The environmental movement can be extremely successful when it concentrates on a single issue. The ban on the pesticide DDT is one example. Reducing sulfur dioxide gas emissions to prevent acid rain is another. And then there's the global ban on ozone-layer depleting CFCs that appears to be working, gradually making the world's beaches safe again for bronzing.
These days the main issue is climate change, which is a little tougher to solve because people aren't capable of wrapping their heads around the idea of gradual change. Nobody panics that average temperatures have increased by around one degree Celsius, even if that's enough to speed the melting of glaciers, the thawing of permafrost, the greening of Greenland, the de-iceberging of the Arctic and disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves.
Still, thanks to the likes of Al Gore and Dr. David Suzuki, the world is at least aware of the problem and is taking steps, albeit gradually, to fix the problem. The fact that we're depleting our cheapest and most accessible fossil fuels is probably doing more to spur change than any enviro campaign, but progress is progress.
Unfortunately, climate change is just one of a growing number of issues facing humanity where the needle is hovering between orange and red on the disaster meter. There's the issue of deforestation, especially in the oxygen-producing Amazon basin, which has more to do with raising cattle for meat than harvesting trees. There's the issue of collapsing fish stocks through over-fishing and the use of "technologies" like bottom dragging nets that kill off fish habitat. One recent report suggested that the blue fin tuna fishing industry is three years away from complete collapse.
Then there's the issue of growing deserts, droughts and depleted farmlands, even as farmers use more chemical fertilizers to grow their crops and their collective run-off creates huge dead areas in the ocean that are depleted of oxygen. Some scientists feel that the changing ocean chemistry is the biggest risk of all.
There's the issue of fresh water, as the world's aquifers run dry, glaciers melt, and average rainfalls decline.
Toxins and chemicals are building up in our soil, water, and bodies with unpredictable consequences for our health. Our dependence on antibiotics is creating strains of viruses that are resistant to treatment, ushering in the real possibility of a new global plague.
My intention writing this isn't to bum anybody out. I think everyone knows what's going on by now, even if we can choose to ignore it for the sake of being happy. Given the scale of these problems it's impossible to feel anything but helpless.