According to the Glossary of Environment Statistics, overpopulation can be defined as when a population group passes the point at which the environment can no longer supply the resources required to support the group's needs. These requirements include shelter, food and water. Anne Ehrlich, a famous conservation biologist who has written several texts on overpopulation and its effects on the environment, defined total environmental impact as a relationship between population and resource units consumed per capita. This general relationship shows that the more people there are, the larger the need for resources. Conservation biologists have related this concept to environmental problems related to fresh water, biodiversity and waste management. Many conservationists argue that the concept of overpopulation and the environmental problems related to it need to be taken into consideration as lawmakers, politicians and everyday citizens make changes toward creating more sustainable societies.
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Fresh water is one of the most critical resources to human life and has been a point of contention in politics for many years. Governments regulate how and where fresh water from snowmelt in the mountains is diverted. When humans divert the natural flow of fresh water, environmental degradation in the form of desertification can occur in the areas from which the water is being diverted. It should be noted that such diversion could be benefiting an environmental system elsewhere, but degradation occurs in the areas that have lost water that once filled streams, lakes and wetlands.
One example of environmental change related to the need for fresh water occurred in the early 1900s at Owens Valley, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The city of Los Angeles bought rights to the snow pack melt flowing from the mountains. This resulted in the once-expansive lake turning into a dry lake bed. The dessication of the lake led to several environmental issues, including a decrease in the waterfowl population that once thrived in the area. Scientists have published reports that estimate that the dry lake bed is likely the biggest source of PM10 dust (particles less than 10 microns in diameter) in the country. This dust has caused health problems in humans and other organisms living in the area. The dust is blown as far as 40 kilometres from the source of the dry lake.
Biodiversity is a measurement used to assess genetic differences existing between individuals of the same species. Biodiversity is important in plant and animal species in order to maintain healthy biological systems. For example, a plant disease may kill off groups of individuals in a species, but there may be a genetic difference that allows other individuals of the same species to continue living. This protects the species from extinction. One example of biodiversity loss in forests is highlighted in the textbook "Problem-Solving in Conservation Biology and Wildlife Management." Natural forests are harvested for the pulp needed to make computer paper and other paper products. The demand for these products is so great that the forests are not able to recover naturally from the deforesting activities. The trees cut down are replaced with a single species of tree that are all the same age. These types of forests are called plantation forests and contain much less biodiversity than a natural forest that has not been logged and replanted. Overconsumption of products, which can be attributed to population growth, has led to similar situations throughout the world.
Overpopulation is also increasing the amount of waste that must be disposed of. The disposal of wastes can negatively impact ecosystems when dangerous chemicals and toxins are leached from waste disposal sites and enter the groundwater or nearby soil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded research starting in the 1970s that demonstrated that burying household garbage can lead to the poisoning of nearby groundwater. Some research has found that even landfills that have been constructed with double liners and other types of new technology still leak after a certain period of time. The leachate that moves from the garbage in the landfill, into the soil and eventually into the groundwater contains metals and organic compounds, many of which are known carcinogens. Landfills can also release dangerous gases, such as methane.
The Environmental Protection Agency sponsors educational campaigns to get people to help ease the problems caused by overpopulation. The slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" encourages people to reduce overconsumption of electricity, natural gas and other resources; reuse products and packaging materials to cut back on trash; and recycle containers and other materials into new products.
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