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

Peter Dykstra: Eco-Overload

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

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.
solar power schools

Solar power at Pennsylvania schools doubled during the pandemic

“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”

NORTH BRADDOCK, Penn.—On Wednesday evening, 10th grader Abby Wypych stood in front of Woodland Hills School District’s board and urged them to approve a feasibility study on installing solar panels.

Keep reading...Show less
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.

The problem with Elon Musk’s vision of Tesla’s autopilot future
www.nytimes.com

The problem with Elon Musk’s vision of Tesla’s autopilot future

Our documentary explores Tesla’s difficulty in making automated driving a reality.

As biomass burning surges in Japan and South Korea, where will Asia get its wood?

The UK and EU were the primary users of woody biomass for energy. But Japan and South Korea have drastically stepped up their burning of wood pellets — potentially threatening forests, biodiversity, and the climate.

The price of oil spills in Peru and Colombia? Millions of dollars in fines

Who’s behind the hundreds of oil spills in the Amazon and the Orinoquía in Colombia? What’s their background?

This is where dirty old cars go to die

The electric vehicle revolution is gathering speed—but what happens to all those polluting cars already on the road?
Nuclear fusion is already facing a fuel crisis
Sandia Labs/Flickr

Nuclear fusion is already facing a fuel crisis

It doesn’t even work yet, but nuclear fusion has encountered a shortage of tritium, the key fuel source for the most prominent experimental reactors.

Scotland's billionaires are turning climate change into a trophy game

A net-zero land rush is sweeping the country, and both locals and wealthy “green lairds” are trying to buy in.
From our Newsroom
environmental justice

Op-Ed: Black gold and the color line

How historical racist redlining practices are linked to higher exposures to oil and gas wells.

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

We asked you to share one "big lesson" your mother gave. And you responded

Lake Mead

Dykstra: A corpse in a barrel in a drying reservoir

And other climate change tales for our age

A mother's gift

Gifts from our mothers

What one "big gift" did your mother give you? We want your story.

Bird photography

Earth Day 2022: Amidst the crises, don’t forget the beauty

Words and images from our founder, Pete Myers, on how bird photography keeps him connected to and curious about a planet in peril.

fracking pennsylvania

Public health in Pennsylvania ignored during fracking rush: Report

A new report outlines the alleged missteps in protecting Pennsylvanians from the health impacts of fracking.

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