The Environment



See Web Links and Further Reading for suggestions that will help you to research topics related to the environment.

1. A Question of Balance

When you stop to think about it, it's remarkable that we are here, living on this planet. In the first place, the earth is flying through space, and if there wasn't gravity we would all fall off. For millions of years the earth was too hot for there to be any kind of life here at all. Then it got cool enough for rain to fall. It rained for thousands of years, and the oceans were formed. Somehow, tiny life forms evolved in the water.

With time, tho
se life forms got bigger and more complex. Some of them started to come out of the water and live on the land. A long time later the dinosaurs evolved. They were developing in all sorts of ways (intelligence, social grouping, etc.) when a meteorite flying through space hit the earth. The dinosaurs were wiped out.

That gave another life form, the mammals, a chance to develop. Like the dinosaurs, they developed in a wide variety of ways; whales, elephants, tigers, monkeys, humans - they're all mammals.

None of this could have happened if the earth had been too close to the sun, or too far away, or if there hadn't been any oxygen and hydrogen, or... There are so many 'ifs'! A few years ago scientists discovered that there was a thin layer of gas high up in the atmosphere which protects the earth from harmful radiation from the sun. If that hadn't been there, life as we know it would not exist.
That layer is called the ozone layer. It is just one example of the delicate balance that makes life possible. It is also one of the most famous examples of what can go wrong. Scientists discovered that the chemicals used in spray cans (like the ones you use to spray deodorant or hairspray) were going up into the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer. Huge holes appeared in the ozone layer above the poles. Unless something was done, the ozone layer would get eaten up and the life-giving sun would become an eye of death, staring down on a barren world...

2. Who is in Control?

Governments have made laws to stop the use of dangerous chemicals in spray cans, but is it enough? Spray cans are not the only cause of ozone destruction, and the ozone holes are still growing. At the same time, there are many other threats to the environment. Nuclear waste, which needs to be stored for thousands of years before it is safe, is already starting to leak from a number of storage sites. Rain forests, which provide much of the oxygen that we breathe, are being destroyed by fire and logging operations. Pollution poured into the sea is breeding dangerous mutant life forms, which destroy every living thing around them. Air pollution, mostly caused by fumes from cars, is causing a sharp rise in illnesses such as asthma, hay fever, bronchitis and lung cancer. Diseases like tuberculosis (kekkaku), which we thought we had conquered, are coming back, and new diseases, like AIDS, are on the rise. Much of the food we eat is produced with harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and genetically-altered foods, whose effects are unknown, are coming onto the market.  Large areas of the ocean are being emptied of fish...

Where will it all end? There are those who say that humanity is causing its own destruction. The day will come, they say, when the air and the oceans will be too dirty, the radiation levels too high, the food supply too short, diseases will spread and life - or, at least, human life - will die out just as the dinosaurs did. Others say, 'No; ever since the first man lit the first fire humanity has been in some danger from its own technology. Sometimes there have been disasters, but in the end we have always survived them. The problems of today will be solved by the science of tomorrow.'

Perhaps they are right. There are some hopeful signs in the middle of all the danger signals. For example, a recent breakthrough has shown that it will probably be possible to control rainfall in dry areas in the future. And some of the controversial new techniques of genetic engineering may prove to be of benefit...

In general, though, humans have in their hands the power to destroy their world - by greed, war or accident - to a greater extent than ever before. The question is, How will they use that power?

3. 'There's nothing I can do!'

Once upon a time, in France, there was a shepherd. Every day, he took his sheep out into the hills and, when they were safely grazing, he opened a little bag that he always carried with him. Inside the bag were seeds. The shepherd planted the seeds on the open hillside. From the seeds there grew oaks, beech trees, birch trees, holly...

For fifty years the shepherd took his sheep out into the hills. When he was a boy those hills were covered with nothing but grass. Today there is a forest so big you could easily get lost in it!

This is just a story, but you can see the point; by doing a little each day one person can make a big difference!

4. Some Ideas

- Make a note of some of the chemical ingredients listed on the packets or containers of food you eat regularly. Then do some research and find out what the properties of those chemicals are.

- Identify as many as possible of the birds, animals and insects living in your neighbourhood, and then show your list to ask an older person from the same neighbourhood. What species can he/she remember which can not be found today?

- What types of wood can you find in your house? Are any of them tropical hardwood? If so, do some research. Find out what sort of place that wood probably grew in, and what environmental problems, if any, were caused by cutting it down and bringing it to Japan.

- Choose an environmental topic (global warming, acid rain, etc.) and find out as much about it as you can. Who do you consider responsible for the problem? What would you like to say to that person/ those people? Why not write a letter, either to those responsible or to a newspaper, expressing your opinion?

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