Institute of Global Education
Special NGO consultant to the
United Nations Social and Economic Council.



The State of Planet Earth

Results of Ecozombie Thinking

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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 this year.

You 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 La Nina.

"Earth Day, Shmearth Day," the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts. "Are you folks ever going to take me seriously?"

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 much fish.

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 or sentimentality.

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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 will suffer.

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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Ecozombie Results

The United Nations Millennium Forum Declaration reports

The 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 that the
slightest disturbance, from a dry spell to a fire or flood, may push them
into a catastrophic collapse. The study, published in the prestigious
journal NATURE, found that human impacts on many of the world's ecosystems
could cause them to abruptly shift with little or no warning from their
apparently stable natural condition to very different, diminished
conditions far less able to support diversity of life, including human.

"Models have predicted this, but only in recent years has enough evidence
accumulated to tell us that resilience of many important ecosystems has
become undermined to the point that even the slightest disturbance can
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 ecosystems
such as lakes, oceans, coral reefs, woodlands or deserts respond slowly
steadily to climate change, nutrient pollution, habitat degradation and
other human environmental impacts. But the new study shatters this
paradigm, finding instead that, after decades of continuous change imposed
by human activity, many of the world's natural ecosystems are now
susceptible to sudden catastrophic change. In dramatic contrast to
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 deserts
devoid of all but the hardiest of lifeforms, for example.

"In approaching questions about deforestation or endangered species or
global climate change, we work on the premise that an ounce of pollution
equals an ounce of damage," said co-author Jonathan Foley, a University
of Wisconsin-Madison climatologist and director of the Center for
Sustainability and the Global Environment at the Institute for
Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. "It turns out that assumption is
entirely incorrect. Ecosystems may go on for years exposed to pollution or
climate changes without showing any change at all and then suddenly they
may flip into an entirely different condition, with little warning ornone at all."

"The idea that nature can suddenly flip from one kind of condition to
another is sobering," said Foley, who said that such changes can be
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 yesterday.

''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 activity.

There were 850 contributors to the report, which took two and a half years to compile, and which highlights some lesser-known environmental problems.

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 not forsee."

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of reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists

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 Programme

"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.

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