by Becky Urban
Globalization has spread ideas, products, and technology as transportation and telecommunication infrastructure continue to improve. Often when people talk about globalization, they focus on intercultural competence and inclusion. Of course these are important aspects to this topic; however, when I hear the term globalization, I immediately think of how global inequities drive widespread environmental issues.
The public and many textbooks often blame our environmental problems on the ever increasing human population—now at over 7.35 billion individuals. However, perhaps even more important is the ever increasing consumption of goods that further escalates ecosystem degradation. Less than 20% of the world’s population live in highly developed countries, but these countries use a disproportionate amount of global resources. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 2.8 billion people survive on less than $2 a day, more than 1 billion lack access to safe drinking water, and while the US is approximately only 5% of the global population, we use ~25% of the world’s fossil fuel resources. Our current rates of consumption are not sustainable. Who wouldn’t want a refrigerator, mobile phone, and quicker transportation? These products, what our students consider necessities, require more energy and resources to produce, and may be considered luxuries in a different part of the world. Globalization has facilitated industry, over-consumption, and increased energy use, thus leading to increased pollution, resource depletion, and species extinction.
The Anthropocene extinction is the sixth great extinction event in the history of life on Earth, and refers to the ongoing extinction of plants and animals due primarily to human activity. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), 869 species have become extinct in the last 500 years due to human activity. The vertebrate species remaining have exhibited a 25% average decline in abundance, while 67% of invertebrate species have exhibited a 45% mean abundance decline.
As we move people and products across the world, we inadvertently transport additional species, and some of these species cause significant ecological, economic, and/or societal harm. Often the introduction of such species is by accident. When the HMS Wellington rinsed water barrels during a stop in Hawaii, it inadvertently introduced mosquitoes; these mosquitoes spread avian malaria quickly and resulted in widespread mortality of the endemic honey-creeper populations.
Other times a species is introduced on purpose. The Nile perch was brought into Lake Victoria for commercial fishing and as a sport fish to improve tourism, but its introduction decimated the local ecosystem and caused the greatest vertebrate mass extinction in modern times (over 200 endemic fish species were lost). The Nile perch is a voracious predator and would consume and/or out-compete the native cichlid populations. Not only was there a decline in species diversity, but the introduction of Nile perch also resulted in widespread deforestation, soil erosion, and decline in water quality. With no refrigeration, fish must be dried for storage. Local fishermen would capture cichlids, and dry them in the sun. However, Nile perch is a larger, oily fish, and in order to dry the fish, people cut down trees around Lake Victoria. As forests were cut down, soil erosion increased. Soil particles flowed into Lake Victoria, increasing the turbidity of the water and adding excess nutrients. Not only was water quality impacted, but the decline in water clarity also made it difficult for the remaining cichlid populations to find mates.
Thanks to the aquarium trade, venomous lion-fish are causing havoc throughout coral reefs in the Caribbean. Thanks to the pet trade, there are now Burmese python throughout southern Florida. These snakes were most likely released into the field by owners who no longer wished to care for their pets. Since the introduction of this python, populations of several species of mammals (raccoons, opossum, bobcat) have declined over 80%. Gut content analysis shows that pythons will consume just about any bird, mammal, or reptile throughout the Everglades, including federally listed endangered species.
Transportation does not just make it easier for us to move living organisms around the planet. Trade allows us to have tropical fruit and fresh vegetables year round, but growing and transporting these goods results in increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Transportation and industry are two of the leading causes of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is also emitted as forests are converted into agricultural lands. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that the scientific evidence shows mean global temperatures are rising, and that human activity has played a large role in these increases. With increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, life on this planet will continue, but our ecosystems and the services they provide will likely change. Ocean acidification, sea-level rise, extreme weather events, water shortages, threats to agriculture, and the increased spread of pathogens will change the planet.
While globalization has caused widespread environmental degradation through over- consumption and utilization, globalization can also bring people to work together around common problems. The Montreal Protocol is a successful international treaty that was designed to address our earth’s thinning stratospheric ozone layer caused by the release of human-made gases, such as CFCs. This protocol recognized the science behind this environmental issue and forced countries to regulate these chemicals.
Globalization can also spur technological innovation to improve the environment. Just before world leaders gathered in Paris for the UN climate change talks last year, Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. This organization consists of wealthy business leaders investing billions of dollars into developing green technology and making it more affordable. Over the last few years, the technological advances in renewable energy has been impressive; every week there seems to be a new wind turbine, solar cell, or bio-fuel method announced. And while these technologies are exciting and give us hope for an improved environment, we should not discount how our consumption rates drive the current environmental issues.
As we educate our students to become world-ready graduates, please also teach them how to become responsible global citizens by having them understand how their personal choices influence the environment and the global community.