Throughout 2020, we have recognized the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by publishing a list of 50 reasons why people should be optimistic about our environment and our future. Human ingenuity is driving efficiency and technological improvements that are making the world better a better place for humans to thrive. Our last post took us past the halfway point of our list of 50. This post takes us almost to the end.
Misleading headlines echo the claims of green activists and elected officials who argue that human activity is driving our planet past a tipping point, destroying the Earth through overconsumption. But we contend, as the late economist Julian Simon did, that the human mind is the ultimate resource.
While imperfect, humans possess an incredible intellect and a drive to benefit ours and other’s well-being. This includes conservation and care for the environment.
With that in mind, here is a brief recap of the first 35 ways that human innovation has improved people’s lives and helped conserve the environment: (Click on a link in the list to view the full post.)
- Golden Rice
- Wolbachia: mosquito control
- Better real time mapping of wildfires
- Wildfire decreasing
- Air conditioning price decline
- World hunger decreased as population increased
- Extreme poverty down
- Life expectancy up
- Vaccine use up
- Natural gas reserves up
- Natural gas price down
- Air quality improved
- Automobile safety improved
- LED lighting
- CO2 capture from the air
- The ozone hole
- CO2 fertilization
- Genetic library
- Improved food quality
- Geospatial technology for pest control
- Less crop disease
- GMOs in aquaculture
- Polar bears are thriving
- Halting extinctions
- Using GMO fungus to stop malaria-carrying mosquitoes
- Near-extinct species rediscovered
- Thames growing in biodiversity
- Endangered species recovering
- Halved the number of undernourished people
- Increase food production
- Halved the under-five mortality rate
- Improved HIV/AIDS treatments
- Malaria deaths decreasing
- Staving off deforestation
Here are reasons number 36 to 45, the next ten ways humanity is improving the environment and promoting human flourishing:
- Drinking water: The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals include one goal to reduce by half the proportion of people around the planet who lack “sustainable access to safe drinking water.” Initially, the U.N. had hoped to meet that goal by 2015, but it was achieved five years ahead of schedule. Since 1990, 2.6 billion people obtained access to “improved drinking water sources.”
- Sanitation: In a related benefit, this U.N. goal also aimed to increase worldwide access to basic sanitation. Since 1990, 2.1 billion people gained access to improved sanitation. Since 1995, the percentage of worldwide population relying on unsafe sanitation dropped from 57% to 33%.
- Battery prices: Prices for lithium batteries, which are used for energy storage and in many electronic devices, have dropped by 87% from 2010 to 2019. The research firm, BloombergNEF, explains the price declines by noting that, “factory costs are falling thanks to improvements in manufacturing equipment and increased energy density at the cathode and cell level.”
- Battery storage use: While they still face substantial barriers related to supply and environmental impacts, lithium battery installations grew by 45% in 2018. The World Energy Council reports that pumped hydroelectric storage currently supplies over 96% of worldwide energy storage, but battery storage has the most potential for growth. They predict that “as much as 250 GW of energy storage [will be] installed by 2030,” and that the costs of battery storage could drop by 50-66% by 2030.
- Deaths from natural disasters: Despite many frightening headlines about deaths from extreme weather, deaths from natural disasters have actually dropped significantly since 1900. In the early 20th century, annual deaths from natural disasters — earthquakes, famines, tornadoes, flooding, etc. — often exceeded one million. More recently, there are fewer than 20,000 annual deaths caused by natural disasters, a 98% reduction. Often this number is below 10,000, and has not gone over 500,000 since the 1960s. This dramatic decrease in deaths caused by natural disasters has occurred despite the addition of more than two billion people to the planet over the past 25 years.
- Electrification: The global electrification rate has now reached 89%, as 153 million people gain access to electricity each year. Worldwide, the number of people who lack access to electricity dropped to 770 million in 2019.
- Safer fishing methods: Improved fishing methods have increased the fish catch off the coast of Mexico while also reducing the percent of sea turtles caught in fishing nets. Grupo Tortuguero is a coalition of groups in the region researching changes to fishing practices to reduce the bycatch and unintended deaths of sea turtles, while maintaining or increasing the fishing success of local fishers. Hanging lights on fishing nets decreases the number of turtles caught and increasing the number of fish, for instance. Researchers from Duke University have found conservation efforts like these have led to a “90-percent reduction of sea turtles as bycatch since 1990.”
- Bio-loggers: Specialized devices that record animal behaviors and habitat conditions are playing a valuable role in wildlife and habitat conservation. These devices use GPS and other instruments to track animal movement patterns and “measure the animals’ physiology, behavior, demographics, community interactions, and the environment [the] animal inhabits.” With improving technologies and reduced battery sizes, it is now possible to bio-log the activities of a broad range of organisms — from insects to blue whales.
- Clean, renewable, baseload energy: Researchers at Michigan Tech University have created a cleaner process to clean and revivify coal-fired electricity generation plants targeted for closure. Ezra Bar-Ziv’s research uses a process called “torrefaction” — heating biomass and plastic waste in oxygen-free conditions — to create what he calls “biocoal.” Bar-Ziv explains that, while they are still working on sourcing sufficient supplies of affordable biomass, he believes his process could keep existing baseload plants open, maintaining jobs and reducing overall emissions.
- Burning iron to make beer: A family brewery, based in the Netherlands, has begun burning very finely ground iron powder to heat its brewing process. When burned, this inexpensive, easily transported and stored fuel can produce a great deal of heat. Where other heating processes produce various pollutants, this process is reported to produce heat and rust (iron oxide). The rust can be regenerated into iron powder using electricity and then reused in the heating process, with the claimed benefits for the fuel focusing on energy storage. It’s still very early in the development of this technology, but there are plans to expand to a 10 MW system by 2024 and to replace an existing coal-fired plant by 2030.
There are only five more reasons until we reach 50! Make sure to take a look at our previous Earth Day posts listing how humanity is improving quality of life and conserving the environment: reasons 1 - 5, reasons 6-15, reasons 16-25, and reasons 26-35. Keep an eye out for the last five.
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