Reclaiming The Future

The culture must make some big readjustments

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 8
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

If we are to build a livable 21st century, taking careful stock of where we are now is essential. Since 1983, the Worldwatch Institute (1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036) has been measuring the distance to a sustainable society in a series of detailed reports that identify the urgent problems facing the planet – as well as their emerging solutions.

The following article (a version of which first appeared in Breakthrough, Fall ’87/Spring ’88, Global Education Associates, Suite 456, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115) summarizes Worldwatch’s most recent report, State of the World 1988 (W.W. Norton & Company). Lester Brown is director of the Institute, and Edward C. Wolf is a former senior researcher.

A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations. Today, human society is not only diminishing the future prospects of planet earth – it is doing so at an alarming rate. The earth’s life-support systems are deteriorating; we are on an unsustainable course.

Our failure to achieve a sustainable society is resulting not only in environmental degradation, but in economic decline and social disintegration as well. Dozens of countries will already have lower living standards at the end of the eighties than at the beginning. We can no longer assume that economic progress is automatic anywhere.

The desire to ensure a sustainable future must become a central concern of the national governments of our planet. Putting the world on a sustainable development path depends on a wholesale reordering of priorities, a fundamental restructuring of the global economy, and a quantum leap in international cooperation on the scale that occurred after World War II – as well as the establishment of new transnational institutions, or the strengthening of existing ones, to coordinate these processes. A series of interlocking issues must be dealt with simultaneously. For example, stabilizing population will prove difficult until poverty is reduced. It may be impossible to avoid a mass extinction of species as long as the Third World is burdened with debt. Perhaps most important, the resources needed to arrest the physical deterioration of the planet may not be available unless the international arms race can be reversed.


Scientists, political leaders, and the general public are beginning to recognize that world population and energy trends are disrupting the natural systems and resources on which humanity depends. But the policy adjustments required to return the world to a sustainable economic path are lagging far behind. The commitment to action is negligible in many national capitals, and political leaders remain preoccupied with day-to-day crises at the expense of long-term sustainability. For instance:

  • With the exception of the United States, efforts to protect the earth’s thin layer of topsoil range from inadequate to nonexistent.
  • Apart from South Korea and China, developing countries have done little to combat deforestation. Of even more concern is the need to stabilize and restore the forests of the tropics.
  • In industrial countries, evidence of forest damage from air pollution and acid rain continues to accumulate, with 19 nations now reporting extensive forest deterioration. Yet not one industrial country has designed, let alone enacted, a credible plan to reverse the deterioration.[1]
  • Close to half the world is succeeding in the effort to halt population growth. But that means that just over half is failing.
  • Some progress has been registered in slowing the growth of carbon dioxide emissions, but not a single government has adopted a policy that takes impending climatic change into account.

Today, most of the battles to protect the planet’s health are being lost; some have not yet even been effectively joined.


The line between an activity that is sustainable and one that is not is often a thin one. Sustainability can be evaluated at the level of individual ecosystems, sectors of the economy, or geographic regions.

Ecosystems: The Peruvian anchovy fishery remains one of the most clear-cut examples of how excessive demand can destroy an ecosystem. There were glowing economic reports as the annual catch expanded from 4 million tons in 1960 to 8 million tons in 1965, and then to 13 million in 1970. Ecologists, having estimated that the fishery could sustain a yield of 9 million tons, reacted with alarm. Their warnings were vindicated during the early seventies when the anchovy catch plummeted to less than 2 million per year, where it has since remained.[2]

Sectors of the Economy: Economic reports on world food output during the mid-eighties describe food production as outpacing effective demand, leading to surpluses and a price-depressing buildup in world grain stocks. But ecological analyses, in contrast, point out that production has expanded in part by plowing highly erodible land that cannot sustain cultivation over the long term. This ecological interpretation is reflected in the U.S. program designed to convert 40 million acres of rapidly eroding cropland, roughly 11% of the U.S. total, to sustainable uses such as grass or tree production. Highly erodible land will likely be withdrawn from production in scores of other countries in the years ahead, either because it is converted to such less intensive uses or because it becomes wasteland.[3]

Signs of unsustainable trends in the energy sector are also unmistakable. The ever-expanding use of fossil fuels is, by definition, not sustainable. But even before reserves are exhausted, fossil fuel use may be curtailed because it is destroying local forests and fisheries and leading to a planetary warming.

Geographic regions: The yearly addition of 17 million people and over 5 million cattle, sheep, and goats to Africa is destroying vegetation and degrading land, making especially painful the lesson that environmental degradation can undermine economic progress. The first indication that Africa was in trouble came when per capita grain production turned downward after 1967, eventually leading to a decline in real incomes as well. Nothing in prospect is likely to reverse this deterioration.

In India, concern about deforestation, soil erosion, and land degradation has turned to alarm, and officials there fear that living standards may turn downward within the next few years, following the trend in Africa. Latin America, though more advanced economically, faces a similar situation. The combination of rapid population growth, environmental degradation and the mounting external debt have reduced living standards in most countries to well below 1980 levels. Even if ways can be found to ease the debt burden, continued deterioration of the region’s environmental support systems could well overwhelm future efforts to reverse the decline.[4]


Conserving Soil and Planting Trees: Restoring two of the earth’s life support systems – its soil and trees – will require heavy capital investment and strong commitment by political leaders. Estimating the costs is handicapped by the lack of reliable data both on how rapidly they are deteriorating and how much it will cost to restore them. In our book we have developed rough estimates, based on the available data, that convey the magnitude of the effort needed.

Soils are the foundation not only of agriculture but of civilization itself. When world grain prices surged in the mid-seventies, farmers around the world plowed large areas of highly erodible land and adopted more intensive, often erosive, agricultural practices. This is a reversible trend. If a worldwide cropland conversion program and a full range of soil-conserving practices were enacted starting in 1990, global expenditures to protect the cropland base would total some $24 billion per year by 1995. Though obviously a large sum, this is less than the U.S. government paid farmers to support crop prices in 1986.[5] To ensure future food supplies for a world expecting 3 billion to 5 billion more people, this is an investment that humanity can ill afford not to make.

Few people dispute the need to plant more trees. Over a billion people live in countries already experiencing firewood shortages. Without corrective action, that number will nearly double by the year 2000. Whether to satisfy growing firewood needs, or to stabilize soil and water regimes in endangered watersheds (where land degradation and disruptions of the hydrological cycle are undermining local economies), planting trees is a valuable investment in our economic future. Constructing a global estimate of the additional investment in tree planting needed to restore tree cover is more difficult than our comparable estimate for soil conservatio. Our best estimate is about $6 billion per year over the remainder of the century.

Slowing Population Growth: The success of efforts to save topsoil and restore tree cover both depend heavily on slowing population growth. Providing family planning in areas where there is an unsatisfied demand for these services is often the quickest, most cost-effective step countries can take to secure life-support systems. Fertility declines most rapidly when such services are introduced into a society already enjoying broad-based economic and social gains. The social indicator that correlates most closely with decline in birth rate is the education of women: the more schooling women achieve, the fewer children they choose to bear. Another indicator is infant mortality: rarely do birth rates drop sharply if infant survival remains low. Financial incentives that provide the old-age security once sought in large numbers of children are also invariably among the more successful inducements to reduce family size.[6]

Stabilizing the Earth’s Climate: The immediate effects of population growth and land degradation are largely local, but the climate alteration linked to fossil fuel combustion is incontestably global. Just as land degradation can threaten local efforts to raise living standards, so too climate alteration can overwhelm economic progress at the global level. The worldwide warming that threatens to raise the earth’s average temperature by 2.7° to 8.1° F (1.5° to 4.5° C) by the year 2050 is generating some of the most difficult questions political leaders have ever had to deal with. The complexity of this issue is illustrated by Brazil, which ranks fourth in CO2 emissions not because it is a heavy user of fossil fuels, but because it is burning its vast Amazon rain forest to make way for cattle ranching and crop production. Pressure on the Amazon forests can be relieved only if the government of Brazil slows population growth and institutes meaningful land reform. Neither alone will suffice.

A business-as-usual energy policy would risk having to adapt the global economy to the changed climate. Unfortunately, the costs of such an adaptation would be astronomical. If leaders decide instead to slow the warming of the planet, how much should they be prepared to invest in energy efficiency and in the development of renewable energy resources? Twice present levels? Five or ten times as much? If the projected warming is to be minimized, the buildup of carbon dioxide and the trace gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect must be slowed, and quickly. Halving emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, as called for in the September 1987 Montreal accords, is one small step in the right direction; but much more needs to, and can, be done by raising the efficiency of energy use, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and reversing deforestation.

Raising Energy Efficiency: We can get a sense of what could be done by looking at what is already being done. The efficiency with which energy is used varies widely among countries. Japan is one of the most efficient simply because both government and industry have emphasized energy efficiency to make their resource-poor country more competitive in world markets. The United States uses twice as much energy to produce a dollar’s worth of goods and services as Japan does, while the Soviet Union uses three times as much. And even Japan does not come close to fully exploiting available technologies.[7]

Replacing existing technologies with more efficient ones is merely the first step. For example, although fuel-inefficient cars can be replaced with more efficient ones, the large gains in transport efficiency will come from designing communities where residents do not depend on automobiles. Over the longer term, many countries can also aim to reduce carbon emissions by shifting away from fossil fuels to other generating sources such as hydropower, fuelwood, agricultural wastes, wind power, solar water heaters, photovoltaic cells, agriculturally-based alcohol fuels, and geothermal energy.

Developing Renewable Energy: Renewable energy development also varies widely among countries. The industrial regions of North America and Europe have developed most of their hydropower potential; Asia, Africa and Latin America have developed less than one tenth of theirs. Simple technologies such as solar water heaters have much room for further development, as does wind power: California developed an astonishing 1,000 megawatts of wind-powered generating capacity in only a four-year span, at roughly half the cost per megawatt of nuclear power. India now plans to develop 5,000 megawatts of wind power by the end of the century.[8] In Brazil, the first large industrializing country to rely primarily on renewables, such sources as hydropower, alcohol fuels and charcoal account for 60% of total energy use; and the Philippines, which now gets half its energy from renewables, has concentrated on the development of hydropower, firewood, geothermal energy, and the use of agricultural wastes.[9]


For four decades, the East-West confrontation has dominated international affairs, setting priorities in the use of public resources and defining security in ideological terms. It has spawned an arms race and put the world economy on a more or less permanent war footing. Although the ever-present danger of nuclear war continues to threaten human security everywhere, the deterioration of the biosphere now also threatens the security of generations to come. Responding effectively to the second threat may well depend on reducing the first.

The momentum inherent in population growth, the forces of land degradation, and the changing chemistry of the atmosphere makes it difficult to get the world on a sustainable development path. The inertia of our political institutions further complicates the task. The urgent and tremendous challenges must be moved from the periphery of government agendas to the center.

Two barriers now stand in the way of ensuring that capital and political will be available on the needed scale:

Third World Debt: Now grown beyond all reasonable hope of repayment, the trillion-dollar Third World debt could be retired sufficiently to restore economic progress. One possibility is to set up a fund jointly managed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The 1987 restructuring of the Bank, enabling its lending programs to incorporate environmental as well as economic concerns, puts it in a position to provide leadership in formulating sustainable development strategies.

Military Expenditures: In 1987 global military expenditures totaled approximately $900 billion. The choice is clear: the world’s governments can either continue, year after year, this hugely disproportionate allocation of funds to the military – or they can change their priorities and shift resources to urgently needed projects aimed at creating a sustainable society. It is important to realize that they cannot do both. Governments must begin to define global security in terms of sustainable development rather than in military terms alone.[10]

Two possible global security budgets for the year 2000

Transfering only one-sixth of projected military spending to sustainable development programs would protect the environment and revive national economies. Source: Worldwatch Institute


As increasing human numbers and advancing technologies have expanded the scale of human activity, we find ourselves in a new era in which the environmental effects of economic activities spill far beyond national borders. Governments assume responsibility for supplying energy at home, but not for the acid precipitation that destroys forests in nearby countries or for the carbon dioxide buildup that will raise temperatures worldwide. Deforestation in Nepal can aggravate flooding in Bangladesh. The manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons in Japan can influence skin cancer rates in Argentina. The list of such connections is endless.

The world is now facing a crisis of governance resulting from the mismatch between the international and sometimes global environmental consequences of domestic economic policies and the national interests that shape these policies. The link between cause and effect has been severed by the nature of today’s international political system. Unless this can be remedied by creating new international institutions or by expanding the authority of existing ones, no mechanism will exist to promote responsible behavior. To leave processes that will directly influence the future habitability of the planet to chance is risky beyond reason.

The deterioration of the earth’s life-suport systems is threatening, but the psychological toll of failing to reverse it could also be high. Such a failure would lead to a loss of confidence in political institutions and would risk widespread demoralization – a sense that our ability to control our destiny is slipping away.

On the other hand, if widespread concern motivates political action, and if the needed changes in national priorities, national policies, and individual lifestyles take root, then – and only then – can we expect sustained improvement in the human condition.

It will not be enough that we care. We must also act.


1. International Co-operative Programme on Assessment and Monitoring of Air Pollution Effects on Forests, "Forest Damage and Air Pollution: Report on the 1986 Forest Damage Survey in Europe," Global Environment Monitory System, United Nation Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, mimeographed, 1987, with data on Belgium and East Germany from Allgemeine Forst Zeitschrift, Munich, West Germany, No. 46, 1985 and No. 41, 1986.

2. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Yearbook of Fishery Statistics, Rome, various years; C.P. Idyll, "The Anchovy Crisis," Scientific American, June 1973.

3. Data on African population from Population Reference Bureau, World Population Data Sheet 1987, Washington, D.C.; data on livestock populations from FAO, Production Yearbook, Rome, various years.

4. U.S. Conservation reserve program described in Norman A. Berg, "Making the Most of the New Soil Conservation Initiatives," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, January/February 1987, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Agricultural Resources: Cropland, Water and Conservation Situation and Outlook Report, Washington, DC, 1987.

5. Price support payments to farmers from Economic Report of the President, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1987.

6. World Bank, World Development Report 1984, Oxford University Press, New York.

7. See William U. Chandler, "Designing Sustainable Economies," in Lester R. Brown et al., State of the World 1987, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

8. Sam Rashkin, California Energy Commission, Sacramento, California, private communication, October 6, 1987; Judith Perera, "Indian Government Draws Up Plans to Exploit Renewable Energy," Solar Energy Intelligence Report, August 11, 1987.

9. Ministry of Energy and Mines, "Energy Self-Sufficiency: A Scenario Developed as an Extension of the Brazilian Energy Model," Government of Brazil, Brasilia, 1984; Renewable Energy Institute, "The Philippines: Trade and Investment Laws Relating to Renewable Energy," Washington, D.C., March 1984.

10. Military expenditures level from Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1986, World Priorities Inc., Washington, D.C.

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