Our usual policy in IN CONTEXT is to focus on solutions and assume that our readers are well aware of the problems facing the world. However, because of the important role that environmental pressures play in cultural change, we thought it would be good to review the global scope of what we face. Lester Brown, the director of Worldwatch Institute, has provided us with a powerful summary in this article, adapted from State Of The World 1985, A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, by Lester R. Brown et. al. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985, $8.95).
I want to hasten to add, however, that this article is characteristic of the book only in its quality. Most of State Of The World l985, like this journal, focuses on solutions. The book is the second in a series that does for the world what the "State Of The Union" speech should be doing for the nation. I highly recommend them to anyone who is more interested in what is making history than just what is making news. For more information on their research reports, write to Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.
ALTHOUGH HUMAN ACTIVITIES have always altered the natural environment, the scale of disruptions in the late twentieth century is unprecedented. The collective actions of a world population approaching five billion now appear capable of causing continental and even global changes in natural systems.
The Plight Of Africa Nowhere is this more tragically evident than in Africa, where famine is spreading across the continent. As the spotlight of public attention focused in late 1984 on emergency food relief, the media regularly attributed the famine to drought. But the drought, though a triggering event, is not the basic cause. As recently as 1970, Africa was essentially self-sufficient in food. Per capita grain production peaked in Africa in 1967 and has been declining nearly 1 percent per year ever since. By 1984, some 140 million Africans – 26% of the total population – were fed with grain from abroad. The drought merely brought this long-term deterioration into focus. In the years ahead, the continent’s dependence on imported grain will almost certainly be even greater.
The decline is largely attributable to three well-established trends: the fastest population growth of any continent in history, widespread soil erosion and desertification, and the failure of African governments to give agriculture the support it needs. Amid all the media coverage of the African food crisis these fundamental trends are being overlooked, and there are no developments in prospect on either the agriculture or the family planning side of the food/population equation that will arrest the slide in per capita food production.
In addition, there is now evidence that population growth may be driving climate change in Africa. The sheer number of people seeking to survive on arid, marginal land may be driving a self-reinforcing process of desiccation, literally drying out the continent. Coming at a time of declining food output, this suggests a breakdown in the relationship between people and environmental support systems that could lead Africa into a crisis of historic dimensions – one that goes far beyond short-term emergency food relief.
The deterioration of our environmental support systems is not restricted to Africa, however. It takes many forms and can be seen in industrial and developing countries alike. Acid rain and air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels in automobiles and power plants are laying waste to the forests of central Europe. Indeed, acid rain may be destroying the forests of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and West Germany even faster than the axe and plow destroyed those of India and El Salvador. More serious than the immediate loss of forests in Europe is the failure of reforestation efforts in the devastated areas where newly planted seedlings have withered and died.
Climate Changes and CO2 The loss of forests is not the only cost of growing dependence on fossil fuels. Their combustion is also releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere on a scale that is likely to cause climatic shifts that could disrupt food production, reduce dependable water supplies, and eventually jeopardize coastal cities and towns. The importance of CO2 lies in its capacity to trap heat within the atmosphere ("greenhouse effect"), thus raising average global temperatures and producing potentially major climate changes.
Prior to the modern age, atmospheric CO2 levels were rather stable, changing only very slowly over long periods of geological time. With the advent of the industrial age, however, this began to change. Fossil fuels (hydrocarbons in the form of oil and coal) that had been slowly accumulated underground over hundreds of millions of years were being burned at an ever growing pace, releasing their CO2 faster than the plants of the earth could re-absorb. The steady shrinkage in the earth’s forest cover is compounding the problem, and is estimated to account for about 1/3 of the current buildup.
Although the increase in atmospheric CO2 probably began a century or more ago, it was relatively insignificant up through the mid-twentieth century. Since then, however, there has been a 9% increase in only 25 years, and the rate is accelerating. If fossil fuel use continues to expand at the 4% per year rate it has during 1900-80, atmospheric CO2 levels will be double preindustrial levels by 2030.
Economics and Oil Although these new signs of environmental stress appear each year, many people find them easy to ignore. The world has been lulled into a false sense of security by recent progress in slowing population growth, reducing dependence on oil, and replenishing granaries. Only when environmental deterioration begins to affect the economic statistics does the world seem to take notice.
In last year’s State Of The World, we noted the loss of momentum in world economic growth since 1979, a trend that the 1984 data appear to confirm. The present recovery, led by the resurgent U.S. economy, has only marginally boosted the average economic growth for the past five years. With a slowdown in prospect for 1985, it appears more and more likely that world economic growth during this decade may not average much more than 2% annually, essentially the same as the rate of population growth.
An analysis of world economic growth over the past 34 years shows it has slowed markedly following each of the two major oil price increases. From 1950 through 1973, the world economy expanded at a robust 5.0% per year. After the 1973 oil price hike, the rate dropped to 3.5%, and since the second hike in 1979, it has slowed to 2%.
The abundance of cheap petroleum available from 1950 to 1973 made it relatively easy to expand both industrial and agricultural output at a healthy pace. In effect, cheap oil sharply (but unsustainably) boosted the earth’s carrying capacity. Since the oil price hikes and the associated rise in energy costs across the board, rapid expansion has been far more difficult. In the agricultural sector, for example, before the first oil price hike world grain output was expanding at over 3% a year. Since 1973 it has grown at just under 2% annually, barely keeping pace with population growth.
Soil Erosion Although oil is the first major resource whose supply has been restricted enough to measurably constrain economic expansion, over the long term the loss of topsoil through erosion is likely to be more important. Afflicting industrial and developing countries alike, soil erosion is draining land of productivity on every continent at a rate we estimate to be 25.4 billion tons per year. For subsistence farmers in Africa or Andean peasants in Latin America, where use of oil-based inputs is negligible or nonexistent, the loss of topsoil is a more serious threat to food production than oil price rises are.
Economic trends and ecological systems interact continuously in ways that we sometimes fail to understand and with consequences that we frequently do not anticipate. Policies that are economically successful in the short run can be ecologically and economically disastrous in the long run. U.S. crop surpluses of the early eighties, for example – sometimes cited as a sign of a healthy agriculture – are partly the product of careless over-plowing. The very practices that lead to excessive erosion often yield short-term production gains or even surpluses, creating an illusion of progress.
Our New Interconnectedness The interactions between the global economy and the earth’s natural systems, cycles, and resources are legion. Acid rain affects forest productivity, which in turn raises costs in the forest products industry. Population growth hastens deforestation, which may reduce rainfall. Fossil fuel combustion raises atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, which in turn alters climate and eventually world agriculture. The growing demand for protein triggers over-fishing, which in turn leads to the collapse of fisheries. These are but a few of the important links between the economy and the ecosystem.
Of these linkages, one that seems destined to attract attention soon is that between soil erosion and Third World debt. Soil erosion can undermine not only a country’s food production capacity but its debt servicing capacity as well, for it leads to widening food deficits, mounting debt, and eventually to food shortages. A nation whose people face starvation can hardly be blamed for failing to make debt payments. Indeed, at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in November 1984, Conference Chair Julius Nyerere urged African governments to withhold payment on their $152-billion foreign debt, owed mostly to European and U.S. banks.
These effects are compounded by the emergence of a highly developed international economy that provides a way of transmitting scarcities from one country to another, a sort of domino theory of ecological stress and collapse. Soil erosion, for example, has historically been a local problem: civilizations whose food systems were undermined by erosion in times past declined in isolation. But in the integrated world economy of the late twentieth century, food – like oil – is a global commodity. A country that loses an excessive amount of topsoil needs to import more food and thereby raises the pressure on soils elsewhere.
Our understanding of these new stresses is far from complete. Unfortunately, the consequences of our action or inaction are of an entirely new magnitude. National energy policies could determine the extent and pace of a worldwide change in climate. Population policies may help determine whether Africa becomes a virtual wasteland. The scale of environmental disruptions we face lends urgency to our efforts to return to a sustainable path – to bring population growth and our economic and social systems into a long- term balance with the resource base that supports us.
These forces interact not only among countries but also between generations. Fossil fuel combustion today promises to alter the climate of tomorrow. Our inadvertent destruction of plant and animal species impoverishes the world of our children and grandchildren. At issue is whether we can act on behalf of future generations by moderating our reproductive behavior and by shifting to technologies and consumption patterns that are sustainable.
Arctic Swelter Or New Ice Age?
While there is no question that atmospheric CO2 is rising dramatically, there is disagreement about where this will lead. Most atmospheric scientists predict a general warming, with melting polar ice raising the level of the sea. There is, however, a minority opinion that sees the rise in CO2 setting off a new ice age. As bizarre as this sounds on first hearing, the physics behind it is remarkably sound and recent weather patterns are giving it more support than the warming theory. Let me briefly describe the argument:
Everyone agrees that CO2 will trap heat in the atmosphere. The effect of this in the tropics (where the sun is most intense) will be to increase the amount of water evaporated from the oceans. Even with this increase in water, the increased tropical air temperatures will reduce tropical rainfall and cloud cover (as is occurring across Africa and tropical Asia). It is not until this moist air moves towards the poles (as always happens in normal atmospheric circulation) that the extra water will increase precipitation and cloud cover (as satellite pictures have been verifying). But clouds are excellent reflectors of sunlight, and thus the net effect of extra heat in the tropics could be to reduce air temperatures outside of the tropics (as has been happening in the northern hemisphere at least during the past two decades).
In the polar regions, the extra cloud cover and precipitation would increase the average snow cover, increasing still more the amount of sunlight reflected rather than absorbed. The increased temperature difference between the tropics and the poles would increase the north-south circulation in the atmosphere, causing the jet stream to wander erratically (as it has been). Once a certain critical point is reached, the ice and cloud build-ups just feed on themselves and a new ice age has begun. According to John Hamaker, this point-of-no-return could be reached during this decade and a full-scale ice age could be upon us by the year 2000. If we do not move quickly to sharply reduce atmospheric CO2, we could all soon be in for a cold shock.
For further information, write to Hamaker-Weaver Publications, Box 1961, Burlingame, CA 94010. $10 will cover the costs of Hamaker’s book and recent bulletins.