Plant Trees SF Events 2004 Archive: 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021


While we're off fighting terror, the planet's crumbling

Sunday, May 30, 2004
By RICHARD STEINER,  professor and conservation specialist at the 
University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

History has shown that human societies often misjudge risk, and that is 
the case today. With world attention focused almost exclusively on 
terrorism and Iraq, another, even more serious security threat deepens 
-- the global environmental/humanitarian crisis.

While we remain virtually hypnotized by terrorism, humanity is quietly 
destroying the biosphere in which we live, ourselves and our future 
along with it. Just since 9/11, 25 million children died from 
preventable causes, the world's population grew by 200 million people 
and thousands of species went extinct. Also, 250,000 square miles of 
forest were lost, 50,000 square miles of arable land turned to desert, 8 
billion tons of carbon were added to the atmosphere and air pollution 
claimed more than 4 million lives.

Our boat is sinking, we know the causes and consequences, and we know 
how to solve the problem. Yet policy-makers keep rearranging the deck 
chairs. Left unattended, this broad environmental/humanitarian crisis 
will foreclose any hope for security in the world. Certainly we must 
address terrorism, but just as certainly we must ensure our planet's 

Some of the key indicators of our current condition help put these 
relative risks in perspective.


World population stands at 6.4 billion, more than four times its number 
at the start of the 20th century. Although some nations have reached 
population stability, many of the poorest, developing nations are far 
from it. The population -- growing by 74 million a year -- is projected 
to reach 9 billion by 2050, the additional billions coming almost 
exclusively in the poorest countries.

The largest generation of young people ever, some 1.7 billion ages 10 to 
24, is just now reaching reproductive age. Where fertility remains high 
there is widespread poverty, discrimination against women, high infant 
mortality and lack of access to family planning, health care and 
education. More than 350 million women lack any access to family 
planning. Some religions oppose contraception, and female infanticide 
has become epidemic. Programs to stabilize population need about $20 
billion a year (about one week's worth of world military expenditures) 
but now receive about $3 billion a year.


Conspicuous consumption has become a homogenizing force across the 
developed world. Just since 1950, we have consumed more goods and 
services than all previous generations combined. The consumption of 
energy, steel and timber more than doubled; fossil fuel use and car 
ownership increased four-fold; meat production and fish catch increased 
five-fold; paper use increased six-fold, and air travel increased 100-fold.

In the United States, where malls are more prevalent than high schools, 
shopping has become the primary cultural activity. Although world 
economic output continues to increase, when real costs are calculated, 
sustainable economic welfare has been in decline since the '70s. One 
measure of resource consumption of humanity -- our "ecological 
footprint" -- surpassed sustainable levels in the late '70s, and for an 
average American is now 20 times that of a person in some developing 

Studies estimate that, if the developing world were to consume at our 
rate, another five or six planets would be needed to sustain this level 
of consumption. The United Nations says that a 10-fold reduction in 
resource consumption (or a 10-fold increase in energy/material 
efficiency) in industrialized countries will be needed for adequate 
resources to be available for developing countries.

      Rich-poor divide

The unequal distribution of consumption adds to environmental, social 
and economic damage as well. The gap in per-capita income between rich 
and poor nations has doubled in the past 40 years. The upper 20 percent 
in economic class -- Europe, Japan, North America -- account for more 
than 80 percent of the material and energy consumed globally while the 
poorest 20 percent account for just 1 percent of consumption. The 
world's 350 billionaires have a combined net worth exceeding that of the 
poorest 2.5 billion people. Those poor live on less than $2 a day and 
lack basic sanitation, health care, clean water and adequate food.

Despite unprecedented economic expansion of the '90s, today some 900 
million adults are illiterate and 30,000 kids die every day from 
preventable causes. Poor countries pay more than $350 billion a year 
just to service the interest on their debt to developed countries (a 
total of $2.4 trillion) and often try to raise this money through 
environmentally destructive activities. Some countries spend more to 
service their foreign debt than on education and health care combined.


Ecologists fear we are losing between 50 and 150 species each day, a 
rate thousands of times higher than the evolutionary background 
extinction rate of about one species a year. Some estimate that we have 
lost perhaps 600,000 species since the "biotic holocaust" began around 
1950; if present trends continue, half of all species on Earth would be 
extinct in the next 50 years. Overhunting, invasive species, pollution 
and climate change are factors in this sixth mass extinction event, but 
by far the greatest cause is habitat loss. The lost ecological services 
could be devastating. It may take 5 million to 10 million years for 
biological diversity to recover.


Half of Earth's original forest cover is gone, and an additional 30 
percent is degraded or fragmented. Only 20 percent of the original 
forest on Earth remains today as large, relatively undisturbed "frontier 
forests." And half of this frontier forest is threatened by human 
activity, mostly by logging. Another 100,000 square miles of forest is 
lost each year, mostly in the tropics, and only a very small amount of 
this forest loss is offset by regrowth.

Since 1960, about 30 percent of the Earth's tropical forests have 
disappeared and with them, thousands of species. Between 50 percent and 
90 percent of the terrestrial species inhabit and depend upon the 
forests, and more than half of the threatened vertebrate species on 
Earth are forest animals. The link is clear: lose forests -- lose species.


Today about 1 billion people are undernourished and 600 million are 
overnourished. The United Nations lists 86 countries that can't grow or 
buy enough food and predicts that by 2010 global food supply will begin 
to fall short of demand.

More than 6 million people a year, mostly children, die from 
malnutrition. Grain production is declining and environmentally damaging 
meat production continues to increase. The 1.3 billion cattle (weighing 
more than all of humanity) have degraded a quarter of the planet's land 

More than 10 percent of world farmland and 70 percent of the world 
rangeland is degraded, and poor agricultural practices result in the 
loss of more than 20 billion tons of topsoil a year.


Fresh water may well be the most precious substance on Earth. People use 
about half of all available fresh water, causing aquifers to shrink 
around the world.

Some 70 percent of all water used by humans goes to irrigation; most 
simply leaks and evaporates from inefficient irrigation systems. Some 
water tables, such as the north China plain, drop by more than a meter a 
year. Two billion people have no choice but to drink water contaminated 
with human and animal waste and chemical pollution.

The World Health Organization estimates there are 1.5 billion cases of 
diarrhea a year in children from contaminated water, causing 3 million 

Today, water supplies in 36 nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East 
are not sufficient to meet grain production needs. In China, 400 cities 
suffer from acute water shortage and half of the nation's rivers are 
polluted. The world lost half of its wetlands in the past century, and 
more than 22,000 square miles of arable land turns into desert each 
year. It's projected that in 20 years, the demand for water will 
increase by 50 percent and two-thirds of the world population will be 


Air pollution exceeds health limits daily in many cities in the world. 
Some 5,000 people a day die from air pollution, and kids in some cities 
inhale the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes every day just by 
breathing the air.

Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel now stand at 6.5 billion tons 
a year (four times 1950 levels), resulting in atmospheric carbon dioxide 
concentrations 33 percent greater than pre-industrial levels.

Global warming is no longer seriously doubted, and nine of the hottest 
years on record have occurred since 1990. The warming has accelerated 
the melting of polar ice caps and mountain glaciers; a rising sea level 
has inundated some Pacific islands, and more frequent and severe 
droughts, storms and floods cost more than $50 billion and 20,000 lives 
a year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded most of 
the warming over past 50 years was human-induced.


Once thought to be inexhaustible, the Earth's oceans are more polluted 
and overexploited than at any other time in history. Seventy percent of 
world fish populations are either overfished or nearly so. Marine 
pollution has increased dramatically, and warming ocean temperatures 
have killed more than a fourth of the world's coral reefs. The 1998 
coral "bleaching" event killed almost half of all Indian Ocean corals in 
just a few months, and Australia's Great Barrier Reef is threatened with 
complete collapse by the end of the century if warming continues.

If we connect these dots, the picture is clear: We are approaching a 
breaking point on the home planet.

The fate of the Earth may well be decided in our lifetime, and we all 
should begin behaving as though we are living together on one small, 
precious, life-sustaining spaceship, which indeed we are.

The solution is straightforward -- stabilize population, reduce 
consumption and share wealth. We know exactly how to do this; we just 
need to pay for it.

The United Nations says $40 billion a year -- about what consumers spend 
on cosmetics -- would provide everyone on Earth with clean water, 
sanitation, health care, adequate nutrition and education.

The secretary general of the 1992 Earth Summit cautioned, "no place on 
the planet can remain an island of affluence in a sea of misery ... 
we're either going to save the whole world or no one will be saved."

Without urgent attention, the global ecosystem will continue to unravel 
and we'll consign future generations to a nightmare of deprivation, 
insecurity and conflict.

It's time to broaden our understanding of security beyond just that of 
terrorism to securing a sustainable future for spaceship Earth.
 1998-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

   To subscribe to this group, send an email to:

I could see this trouble coming more than 25 years ago, and even then wondered whether we had gone too far in damaging the planets ecosystems and resources, so that recovery would be impossible. 

Now I think there is only a 0.25 probability of recovery being possible. The curent religious teachings, based on scriptures written long long before ecological catastrophe threatened, offer no way out, nor do the current political and philosophical views do the same. We urgently need a new visionary, prophet, saviour or leader with the fervour of an old testament prophet, the compassion of christ, the vision of mohammed and the intellectual capacity of marx to rewrite scriptures and found a contemporarily compassionate faith based on gaia.

There may not now even be time enough for this to take root, in which case there is another course of action which I am afraid to publicise.

For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.