An Ailing Planet

The planet faces an existential threat, the result in large part of human neglect, ignorance and wilful misuse of its resources

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

This article explores the urgent reasons why ‘The Physical World’ is one of nine key learning priorities in the proposed MAC life-based learning programme for 5- to 11-year-olds.


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The importance of the planet to humans

As the only known planet that is habitable for human beings, the Earth’s importance is self-evident. Every living organism known to science obtains all of its resources from Earth, and has very few other options available. Without the Earth, humans would be doomed to extinction, unless they were able to adapt to another planet’s conditions before the Earth disappeared.

Reference: Why is Earth important?

The problem

The central importance of science is emphasised by scientific knowledge of a world environment falling apart.

  1. More people but less to go round: Population explosion and counting; natural resources depletion; poverty; fresh water scarcity; famine; war; and pestilence (including Covid-19)
  2. Greenhouse gases: Climate change; vanishing ice; sea level rise; megafires; drought; hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and floods
  3. Pollution: Dirty air, plastic pollution of the ocean; dead zones and household waste
  4. Habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation: Deforestation, wetlands destruction; soil degradation; coral die-offs.

The evidence

There is a vast amount of easily available evidence of planetary misuse on the internet. Two of the best sources are National Geographic and the World Wildlife Fund. A further extensive resource is the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

1. More people but less to go round

Population explosion

‘Without a doubt the biggest issue facing humans is over population of humans. All other major environmental issues flow from the very fact that we are over populating the planet.

The world’s population has tripled in the last 60 years, placing stress on every aspect of the environment. More land is developed every day to accommodate the urban spread.

In 1950 the population stood at 2,555,982,611 compared to 2019 which it now stands at over 7,593,000,000.+ [sic] The actual maths is that the worlds population [sic] has increased by almost 3 times. That is staggering when you think about it.’ {}

Threats to nature

‘Rising demand to meet the needs of more than 7 billion people has transformed land use and generated unprecedented levels of pollution, affecting biodiversity, forests, wetlands, water bodies, soils and air quality.’ {}

The irony: population is declining in some countries. {}

Resource depletion

The needs of 7 billion people are rapidly depleting natural raw materials such as coal, gas and oil.

Threats to humans and nature

‘At the current rate of consumption, oil will run out in about 30 years’ time, tin, cadmium, lead and zinc in 40 years, copper, antimony and nickel in about 70 years. Most current utilization of aquatic animals, of the wild plants and animals of the land, of forests and of grazing lands is not sustainable.’ {}

World poverty

‘Most people in the world live in poverty. Two-thirds of the world population live on less than 10 $-int per day. And every tenth person lives on less than 1.90 $-int per day.’ {}

‘1 in 5 of the UK population live in poverty. Over half of these people live in working households.’ {}

Poverty-associated threats to humans

Inadequate sanitation is a major cause of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery world-wide. It also contributes to stunting and impaired cognitive function and impacts on wellbeing through school attendance, anxiety and safety with lifelong consequences, especially for women and girls. {}
Diseases such as ‘HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis as well as lesser-known ailments such as dengue, chagas disease and food-borne trematode infections. {}

Fresh water scarcity

‘Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use.

Many of the water systems that keep ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population have become stressed. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use….. Climate change is altering patterns of weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others.’ {}

Threats to humans [and nature]

‘Some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. At the current consumption rate, this situation will only get worse. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. And ecosystems around the world will suffer even more.’ {}

Food security

Food security occurs when all people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to meet their requirements for a healthy life, in ways the planet can sustain into the future.’ {}

Threats to humans

Recent famines in Somalia and Ethiopia are well documented.
‘New shocks related to climate change, conflict, pests (such as locusts and Fall Army Worm) and infectious diseases (such as COVID-19 and African Swine Fever) are hurting food production, disrupting supply chains and stressing people’s ability to access nutritious and affordable food, raising fresh concerns for food security in 2020.’ {}

War

Wars across countries and within countries are rife across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.

Threats to humans and nature

There are 69 countries involved in war and 840 militias-guerrillas and terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved. {}

Pestilence

Pestilence is contagious disease that spreads out of control, killing many people.

Threat to humans

The Black Death: 1347–51: Spread throughout Europe, killing about half the continent’s population.
Influenza: 1918–19: Worldwide: This flu was a highly contagious virus that killed 20 million people throughout the world
Aids: The United Nations and the World Health Organization reported that a total of 25 million people had died from AIDS as of Dec. 2006.’ {}
Covid-19: 494,326 deaths to date: June 27, 2020: [Google search: Covid 19 deaths].

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Greenhouse gases

‘A greenhouse gas is any gaseous compound in the atmosphere that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere.’ {} ‘Common examples of greenhouse gases, listed in order of abundance, include: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and any fluorocarbons.’ {}

Climate change

Thermometer records kept over the past century and a half show Earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1° Fahrenheit (0.9° Celsius), and about twice that in parts of the Arctic. {}

Threats to humans and nature

‘Humans and wild animals face new challenges for survival because of climate change. More frequent and intense drought, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans can directly harm animals, destroy the places they live, and wreak havoc on people’s livelihoods and communities.’ {}

Vanishing ice

The 400,000 glaciers and ice caps scattered across the globe make up 5.8 million square miles of ice, storing 70% of the world’s fresh water {}. There is evidence of ice melting at both Poles and specifically Western Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic Sea, snows of Kilimanjaro {} and glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park {}.

Threats to humans and nature

Loss of natural habitat; species on the move; threat to fresh water supplies; sea level rise

Sea level rise

The sea level has risen between four and eight inches [10 to 20 centimetres] in the last 100 years and is rising 0.13 inches [3.2 millimetres] per year {}. The rise is expected to be between 10 and 32 inches (26 and 82 centimetres) or higher by the end of the century {}.

Threats to humans and nature

In time, low-lying Pacific islands disappear under water [Maldives and Papua New Guinea]; major flooding of areas of Britain; frequent flooding of millions of homes: loss of major parts of Bangladesh, with mass displacement of people; massive loss of habitat and displacement of species.

Megafires

1997-1998 the Kalimantan Complex burn in Indonesia scorched 9.7 million acres and released 700 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Fire in Botswana in 2008 burnt 3.6 million acres {}. The recent Australian bushfires engulfed 1.5 million acres, some 2.300 square miles {}.

Threats to humans and nature

Self-evident loss of habitat; loss of human and animal life; loss of property and homes; damaging greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere.

Drought

‘Regions in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and America are experiencing higher air temperatures, drier air and more severe or frequent droughts. One recent NASA study revealed that a drought that has been affecting the eastern Mediterranean Levant region since 1998 is likely to be the worst in the past 900 years.’ {}

Threats to humans and nature

Scarring of large areas of land; fresh water scarcity: decimation of habitats and life; major contributor to famine along with mismanagement and war — for example, the Ethiopian famine 1983–85. ‘In 2012, the central and western U.S. was hit particularly hard when 81 percent of the country was living in abnormally dry conditions, causing $30 billion in damages and putting the health and safety of many Americans at risk.’ {}

Hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and floods

Hurricane Katrina, 2005 [levees breached] {}; Typhoon Hiayan, 2013 [windspeeds up to 300 kilometres per hour / 195 miles per hour, storm surge up to 5 metres high {}]; Cyclone 02B, 1991 [storm surge of 6 metres / 20 feet] {} .

Threats to humans and nature

‘The effects of Hurricane Katrina, in August 2005, were catastrophic and widespread. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, leaving at least 1,836 people dead, and a further 135 missing.’ {} Typhoon Haiyan — November, 2013 — 14 million people affected, over 6000 deaths, 550,000 houses destroyed. {} Cyclone 02B — April, 1991 — more than 135,000 people killed and 10 million people homeless, 1 million cows killed, land devastated, food shortage and wholescale damage to property {}.

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Pollution

‘Human (industrial, agricultural, recreational, and domestic) activities pollute the environment (air, water  and soil).’ {}

Dirty air

Soot, smoke, mold, pollen, methane, carbon dioxide.

Threat to humans and nature

An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016. Ongoing health risk for 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes by burning biomass, kerosene and coal. In the USA nearly 134 million people—over 40% of the population—are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution — cancer, heart disease and stroke. {}

Plastic ocean pollution

‘Here’s a scary statistic: there are 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the sea than there are stars in our galaxy.

800 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year, washing up on previously pristine parts of the planet. This includes the Arctic and remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairns, has the highest concentration of plastic pollution in the world.’ {}

Threat to humans and nature

‘Plastic is having a devastating impact on the world’s marine wildlife, too, with over 600 species under threat. They eat it. They get trapped in it. It overwhelms and destroys their environments. And because plastic degrades to microscopic levels, fish absorb it through their stomachs and into their flesh, meaning that humans also end up eating their own plastic waste.’ {}

Dead zones

Dead zones are caused by excess fertilizer from agricultural practices and sewage travelling downstream in lakes and oceans. These excess nutrients create massive algal blooms that take oxygen out of the water.

The largest dead zone in the world lies in the Arabian Sea, covering almost the entire 63,700-square mile Gulf of Oman. The second largest sits in the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, averaging almost 6,000 square miles in size.’ {}

Threat to humans and nature

“Dead zones” are deadly: few or no organisms can survive in their oxygen-depleted, or hypoxic, waters. Often encompassing large swathes of ocean (and even lakes and ponds), dead zones become oceanic deserts, devoid of the usual aquatic biodiversity. {}

Household Waste

‘Cities generate approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste per year….and with the current trends in urbanization, this number will likely grow to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025 – an increase of 70 percent.’ {} ‘By 2050, the world is expected to generate 3.40 billion tons of waste annually, increasing drastically from today’s 2.01 billion tons.’ {}

Threats to humans and nature

Toxic substances leach into soil from landfill sites and into water supplies; toxic elements from discarded electronic devices pollute; landfill methane is released — a greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide; garbage not landfilled breeds house flies, rats and disease; and other garbage creates five floating ocean ‘garbage patches’ — all causing problems to humans and nature.

Consumer consideration: ‘Every year we dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this waste was put on trucks they would go around the world 24 times. This stunning amount of waste is partly because 99 percent of the stuff we buy is trashed within 6 months.’ {}

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Habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation

‘The Earth has many different habitats, including deserts, forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers and swamps. … The oceans of the world form a single large habitat, called the marine biome.’ {}

Threats to humans and nature

Habitat destruction: Land clearance for agriculture (pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers), mining, logging, hydroelectric dams, urbanisation; ocean bottom trawling
Habitat degradation: Pollution, climate change and invasive species
Habitat fragmentation: Reduction of animal ranges, movement of animals increasing risk of extinction. {}

Deforestation

‘Today, about 30 percent of the planet’s land area is covered by forests – which is about half as much as before agriculture got started around 11,000 years ago. About 7.3 million hectares (18 million acres) of forest are destroyed each year, mostly in the tropics. Tropical forests used to cover about 15 percent of the planet’s land area; they’re now down to 6 or 7 percent. Much of this remainder has been degraded by logging or burning.’ {}

We’re losing 18.7 million acres of forests annually, equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute.

Over the next 15 years, forest landscapes equaling an area more than twice the size of Texas could be lost to rampant deforestation, according to a WWF report. If nothing is done, 11 of the world’s most ecologically important forest landscapes—including forest homes or orangutans, tigers, and elephants—will account for over 80 percent of forest loss globally by 2030, the report states. Up to 420 million acres of forest could be lost between 2010 and 2030 in these “deforestation fronts” if current trends continue. The hot spots are located in the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest and Gran Chaco, Borneo, the Cerrado, Choco-Darien, the Congo Basin, East Africa, Eastern Australia, Greater Mekong, New Guinea, and Sumatra. agricultural products, such as soy and palm oil, are used in an ever-increasing list of products, from animal feed to lipstick and biofuels. Rising demand has created incentives to convert forests to farmland and ranch land. Once a forest is lost to agriculture, it is usually gone forever—along with many of the plants and animals that once lived there.”

World Wildlife Fund: WWF: Threats: Deforestation and forest degradation

Threats to human and nature

Large-scale destruction of habitat for plant and animal wildlife, loss of habitat for indigenous peoples.

Wetlands destruction

Scientific estimates show that 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. In some regions, notably Asia, the loss is even higher. {}

Wetlands, or marshes, fens, bogs, and swamps, are the link between land and water. Wetlands include trees, grasses, shrubs, moss, and other plants that require at least some water coverage.

Wetlands degradation and destruction is occurring more rapidly than in any other ecosystem. Since the early 1800s, 40 percent, or 4.273 million acres, of Michigan’s wetlands have been destroyed due to drainage, farming, housing, roads  construction, and other development. The Great Lakes watershed has lost 62 percent of its original wetlands, and some parts of this region have lost more than 90 percent of these habitats.

Flow: for love of water: Wetlands destruction

Soil degradation

‘Overgrazing, monoculture planting, erosion, soil compaction, overexposure to pollutants, land-use conversion – there’s a long list of ways that soils are being damaged.’ {}

Threats to humans and nature

‘About 12 million hectares of farmland a year get seriously degraded, according to UN estimates.’ {}

Coral die-offs

Coral reefs cover 1% of the ocean floor but support about 25% of all marine creatures {}. A sustained 1° C rise in temperature is enough to cause bleaching. 12% have bleached with predicted permanent loss of 4,600 square miles [12,000 square kilometres] {}.

Threats to humans and nature

25% of all marine life under threat; 4000 species of fish under threat {}; An estimated 500 million people earn their livelihoods from the fishing stocks and tourism opportunities reefs provide {}.

The answer

Teaching young children about ecology and the environment will teach them lessons they will take through the rest of their life. If children learn to respect and care for the world they live in and the wildlife within it from a young age they will help to preserve it for the next generation. They will become advocates for protecting nature.

Novak Diokovic Foundation: Children learning about ecology and the environment

NAEE (National Association for Environmental Education) puts it well in the introduction to their curriculum guide ‘Opportunities for Environmental Education across the National Curriculum for England: Early Years Foundation Stage and Primary’:

Environmental education helps to foster caring, responsible attitudes and inspires young people to take action in order to live more sustainably. It can also develop their sense of identity and pride in their local environment and community. It not only covers the natural world and ‘green’ issues, but also the ‘built’ environment.

There are three interrelated components of environmental education:

· Education IN the environment Using children’s immediate surroundings and the wider world as a learning resource. This can be thought of as the ‘hands-on’ element.

 · Education ABOUT the environment Developing knowledge and understanding about the environment should begin with an awareness of the local environment and then extend to an understanding of global environmental issues.

· Education FOR the environment The development of positive attitudes and behaviours towards the environment. This can only be effective if the other two elements are in place

NACE: Opportunities for environmental education across the National Curriculum in England

The obstacle

The subject-based approach to learning is preventing the learning that needs to take place.

Children are currently taught through a collection of subjects. A typical curriculum for children is the National Curriculum in England in which learning is acquired through eleven subjects: mathematics, geography, history, science, design technology, art and design, music, a modern foreign language (MFL), computing and physical education. A twelfth subject in the making is PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education).

Subject-centered curriculum prevents students from understanding the wider context of what they’re learning.

In the traditional method of learning, students learn math in one period, reading in another, science in another and social studies in yet another, separate class. Every subject is taught as though it exists in and of itself without regard for how one subject impacts another subject.

A traditional subject-centered curriculum so focuses on each subject in an individual context, students don’t understand how one subject impacts another subject or how each works together. Learning is fragmented into little boxes instead of flowing together toward deeper comprehension of subject matter as a whole. Students are not taught to use different aspects of their knowledge in an integrated fashion.

Classroom: The Disadvantages of Subject-Centered Curriculum

In the National Curriculum in England the obstacle to learning is exacerbated by its hierarchy of subjects: English and mathematics are ‘core’ and all other subjects are ‘foundation’, with environmental education at the discretion of individual schools.

The solution — short-term

The physical world learning domain, promoted on this website, reorganises learning as part of the Merged Action Curriculum (MAC), a life-based curriculum for children aged 5 to 11. Science, geography and environmental studies are brought together to ensure children are set on the road to understanding the urgent challenges facing human use of the planet.

MAC proposes an integrated approach to learning in which the subjects of science and geography continue to be given a high profile, but with environmental education as an equal partner in the learning programme.

In the short term MAC combines the learning of science and geography with human use and adaptability to different environments and consideration of the human footprint. The important local dimension — putting children in touch with their everyday environment — is put into national and global contexts.

There are four Study Action Areas:

  1. All about our planet
  2. All about Britain
  3. Human adaptability
  4. The human footprint

The solution — long-term

The physical world learning domain and study action areas are ‘indicative’, with much development work required. At the moment the domain is illustrative of how learning might be integrated.

There is a longer-term aim:

Research and development is required to rewrite the curriculum so that we put the next generation on the road to preventing the world from falling apart.

Michael Mac


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