PLUS THIRTY, AS SEEN BY THE EARTH
By Donella Meadows, adjunct professor at Dartmouth College.
If, in the thirty Earth Day celebrations we have held since
1970, the human population and economy have become any more respectful
of the Earth, the Earth hasn't noticed.
The planet is not impressed by fancy speeches. Leonardo DiCaprio
interviewing Bill Clinton about global warming is not an Earth-shaking
event. The Earth has no way of registering good intentions or
future inventions or high hopes. It doesn't even pay attention
to dollars, which are, from a planet's point of view, just a
charming human invention. Planets measure only physical things-energy
and materials and their flows into and out of the changing populations
of living creatures.
What the Earth sees is that on the first Earth Day in 1970
there were 3.7 billion of those hyperactive critters called humans,
and now there are over 6 billion.
Back in 1970 those humans drew from the Earth's crust 46 million
barrels of oil every day-now they draw 78 million.
Natural gas extraction has nearly tripled in thirty years,
from 34 trillion cubic feet per year to 95 trillion. We mined
2.2 billion metric tons in 1970; this year we'll mine about 3.8
billion. The planet feels this fossil fuel use in many ways,
as the fuels are extracted (and spilled) and shipped (and spilled)
and refined (generating toxics) and burned into numerous pollutants,
including carbon dioxide, which traps outgoing energy and warms
things up. Despite global conferences and brave promises, what
the Earth notices is that human carbon emissions have increased
from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million
would think that an unimaginably huge thing like a planet would
not notice the one degree (Fahrenheit) warming it has experienced
since 1970. But on the scale of a whole planet, one degree is
a big deal, especially since it is not spread evenly. The poles
have warmed more than the equator, the winters more than the
summers, the nights more than the days. That means that temperature
DIFFERENCES from one place to another have been changing much
more than the average temperature has changed. Temperature differences
are what make winds blow, rains rain, ocean current flow.
All creatures, including humans, are exquisitely attuned to
the weather. All creatures, including us, are noticing weather
weirdness and trying to adjust, by moving, by fruiting earlier
or migrating later, by building up whatever protections are possible
against flood and drought. The Earth is reacting to weather changes
too, shrinking glaciers, splitting off nation-sized chunks of
Antarctic ice sheet, enhancing the cycles we call El Nino and
"Earth Day, Shmearth Day," the planet must be thinking
as its fever mounts. "Are you folks ever going to take me
Since the first Earth Day our global vehicle population has
swelled from 246 to 730 million. Air traffic has gone up by a
factor of six. The rate at which we grind up trees to make paper
has doubled (to 200 million metric tons per year). We coax from
the soil, with the help of strange chemicals, 2.25 times as much
wheat, 2.5 times as much corn, 2.2 times as much rice, almost
twice as much sugar, almost four times as many soybeans as we
did thirty years ago. We pull from the oceans almost twice as
With the fish we can see clearly how the planet behaves, when
we push it too far. It does not feel sorry for us; it just follows
its own rules. Fish become harder and harder to find. If they
are caught before they're old enough to reproduce, if their nursery
habitat is destroyed, if we scoop up not only the cod, but the
capelin upon which the cod feeds, the fish may never come back.
The Earth does not care that we didn't mean it, that we promise
not to do it again, that we make nice gestures every Earth Day.
We have among us die-hard optimists who will berate me for
not reporting the good news since the last Earth Day. There is
plenty of it, but it is mostly measured in human terms, not Earth
terms. Average human life expectancy has risen since 1970 from
58 to 66 years. Gross world product has more than doubled, from
16 to 39 trillion dollars. Recycling has increased, but so has
trash generation, so the Earth receives more garbage than ever
before. Wind and solar power generation have soared, but so have
coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear generation.
In human terms there has been breathtaking progress. In 1970
there weren't any cell phones or video players. There was no
Internet; there were no dot-coms. Nor was anyone infected with
AIDS, of course, nor did we have to worry about genetic engineering.
Global spending on advertising was only one-third of what it
is now (in inflation-corrected dollars). Third-World debt was
one-eighth of what it is now.
Whether you call any of that progress, it is all beneath the
notice of the Earth. What the Earth sees is that its species
are vanishing at a rate it hasn't seen in 65 million years. That
40 percent of its agricultural soils have been degraded. That
half its forests have disappeared and half its wetlands have
been filled or drained, and that despite Earth Day, all these
trends are accelerating.
Earth Day is beginning to remind me of Mother's Day, a commercial
occasion upon which you buy flowers for the person who, every
other day of the year, cleans up after you. Guilt-assuaging.
Trivializing. Actually dangerous. All mothers have their breaking
points. Mother Earth does not soften hers with patience or forgiveness
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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Report July, 2001
3,000 scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change have given their unqualified backing to the argument
that global warming is taking place and at a much faster rate
than was expected. The Panel established by the United Nations
and the World Meteorological Organisation stated that temperatures
were rising more quickly than at any time in the past 1,000 years.
Experts are warning that this will put millions of people at
risk with a future of floods, droughts and landslides if predictions
are correct. Poorer countries will be the most vulnerable if
temperatures rise by as much as 5.8 34C as predicted by the end
of the century. Plants and animals will disappear and many developing
countries depend more heavily on water and agriculture for survival
Strong evidence depicts that over the past 540 years human
activities such as the burning of fossil fuels has speeded up
the global warming process. The IPCC report said that the concentration
of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest for
400,000 years. Politicians from more than 150 countries meet
in Germany next week to try to salvage the Kyoto agreement.
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The United Nations Millennium
Forum Declaration reports
statistics shift slightly from year to year and from report to
report but they are, nevertheless, always shocking to our unzombified sense of humanity.
- Some 840 million people remain malnourished,
- 1.3 billion do not have access to clean water,
- One in seven children of primary school age is out of school.
- An estimated 1.5 billion people subsist on less than one
US dollar per day
- Some 2.8 billion subsist on less than two dollars a day.
- As of the most recent count, there were some 35 armed conflicts
raging in theworld.
- The weapons and the disagreements that could lead to worldwide
war of horrific destruction still exist.
Nature Journal: International
Consortium of Scientists Report
October, 2001: A shocking and groundbreaking new scientific
study by an international consortium of scientists has concluded
that humanity's assault on the
environment has left many ecosystems - from coral reefs and tropical
forests to lakes and coastal waters - in such a fragile state
slightest disturbance, from a dry spell to a fire or flood, may
into a catastrophic collapse. The study, published in the prestigious
journal NATURE, found that human impacts on many of the world's
could cause them to abruptly shift with little or no warning
apparently stable natural condition to very different, diminished
conditions far less able to support diversity of life, including
"Models have predicted this, but only in recent years has
accumulated to tell us that resilience of many important ecosystems
become undermined to the point that even the slightest disturbance
make them collapse," said Marten Scheffer, an ecologist
at the University of
Wageningen in the Netherlands and lead author of the study.
Conventional scientific and conservation thinking has been that
such as lakes, oceans, coral reefs, woodlands or deserts respond
steadily to climate change, nutrient pollution, habitat degradation
other human environmental impacts. But the new study shatters
paradigm, finding instead that, after decades of continuous change
by human activity, many of the world's natural ecosystems are
susceptible to sudden catastrophic change. In dramatic contrast
conventional environmental thinking, the investigators paint
a picture of
unexpectedly sudden, drastic switches of state, from lush, lake-dotted
forests teeming with plants and animals to scorching, parched
devoid of all but the hardiest of lifeforms, for example.
"In approaching questions about deforestation or endangered
global climate change, we work on the premise that an ounce of
equals an ounce of damage," said co-author Jonathan Foley,
of Wisconsin-Madison climatologist and director of the Center
Sustainability and the Global Environment at the Institute for
Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. "It turns out that
entirely incorrect. Ecosystems may go on for years exposed to
climate changes without showing any change at all and then suddenly
may flip into an entirely different condition, with little warning
ornone at all."
"The idea that nature can suddenly flip from one kind of
another is sobering," said Foley, who said that such changes
irreversible. "For hundreds of years, we've been taught
to think in very
linear ways; we like to think of nature as being simple. But
now we know
that we can't count on ecosystems to act in nice simple ways."
UN paints grim global picture
Time running out for ecology, report
warns; new threat is found
By Rosalind Russell, Reuters, 09/22/99
NAIROBI - It is too late to halt global warming and time is
quickly running out to prevent other potential environmental
catastrophes, the UN's environment agency said in a major report
''Global Environment Outlook 2000'' offers a gloomy view of
the planet's condition on the eve of the next millennium. It
points to new threats - such as increased levels of nitrogen
in the water supply - that the world has not yet tackled.
''The gains made by better management and technology are still
being outpaced by the environmental impacts of population and
economic growth. We are on an unsustainable course,'' Klaus Toepfer,
head of the United Nations Environment Program, said at the launch
of the report in Nairobi.
The report says emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global
warming have quadrupled since the 1950s, and that ''binding''
targets to reduce emissions, agreed by governments at the summit
last year in Kyoto, Japan, may not be met.
The rate at which humans are destroying the environment is
accelerating, often because of excessive consumption by the rich,
and to the detriment of the poor.
About 20 percent of the world's population lack access to
safe drinking water, and 50 percent have no access to a sanitation
system. This state of affairs will deteriorate as the world's
population, set to reach 6 billion next month, will increase
by 50 percent in the next 50 years.
Eighty percent of the world's original forest cover has been
cleared or degraded, and logging and mining projects threaten
39 percent of what forest remains.
A quarter of mammal species are at risk of extinction, while
more than half the world's coral reefs are threatened by human
There were 850 contributors to the report, which took two
and a half years to compile, and which highlights some lesser-known
Disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires are increasing
in frequency and severity, and have killed 3 million people in
the past three decades. Armed conflicts and refugee flows are
causing greater damage to the environment than ever before.
There is also mounting evidence that humans are seriously
destabilizing the global nitrogen balance. Huge amounts of nitrogen
are being deposited on land and in water through intensive agriculture
and the burning of fossil fuels.
Eventually, this problem could make fresh-water supplies unfit
for human consumption, the report says.
''The full extent of the damage is only now becoming apparent
as we begin to piece together a comprehensive overview of the
extremely complex, interconnected web that is our life support
system,'' said Toepfer, a former German environment minister.
Much of the damage is irreparable, but through a huge mobilization
of resources and political will, much can be done to prevent
further destruction, the report says.
A long-term target of a 90 percent reduction in the consumption
of raw materials in industrialized countries may seem far-fetched,
but without it hundreds of millions of people will be condemned
to a life of suffering, the report concludes.
This story ran on page A05 of the Boston Globe on 09/22/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
More Ecozombie Results
From B.F. Skinner, 1971 (via Uri Cogan)
"In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us
in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best.
We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology.
To contain a population explosion we look for better methods
of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build
bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We
try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways
of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope,
control disease, better housing and transportation will solve
the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing
of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point
to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not
surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow
steadily worse and it is disheartening to find that technology
itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have
made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired
a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent
pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As
Darlington has said, 'Every new source from which man has increased
his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects
of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense
of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could
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of reports from the Union of
Human culture now has the potential to inflict irreversible
damage on the environment and on its life sustaining systems
and resources. Already, critical stress suffered by our environment
is clearly manifest in the air, water, and soil, our climate,
and plant and animal species. Should this deterioration be allowed
to continue, we can expect to alter the living world to the extent
that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it.
Indiscriminate dumping of toxic, nuclear, and biomedical waste
and environmental disasters of enormous scale have begun to cut
deep scars into the Earth's ecosystem and disrupt its delicate
ecological balance. Global warming, though to be resulting from
increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from fossil
fuel use and from deforestation, may have the potential to alter
climate on a massive scale. Air pollution near ground level and
acid precipitation, and stratospheric ozone depletion causing
enhanced ultra-violet radiation at the earth's surface, are causing
widespread injury to human and animal populations, forests and
crops. Our remaining rainforests and many wild forest regions,
essential to worldwide ecological balance, are slated for clear
cutting due to poor management policies.
Uncontrolled exploitation of depletable ground water supplies
have endangered food production and other essential human systems
and heavy demands for surface waters have resulted in serious
shortages in many countries. Pollution of rivers, lakes and ground
water has further limited the supply of potable water. Destructive
pressure on the oceans is severe. Rivers carrying heavy burdens
of eroded soil into the seas also contain toxic industrial, municipal,
agricultural, and livestock waste. With the marine catch at or
above the maximum sustainable yield, some fisheries are already
showing signs of collapse.
Soil productivity is on the decline and per capita food production
in many parts of the world is decreasing, as a result of destructive
agriculture and animal husbandry practices. Already, more than
ten percent of the earth's vegetated surface has been degraded,
an area larger than India and China combined.
Over one third of the valuable topsoil used to grow the grains
that feed much of the world has blown or washed away. This desertification,
caused by overgrazing domestic animals and by over-cultivation,
salinization, and deforestation, has already impacted over 35
percent of the land surface of the earth (United Nations Environmental
Program). Desertification has caused many millions to abandon
the land, lacking the bare essentials of survival, they have
migrated to urban slums, where all that awaits them are meager
government relief packages and poverty wages.
We are fast approaching many of the earth's limits; its ability
to provide for growing numbers of people, to provide food and
energy, and to absorb wastes and destructive effluent. Current
economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed
and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk
that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.
No more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert
the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for
humanity immeasurably diminished. We must begin to bring environmentally
damaging activities under control to restore and protect the
integrity of the earth's ecosystems. The greatest peril is to
become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty,
and unrest, leading to worldwide social, economic and environmental
collapse from which we may be unable to recover.
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Most Recent State of the Earth Report
from the United Nations Environment
"From a global perspective the environment has continued
to degrade during the past decade, and significant environmental
problems remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric
of nations in all regions. Progress towards a global sustainable
future is just too slow. A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally
and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient
to halt further global environmental degradation and to address
the most pressing environmental issues-even though technology
and knowledge are available to do so.
The recognition of environmental issues as necessarily long-term
and cumulative, with serious global and security implications,
remains limited. The reconciliation of environment and trade
regimes in a fair and equitable mannerstill remains a major challenge.
The continued preoccupation with immediate local and national
issues and a general lack of sustained interest in global and
long-term environmental issues remain major impediments to environmental
progress internationally. Global governance structures and global
environmental solidarity remain too weak to make progress a world-wide
reality. As a result, the gap between what has been done thus
far and what is realistically needed is widening.
Comprehensive response mechanisms have not yet been fully
internalized at the national level. The development at local,
national, and regional levels of effective environmental legislation
and of fiscal and economic instruments has not kept pace with
the increase in environmental institutions. In the private sector,
environmental advances by several major transnational corporations
are not reflected widely in the practices of small- and medium-sized
companies that form the backbone of economies in many countries.
In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources,
shortcomings in environmental responses, and renewable resource
constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict
situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex
interactions between environmental problems such as climate change,
ozone depletion, and acidification may have impacts that will
confront local, regional, and global communities with situations
they are unprepared for. Previously unknown risks to human health
are becoming evident from the cumulative and persistent effects
of a whole range of chemicals, particularly the persistent organic
pollutants. The effects of climate variability and change are
already increasing the incidence of familiar public health problems
and leading to new ones, including a more extensive reach of
vectorborne diseases and a higher incidence of heat-related illness
and mortality. If significant major policy reforms are not implemented
quickly, the future might hold more such surprises.
GEO-1 substantiates the need for the world to embark on major
structural changes and to pursue environmental and associated
socio-economic policies vigorously. Key areas for action must
embrace the use of alternative and renewableenergy resources,
cleaner and leaner production systems world-wide, and concerted
global action for the protection and conservation of the world's
finite and irreplaceable fresh-water resources."
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Institute of Global Education
A special NGO consultant to the
United Nations Social and Economic Council.
P. O. Box 1605,
Friday Harbor, WA 98250.