With the connection between life and the physical environment established, a picture starts to emerge of the effect of human activities on these natural processes. The 2002 Amsterdam Declaration stated the changes wrought by humans in the following terms:
“Human activities are significantly influencing Earth’s environment in many ways in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Anthropogenic changes to Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere and to biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles are clearly identifiable beyond natural variability. They are equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact. Many are accelerating. Global change is real and is happening now.”
These changes have been said to fall several interlinked categories, including rapid population growth, air pollution ever-increasing consumption of resources and soil degradation. These issues have meant overall, the current production of resources, most importantly food, has not kept pace with the increases in population and whilst many of the issues surrounding this are a matter of distribution, the limits of food production have already begun to appear on the horizon11. As previously noted by Lovelock, most of the energy required to power our societies is derived from non-sustainable sources which were originally set in places millions of years ago.
There is also the problem of fresh water supply, currently, fresh water consumption has been said to double approximately every 21 years. But despite this, the supply is essentially the same as it was back when the earth’s population was far smaller and currently around 160 billion tonnes more water is being used than is being replaced12. There have also been changes in the Earth’s atmosphere with acidification from industrial processes affecting large areas of land whilst large increases in the production of greenhouse gases7 could potentially overwhelm the natural processes used for carbon dioxide fixing leading to large temperature increases. One of the last great concerns is the extinction of other species on Earth. Currently, loss of various species being seen today is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate and has been compared to the rate at which dinosaurs were extinguished around 65 million years ago.
Many of the benefits of modern life, including modern medicine and agriculture, are dependent upon a diverse ecosystem however in recent times there has been a trend towards taking a more selective approach in regards to the cultivation of certain strains of plants and animals. This narrowing of the genetic reservoir, makes food supplies overall more vulnerable, as seen by natural phenomena such as mad cow disease, bovine tuberculosis and swine flu.
Many of the solutions to these issues have already been discovered, population increases can be abated by better education, greater access to contraception and improvements in the social status of women9. Sustainable agriculture has changed trends in farming to take into account the existing ecology of farmed areas. Ensuring not to exhaust topsoils and preserving the relationships between the existing organisms and their environment10. Alternative methods of power generation which do not adversely impact the environment have been adopted. However, there are perhaps other areas where a Gaian approach could be beneficial for example in global economic markets where as well as the usual associated costs of production, process and research, prices could also be influenced by the cost of replenishing a particular resource.
Whilst some might have seen Lovelock’s words as a grim warning, the challenges that lay ahead do not need to be a burden. Instead, rediscovering the importance of nature, and refining our relationship with our environment, and our use of the earth’s resources can prove to be an inspiration as well as our eventual salvation.