State of the World 2003 : Impossible environmental revolution is already happening
provided by Worldwatch
espite little action on many critical issues at the recent World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the New Year reveals fresh evidence of humanity's capacity to respond rapidly to unprecedented environmental and social threats. According to the Worldwatch Institute's annual report State of the World 2003, scaling up recent successes in curbing infectious disease, increasing the income of the poor, and advancing the use of renewable energy, among others, would soon put the world's economy on a more sustainable path.
Building a world where we meet our own needs without denying future generations a healthy society is not impossible, as some would assert, says Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin. The question is where societies choose to put their creative efforts. If we can build spacecraft powered by clean fuel cells, we can build cars that run the same way. If we can mine copper and other metals from the Earth, we can mine them from landfills and abandoned buildings. And if we can protect tourists from contracting malaria, we can do it for people who live with the threat everyday.
The challenge now, reports the 20th edition of State of the World, is to mobilize governments, businesses, and civil society to construct economies that are healthy for both people and the planet.
The report's expert research team documents a host of successes that prove humanity is capable of reinventing the world so that the needs of all are met with minimal harm to the Earth or to future generations. For example:
Hot on the tail of these important achievements are emerging successes that could usher in a new era of economic progress that is much less damaging to the world's ecosystems and to human health. The Netherlands has achieved an 86 percent recycling rate for cars, and Denmark has put a total ban on aluminum cans in favor of reusable glass bottles, putting into practice a greater vision where recycling replaces today's heavy dependence on virgin materials.
Some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in the poorest communities. Micro loans of as little as $50 have helped people as poor as the wastepickers of the Payatas landfill near Manila to secure loans for small businesses, land, and housing. And the Community Reinvestment Act has helped push lending in poor U.S. neighborhoods from an average of roughly $3 billion per year in the 1980s to $43 billion in 1997.
Throughout 2001, rapid change was also seen at the national and state levels. Brazil and Germany announced major new commitments to the development of renewable energy, while the State of California defied U.S. government policy by announcing the world's first mandatory limits on global warming emissions from cars.
These success stories offer hope that we can address the serious global threats still undermining societies and ecosystems around the world. Among those discussed in State of the World 2003:
In the aftermath of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, it seems more likely that sustainable economic growth will emerge from the combined efforts of businesses, citizens' groups, and local governments than via consensus-based global agreements, according to State of the World 2003. The World Summit itself yielded roughly 280 partnership agreements among businesses and nongovernmental groups, including collaboration among the U.N., national governments, NGOs, and the private sector to produce cleaner vehicles, and a Water for Life project that will provide clean water and sanitation to the poor in Africa and Central Asia.
The report also notes that disparate communities can be brought together in the service of sustainability to great effect. It documents how environmentalists and religious people are joining forces in an alliance for environmental health and social justice, from the efforts of Buddhist monks in Thailand to combat deforestation, to the climate change campaign of the World Council of Churches.
We have seen many times in human history that societies are able to learn quickly from experience, and to then act, says State of the World 2003 project director Gary Gardner. The growing interest in sustainability among diverse sectors of society could provide the energy needed to boost pilot innovations to a global scale.
The environmental and social challenges we face today - from population to pollution to ecological decline - are enormous, but not intractable. As history demonstrates, people are capable of fundamental change for the better.
A barrier to change is that damage assessments often have an air of unreality because they bear little obvious relation to life as we ordinarily live it. A great deal of environmental degradation cannot be seen. Large economies tend to displace the ill effects of behavior from the behavior itself. Few of us ever encounter the toxic waste, soil degradation, or unsustainable mining and logging that support our collective consumption patterns.
It is not that hard, however, to envision the paths that reform will have to take. For example, in the energy economy, the path to reform leads away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, and in materials production, away from primary reliance on mining and more on recycling.
Despite the obvious need for change, and despite our obvious technical competence, it can still be hard to believe that real, fundamental change is possible. And yet such change does occur, even though it can be difficult to appreciate because it is so readily taken for granted. For example, who today remembers the campaign to eradicate smallpox?
Prominent scientists consider the world to be in the midst of the biggest wave of animal extinctions since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. This phenomenon is clearly reflected in the extinction of birds, which is now topping 50 times the natural rate of loss. Over the past 500 years, 128 bird species have vanished and 103 of these have been lost since 1800.
These disappearances mark not only the loss of unique species, but also the unraveling of delicate natural balances. Besides providing invaluable goods and services within their habitats, birds serve as valuable indicators of environmental change as well. Their population declines often reflect environmental degradation.
An array of phenomena accelerates the endangerment and extinction of bird species: habitat loss, man-made disasters, disease, the spread of exotic plant and animal species, hunting, illegal trade, pesticides, power lines, skyscrapers, and temperature change.
Biodiversity protection must rank high among development priorities such as housing, sanitation, and municipal water supply as part of a sustainable land use strategy. Furthermore, it must be worked into and be compatible with rural, suburban, and urban planning efforts that improve the prospects for the world's poor while making our cities and industries safer for all living beings. Only then will the future of the world's 9,800 bird species be secure.
The interplay among population growth, biodiversity loss, and gender roles is complex. But at the core, gender inequity tends to exacerbate population growth, and population increases tend to put pressure on the natural environment, including biological resources.
Over the past decade, several global agreements have acknowledged the need to include population realities in sustainable development planning. These agreements have also noted the central role that increasing women's status plays in lowering fertility and ensuring the sound management of natural resources.
Yet large scale or significant progress toward goals set at such conferences has been slow due to deficiencies in promised funding or political will. In the developing world, women are often the first to feel the effects of environmental degradation since they are the ones who rely on trees, grasses, water, and a variety of plants to meet daily household needs.
In order to head off future collisions between population, consumption, and biodiversity, swift and sure action will be needed in a number of areas, and at policy and program levels. These include targeting areas of high biodiversity for larger-scale improvements in reproductive health, education, and women's rights and abilities to participate in natural resource management. Also important are encouraging decision-makers and program managers to work across distinct sectors like health and environment, and development of national policies and public information programs aimed at better aligning consumption patterns and biodiversity conservation. Policy innovations, too, could support the scaling up of current programs to maximize their reach and impact.
Malaria, one of humanity's oldest scourges, is making a strong global comeback, killing up to 7,000 people a day (more than AIDS) - primarily children in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria has become resistant to most antimalarial drugs, making treatment vastly more complicated and expensive. Poverty, war, and civil strife make it hard for governments to implement preventive and curative measures. And people are not making use of safe, effective, and affordable ways to control the mosquitoes that carry the disease.
Bringing this disease under control will require creative strategies and far more resources than are currently available. (Malaria is a disease of poor countries and thus tends to be under-researched: between 1979 and 1999, only four of the 1,393 new drugs developed worldwide were antimalarials.) Despite the largely global phaseout of DDT, the insecticide remains an important tool for malaria control in epidemics in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
On the front lines in Africa, governments are reducing the incidence of malaria by helping people acquire bed nets treated with insecticides less toxic than DDT. Sleeping under a bed net radically reduces the number of infective mosquito bites a person suffers. The Mexican government has mounted a sophisticated program against malaria that combines community involvement, widespread prevention, locally tailored treatments, and the use of the least toxic option first. Through programs like the UN's Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, the developed world has begun to provide the much-needed increase in financial resources.
Renewable energy technologies have the potential to meet world energy demand many times over and are now ready for use on a large scale. The transition from today's mix of fossil fuels, nuclear, and big hydropower to renewables would significantly reduce the threats that today's fuel sources pose to the environment, public health and welfare, and international political stability.
The fossil fuel industry and governments of most oil-producing nations and major fossil fuel users like the United States have long argued that renewables were not a credible alternative. But it is difficult to claim that something is impossible once it has already occurred.
From Germany to rural China, renewable energy, especially wind power and solar (photovoltaic) power, has come of age. After more than a decade of double-digit growth, renewable energy is a multibillion-dollar global business. Wind power is leading the way in many nations, generating more than 20 percent of the electricity needs in some regions and countries, and is cost-competitive with many conventional energy technologies. Solar cells are already the most affordable option for getting modern energy services to hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.
If an accountant were to weigh the costs and benefits of extracting minerals from the Earth and then processing and refining them, the balance sheet would reveal this: an industry that consumes close to 10 percent of world energy, spews almost half of all toxic emissions in some countries, and threatens nearly 40 percent of the world's undeveloped tracts of forest. Mining is also the world's most deadly occupation: on average, 40 mine workers are killed on the job each day and many more are injured.
Today, minerals are extracted and consumed in enormous quantities: in 1999, some 9.6 billion tons of marketable minerals were dug out of the Earth, nearly twice as much as in 1970. The amount of wastes generated in order to extract these minerals is even more imposing. On average, producing a single gold ring, for example, generates about 3 tons of wastes at a mine site.
Fortunately, the world doesn't need to obtain minerals in a way that uses so much energy and generates so much pollution. Through improved design of cities, transport, homes, and products, societies can find ways to use the existing stock of minerals far more efficiently - and to use smaller amounts of materials overall - dramatically reducing the need to mine underground ores.
Metals, for instance, are eminently recyclable. Used copper or aluminum can be transformed back into the same amount of metal with very little additional supplement of new metal. It takes 95 percent less energy to produce aluminum from recycled materials than from bauxite ore. Recycling copper takes between five and seven times less energy than processing ore, while recycled steel uses two to three-and-a-half times less. Modern products ranging from computers to cars can - and are - being designed to be disassembled for repair, reuse, and ultimately, recycling.
Recycling's potential is poorly realized, however, mainly because of government policies that heavily favor extraction. Had the 7 million tons of cans thrown away by Americans between 1990 and 2000 been recycled, they would have yielded enough aluminum to make 316,000 Boeing 737 planes - which is about 25 times the size of the world's entire commercial air fleet. Another untapped lode of metal is the above-ground stock of gold. Currently, three times more gold sits in bank vaults, in jewelry boxes, and with private investors, than is identified in underground reserves
Unable to afford formal dwellings, as many as 1 billion people worldwide seek shelter in informal settlements, often in the most precarious places - on steep hillsides or floodplains, in garbage dumps, or downstream from industrial polluters - living not only with the constant threat of possible eviction but also the risks of natural disasters and disease from lack of water and toilets.
While cities of the industrial North claimed all slots in the list of the 10 largest cities in 1900, by 2001 only Tokyo and New York remained on that list. Urban centers in the developing South now dominate the ranks of the world's largest cities. Demographers expect that by 2015, Los Angeles and Shanghai will be bumped from the 10, as Karachi and Jakarta move up.
Governments could do much more to help their poorest citizens feel secure in their own homes, make a living, and improve their environment. And in doing so, the world's relatively poorer cities could well leapfrog their wealthier counterparts to create an urban development model that values both people and nature.
Worldwide, poor people's voices are rising in various political arenas. From Bombay to Buenos Aires, slum residents are organizing to fight for greater rights and better lives.
Spiritual traditions - from large, centralized religions to local tribal spiritual authorities - are beginning to devote energy to building just and environmentally healthy societies. Worldwide, the major faiths are issuing declarations, advocating for new national policies, and designing educational activities in support of a sustainable world - sometimes in partnership with the secular environmental community.
Religious institutions bring at least five strong assets to the effort to build a sustainable world: the capacity to shape world-views, moral authority, a large base of adherents, significant material resources, and community building capacity.
While the religious and scientific communities have historically diverged and have been suspicious of each other, issues like deforestation, climate change, and poverty have led religious and environmental communities to appreciate their common interest in combating such problems. This trend is hopeful and could represent the budding emergence of a powerful new alliance for sustainability.
As many religions begin to show interest in building a sustainable world, secular advocates of sustainability are becoming somewhat more receptive to spiritual appeals. This openness could reintroduce a passionate voice to the environmental movement that would build a spiritual/emotional connection between the public and the natural environment.
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