Conserving the Earth

Conserving the Earth

The Earth’s natural resources include air, water, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. Conservation is the practice of caring for these resources so all living things can benefit from them now and in the future.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Biology, Earth Science, Ecology, Geography

The Earth’s natural resources include air, water, soil, minerals, fuels, plants, and animals. Conservation is the practice of caring for these resources so all living things can benefit from them now and in the future.

All the things we need to survive, such as food, water, air, and shelter, come from natural resources. Some of these resources, like small plants, can be replaced quickly after they are used. Others, like large trees, take a long time to replace. These are renewable resources.

Other resources, such as fossil fuels, cannot be replaced at all. Once they are used up, they are gone forever. These are nonrenewable resources.

People often waste natural resources. Animals are overhunted. Forests are cleared, exposing land to wind and water damage. Fertile soil is exhausted and lost to erosion because of poor farming practices. Fuel supplies are depleted. Water and air are polluted.

If resources are carelessly managed, many will be used up. If used wisely and efficiently, however, renewable resources will last much longer. Through conservation, people can reduce waste and manage natural resources wisely.

The population of human beings has grown enormously in the past two centuries. Billions of people use up resources quickly as they eat food, build houses, produce goods, and burn fuel for transportation and electricity. The continuation of life as we know it depends on the careful use of natural resources.

The need to conserve resources often conflicts with other needs. For some people, a wooded area may be a good place to put a farm. A timber company may want to harvest the area’s trees for construction materials. A business may want to build a factory or shopping mall on the land.

All these needs are valid, but sometimes the plants and animals that live in the area are forgotten. The benefits of development need to be weighed against the harm to animals that may be forced to find new habitats, the depletion of resources we may want in the future (such as water or timber), or damage to resources we use today.

Development and conservation can coexist in harmony. When we use the environment in ways that ensure we have resources for the future, it is called sustainable development. There are many different resources we need to conserve in order to live sustainably.

Forests

A forest is a large area covered with trees grouped so their foliage shades the ground. Every continent except Antarctica has forests, from the evergreen-filled boreal forests of the north to mangrove forests in tropical wetlands. Forests are home to more than two-thirds of all known land species. Tropical rain forests are especially rich in biodiversity.

Forests provide habitats for animals and plants. They store carbon, helping reduce global warming. They protect soil by reducing runoff. They add nutrients to the soil through leaf litter. They provide people with lumber and firewood.


Deforestation is the process of clearing away forests by cutting them down or burning them. People clear forests to use the wood, or to make way for farming or development. Each year, the Earth loses about 14.6 million hectares (36 million acres) of forest to deforestation—an area about the size of the U.S. state of New York.

Deforestation destroys wildlife habitats and increases soil erosion. It also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Deforestation accounts for 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation also harms the people who rely on forests for their survival, hunting and gathering, harvesting forest products, or using the timber for firewood.

About half of all the forests on Earth are in the tropics—an area that circles the globe near the Equator. Although tropical forests cover fewer than 6 percent of the world’s land area, they are home to about 80 percent of the world’s documented species. For example, more than 500 different species of trees live in the forests on the small island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea.

Tropical forests give us many valuable products, including woods like mahogany and teak, rubber, fruits, nuts, and flowers. Many of the medicines we use today come from plants found only in tropical rain forests. These include quinine, a malaria drug; curare, an anesthetic used in surgery; and rosy periwinkle, which is used to treat certain types of cancer.

Sustainable forestry practices are critical for ensuring we have these resources well into the future. One of these practices is leaving some trees to die and decay naturally in the forest. This “deadwood” builds up soil. Other sustainable forestry methods include using low-impact logging practices, harvesting with natural regeneration in mind, and avoiding certain logging techniques, such as removing all the high-value trees or all the largest trees from a forest.

Trees can also be conserved if consumers recycle. People in China and Mexico, for example, reuse much of their wastepaper, including writing paper, wrapping paper, and cardboard. If half the world’s paper were recycled, much of the worldwide demand for new paper would be fulfilled, saving many of the Earth’s trees. We can also replace some wood products with alternatives like bamboo, which is actually a type of grass.

Soil

Soil is vital to food production. We need high-quality soil to grow the crops that we eat and feed to livestock. Soil is also important to plants that grow in the wild. Many other types of conservation efforts, such as plant conservation and animal conservation, depend on soil conservation.

Poor farming methods, such as repeatedly planting the same crop in the same place, called monoculture, deplete nutrients in the soil. Soil erosion by water and wind increases when farmers plow up and down hills.

One soil conservation method is called contour strip cropping. Several crops, such as corn, wheat, and clover, are planted in alternating strips across a slope or across the path of the prevailing wind. Different crops, with different root systems and leaves, help slow erosion.


Harvesting all the trees from a large area, a practice called clearcutting, increases the chances of losing productive topsoil to wind and water erosion. Selective harvesting—the practice of removing individual trees or small groups of trees—leaves other trees standing to anchor the soil.

Biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of living things that populate the Earth. The products and benefits we get from nature rely on biodiversity. We need a rich mixture of living things to provide foods, building materials, and medicines, as well as to maintain a clean and healthy landscape.

When a species becomes extinct, it is lost to the world forever. Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction is 1,000 times the natural rate. Through hunting, pollution, habitat destruction, and contribution to global warming, people are speeding up the loss of biodiversity at an alarming rate.

It’s hard to know how many species are going extinct because the total number of species is unknown. Scientists discover thousands of new species every year. For example, after looking at just 19 trees in Panama, scientists found 1,200 different species of beetles—80 percent of them unknown to science at the time. Based on various estimates of the number of species on Earth, we could be losing anywhere from 200 to 100,000 species each year.

We need to protect biodiversity to ensure we have plentiful and varied food sources. This is true even if we don’t eat a species threatened with extinction because something we do eat may depend on that species for survival. Some predators are useful for keeping the populations of other animals at manageable levels. The extinction of a major predator might mean there are more herbivores looking for food in people’s gardens and farms.

Biodiversity is important for more than just food. For instance, we use between 50,000 to 70,000 plant species for medicines worldwide. The Great Barrier Reef, a coral reef off the coast of northeastern Australia, contributes about $6 billion to the nation’s economy through commercial fishing, tourism, and other recreational activities. If the coral reef dies, many of the fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and plants will die, too.

Some governments have established parks and preserves to protect wildlife and their habitats. They are also working to abolish hunting and fishing practices that may cause the extinction of some species.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are fuels produced from the remains of ancient plants and animals. They include coal, petroleum (oil), and natural gas. People rely on fossil fuels to power vehicles like cars and airplanes, to produce electricity, and to cook and provide heat.

In addition, many of the products we use today are made from petroleum. These include plastics, synthetic rubber, fabrics like nylon, medicines, cosmetics, waxes, cleaning products, medical devices, and even bubblegum.


Fossil fuels formed over millions of years. Once we use them up, we cannot replace them. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource.

We need to conserve fossil fuels so we don’t run out. However, there are other good reasons to limit our fossil fuel use. These fuels pollute the air when they are burned. Burning fossil fuels also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Global warming is changing ecosystems. The oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, which threatens sea life. Sea levels are rising, posing risks to coastal communities. Many areas are experiencing more droughts, while others suffer from flooding.

Scientists are exploring alternatives to fossil fuels. They are trying to produce renewable biofuels to power cars and trucks. They are looking to produce electricity using the sun, wind, water, and geothermal energy—the Earth’s natural heat.

Everyone can help conserve fossil fuels by using them carefully. Turn off lights and other electronics when you are not using them. Purchase energy-efficient appliances and weatherproof your home. Walk, ride a bike, carpool, and use public transportation whenever possible.

Minerals

Earth’s supply of raw mineral resources is in danger. Many mineral deposits that have been located and mapped have been depleted. As the ores for minerals like aluminum and iron become harder to find and extract, their prices skyrocket. This makes tools and machinery more expensive to purchase and operate.

Many mining methods, such as mountaintop removal mining (MTR), devastate the environment. They destroy soil, plants, and animal habitats. Many mining methods also pollute water and air, as toxic chemicals leak into the surrounding ecosystem. Conservation efforts in areas like Chile and the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States often promote more sustainable mining methods.

Less wasteful mining methods and the recycling of materials will help conserve mineral resources. In Japan, for example, car manufacturers recycle many raw materials used in making automobiles. In the United States, nearly one-third of the iron produced comes from recycled automobiles.

Electronic devices present a big problem for conservation because technology changes so quickly. For example, consumers typically replace their cell phones every 18 months. Computers, televisions, and mp3 players are other products contributing to “e-waste.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans generated more than 3 million tons of e-waste in 2007.

Electronic products contain minerals as well as petroleum-based plastics. Many of them also contain hazardous materials that can leach out of landfills into the soil and water supply.

Many governments are passing laws requiring manufacturers to recycle used electronics. Recycling not only keeps materials out of landfills, but it also reduces the energy used to produce new products. For instance, recycling aluminum saves 90 percent of the energy that would be required to mine new aluminum.


Water

Water is a renewable resource. We will not run out of water the way we might run out of fossil fuels. The amount of water on Earth always remains the same. However, most of the planet’s water is unavailable for human use. While more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is freshwater. Out of that freshwater, almost 70 percent is permanently frozen in the ice caps covering Antarctica and Greenland. Only about 1 percent of the freshwater on Earth is available for people to use for drinking, bathing, and irrigating crops.

People in many regions of the world suffer water shortages. These are caused by depletion of underground water sources known as aquifers, a lack of rainfall due to drought, or pollution of water supplies. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.6 billion people lack adequate water sanitation. More than 5 million people die each year from diseases caused by using polluted water for drinking, cooking, or washing.

About one-third of Earth’s population lives in areas that are experiencing water stress. Most of these areas are in developing countries.

Polluted water hurts the environment as well as people. For instance, agricultural runoff—the water that runs off of farmland—can contain fertilizers and pesticides. When this water gets into streams, rivers, and oceans, it can harm the organisms that live in or drink from those water sources.

People can conserve and protect water supplies in many ways. Individuals can limit water use by fixing leaky faucets, taking shorter showers, planting drought-resistant plants, and buying low-water-use appliances. Governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations can help developing countries build sanitation facilities.

Farmers can change some of their practices to reduce polluted runoff. This includes limiting overgrazing, avoiding over-irrigation, and using alternatives to chemical pesticides whenever possible.

Conservation Groups

Businesses, international organizations, and some governments are involved in conservation efforts. The United Nations (UN) encourages the creation of national parks around the world. The UN also established World Water Day, an event to raise awareness and promote water conservation.

Governments enact laws defining how land should be used and which areas should be set aside as parks and wildlife preserves. Governments also enforce laws designed to protect the environment from pollution, such as requiring factories to install pollution-control devices. Finally, governments often provide incentives for conserving resources, using clean technologies, and recycling used goods.

Many international organizations are dedicated to conservation. Members support causes such as saving rain forests, protecting threatened animals, and cleaning up the air. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an alliance of governments and private groups founded in 1948. The IUCN works to protect wildlife and habitats. In 1980, the group proposed a world conservation strategy. Many governments have used the IUCN model to develop their own conservation plans. In addition, the IUCN monitors the status of endangered wildlife, threatened national parks and preserves, and other environments around the world.

Zoos and botanical gardens also work to protect wildlife. Many zoos raise and breed endangered animals to increase their populations. They conduct research and help educate the public about endangered species. For instance, the San Diego Zoo in the U.S. state of California runs a variety of research programs on topics ranging from disease control in amphibians to heart-healthy diets for gorillas.

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England, work to protect plant life around the world. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, for example, works with partners in 54 countries to protect biodiversity through seed collection. Kew researchers are also exploring how DNA technology can help restore damaged habitats.

Individuals can do many things to help conserve resources. Turning off lights, repairing leaky faucets, and recycling paper, aluminum cans, glass, and plastic are just a few examples. Riding bikes, walking, carpooling, and using public transportation all help conserve fuel and reduce the amount of pollutants released into the environment. Individuals can plant trees to create homes for birds and squirrels. At grocery stores, people can bring their own reusable bags. And people can carry reusable water bottles and coffee mugs rather than using disposable containers. If each of us would conserve in small ways, the result would be a major conservation effort.

Fast Fact

Tree Huggers
The Chipko Movement, which is dedicated to saving trees, was started by villagers in Uttar Pradesh, India. Chipko means hold fast or embrace. The villagers flung their arms around trees to keep loggers from cutting them down. The villagers won, and Uttar Pradesh banned the felling of trees in the Himalayan foothills. The movement has since expanded to other parts of India.

Fast Fact

Thirsty Food
People require about 2 to 4 liters of drinking water each day. However, a day's worth of food requires 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water to produce. It takes more water to produce meat than to produce plant-based foods.

Fast Fact

Tiger, Tiger
Tigers are dangerous animals, but they have more to fear from us than we have to fear from them. Today there are only about 3,200 tigers living in the wild. Three tiger subspecies the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers have gone extinct in the past century. Many organizations are working hard to protect the remaining tigers from illegal hunting and habitat loss.

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Nancy Wynne
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National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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