"Information Economy Boom Obscuring Earth's Decline"
Worldwatch Institute "State of the World 2000" report
15 January 2000
The fast-evolving information economy is affecting every facet of our lives, but it is environmental trends that will ultimately shape the new century, says the Worldwatch Institute in State of the World 2000, its first report in the new millennium.
In the United States, the rapidly growing information economy has created millions of jobs and helped drive the Dow Jones Industrial Average of stocks from less than 3,000 in early 1990 to over 11,000 in 1999. “Caught up in the growth of the Internet,” said senior author Lester Brown, “we seem to have lost sight of the Earth’s deteriorating health. It would be a mistake to confuse the vibrancy of the virtual world with the increasingly troubled state of the real world.”
“When we launched this series of annual assessments in 1984, we hoped that we could begin the next century with an upbeat report, one that would show the Earth’s health improving,” said Brown. “But unfortunately the list of trends we were concerned with then—shrinking forests, eroding soils, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, and disappearing species—has since lengthened to include rising temperatures, more destructive storms, dying coral reefs, and melting glaciers. As the Dow Jones goes up, the Earth’s health goes down.”
The biological impoverishment of the Earth is accelerating as human population grows. The share of bird, mammal, and fish species that are now in danger of extinction is in double digits—11 percent of all bird species, 25 percent of mammals, and 34 percent of fish.
Local ecosystems start to collapse when rising human demands on them become excessive. Soil erosion has forced Kazakhstan to abandon half its cropland since 1980. The Philippines and Côte d’Ivoire have lost their once luxuriant stands of tropical hardwoods—and the thriving forest product export industries that were based on them. In the United States, the rich oyster beds of the Chesapeake Bay that yielded over 70 million kilograms per year a century ago produced less than 2 million kilograms in 1998. And still the pressures build. The projected growth of world population from 6 billion at present to nearly 9 billion by 2050 will exacerbate nearly all environmental problems, especially since almost all this growth will come in the developing world where countries are already struggling to manage the effects of their rapidly growing populations.
Another trend affecting the entire world is rising temperature. Record-setting temperatures in the 1990s are part of a twentieth-century warming trend. Just over the last three decades (between 1969-71 and 1996-98), global average temperature has risen by 0.44 degrees Celsius (0.8 degrees Fahrenheit). In the 21st century, temperature is projected to rise even faster.
Rising temperatures are melting glaciers from the Peruvian Andes to the Swiss Alps. The two ice shelves on either side of the Antarctic peninsula are retreating. Over roughly a half-century through 1997, they lost 7,000 square kilometers of ice. But then within a year they lost another 3,000 square kilometers. Scientists attribute the accelerated ice melting to a regional temperature rise of some 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1940.
Signs of melting are everywhere. In late 1991, hikers in the southwestern Alps discovered an intact human body, a male, protruding from a glacier. Apparently trapped in a storm some 5,000 years ago and quickly covered with snow and ice, his body was remarkably well preserved. In 1999, another body was found in a melting glacier in the Yukon Territory of western Canada. “Our ancestors are emerging from the ice with a message for us: The Earth is getting warmer,” said Brown.
One of the less visible trends shaping our future is falling water tables. Although irrigation problems such as waterlogging, salting, and silting go back several thousand years, aquifer depletion is new, confined largely to the last half-century, when powerful diesel and electric pumps made it possible to extract underground water far faster than the natural recharge from rain and snow. Report co-author Sandra Postel estimates that the worldwide overpumping of aquifers, which is concentrated in China, India, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, exceeds 160 billion tons of water per year.
Since it takes roughly 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, this overpumping is the equivalent of 160 million tons of grain, or half the U.S. grain harvest. In consumption terms, the food supply of 480 million of the world’s 6 billion people is being produced with the unsustainable use of water. If all countries stabilized water tables this year by eliminating overpumping, the world grain harvest would fall by roughly 160 million tons, driving grain prices off the top of the chart.
“Environmental decline is often seen as gradual and predictable, but if we assume this, we are sleepwalking through history,” said report co-author Chris Bright. “As pressures on the Earth’s natural systems build, there may be some disconcerting surprises as trends interact, reinforcing each other and triggering abrupt changes.”
For example, in October 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America and stalled for more than a week. Nightmarish mudslides obliterated entire villages; 10,000 people died; half the population of Honduras was displaced and the country lost 95 percent of its crops.
Global warming and the more destructive storms associated with it may explain why Mitch was the fourth strongest hurricane to enter the Caribbean this century, but much of the damage was caused by deforestation. If forests had been gripping the soil on those hills, fewer villages would have been buried in mudslides.
Another large-scale example of trends reinforcing each other can be seen in the Amazon, where the forest is being weakened by logging and by clearing for agriculture. As the Amazonian forest dwindles, it dries out. As it becomes drier, it becomes more vulnerable to fire.
The fire feedback loop is also affected by forces outside the region, such as higher temperatures. By burning large amounts of coal and oil, the United States, China, and other countries may, in effect, be burning the Amazon.
“Economic euphoria may lead us to ignore trends that have the potential to reverse progress,” said Brown, “from HIV/AIDS in Africa to falling water tables in India. While the world economy is booming, the HIV epidemic is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, a region of 800 million people. Life expectancy—a sentinel indicator of progress—is falling precipitously as the virus spreads. Before the onslaught of AIDS, life expectancy in Zimbabwe was 65 years. In 1998, it was 44 years. By 2010, it is projected to fall to 39 years. Other countries, such as Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia, are experiencing similarly graphic declines.”
Other trends also have the potential to reverse progress. In India, one of many countries where population is outrunning water supply, water pumped from underground far exceeds aquifer recharge. The resulting fall in water tables will eventually reduce irrigation water supplies, threatening India’s food security. Unless New Delhi can quickly devise an effective strategy to deal with spreading water scarcity, India—like Africa—may soon face a decline in life expectancy.
In a surprise finding, the study reports that the number of people who are overnourished and overweight now rivals the number who are undernourished and underweight, each group containing roughly 1.2 billion people. Other chapters assess the issue of persistent organic pollutants, the future of paper, the information economy, micropower technologies, and environmental job creation.
“The two big challenges in this new century are to stabilize climate and population,” said Brown. “If we cannot stabilize both, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save. Everything will change. If we can stabilize population and climate, other environmental problems will be much more manageable.”
Stabilizing population quickly depends on couples holding the line at two surviving children—an achievable goal. Some 34 industrial countries have already reached population stability, and several developing countries are approaching it, including Barbados, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
The challenge is to move from the U.N. medium level projection of nearly 9 billion in 2050 to the low projection of 7 billion. We know the keys to stabilizing population—providing universal access to family planning services and educating girls and women.
Stabilizing climate means replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar cells, and other renewables. Today the world gets a fifth of its electricity from hydropower, but this source is dwarfed by the potential of wind. Three U.S. states—North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to supply national electricity needs. China could double its current generation of electricity using only wind.
Previews of the new energy economy can be seen in the solar electric roofs of homes in Japan and Germany, the wind turbines dotting the Danish countryside, and the new wind farms in Spain and in the U.S. states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas.
Restructuring economic policymaking to incorporate environmental issues will not be easy. But some progress was made at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in early December 1999, when some 50,000 demonstrators challenged the WTO’s preoccupation with economics at the expense of environmental, labor, and human rights issues. By the end of the five-day collision between the ecological principles of sustainability and the economic theory of comparative advantage that drove a half-century of trade negotiations, the WTO was in full retreat. “It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of the demonstrations and the strong public opinion that they represented will be,” said co-author Hilary French. “But one thing is certain: the environment is now on the international trade agenda.”
“The scale and urgency of the challenges facing us in this century are unprecedented,” said Brown. “We cannot overestimate the urgency of stabilizing the relationship between ourselves, now 6 billion in number, and the natural systems on which we depend. If we continue the irreversible destruction of these systems, our grandchildren will never forgive us. As the report notes, ‘Nature has no reset button.’ ”
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