Environmental Sustainability: 5 issues you need to know about NOW

Infinity sign on leaf to represent sustainability

When we think about the word “sustainability,” a lot of us immediately think specifically about environmental sustainability.

While that is only one aspect of sustainability overall, it is arguably the most important: regardless of what happens to humanity in our lifetime, the natural environment will continue on.

Therefore, we need to spend some time improving our understanding of environmental sustainability.

However, the health of the natural world is extremely dependent on humanity because human activity has such a huge impact on our surroundings. It only makes sense that the responsibility falls on us to take actions that protect the environment and avoid actions that hurt it. 

The 5 Biggest Problems Facing the Environment

A lot of the topics I’m going to talk about are related, and I’m just giving a quick intro to all of them, so please understand that this information is only a starting point.

I’ll definitely be making more content about these issues in the future and will discuss them more intersectionally to give a better idea of how these issues are much more than just environmental sustainability issues.

Apartment building in Hong Kong with window air conditioners

1. The Climate Crisis

Let’s start with the biggest topic that comes up in conversations about environmental sustainability.

You may hear this issue referred to as “global warming” or “climate change,” but neither of those terms are fully accurate.

University of Cincinnati during a polar vortex

Earth’s climate is changing, and while the overall temperature is getting warmer, that doesn’t reflect the reality for every part of the world, where some people are seeing weather patterns with more snow or cold rain than before or just more extreme weather events. 

So yes, the climate is changing, but what is happening now differs from eras throughout the past when Earth went through natural periods of warming and cooling.

This climate crisis is happening at a much more rapid pace and can be pinpointed to human activity starting with the Industrial Revolution.

There are so many factors at play when we talk about human-driven climate change, so I’m going to mention a few of them before moving on to the next issue within environmental sustainability.

The ozone layer

Let’s take a quick field trip into the past. Way back when, all life on earth existed in the ocean because it was impossible to live on land, due to the low oxygen levels and the sun’s heat and radiation. Eventually, the ozone gas started to form, thanks to the photosynthesis process of ocean algae. This gas created a layer in the earth’s atmosphere that acted like a shield, so that life could evolve to live on land without being scorched by the sun.

Fast forward to modern times, and we are seeing depletions of the ozone layer. Without that layer intact to curtail the sun’s effects on our planet’s surface, you can imagine how easy it would be for Earth to heat to uninhabitable temperatures.

Luckily, many of the ozone-depleting chemicals have been banned by various governments, but the thinning ozone layer isn’t the only thing contributing to climate change.

Greenhouse

Greenhouse gases

Many of us have heard about greenhouse gases and know that they’re bad, but in case you missed that lesson, here’s a quick overview. The greenhouse gases found in the earth’s atmosphere are ozone, water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. 

Without these greenhouse gases, earth’s average temperature would be far too cold. However, with too much or the wrong balance of these gases, we are creating more of a greenhouse effect, where the gases absorb more heat from the sun and warm the planet too much.

Human activity has a huge impact on the greenhouse gases that are found in our atmosphere. Since the rise of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution, there has been a huge increase in the atmosphere’s carbon levels.

Almost every single thing that we do releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More and more people are starting to emphasize the importance of humanity lowering our emissions of greenhouse gasses.

In fact, scientists have warned that a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius could cause irreversible damage to the planet and all of us who depend on it for survival. (And that may not sound like much, but the last Ice Age was only 4 degrees colder than modern averages, so any amount of temperature increase or decrease can drastically change what life on earth looks like.)

Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns

A consequence of the warming atmosphere has been that traditionally icy parts of the world are starting to melt. The polar ice caps are melting more rapidly than any other point in history, which is causing the ocean levels to rise. Some scientists predict that certain island nations could succumb to rising sea levels within this century.

Sign at Orlando's March for Science says "Oceans are rising and so are we"

The increased heat has also caused more wildfires and severe heat waves. 

A less obvious connection between weather patterns and global warming is an increase in the severity of storms and the occurrence of other extreme weather events. 

The additional precipitation in the atmosphere can even lead to more intense winters. It may not seem intuitive that record-breaking winter storms are a result of global warming, but that is why there has been a shift in referring to the climate crisis as “climate change” rather than “global warming.”

Many (if not all) of the following environmental sustainability topics also have an impact on climate change, but even without the risk of climate change, they pose their own hazards to the environment.

2. Pollution

The problem of pollution seems fairly straightforward: there are particles in the environment that are bad for anyone or anything that is part of that environment.

However, there is a lot more complexity to this issue because there are so many things that cause pollution, there are so many moving pieces within environments that can become polluted, and there are so many far-reaching consequences of the different types of pollution. 

Dirty alley in Hong Kong

Soil pollution and degradation

The state of our soil is an issue that is definitely starting to gain traction among environmental sustainability advocates. Not only is there a problem with soil being contaminated by substances that don’t belong in the ecosystem, but there is also the problem of soil quality degrading and losing its fertility.

As you can imagine, this presents a threat to all forms of nature as well as humans, given that our food chains are fairly reliant on soil.

There are a lot of factors at play in what causes these threats to the soil, and what the consequences of soil degradation are, but needless to say, it is yet another very important issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

Sign in garden that says "dirt therapy" | soil degradation

Air pollution

The pollution of our air has long been observed, with many of us experiencing tangible reminders such as smoggy days. It is a problem that is definitely getting worse, especially as researchers start to realize the full extent of its consequences.

In addition to the obvious respiratory side effects from breathing dirty air, there are so many unexpected consequences of air pollution, such as decreased cognitive function, billions of dollars of healthcare costs, communities of color being disproportionately affected, lower crop yields, acid rain, and disruption of ecosystems and the food chain in wild animals.

Boat in Hong Kong harbour with smog covering the skyline | air pollution

Water pollution

Once again, there is a whole host of things that can cause waterways to become polluted, from agricultural runoff to dyes and bleaches from the fashion industry. 

And the consequences range from harming wildlife to harming humans. Communities of color and people living in poverty in countries with fewer environmental restrictions are again disproportionately at risk, with various documentaries such as The True Cost and RiverBlue highlighting the health problems that arise in those areas where residents have no choice but to consume the visibly polluted water. 

Oil slick water pollution

Wildlife on land is affected by water pollution, and unsurprisingly, there is also a huge impact on the marine life that actually inhabits the polluted waters.

One pollution-related threat to marine life is ocean acidification. Many species cannot withstand a change to the pH of the water, and it can cause devastating effects on the whole ecosystem. On its own, ocean acidification is a problem, but it’s not even the only challenge our oceans are facing.

Plastic and trash pollution

Although humanity’s plastic and trash can be found harming many different parts of the environment, one main area of focus is the plastic that is polluting our waterways.

There are huge patches of the Pacific Ocean that contain areas of trash that are bigger than several countries. This leads to all sorts of disruptions of the marine ecosystem.

But the problem doesn’t start when the discarded piece of plastic enters the environment.

Sign at an Indonesian high school says "Keep calm and throw away your trash" to advocate for environmental sustainability

Both after and during use, plastic sheds tiny particles called microplastics that can wreak havoc on the environment, and this can occur from something as simple as washing a piece of polyester clothing, using a product with glitter, or driving a vehicle (tires are one of the top causes of plastic pollution, causing something like 28% of microplastics found in the ocean).

Since growing evidence is showing that plastic accumulates within animals bodies and also that plastic is found in human waste, the full effect of plastic on human health is an area of concern.

Although we may not fully understand how plastic consumption affects the human body, it is clear that plastic production causes serious health problems that once again disproportionately affect communities of color, with one such area being dubbed Cancer Alley.

Pollution of all types not only causes serious threats to humanity, but it is a huge factor in the following issue of threats to flora and fauna on our planet.

3. Species endangerment

There are so many ways in which nature is being threatened by human activity. A big focus within environmental sustainability is all the ways in which individual animals and plants are impacted by humans, as well as ecosystems as a whole.

Some threats are more obvious, such as wild fish populations at risk due to overfishing.

Other threats are less obvious. For example, large expanses of farmland that grow a single crop are called monocrops or monoculture, and this threatens the diversity that is required for ecosystems to thrive. 

Young monkey in Bali, Indonesia

Biodiversity is being challenged from almost every angle. 

The problems of pollution and climate change mentioned in previous sections are causing changes to the balance of species and habitats. 

Introducing non-native species to a different area of the world is another way that humans can negatively impact biodiversity. Species and habitats can evolve over time to adapt to natural threats, but humans are introducing more challenges than what nature can handle.

Abandoned house in Hong Kong

The overdevelopment of urban areas and infrastructure as well as the overconsumption of natural resources such as deforestation are other factors that threaten the balance of nature.

4. Resource depletion

The world contains a limited number of resources. However, humanity has spent a long time over-consuming some of those finite resources faster than they can be replenished, and that has a clear effect on the environment.

As mentioned before, deforestation is one way that humanity’s use of resources threatens biodiversity. Not only that, but trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, meaning that they play a vital role in addressing the climate crisis.

Sign at the March For Science advocating for environmental sustainability says "I speak for the trees"

While it can take decades or centuries for a tree to grow to a decent size, that is nothing compared to some of the other non-renewable resources that humanity has grown to depend on. 

Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas take millions of years to form, and we are using them faster than they can be replenished. Their (eventual) scarcity isn’t the only issue, since their use is a top contributor to air pollution, global warming, and ocean acidification. 

Furthermore, the acquisition of these non-renewable resources–via processes such as mountaintop removal, mining, and oil drilling–can cause devastating consequences to the environment.

Mining is not strictly limited to fossil fuels. 

Mining roller coaster at Hong Kong Disneyland's Grizzly Gulch

Many of the metals, minerals, and other materials that make up a lot of our everyday items need to be mined. In addition to being a very hazardous work environment for the miners (some of whom are children or slaves), the entire process can cause devastating effects on the surrounding natural habitats.

Mining is a contributing factor to biodiversity loss and every type of pollution I mentioned above. Plus, it can lead to manmade “natural” disasters, which I’ll touch on in the next section.

Other resources such as sand and freshwater may not require mining but are nonetheless still an environmental concern. Sand is retrieved through the process of dredging, and its effects on the environment are similar to mining.

Sand and freshwater are both being used at faster rates than what the planet can sustain.

Water shortages can lead to serious issues for nature and humanity.

(Water scarcity may sound counterintuitive since we already talked about the fact that sea levels are rising. But only about 1% of the water on earth is accessible fresh water, and it’s not as straightforward as you might think to desalinate ocean water to convert it to fresh water.)

Ocean foam at the beach

5. Environmental disasters

Although our planet can certainly cause catastrophic natural disasters regardless of human activity, we have started to have a larger impact on creating these catastrophes, and addressing this is another important part of environmental sustainability.

Our acceleration of global warming, pollution, agriculture, industry, and resource extraction can lead to deadly events such as flooding, landslides, sinkholes, wildfires, earthquakes, acid rain, stronger storms, pandemics, and more. And in turn, these events can worsen other environmental issues.

So many aspects of environmentalism are connected. Humanity’s health is linked to the health of the planet. The problems facing the planet are linked to human activity. Environmental issues are linked to social injustices and politics. Politics has the ability to regulate how humanity interacts with the environment, protecting our own health by protecting the planet’s health and addressing environmental injustices by addressing social injustices. 

There is a lot that needs to change.

Women at the Orlando March for Science hold a sign that says Go Green to support environmental sustainability

What can we do?

There are many pieces that need to fall into place in order to achieve true environmental sustainability. Here are a few places to start:

  • Continue to educate yourself. As long as this post has been, it is just a very brief overview of some issues facing the environment.
  • Be mindful of the impact of your actions on the environment (particularly your purchases). There are a lot of ways to do this, but I won’t go into detail here, because climate change is fueled more by big companies than by the average individual. This is a great place to start but is not enough on its own.
  • Volunteer for (or donate to) organizations that are working on these issues, if you have the time and resources.
  • Vote for candidates who have a plan to combat climate change and respect the natural world.
  • Vote with your money, if you have the means to do so, by choosing companies that respect the environment and avoiding companies that don’t.
  • Push governments and corporations to take action on these issues by writing letters or emails, tagging them on social media, signing petitions, participating in grassroots movements, and doing whatever else you can to hold those big entities accountable.
Sign at the March For Science advocating for environmental and economic sustainability says "Capitalism has no climate solution"

The Takeaway

There are so many ways to address the problems within environmental sustainability, largely because there are so many problems. But addressing them comprehensively often means widening the scope of our conversations and looking at how these problems in the environment interact with other aspects of sustainability.

It’s important to understand that environmental sustainability is not an island, and we should look critically at how other issues are connected to it.

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    Continuing the Conversation

    Is there an aspect of environmental sustainability that most interests you? Is there an action item that you want to start focusing on or one that you’re already working on? Did I miss any environmental sustainability issues that you think are really important? Let me know in the comments!

    Intro to environmental sustainability | sustainability 101

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