Steiner is a professor and conservation specialist
at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.)
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.
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.
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 sustainability.
Some of the key indicators of our current condition
help put these relative risks in perspective.
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.
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
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
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 countries.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 surface.
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.
water may well be the most precious substance
on Earth. People use about half of all available
fresh water, causing aquifers to shrink around
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.
World Health Organization estimates there are
1.5 billion cases of diarrhea a year in children
from contaminated water, causing 3 million deaths.
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 water-stressed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
we connect these dots, the picture is clear: We
are approaching a breaking point on the home planet.
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.
solution is straightforward -- stabilize population,
reduce consumption and share wealth. We know exactly
how to do this; we just need to pay for it.
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.
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
urgent attention, the global ecosystem will continue
to unravel and we'll consign future generations
to a nightmare of deprivation, insecurity and
time to broaden our understanding of security
beyond just that of terrorism to securing a sustainable
future for spaceship Earth.
Posted: June 13, 2004