U216 Environment: change, contest and response
TMA U216 06
Our responses to environments will not be effective until they take into account the complexities of the responses of environments.
Environmental systems can be complicated. When responding to an environment we need to carefully assess how that particular environment might react. What might seem like a straightforward answer to a particular environmental problem can lead to unforeseen complications. This essay seeks to outline what environmental responses are and gives examples of anthropogenic responses to environmental problems that may not always have had the expected result.
Responses to environments are generally thought of as people responding to environmental issues or problems. These responses can range from, seemingly paradoxically, doing nothing (an inactive response) through to a reactive response (possibly dealing with an emergency such as a nuclear accident and the ensuing clean-up operations) and finally to a proactive response (anticipating a problem or unwanted outcome and trying to prevent it from happening). Proactive responses are probably those with the most unpredictable outcomes and results as they contain an element of predicting the future.
Inactivity can lead from a number of reasons, from simply not caring enough about an environmental change, from not having the power to do anything about it or to having the power to affect an outcome but not being sure exactly what the outcome might be. Environmental problems and the proposed solutions often have a substantial degree of uncertainty about them, especially when these proactive responses are taken.
If we cannot be absolutely certain what an outcome will be for a proposed action, we must accept that some risk is inherent in every decision and subsequent action that we take. A process of risk assessment/ management must be undertaken which by it’s very nature cannot be absolutely certain. Uncertainties can come from inaccuracies, ignorance or indeterminacy and can be technological, scientific, environmental, political, social or economic in nature. They are particularly inherent in responses to environmental changes and generally tend to increase with the scale of the environmental problem and with the length of time being considered. It may, for instance, be relatively straightforward to predict the immediate effect of building a flood defence in an area, but predicting the changes in a system where you’re storing nuclear material over a few hundred thousand years is somewhat more fraught with difficulty. If an environmental decision is particularly difficult because of timescales or the presence of too many variables and if there is a chance that the proposed solution could actually make matters worse in the long run, would it be better to postpone the problem until scientific thinking and technology are more advanced? An example of a long-term environmental problem is the storage of radioactive waste from the nuclear industry. This waste remains potentially hazardous for many, many years, depending upon the decay rate, or half-life, of the particular radioactive isotopes involved. The half-life of plutonium 239 for instance is approximately 24,000 years and it can remain a potential danger for around ten times this timescale. The storage of this waste therefore presents great potential problems over that timescale, as containment has to be guaranteed for thousands of years, possibly through huge environmental, social and political change. Long-term deep geological storage is the preferred option for most countries. This basically means containing the waste (usually intermediate level) and burying it in deep caverns (between 250 and 100m) underground. Whilst this waste is undoubtedly well contained at present it would be a brave person that would guarantee that it would remain so for hundreds, let alone thousands of years. Future changes over this...
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