The problem of environmental change is complex not only because it has many aspects, but because those aspects are interrelated in many ways. The problems of global warming, deforestation, and desertification are interconnected in complicated cause-effect ways by virtue of the role of vegetation in the carbon cycle. The decline in biodiversity is, in part, a direct consequence of deforestation, the loss of wetlands, and, possibly, of stratospheric ozone thinning. Waste and its disposal have implications for air pollution and water contamination. Water depletion and contamination are causal factors in desertification, and so on. Moomaw and Kildow (1991) argued that many of the recent catastrophic failures of a systemic nature that have had significant environmental consequences—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay—"represent incremental breakdowns over long periods of time that went unnoticed until they reached thresholds that triggered massive dislocations as they became visible" (p. 269), and that what the systems involved have in common is complexity that precludes an understanding of them in operation.
There are interactions also stemming from the fact that technological approaches to some problems can have inadvertent deleterious effects on other problems. The deleterious effects may remain invisible for a considerable time (Levine, 1991), in part, because they may occur through a chain of cause-effect relationships and, in part, because they are unanticipated. The use of solar energy to pump water from underground aquifers, for example, has the unquestioned advantage of being cleaner from an environmental point of view than is the use of fossil-fueled pumping facilities. However, if the solar energy proves to be less expensive as well, the effect could be to increase the drain on already stressed aquifers, as some of those in the southwestern United States, and to increase the probability of depletion (Ehrenfeld, 1981).
The interactions appear even more complex as we attempt to look to the future because changes with respect to any given aspect may affect or be affected by changes in others. For example, because water resources are the net result of evaporation and precipitation processes, they are likely to be greatly affected by any significant change in climate. More generally, projecting the ramifications of continuing environmental change is exceedingly difficult and most predictions must be considered tenuous; we should try to understand the possibilities, but must be prepared for the unexpected as well.
In addition to the fact that the variables involved in environmental change interact in many ways, the picture is complicated too by the time scale on which many environmental changes take place and the sometimes long delays between the time when the behavior that causes some change occurs and the time when evidence of the change becomes clear. As Gardner and Stern (1996)
pointed out, even once a cause-effect relationship between human behavior and an environmental change is recognized, it is likely to be some time before any remedial action is taken (it may not be entirely clear what action is required; even if that becomes clear, mobilizing the action is likely to take additional time), and more time—perhaps a long period—may have to pass before the effects of the action that was intended to be remedial can be determined with much precision.
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