Disclaimer : this Post was written as a guest post for fellow blogger RP Aravinds Save our Earth challenge on his blog “A real foot-print of Facts” . I am as far from a tree-hugging environmentalist as you can find, but science requires us to be subjective about the facts and here are a few facts as I see them.
Imagine a distance of 10 Kilometers…if you are a native of Chennai that is approximately the distance from Marina beach to Besant Nagar beach. A journey done in maybe 30mins; traffic permitting. Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine doing the same journey in a different plane- vertically. Instead of going straight along the ground, just go straight up into the air, for about ten km and then stop. Now open your eyes and see. What do you see? The beautiful view of the earth down below? No. You won’t be able to see anything, because by then, you would be dead of suffocation, dead for lack of air to breathe. That’s right 10km or 10,000 meters is the upper limit for a human being to survive by breathing naturally. Even by 8km, the height of Mount Everest, the atmosphere is so thin, that you need oxygen tanks to breathe. By 10km it is practically beyond our lungs capacity to draw in any of the life giving air we need in sufficient quantities to enable us to live on. So if you have been following the example I gave above, the maximum we can live on in this earth is from 0km-the surface of the earth right upto 7km above. Nothing beyond that. And all of the earths population has to somehow fit in and survive within that 7km zone.
Fortunately for us we are able to utilize the other dimensions – length and width pretty well and thus we have spread ourselves out on the surface of the earth in an efficient manner. But for all the technological advances we have made, we are still limited by the atmospheric ceiling we have to live within and the safety parameters of oxygen saturation which we have to respect. Our jet planes which go above a ceiling of 30,000 feet are an enclosed body of oxygen filled tubes and so are our manned rockets and shuttles. Oxygen which is available abundantly in the first 7km above our heads is a non-negotiable necessity for life on earth. Any messing with its availability and we are in a bad way to survive as a species. And which brings me straight to my point. Air pollution. Specifically pollution caused by excess CO2, Co, CFC’s etc to the atmosphere, reducing the percentage of available oxygen in the air.
When life first boomed on planet earth, which according to paleontologists may be as early as 3 billion years ago, the oxygen level on this planet was far richer, according to some sources as much as 22% – a time when there were just algal blooms and lichens overrunning the planet earth. The thing about the gas oxygen is, that although beneficial and necessary for our metabolism in the right quantities, it is also an extremely toxic gas in the wrong levels, even dangerous. Its responsible for the process known as oxidation or rusting and pretty much damages anything it comes in contact with. Life on earth has taken long millennia to adapt and assimilate this toxic gas into its metabolic cycle and use it for energy. Any change in this hard achieved balance might turn out catastrophic.
Proponents of global warming are always talking about the harmful effects of green house gases on the environment, how they will melt the glaciers, cause flooding and devastate the earth with rising sea levels. Imagine a scenario where the rising sea levels forces human beings to start living higher in higher in the atmosphere. Maybe in plateaus and hills. Now throw into this mix the steadily deteriorating quality of air we breath with oxygen depletion. Now that’s a one-two punch that can knock out most of life on this planet. Some might adapt and some might survive. Plants for example, for which oxygen is just a byproduct will survive and even thrive in an oxygen depleted, carbon dioxide laden atmosphere as it will become optimum environment for them. The other higher animals which do not make the necessary mutation changes fast enough will certainly go the way of the dinosaurs. Will man too?
Although this looks like a nightmare scenario, I would not bet against humanity to survive. We, even for a species with such a short history of development on planet earth, a mere 5 million years of presence here, have evolved far beyond the other long living species. The shark has lived on earth for more than 65 million years. Yet we hunt it and eat it with impunity. We even catch it and put it on exhibition in marine worlds. Humanity has even in its short span of presence has shown the evidence of being a fast mutating, fast adapting species. When we first split off from the monkeys, we were severely disadvantaged in our physical attributes of lack of stature and the anatomical changes forced on us by having to walk upright instead of having a balanced walk on all fours. But we took that disadvantage and converted it into success. Bi-pedalism freed our hands to construct tools. An opposable thumb allowed us to use finer and finer instruments. And a lack of physical strength forced us to develop the intellect. Till we finally ended up as the dominant life form on this planet.
We humans have always made hard decisions to survive as a species. Now its time to make some more. To decide whether we can continue to pollute our atmosphere with our chemical processes or whether we can attain a state of equilibrium with our environment. Whether the population explosion and over population of the earth finally depletes enough of the earth’s resources as to categorically tip it past the balancing point and into degradation of all life on earth. Whether the anti-nuclear energy advocates who fail to realize the damages coal burning power plants cause by throwing vast and unlimited quantities of carbon monoxide and dioxide into the hitherto virgin atmosphere are doing. I don’t have any answers to this question not being an expert on this issue. But as fellow human being and someone who needs the planet earth to survive, as much as anyone else, I can offer a few suggestions.
The first one would be intensified population control to achieve if not limitation at least an equilibrium at the current level of 6 billion humans. As it is we no longer have any big natural predators to reduce our population and we have with our science conquered death by disease to such an extent that we are now one of the longest living species on planet earth. So it becomes necessary for some means to be found to stabilize the population at the current 6 billion levels. Remember this planet has to support a large number of other species life forms too, everything from plants, to amoeba to insects and animals. Human beings just cannot keep on increasing in numbers without over stressing the resources available. It’s either population control or off-planet colonies for the extra population on moon and mars. Either way we cannot support more than this number on the mother planet earth without seriously endangering all life on earth.
And my second suggestion would be to intensify scientific researcher into non-polluting sources of energy and forget the easy way of digging for coal and siphoning out oil. Burning of Fossil-fuels is the biggest source of pollution of the atmosphere. And as long as we don’t have a viable and cheap(practical) way of utilizing solar energy and other renewable sources, we have to accept that nuclear energy is inevitable. More bang for the buck, the only caveat being its safety aspect, which should be looked into and maintained more rigorously than what was done till now (remember Chernobyl?).
These are my only two suggestions which might help preserving our atmosphere at breathable levels for the near future. I would like to hear from you if you have any more practical ideas. And if you think that I have also joined the bandwagon of the enviro-scaremongers and end of the world theorists, you are wrong. I have infinite hope in the resilience of humanity. We might have made some mistakes but there is nothing which human ingenuity cannot set right. Soon, pretty soon, we will find a way out of all this mess we have got ourselves into it. Human history shows us. So let’s all hope for the best and do our bit for mother earth.
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