The 20th cent. has seen pollution approach crisis proportions throughout the world. At issue is the capacity of the biosphere to disperse, degrade, and assimilate human wastes (see ecology). The biosphere is a closed ecological system with finite resources and is maintained in equilibrium by grand-scale recycling. Under natural conditions organic and certain inorganic materials in the biosphere are continually recycled by processes including photosynthesis and respiration, nitrogen fixation and denitrification (see nitrogen cycle), evaporation and precipitation, and diffusion by wind and water action. But the introduction of massive quantities of waste matter at any point in the biosystem may "overload" it, disrupting the natural recycling mechanisms.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.