Our Common Environment
What are the most important of our common environmental problems?
Environment is whatever outside an organism surrounds it and in which it lives. It may be a geographical region, a certain climatic condition, the pollutants or the noise around the organism.
The natural environment contains a mosaic of species (groups of interacting organisms). They do not live in isolation but live in association with one another. It is the arrangement of a particular set of living organisms (plants, animals, bacteria, etc.) and their interaction with each other and with their environment which forms the ecosystem. An ecosystem can be identified on different scales.
On a large scale, the whole world can be considered an ecosystem, while on a smaller scale an ecosystem can be a pond or a wood. The components of an ecosystem (organisms, plants, soil) are linked together by transfers of energy and nutrients (ions).
The environment touches everyone. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and bathe in, the countryside we walk in–all these are affected in one way or another by mankind’s polluting activities. As the results of these activities come to light and the pressures on the environment increase, so does the concern with which we view the world about us.
What are the most important of our common environmental problems?
The greenhouse effect is the greatest environmental threat facing mankind and there are only a limited number of strategies that can be adopted to delay its onset and attempt to reverse the trend. One lesson, which is being recognized increasingly, is that the world uses too much energy of the wrong sort. The most obvious way of attempting to combat global warming is to cut down on our use of fossil fuels. For it is this major source of energy, with its release of carbon into the atmosphere, which is the single biggest cause of the greenhouse effect.
The hole in the ozone layer is not something which most people can witness for themselves and so they rely on experts to tell them it is important. But one aspect of the pollution of the atmosphere, of which people are all to aware, is the smoke and gasses that come from power stations, factories, and car exhausts. Air pollution is a danger which affects us all. Worldwide, more than a billion people–a fifth of the world’s population–live in communities which do not meet the basic air quality standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). For example, in Bombay, simply breathing is equivalent to smoking ten cigarettes a day. In the United States of America it is said that air pollution causes as many as 50,000 deaths a year.
Indeed, there are serious environmental pollution problems in many countries in the world caused mainly by the burning of coal by heavy industries. The discharge from these coal-burning plants goes into the air and water without treatment. Technology for environmental protection is not advanced and legislation, where it exists, is either poorly operated or not operated at all.
Air pollution is not only a problem of industrialised countries. In the Third World, air pollution of a different sort is causing ill-health. In some regions–for example, in Africa– smoke from indoor cooking fires causes severe lung disease in infants. Carbon monoxide in the air reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and this is liable to pose a risk for people suffering from heart disease. Another component, the oxides of nitrogen, are powerful lung irritants and can reduce resistance to infections like flu. In addition, one of the most important consequences of air pollution is the production of acid rain.
In one way or another man is now producing so much waste that he is in danger of being swamped by it. New York has the world’s biggest rubbish dump. Cranes as tall as six story buildings work round the clock emptying barges of waste from the city–26,000 tonnes of it a day–creating literally a mountain of rubbish. Also, the United Kingdom is producing 80 million tonnes of rubbish each year. In theory, one tonne of rubbish can produce 400 cubic metres of landfill gas–60 per cent of it is methane and around 40 per cent carbon dioxide with a few other trace gasses like nitrogen and hydrogen. Typically, landfill gas is produced fairly quickly over the first few years and then production slowly tails off. On average it takes about 15 years for about a quarter of the waste to rot down, so the danger is long lasting. At most landfill sites the methane and carbon dioxide diffuse into the air. But landfill gas can represent a real hazard. Methane, for example, can explode when concentrations in air reach 5 to 15 per cent. However, if waste tips were properly managed it would be possible for more energy to be extracted from them but that would mean controlling more precisely what goes into them. There is another reason why collecting and burning the gas from landfill sites is worthwhile and environmentally friendly: it reduces the greenhouse effect. Methane is about 27 times less effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. That means that if the methane is collected and burnt to form carbon dioxide the net impact on the greenhouse effect is reduced. Burning the landfill gas also breaks down some of the CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which are in the rubbish and so reduces still further the greenhouse effect.
Methane is not the only problem associated with rubbish tips. Another risk is that noxious substances can leak away, poisoning rivers and aquifers.
Dumping waste is not the only option. There are two other possible ways of dealing with it; it can be incinerated or recycled. Though currently only a small proportion of waste is dealt with that way.
Water is one of the most basic necessities of life. We drink it, wash in it and cook in it. Animals and plants cannot do without it. But increasingly over the last hundred years water has become prone to pollution as the effluent from towns and cities, from industries and from agriculture is discharged into rivers, seas and lakes and contaminations seep down to underground aquifers. Over the years pollution has killed animals and plants and has left many rivers biologically dead. River-borne pollution has brought with it disease and death for man.
In the last twenty years or so man has woken up to the damage being done and slowly, national and international controls over what can be allowed into rivers, seas and lakes are being implemented. Cleaning up the world’s rivers and seas will be a painfully long and expensive business but all those who have studied the problem agree that it is essential. The three main materials dumped at sea are dredgings, industrial waste and sewage sludge. In addition to the accidental contamination of water-ways and land with chemicals from waste disposal, there have been serious problems in some countries as a result of chemicals which have been purposely used on the land–notably pesticides and fertilisers. Both nitrate containing fertilisers and chemical pesticides can contaminate water, and pesticides can contaminate food. There has been increasing concern among environmentalists about the effect of nitrates and pesticides on people. Though the concern about nitrates may be overstated, the problem of pesticide use, notably in developing countries, is very worrying.
One of the prime concerns is the destruction of tropical forests. In 1950 tropical forests covered nearly 25 percent of the world’s land masses. Today they cover less than 7 percent.
Having reviewed some of the significant threats to the environment, the question has to be posed: Is it too late to save the planet? The message is clear. We must act now if we are to attempt to correct the damage which has already been done to our environment. We must reassess our values and priorities before it is too late. We must, in fact, heed the warnings. Today, we must start to choose clean and green technology. Clean and green technology does not mean only clean-up technology. We will try to develop our technology but it should be environmentally friendly.
If we look carefully at the universe, we see in it an ecological balance, a harmonious interrelation and interdependence. Do you believe that this is random? So the balance of the universe created by God must be preserved. ‘Everything with Him is measured’ (13:8). Also, ‘There is not anything, but its stores are with Us and We send down each thing in an appointed measure’ (15:21). ‘God is the One who created everything in due proportion’ (54:49).
Environment is not merely an inheritance from our forefathers, for us to waste; it is a trust and an investment we make for our children. Protection and conservation of the environment is an important and vital human issue. As such, it is also an Islamic issue because the human being is the answerable creature of God, who carries the burden of using and understanding the resources of the creation; within the creation, the human being is both means and end. No other creature can perform the task of protecting the environment.
God gives us some guidance in the Qur’an:
‘He has created you from earth and made you dwell in it’ (11:61).
‘And do not withhold the things of the people unjustly and do not make mischief on the earth’ (26:183).
‘Corruption has overtaken [them] in hand and sea, for what the hands of the people have earned, that He may let them taste some of what they have done, in order that they may return’ (30:41).
- Peter H. Collin (1989), Dictionary of Ecology and Environment, Collins, Middlesex, UK.
- James Wilkinson (1990), Green or Bust, BBC Books, London.
- Jonathon Porritt (1990), Friends of the Earth Handbook, MacDonald Optima, London.
- World Commission on Environment and Development (1989), Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
- Ahmet Zidan and Dina Zidan (1991), Translation of The Glorious Qur’an, Biddles Ltd., Guildford, UK.