Environmental degradation

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Eighty-plus years after the abandonment of Wallaroo Mines (Kadina, South Australia), mosses remain the only vegetation at some spots of the site's grounds.

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as quality of air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.


  • All our efforts to defeat poverty and pursue sustainable development will be in vain if environmental degradation and natural resource depletion continue unabated.
    • Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, "In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all", 2005 report for the United Nations sixtieth anniversary summit
  • Environmental and biodiversity crises are at root social crises. They are caused by profound problems in the social world, by elites, and the hierarchical control of decision-making and allocation of resources in profit-driven, expansionistic, ecocidal capitalist societies. As social problems, environmental crises require social solutions, namely radical political change seeking to create just, democratic, and sustainable societies. What we today call “natural disasters,” are at [the] root [of] social disasters that must be addressed if we are to solve the global climate emergency. We must not only transform our anthropocentric and speciesist identities, our arrogant and vainglorious forms of human supremacism and pathological alienation, we must also transform our growth-oriented, profit-driven, meat-based, fossil fuel addicted societies. For millennia, the western world above all has lived by the philosophy of humans first, even humans only. It is now time for a new philosophy of earth first whereby humanity begins the arduous process of de-growth -- radically reducing their population numbers and consumption levels, rewilding natural environments and reserving vast habitats for wildlife alone, and shifting from a growth-oriented to a steady-state sustainable economy.
  • The growth and progress upon which we looked back with such pride had committed mankind to living on a scale that exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of this finite planet, and the leaders of nations continued to devote far more effort toward attempting to prolong overshoot than toward undoing it. Reluctance to face facts was driving us to make bad matters worse. The faster the present generation draws down the fossil energy legacy upon which persistently exuberant lifestyles now depend, the less opportunity posterity will have to live in anything like the same way or the same numbers. Yet most contemporary political proposals for solving problems of economic stagnation or inequity amount to plans for speeding up the rate of drawdown of non-renewable resources.
  • Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. We have killed so many animals and plants and destroyed their environments. Many are now extinct. In turn, our environment is now harming us. We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading. Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps.
    • Thích Nhất Hạnh in The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), Ch. 1: The Bells of Mindfulness, p. 3
  • In the last few decades entire new categories of waste have come to plague and menace the American scene…. Pollution is growing at a rapid rate…. Pollution destroys beauty and menaces health. It cuts down on efficiency, reduces property values and raises taxes…. Almost all these wastes and pollutions are the result of activities carried on for the benefit of man. A prime national goal must be an environment that is pleasing to the senses and healthy to live in. Our Government is already doing much in this field. We have made significant progress. But more must be done.
    • Lyndon B. Johnson, special message to the Congress on conservation and restoration of natural beauty, February 8, 1965. The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, book 1, p. 161–62.
  • Generations of Americans will pay the Republican campaign debt to the energy industry with global instability, depleted national coffers and increased vulnerability to price shocks in the oil market. They will also pay with reduced prosperity and quality of life at home. Pollution from power plants and traffic smog will continue to skyrocket. Carbon-dioxide emissions will aggravate global warming. Acid rain from Midwestern coal plants has already sterilized half the lakes in the Adirondacks and destroyed the forest cover in the high peaks of the Appalachian range up into Canada. The administration's attacks on science and the law have put something even greater at risk. Americans need to recognize that we are facing not just a threat to our environment but to our values, and to our democracy.
  • We are deluged by information regarding our destruction of the world and hear almost nothing about how to nurture it. It is no surprise then that environmentalism becomes synonymous with dire predictions and powerless feelings. Our natural inclination to do right by the world is stifled, breeding despair when it should be inspiring action. The participatory role of people in the well-being of the land has been lost, our reciprocal relations reduced to a Keep Out sign. [...] People do know the consequences of our collective damage, they do know the wages of an extractive economy, but they don’t stop. They get very sad, they get very quiet. So quiet that protection of the environment that enables them to eat and breathe and imagine a future for their children doesn’t even make it onto a list of their top ten concerns. The Haunted Hayride of toxic waste dumps, the melting glaciers, the litany of doomsday projections—they move anyone who is still listening only to despair. Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth.
  • We are already experiencing huge cost externalities from population hypergrowth and profligate fossil fuel use in the form of environmental devastation. Of the earth’s estimated 10 million species, 300,000 have vanished in the past fifty years. Each year, 3,000 to 30,000 species become extinct, an all-time high for the last 65 million years. Within one hundred years, between one-third and two-thirds of all birds, animals, plants, and other species will be lost. Nearly 25 percent of the 4,630 known mammal species are now threatened with extinction, along with 34 percent of fish, 25 percent of amphibians, 20 percent of reptiles, and 11 percent of birds. Even more, species are having population declines. Environmental scientists speak of an “omega point” at which the vast interconnected networks of Earth’s ecologies are so weakened that human existence is no longer possible.
  • The Industrial Revolution still cannot be considered an unqualified success, for all the comfort and convenience enjoyed by a minority of people in the world. Where we stand now is the brink of unprecedented damage to the ecology of the only habitable planet in the only universe we know of, and I refer not just to climate change—which may or may not be caused by human activity —but to all the other insults and injuries we’ve done to the biosphere. While industrialism led to the formation of a prosperous middle class, it also plunged millions of people into the grimmest kind of regimented quasislavery in conditions that were arguably no improvement over their grandparents’ lives as agricultural peasants (or their distant ancestors as hunter-gatherers).
    • James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic (2012), Chapter 4, p. 74.
  • Over timescales relevant to civilization (which began 10,000 years ago with agriculture and cities), plots of almost anything relating to human activity look like hockey sticks: population, agricultural output, industrial output, mined materials, deforestation, species extinctions, and so on. Many of these certainly correlate to population growth, but the per capita impacts also have shot up, compounding the human footprint to a frightening degree. At this point, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a mere 4% for all wild animals (half of this from massive whales and other marine mammals). It’s not just a footprint any more: it’s a boot on the throat of the planet, leaving non-human life gasping and silently begging for even a little mercy.
  • Our fossil fuel bonanza has left our ecosystem in a perilous state. We have destroyed vast forests and habitat, polluted water and soil, kicked off a rapid climate trend that natural systems may not adapt to quickly enough, and basically overrun the planet. […] 96% of mammal mass on the planet is now in the form of humans and our livestock, leaving a paltry 4% of wild mammals—land and sea. Roughly 70% of vertebrate numbers have vanished since 1970 (undoubtedly a higher fraction if the survey had started in 1700). Forests are also way down.
  • Neglect in protecting our heritage of natural resources could prove extremely harmful for the human race and for all species that share common space on planet earth. Indeed, there are many lessons in human history which provide adequate warning about the chaos and destruction that could take place if we remain guilty of myopic indifference to the progressive erosion and decline of nature’s resources. Much has been written, for instance, about the Maya civilization, which flourished during 250–950 AD, but collapsed largely as a result of serious and prolonged drought. Even earlier, some 4000 years ago a number of well-known Bronze Age cultures also crumbled extending from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, including the civilizations, which had blossomed in Mesopotamia. More recent examples of societies that collapsed or faced chaos on account of depletion or degradation of natural resources include the Khmer Empire in South East Asia, Eastern Island, and several others. Changes in climate have historically determined periods of peace as well as conflict. The recent work of David Zhang has, in fact, highlighted the link between temperature fluctuations, reduced agricultural production, and the frequency of warfare in Eastern China over the last millennium. Further, in recent years several groups have studied the link between climate and security. These have raised the threat of dramatic population migration, conflict, and war over water and other resources as well as a realignment of power among nations. Some also highlight the possibility of rising tensions between rich and poor nations, health problems caused particularly by water shortages, and crop failures as well as concerns over nuclear proliferation.

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