In the Beginning...
A single organism was all it took to destroy the Earth's entire ecosystem. It was a long time ago, but were you to visit that planet, you wouldn't recognize it as the one we live on.
Standing on dead, jagged rocks, you'd be greeted by nothing but a vast primordial ocean, raging under thick, noxious skies.
You wouldn't be able to breathe. There was no oxygen in the suffocating atmosphere; only carbon dioxide, water vapors and methane with a hint of ammonia. Only faint traces of sunlight were able to pass through the thick clouds.
This was the Earth before we arrived.
Twice in the history of this planet, evolution produced an organism with the power to transform the entire climate.
The appearance of the first one, billions of years ago, caused a full-blown environmental catastrophe.
It was a humble cyanobacterium which evolved in the murky hell that was young Earth. Its birth meant a death sentence to all other early lifeforms. Being anaerobic, those other early microbes had adapted to an environment without oxygen.
But cyanobacteria were able to extract energy from the faint rays of the young Sun. They invented photosynthesis, and as they gorged on this newly found resource, they produced a highly reactive gas, toxic to everything else on the planet.
Free oxygen started flowing into the atmosphere, wiping out anaerobic bacteria in an oxidizing genocide. Only the cyanobacteria survived.
Oxygen ate through iron deposits, which meant that for millions of years, the Earth rusted.
High in the upper atmosphere, deadly ultraviolet rays of the Sun split oxygen molecules apart and recombined them into ozone. The ozone layer was born, a layer that would protect all later lifeforms from solar radiation.
As most greenhouse gases cleared out of the atmosphere, the young Earth froze over. For 300 million years our planet was practically a giant snowball floating in space. But finally the ice gave way to complex life, such as mushrooms, lizards, fish, and mammals. Eventually we humans appeared, and started making life difficult on Earth once again.
In only 150 years, humans have disturbed the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We have plunged the Earth into a potentially vicious cycle of global warming. As for the ozone layer, well, forming it took hundreds of millions of years. It only took a few decades to burn through it above the North and South poles.
In fact, it only took one man.
The Deadliest Organism
On November 2nd 1944, Thomas Midgley Junior, 55, choked to death.
He was a clever American inventor with his name on over a hundred patents. One of them was a rope-and-pulley device which enabled the polio-ridden Midgley to lift himself out of bed.
But on that November day, something went awry. Midgley was strangled in the ropes of his own contraption.
Midgley wasn't your average inventor-engineer. It can be said that he had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history.
Midgley invented two very unfortunate chemical compounds: tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons. You may know these better as leaded gasoline and CFC-refrigerants, which are also called freon.
Midgley's miracle fuel released so much lead into the atmosphere that millions of people were unwittingly poisoned. CFC refrigerants, those chemicals so commonly used in fridges and air conditioning devices, burned huge holes in the ozone layer.
But these effects would only be discovered decades after Midgley's unfortunate demise.
Midgley himself never predicted the dangers of CFC compounds. Pre-World War II science was unaware of the destructive power of freon in the upper atmosphere. Ozone depletion was only detected for the first time in the 1970s. Midgley and his contemporaries were, however, well aware of how dangerous lead is. They chose not to care.
Working as an engineer for General Motors in the 1920s, Midgley set out to solve a tricky problem. In order to build more powerful engines, one had to increase the compression ratio in the cylinders. This, however, caused a phenomenon known as ”knocking”, as higher pressure caused fuel to ignite unevenly, eventually destroying the engine.
Midgley experimented with different chemical compounds and realized that adding lead to fuel eliminated the knocking. This meant that Midgley's invention, tetraethyl lead, could improve engine performance.
It was already widely known that lead can be poisonous, so the new product was nimbly marketed as "Ethyl anti-knock compound". General Motors and Standard Oil formed a company named Ethyl Corporation to manufacture the new fuel additive. It turned out to be a very lucrative business.
Ethyl factory workers soon started hallucinating. Some went insane from inhaling lead vapours. Many died.
Midgley gave a press conference, claiming tetraethyl lead was, regardless of all these problems, completely safe. To make a point, he poured the toxic liquid on his own hands and inhaled the vapors for sixty seconds. He went on to claim that he could this every day without succumbing to problems. Soon after the conference, Midgley secretly sought treatment for lead poisoning.
With automobiles becoming increasingly common, leaded gasoline was soon sold all over the world. A global human experiment had begun.
All was well for the lead industry until a young American geochemist named Clair Patterson began a very ambitious project in the late 1940s. He wanted to determine the Earth's exact age. To do this, he invented a method called lead-lead dating. As radioactive isotopes of lead decay over time, one can determine the age of a given sample by calculating the ratios of these isotopes in that sample.
Patterson soon noticed that something about the rock samples wasn't quite right. The samples contained over 200 times more lead than should have been possible. Patterson realized that all the surplus lead must have come from the Earth's atmosphere.
Despite this unexpected disturbance, he managed to determine the Earth's age — 4.55 billion years, a number that still stands today — after which he set out to solve the mystery of atmospheric lead.
By drilling and studying samples from ice cores, he found out that there had been practically no lead particles in the atmosphere before the introduction of leaded gasoline in 1923. After that, the amount of lead had literally skyrocketed. By 1965, lead concentrations in the atmosphere had increased a thousandfold. There was also a hundred times more lead in our bones than there had been before the founding of Ethyl Corporation.
Leaded gasoline was banned in the United States in 1986. In Finland it was phased out in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s across the European Union. Tetraethyl lead is still sold to developing countries by a company named Innospec, and various industries use toxic lead compounds without taking adequate safety measures.
Lead seeps from the atmosphere into the soil and remains there for a very long time. It accumulates in the human body over time and causes irreversible brain damage. It is especially dangerous to children, as it destroys their ability to learn.
China banned the use of leaded gasoline in 2000. However, a Chinese study published in 2009 revealed that Chinese children still have alarmingly high levels of lead in their blood, in some cases over a hundred micrograms per liter. It only takes ten micrograms, a fraction of that amount, to impair brain development.
Children in China's industrial centers are regularly exposed to lead, as factories tend to disregard safety measures. Cases of infant lead poisoning have led to riots in several Chinese cities in recent years.
Refrigerants are another problem. Ozone destroying CFC compounds have since been replaced by safer hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs. However, as greenhouse gases, HFCs are over ten thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide. The United States, China, and Japan are the largest consumers of hydrofluorocarbons today.
The Thin Blue Line
The Earth's atmosphere is unbelievably thin.
To help you visualize: pinpoint where you live on a map, and then draw three circles: one with an eight-kilometer radius, one with a 16-kilometer one, and the largest with a 100 kilometer one.
Imagine traveling eight kilometers in any direction. That's where the air gets so thin that you'd need extra oxygen to breathe.
After traveling 16 kilometers, you've already put 90 percent of the atmosphere's mass behind you. You can see stars twinkling even in daytime in the ever-darkening skies. After only a hundred kilometers, maybe by the time you get to the next big city near you, you're already in outer space.
That's what would happen if, instead of moving horizontally, you traveled upwards. Up there, you'd encounter only a few random gas molecules that are being ripped apart by intense solar radiation.
Our atmosphere is almost like a living, breathing organism, existing in a symbiotic relationship with all life on Earth. The planet holds this sphere, which is hardly more than a thin blue line, in a gravitational embrace.
Every living thing on this planet is based on carbon, and the global carbon cycle is essential to sustaining life here. It's a lot like a living thermostat.
Humans are now tampering with this thermostat. Human activities have seriously altered the carbon cycle, as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing pace. Earth's climate is an extremely complex system, and the exact consequences of human actions are difficult to foresee. All we know is that it doesn't look good.
Carbon dioxide causes ocean acidification, which destroys coral reefs and other marine organisms. The rising temperatures in the Arctic regions threaten to melt the permafrost that currently retains immense amounts of carbon and methane — four times more carbon than the entire amount humans have released into the atmosphere during modern times. Should that carbon get out, planetary warming would reach unprecedented levels.
In pre-industrial times, namely the 1850s, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. In May 2013, CO2 levels climbed over 400 ppm for the first time in modern history, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
The Dirty Dragon
China is the world's single largest carbon dioxide polluter. Roughly 75% of Chinese electricity comes from coal power, which means China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined.
In 2012, China's carbon dioxide emissions reached a whopping nine billion tons, which is more than any other nation. China is responsible for roughly a quarter of global CO2 emissions, and the pollution continues to increase. In the last 20 years, Chinese emissions have grown by 240 percent.
Environmental destruction and air pollution have reached incredible levels in China. Rivers fill with toxic sludge and factories release dangerous chemicals into the ground water.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people live without access to clean drinking water.
Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China.
China is striving to cut down rampant pollution, but in many cases, environmental regulations are nonexistent or simply not enforced.
After rain, the skies over China's big cities might be clear, but on sunny days you can hardly see past a hundred meters. When you climb over the once beautiful hills and mountains and gaze over the valleys, all you can see is a cloud of noxious smog.
On worst days, there's so much particulate matter in the sky that pollution levels exceed WHO safety limits tens of times over.
It has been estimated that air pollution causes premature death of 1.2 million Chinese people every year – the equivalent of one-fifth of the entire Finnish population. Globally, over three million people die because of air pollution every year.
The Chinese equation is far from simple. Measured per capita, China is a poor country struggling with enormous environmental issues.
It's always someone else's problem. Never yours, never mine.
Thousands of animal species face extinction as entire ecosystems are destroyed. Millions of people will die when we run out of clean water, and agricultural land turns into a dead, dry desert.
But the deaths of millions of organisms are just statistics. There are more than seven billion humans on this Earth. We have conquered the planet like bacteria.
We breed like bacteria, and we die like bacteria.
Ultimately there may only be one thing setting us apart from them. Bacteria are not suicidal.
Editor's Note: This story is just one of eleven featured in the Finnish photojournalistic magazine Crisis?. 11 photographers and 11 writers look at 11 crises and try to figure out how we should talk about them.