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.
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
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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.