Ecosystems act as resource producers and processors. Solar energy is the main driving force of ecological systems, providing energy for the growth of plants in forests, grasslands and aquatic ecosystems. A forest recycles its plant material slowly by continuously returning its dead material, leaves, branches, etc. to the soil. Grasslands recycle material much faster than forests as the grass dries up after the rains are over every year. All the aquatic ecosystems are also solar energy dependent and have cycles of growth when plant life spreads and aquatic animals breed. The sun also drives the water cycle. Our food comes from both natural and agricultural ecosystems. Traditional agricultural ecosystems that depended on rainfall have been modified in recent times to produce more and more food by the addition of extra chemicals and water from irrigation systems but are still dependent on solar energy for the growth of crops.Moreover modern agriculture creates a variety of environmental problems, which ultimately lead to the formation of unproductive land. These include irrigation, which leads to the development of saline soil, and the use of artificial fertilizers eventually ruin soil quality, and pesticides, which are a health hazard for humans as well as destroying components vital to the long-term health of agricultural ecosystems. To manufacture consumer products, industry requires raw materials from nature, including water, minerals and power. During the manufacturing process, the gases, chemicals and waste products pollute our environment, unless the industry is carefully managed to clean up this mess.
Natural resources and associated problems
The unequal consumption of natural resources: A major part of natural resources are today consumed in the technologically advanced or ‘developed’ world, usually termed ‘the North’. The ‘developing nations’ of ‘the South’, including India and China, also over use many resources because of their greater human population. However, the consumption of resources per capita (per individual) of the developed countries is up to 50 times greater than in most developing countries. Advanced countries produce over 75% of global industrial waste and greenhouse gases.
Energy from fossil fuels is consumed in relatively much greater quantities in developed countries. Their per capita consumption of food too is much greater as well as their waste of enormous quantities of food and other products, such as packaging material, used in the food industry. The USA for example with just 4% of the world’s population consumes about 25%
of the world’s resources.
Producing animal food for human consumption requires more land than growing crops. Thus countries that are highly dependent on non-vegetarian diets need much larger areas for pasture land than those where the people are mainly vegetarian.
Planning Land use: Land itself is a major resource, needed for food production, animal husbandry, industry, and for our growing human settlements. These forms of intensive land use are frequently extended at the cost of ‘wild lands’, our remaining forests, grasslands, wetlands and deserts. Thus it is essential to evolve a rational land-use policy that examines how much land must be made available for different purposes and where it must be situated. For instance, there are usually alternate sites at which industrial complexes or dams can be built, but a natural wilderness cannot be recreated artificially. Scientists today believe that at least 10 percent of land and water bodies of each ecosystem must be kept as wilderness for the longterm needs of protecting nature and natural resources.
Land as a resource is now under serious pressure due to an increasing ‘land hunger’ – to produce sufficient quantities of food for an exploding human population. It is also affected by degradation due to misuse. Land and water resources are polluted by industrial waste and rural and urban sewage. They are increasingly being diverted for short-term economic gains to agriculture and industry. Natural wetlands of great value are being drained for agriculture and other purposes. Semi-arid land is being irrigated and overused.
The most damaging change in land use is demonstrated by the rapidity with which forests have vanished during recent times, both in India and in the rest of the world. Forests provide us with a variety of services. These include processes such as maintaining oxygen levels in the atmosphere, removal of carbon dioxide, control over water regimes, and slowing down erosion and also produce products such as food, fuel, timber, fodder, medicinal plants, etc. In the long term, the loss of these is far greater than the short-term gains produced by converting forested lands to other uses.
The need for sustainable lifestyles: The quality of human life and the quality of ecosystems on earth are indicators of the sustainable use of resources. There are clear indicators of sustainable lifestyles in human life.
- Increased longevity
- An increase in knowledge
- An enhancement of income
These three together are known as the ‘Human development index’. The quality of the ecosystems have indicators that are more difficult to assess. The quality of the ecosystems have indicators that are more difficult to assess.
- A stabilized population.
- The long term conservation of biodiversity.
- The careful long-term use of natural resources.
- The prevention of degradation and pollution of the environment.