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Our Precarious Planet

Worldwatch Institute has once again reviewed the “State of the World” with a 1987 report taking note of precarious environmental conditions that seem all the more precarious because they do not figure on the agenda of priorities at the White House or, for that matter, any other national government. There are real and grave questions about the sustainability of life as we know it that simply are not being addressed with the seriousness that they deserve.

“Societies faced with multiplying, self-generated stresses have two options: Initiate needed reforms in population, energy, agricultural and economic policies, or risk deterioration and decline,” the report affirms.

No nation is free of the alarmingly deteriorating situation. In the United States “roughly a fifth of all groundwater withdrawals are in excess of aquifer recharge and thus cannot be sustained.” Not one of the three principal tropical-rain-forest nations--Brazil, Indonesia and Zaire--has in place a program to reverse the rapid devastation of the forests that is imperiling the quality of the Earth’s atmosphere. “By 1986, nearly half of all oil discovered had already been consumed.” Population rose last year by 83 million--led by India, with 18 million--raising the question as to “whether India can slow its population growth before deforestation, soil erosion and desertification undermine its economy.”

The inventory of pending disasters is counter-balanced with proposals for long-term scientific investigation and for immediate action programs that could at least blunt the effects of some of the problems.

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The highest priority in research, the report argues, should be given to the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program--or, simply, the Global Change Program. With $1 billion, world scientists are confident that they can chart accurately the effect of human activity on the global environment over the next decade and develop the facts that will permit “charting a sustainable course” for the nations of the world.

In the meantime, there is ample evidence to justify undertaking three immediate programs: (1) completing programs to control population rates in nations where population expansion is intolerable; (2) restraining carbon emissions--a challenge both to industrialized nations, with their large hydrocarbon emissions, and to poor nations, with their enormous and inefficient consumption of firewood; (3) launching a second energy revolution to reduce the use of energy and increase the use of renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric generation.

The report emphasizes the importance of international efforts in resolving these problems. No one nation can do the job. The United States comes in for particular criticism, however, for some of its recent decisions that cripple these global efforts--including the withdrawal of funds from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the presidential veto of efforts to enforce reduced energy use in appliances, and the Reagan Administration’s decision to lift new-car limits on gasoline consumption. Obviously the problems are not being taken seriously enough in the White House.

Worldwatch, under the direction of Lester R. Brown, launched these annual reports in 1984 with the encouragement of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. From a modest beginning they have grown to an internationally recognized effort that soon will be supplemented by a 10-part television series. This growing public concern may help attract the attention of leaders who have yet to recognize the urgency.

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“No generation has ever faced such a complex set of issues requiring immediate attention,” the report says. “Preceding generations have always been concerned about the future, but we are the first to be faced with decisions that will determine whether the Earth our children will inherit will be habitable.”


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