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1.4 The environmental crisis

An unprecedented crisis

One of the most compelling reasons for studying environmental science and management is the fact that, in the view of many leading authorities, we are now experiencing an environmental crisis; indeed, many authors have claimed that the present environmental crisis is unprecedented in its magnitude, pace and severity (Park 2001). Awareness of this environmental crisis has grown since the 1970s, partly as a result of the prominence given to major so-called 'environmental' disasters such as the Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. A major assessment of the global environment published in 1999, the UNEP Global Environment Outlook 2000 report (UNEP 1999), drew attention to two critical, recurring themes:

Consequently, a wide range of environmental problems has emerged; those problems include anthropogenic climate change ('global warming'), the depletion of stratospheric ozone (the 'ozone hole'), the acidification of surface waters ('acid rain'), the destruction of tropical forests, the depletion and extinction of species, and the precipitous decline of biodiversity. Yet, while all of these problems have physical (environmental) manifestations, their causes - and their potential solutions - are invariably bound up with human attitudes, beliefs, values, needs, desires, expectations, and behaviours. Thus the symptoms of the environmental crisis cannot be regarded purely as physical problems requiring solutions by environmental 'specialists'; instead, they are intrinsically human problems and they are intimately related to the question of what it means to be human.

Main features of the environmental crisis

At this point, a very brief overview of the environmental crisis may be helpful. It is important to emphasise that a wide range of views about the nature and severity of the current environmental crisis exists, and some of the issues are highly controversial. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that the environmental crisis encompasses the following main issues.

1.4.1 Changes in ecosystems with different intensities of land use

(c) Michel Jeuken, PBL and Hugo Ahlenius, Nordpil

Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal (2009)

Other related issues

Some issues associated with the environmental crisis are not strictly 'environmental', but are closely related to environmental issues. They encompass a range of economic, social, political and technological issues.

Natural disasters

Whilst not necessarily part of the environmental crisis, human populations are also faced with ongoing threats due to the occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, floods, tsunamis and wildfires. Yet whilst these hazards may be natural in origin, it is important to acknowledge that human vulnerability to natural disasters is generally increasing, not least because human populations and settlements are growing in many marginal and dangerous areas, such as floodplains. Hence unsustainable practices - such as the construction of settlements on floodplains, or the intensive cultivation of marginal hill slope lands - may greatly increase the impacts of natural disasters on human societies and economies.

The causes of the environmental crisis

The causes of the environmental crisis have been the subject of considerable debate. However, in general, its main causes are now acknowledged to be:

1.4.2 Energy consumption, economic development and CO2 emissions; selected Latin America countries

Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal (2005b)

For these reasons, amongst others, the environmental crisis presents an immense challenge to policy-makers and to many other organisations and individuals who must find creative responses to these issues - ideally, within an overall policy framework that promotes a sufficiently strong version of sustainable development.

List the main issues that comprise the environmental crisis. As far as possible, categorise those issues according to (a) spatial scale; (b) time scale; and (c) the prospects for finding effective technological or policy solutions.