Peter Dykstra: Eco-Overload
Plastic recyclers in Nigeria. (Credit: King Baudouin African Development Prize/flickr)

Peter Dykstra: Eco-Overload

When the environmental movement came of age in the late 1960's, the issues and conflicts were clear: Solving endangered species meant protecting the adorably large and/or cuddly things – pandas, blue whales, or tigers. Stopping pollution meant shutting down the pipe or smokestack directly dumping into our air or water.


The battles against the most egregious despoilers are won. Today's challenges tend to be more like the struggle over the tiny, faceless, slightly malodorous creatures known as krill.

The crustaceans are the base of the Southern Ocean food chain, but today they face a double onslaught of human appetite and warming seas. And they suffer from being far less romantic or appealing than pandas, whales or big cats.

China launched an aggressive rescue effort for its iconic pandas, most whale species are in some form of bounceback, and there's even some hope for tigers.

But efforts to secure the future of krill and the Southern Oceans? Not so much.

Likewise, the clear-cut environmental morality plays of a half-century ago are much more diffuse today. Rivers are no longer catching fire and burning – at least not in the U.S. Today's problems are more nuanced, more divisive.

Rivers have less petroleum in them, but more Prozac.

But we've also discovered massive new problems. As recently as 10 years ago, few of us had any idea we had the chemical ability to utterly change the acid/base nature of the vast seas; as recently as five years ago, we would have laughed to hear a claim that we're choking those oceans on plastic.

Plastic, you say? Even a perceived solution now looks to be a problem. Tens of millions of Americans make plastic recycling an everyday part of their lives. As Sharon Lerner recently reported in The Intercept, plastic recycling has been a colossal exercise in self-delusion: As plastic packaging and bottling use skyrockets, we successfully recycle less and less.

The bulk is either landfilled, incinerated (creating new airborne hazards), or shipped halfway across the world to wretched recycling communities. In 2017, China banned plastic imports from the U.S., shifting much of the traffic to Malaysia, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian nations. They're now looking to follow China's lead.

Political changes have prompted a sharp rise in denuding Brazil's Amazon. On-the-ground impacts of climate change may soon force dramatic political changes in South Asia and elsewhere.

The list goes on, but my goal here is not to depress us all. Concerted efforts involving the right mix of science, policy, and advocacy have won some great advances.

Countless forests and lakes across eastern North America were virtually written off due to acid rain. But forced improvements to coal burning power plant emissions caused a reduction in sulfur dioxide, the main cause of acid rain.

The U.S. Clean Water Act has a long way to go to deliver on its goal of "fishable, swimmable" waterways, (especially since its self-imposed deadline for this was 1983) but US rivers and streams have cleaned up immensely since 1970. The Montreal Protocol brought the world's nations together to outlaw CFC's, the primary chemical responsible for destruction of the ozone layer, which is now on a path toward healing.

The bottom line is the challenges are massive. They're made more absurd when the U.N. issues a hard deadline of 12 years to solve climate change. Since they did so a year ago, make that 11 years. But what it will take is a global resolve similar to the ones that put humans on the moon, or that defeated Hitler.

Your move, humans.

We're discovering new environmental menaces faster than we're solving the old ones.

Another city is drowning, and we can’t look away

In Bangkok and around the world, live updates about hurricanes and floods are turning us into climate voyeurs.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Environment sector has failed to become more inclusive, study suggests
Photo by Steve Sharp on Unsplash

Environment sector has failed to become more inclusive, study suggests

Out of 44 charities, only 4% said they had a consistently implemented action plan to increase ethnic diversity.

‘This is part of our world now’: can TV shows adequately reflect the climate crisis?
Photo by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash

‘This is part of our world now’: can TV shows adequately reflect the climate crisis?

Only around 2.8% of TV shows and films between 2016 and 2020 mentioned climate issues. But a new run of writers is looking to increase that.

King Charles should attend climate summit, COP26 president says

Alok Sharma says the King has been a champion of the environment and other countries want him to attend COP27.

Is nuclear energy poised for an ESG-fueled comeback?

Supporters say there's enough momentum for a nuclear renaissance that would catapult the industry into a greater role in the world's clean energy future.

Joe Biden’s disaster presidency

Hurricanes are suddenly dominating Biden’s agenda in the final sprint toward the November midterms.

Canada: More federal funding required to hit net-zero by 2050, report finds

Chamber of Commerce says Canada risks falling behind the U.S. on low-carbon initiatives.
From our Newsroom
Chemical recycling grows  along with concerns of its impacts

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Industry says chemical recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis, but environmental advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

Failure of the universities: The culture gap is now near lethal

Universities are failing us

Our educational systems are failing to prepare people for existential environmental threats

Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania

The Titans of Plastic

Pennsylvania becomes the newest sacrifice zone for America’s plastic addiction.

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Developing countries that increase their fossil fuel production are at a crossroads: securing their own long-term well-being or earning revenue to finance programs to support immediate economic growth.

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Curbing pollution for families in Chicago calms the climatic conditions that drive fish away from puffins half a continent away.

puffin tern recovery climate change

Good news: A good year for puffins and terns, despite climate change

A visit to a remote Maine island finds puffins and terns rebounding despite climate change

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.