin annually.

The fracking involves using high pressure to blast a mixture of water, sand and a “trade secret” cocktail of chemicals down wells to fracture the rocks and open cracks present in the coal seam, releasing the sought-after gas in the process. This process is also used in the extraction of shale gas, with similar environmental implications. Until the development of the hydraulic fracturing technique both coal-seam gas and shale gas were not financially viable sources of energy due to the costs of pre-existing extraction methods. Beach Petroleum commenced exploratory drilling for shale gas in the Cooper Basin as of February 2011.

Although most companies are calling this natural gas, which it is, it is not to be confused with the natural gas that is generally used to run household water heaters. It is, in fact, Methane, or coal gas, a highly volatile, asphyxiant, colorless and odorless gas, that, when leached into the atmosphere, is claimed to have twenty times the adverse effects of carbon dioxide.

As not all of the gas is collectable at the well head, a proportion of it simply runs along the fractures, and has been shown to enter the water table. Cases have been documented in which people turn on their stock bore and are able to set it alight. Disturbing instances of the gas bubbling up through groundwater have also been observed. It is not known how much is leaking into the atmosphere through the soil or at the well head.

The mining companies, under the protection of the “trade secrets” banner, refuse to disclose all chemicals used in the fracking process. However, samples stolen by brave activists from waste dams have been analysed, and the chemicals found included carcinogens and a bevy of toxic substances, none of which have approval for use in Australia in the mining industry. Chemical lists provided by the mining companies showed that, of twenty-three known chemicals used in fracturing fluids in Australia, the National Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has assessed only two for safety.

Of the water/chemical mix pumped down the extraction wells, sixty percent is recovered. The rest stays in the ground. The recovered water is usually pumped into huge waste-water dams and left to evaporate or to leach back into the earth and water table, posing grave environmental problems.

Queensland regulators have identified that in one CSG operation approximately 18,500 kg of additives were used in each well during the fracturing process. With 60% recovered this leaves 7,500 kg of the fluids remaining in the seams as a potential groundwater contaminant. To add to these figures, the National Toxics Network claims that due to the scale of the proposed operations as many as 20,000 to 40,000 wells could be drilled in Queensland’s Surat and Bowen Basins in the next twenty years alone. With 40% of the used fluids potentially leaching into groundwater, the terrifying risk is easily calculated.

It has been shown worldwide that the cocktail of water and chemicals left in the ground becomes more potent after mixing with the methane and coal, and has been shown to contaminate the water table and groundwater. A poisoned Darling River system flowing into the Murray, and a poisoned, depleted, Great Artesian Basin are adverse phenomena, the reversal of which will take hundreds of years. The massive resultant loss of valuable agricultural land will not be an easy effect to mitigate.

Cultural-Environmental Zeitgeist

In some parts of the world the culture is shifting away from valuing corporate profits above environmental sustainability. The Earth Charter, signed by almost 5,000 NGO’s is an international law document which states that to move forward it must be recognized that we are all one community with a common destiny. What is needed, according to the Charter, is a cultural shift toward a global society founded on respect for nature and human rights, and a culture of peace. When such ecological statements make their way into the constitution, legal practice cannot act in contradiction. It is, therefore, no small achievement that a number of South American countries including Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, now recognize the rights of nature by law. In Europe the cultural and legal zeitgeist is also changing. Germany, Switzerland and Austria, in which there is a higher degree of public involvement in democracy, recognize, via their constitutions, intrinsic value in life and ecological limitations to human rights. This means, in practical terms, that one cannot now have property rights without stewardship – the responsibility to take care of the land. In Australian culture it seems we exploit the land because we view ourselves as having no responsibility, only ownership.

In Australia some communities are coming to recognize their responsibility for protecting the landbase that supports us. Examples of this recognition include communities rejecting the practice of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for natural gas in order to protect their landbase. Companies cannot go into those communities because there is no willing workforce to carry out their exploitation of the land’s resources. This is an example of a bottom-up advance, with the people, rather than the legal system or the government, functioning as the catalyst of change. With our elected representatives failing to think in terms of collective responsibility for protection of our landbase, thinking only in terms of the dollar-value trade-off in preservation versus exploitation, it becomes apparent that there is a need for change to come from the bottom up. It is genuine participatory democracy where real change has occurred throughout all examples of positive action for environmental sustainability.

When it comes to our attitude to the environment that sustains our very source of life, the often-repeated, yet still profound words of an un-named Cree Indian uttered some 100 years ago are as resonant as ever:

“Only after the last tree has been cut down,

Only after the last river has been poisoned,

Only after the last fish has been caught,

Only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten.”