IN September 1984, at the Fate of the Earth Conference, 19 Nobel prize winners issued a joint statement saying humanity faced extinction through either nuclear war or environmental catastrophe unless we quickly changed our ways. The statement went on to say, ``What nuclear war could do in 50 to 150 minutes, an exploding population assaulting the earth's life-support systems could do in 50 to 150 years.''
Scientists tell us there are at least four ecological situations that demand immediate remedial action on a global scale.
The rapid destruction of oxygen-supplying life forms. As we pollute our oceans, we are diminishing one of our greatest sources of oxygen for all life. The Mediterranean Sea is almost barren on the bottom; fish and vegetation that used to be so plentiful are now very sparse.
The other great oxygen factory, our forests, especially the tropical rain forests, are rapidly being destroyed by chain saws and bulldozers.
And ever since the Industrial Revolution, our industries, homes, and vehicles have been spewing forth prodigious quantities of both carbon dioxide and poisonous pollutants. The buildup of carbon dioxide will likely raise the average temperature of the surface of the earth through the ``greenhouse effect,'' so that the polar icecaps will gradually melt. This will cause the sea level to rise, thereby submerging many coastal cities.
The air in many urban areas is thick with irritating smog. Tall smokestacks spew forth oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, which add to high-flying particles from urban smog, and these are carried hundreds of miles to get dumped as ``acid rain'' on our forests and lakes, with destruction of plant and animal life resulting.
The loss of topsoil caused by deforestation and shortsighted farming practices. Many past civilizations have disappeared because their area became a desert. Babylonia in the valley of the Euphrates River and the Pueblo Indians in the southwestern part of the United States are two examples.
Just at the time when the human population is exploding at the greatest rate in history, our rich, arable land is being washed or blown away at an alarming rate. Widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers is polluting our streams, rivers, and coastal bays. Overuse of these pesticides is causing the emergence of new resistant strains of insect pests.
The ultimate cause of our environmental degradation is the huge increase in the earth's population since the advent of modern science and technology.
In the year 1880, the total population of the world was just 900 million. In the mid-1960s, it had soared to 3.2 billion, and in 1985, it stood at 4.86 billion. In other words, there are more than five times as many people now as there were a century ago.
It is the pressure of exploding populations in the third world which is causing the bulldozing of the fragile tropical rain forests in the hope of growing more food.
Commissions of the United Nations have warned that if a global family-planning program is not applied vigorously, the carrying capacity of our planet will soon be exceeded.
The rapid depletion of our drinking water supplies. For instance, the Oglala Aquifer under the Great Plains states of the US is almost exhausted. In parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the water table has dropped more than 400 feet in 25 years. What we are not using up we are polluting. Carelessly discarded industrial wastes have already poisoned ground water that many people have depended on for their supply. ``Love Canals'' are being discovered all over.
The partial destruction of the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Ozone protects us from the strong ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If we continue to release chlorofluorocarbons as we have been doing in recent years, we may destroy up to one-half of the ozone layer in the next 150 years, and this would surely result in the extinction of many life forms.
One may well wonder why so pitifully little has been done by our leaders to recognize and take action against these many threats to the very existence of all of us.
An indication may be found in a poll taken in a Western state. When people were asked to give their choices of the greatest moral issues facing us, they listed abortion, nuclear proliferation, and a dozen other ``more important'' concerns. Only 3 percent listed the environment. These other ``more important'' issues are ones about which organized religion has been arousing people.
Religious leaders are going to have to realize that the destruction of God's green earth is a paramount moral issue. We need to make it a moral issue when captains of industry pollute our air and water. It is a moral issue when we clear-cut our forests and let our precious topsoil wash away into rivers and oceans.
We will not make much headway against the organized forces of greed until most people are as horrified by acts that could lead to the extinction of life on earth as they are by rape, murder, or terrorism.
The religious denominations based upon the Bible can find references that concern all of God's creation. The ``covenant'' the Bible speaks of, moreover, was not just between God and humans but was rather a three-way covenant. Nature was the third party. In one passage we are reminded that we must honor our part in this covenant, ``lest the land vomit you out when you defile it.'' A very ecological warning!
Truly, the destruction of our planet is the greatest moral challenge mankind has ever faced.
Joseph S. Carter, a retired chemist, lives in Glen Mills, Pa.