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Landscape, oceans and humans

Human beings have imposed changes on our planet at the largest scale.

It is often assumed that we puny human beings cannot be making any significant difference to such a large object as our planet.

This could hardly be further from the truth.

In fact, many scientists have concluded that in the last 70 years, the Earth has entered a whole new geological period or epoch, dubbed the ‘Anthropocene’ because it is characterised by anthropogenic – ie human – influences. No other single species has ever come close to altering the planet the way we do.

Designating a new geological time unit may reflect changes which have left their mark all over our landscapes already, including some which will still be visible millions of years hence – from the scars left by mining, to the remnants of cities and the radioactive signature of nuclear tests.

Landscape change

Landscapes are suffering severe impacts from the hands of human beings. Uncontrolled population growth makes a major contribution.

Direct human impacts are arguably the strongest influence on the evolution of landscapes – for good or ill – interfering with the natural interplay of rainfall and erosion, contour and sea level. That’s even before considering climate change, which aggravates all the other factors.

Human impacts include from unsustainable development and land use change. Soil erosion and degradation can result from deforestation and over-intensive agriculture.

Peatlands are especially valuable as stores of carbon which would otherwise be in the atmosphere as CO2, adding to climate change. But they are being eroded by cutting and extraction, as fuel and as potting compost. Campaigners are rightly urging that all compost should be peat-free.


Consider the effect of development and engineering on rivers.

Major rivers the world over are silting and drying up due to pollution and damming – obstructing run-off into the sea. Even in the UK, our rivers are embanked and flood plains are built over – a major cause of flooding. Seemingly innocent actions like paving over our front gardens exacerbate the problem.

The ocean

Our impacts on the ocean may be even more grave.

The ocean has the capacity to spring some very nasty surprises on us. The impacts we cause can rebound on us. That is when we will really feel our frailty.

Events such as the East Coast floods in England in 1953 – other than epidemics, still the worst natural disaster in British history – may be due to natural variability.

But we are only aggravating the risks. For example, climate change is raising sea levels. The Thames Barrier is closed many times each year now – and is coming within inches of being over-topped.

The sea is regarded in the Bible as a source of chaos and threat. It should not be so, that is not as God intended. But the Bible is realistic, and has already factored in the effects of our behaviour.

These now include (though they did not then) the casual discarding of plastic. Much of this ends up in the ocean, forming huge gatherings of plastic around ocean eddies, and now distributed much more widely around the seas and oceans, washing up on beaches everywhere.

When the plastic breaks down – as it does eventually – it is ingested by birds, and given by adults to their chicks – with fatal consequences.

There are now moves to ban plastic drinking straws – which literally get up the noses of turtles. And micro-beads, used in beauty products and even in toothpaste, are causing great harm every time we flush them down the drain.

It ought to be obvious that face masks for Covid should be properly disposed of, not dropped in the street. Rivers are already infested with used face masks; when they reach the sea, some will get tangled round the necks of seals.

Marine life is also affected by rising temperatures. Corals, shellfish and plankton are harmed by reducing alkalinity in the water, caused by dissolved CO2.

What to do?

We may think that these processes are too vast for us to have any influence. Yet the small actions of individuals add up to the huge influence of our species as a whole.

Every purchasing and consumption decision, and many other life choices, should be thought about seriously with such consequences in mind.

We all need to live more simply, and tread more lightly on the earth.


Climate and environmental risks
Diocesan Synod Report 2012.

Environment and Sustainability, front page.

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