What ails the globe?
Top ecologist Norman Myers offers his list of the Earth's top 10 environmental
ORTING OUT THE GLOBE'S many environmental challenges
is no easy task. Extinctions, toxic-chemical contamination, lead poisoning,
garbage dumps and a myriad other images swarm across our thoughts and TV
screens with kaleidoscopic disorder. How do we make sense of this welter
of disturbing environmental news? And which of these issues should concern
us most? To examine the priorities, International Wildlife turned to British
economist and environmental expert Norman Myers. His charge: Compile his
personal list of the Earth's 10 most pressing environmental problems.
Myers is well equipped for such a task. A consultant
to governments and international agencies, he won the Volvo Environment
Prize in 1992, the largest monetary award of its kind outside the United
States. He is also author of numerous environmental books including, most
recently, Ultimate Security (W.W. Norton, 1993), which outlines the growing
social impact of environmental breakdowns.
Here, from Myers' extensive files, is his list, complete
with explanations, solutions and various related commentary.
1 Global Warming
It affects more people in more ways than any other problem;
indeed, it will affect virtually everyone. Global warming occurs as pollutants
such as carbon dioxide, a by-product of the burning of wood and of fossil
fuels such as oil and coal, accumulate in the atmosphere, forming a gaseous
blanket around the globe. This blanket holds in a portion of the sun's warmth
that normally would radiate back into space. Because the gases act like
the glass roof and sides of a greenhouse, this is often called the greenhouse
According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change, comprised of hundreds of topflight climatologists, present
trends in greenhouse-gas emissions will increase the planet's average temperature
by roughly 2.5 degrees Centigrade by the middle of the next century, if
A 2.5 degree rise might not sound like much, but as
U.S. Vice President Albert Gore recently pointed out, a 4-degree shift the
other way during the last ice age meant the difference between having a
nice day and finding a mile of ice on your head.
Solution: First and foremost, get off our fossil-fuel
binge. We shall have to do that soonish as concerns oil anyway, since they
ain't making any more of it. By weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, we
can cut back on carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that accounts for half
of global warming, and do our economies a power of good.
Since the mid-1970s, Americans have practiced enough
energy conservation to save $150 billion a year, equivalent to half the
federal deficit and worth $600 per citizen. They could double that amount
merely by exploiting existing technologies.
Certain regions look likely to experience both higher temperatures and lower
rainfall - a sure-fire recipe for unending droughts of unprecedented severity.
They feature several of the main bread-baskets of the world, and by the
middle of the next century we shall have nearly twice as many people to
Evidence For Global Warming
1. Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, hold in
heat, and the amount of greenhouse gases has risen since the Industrial
Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentrate
in the atmosphere stood at 280 parts per million. Today it measures more
than 350 parts per million.
2. Experts concluded in a 1992 report that global warming must be on its
way if only because of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that
we have been kicking into the global skies during the past industrialized
century. We keep on spewing effluents in ever-greater amounts.
3. Since 1980 we have had eight of the ten hottest years on record. Is the
globe trying to tell us something?
This is the mass extinction of species throughout the
globe. We seem set to eliminate between one-third and two-thirds of Earth's
species, plus a similar proportion of subspecies. It will be the biggest
extinction spasm since the demise of the dinosaurs and associated creatures
65 million years ago. The result: a massive draining of the planetary gene
Wild species and their genetic resources make many contributions
to our daily welfare by providing products used in medicine and agriculture.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that at least a dozen plant species
in tropical forests possess the capacity to generate superstar drugs against
various types of cancer. Such valuable resources should be protected, but
we are losing several plant species in the forests every day.
Peter Principe, an economist with the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, says that the cumulative market value of plant-based
drugs in developed nations up to the year 2000 is an estimated $500 billion
(in 1984 dollars).
Solution: In the short term, we need to establish
many moreparks and reserves, especially in the developing tropics. This
is only an interim solution to a more cohesive attempt to protect the biosphere,
because we know that even if we were to turn the whole of Amazonia into
one huge park and build a fence around it 50 meters high, it still would
not be protected from multitudes of landless peasants, nor from acid rain
and global warming. Jeff McNeely, one of the most innovative scientists
at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources-The
World Conservation Union, says that 50 years from now we may find that very
few parks exist, either because they have been overrun by land-hungry farmers
and climate upheavals, or because we have found a way to manage our landscapes
in a manner that automatically leaves room for wildlands and their biodiversity.
In the long term, the only way to save biodiversity
is by saving the biosphere - for us humans as well as for our fellow species.
The minimum length of time it will take evolution to come
up with a replacement stock of species to match today's stock: 5 million
We are effectively saying that people of the future can get by without the
lost species. Suppose the sustainable global population of the net 5 million
years is 2.5 billion people, less than half today's total. This means that
people alive today are making a decision on the unconsulted behalf of the
100 trillion people who will come after them (If you have trouble imagining
a figure of that size, ask yourself how longis one trillion seconds; answer
The amount of minerals used by Americans since 1940
equals the amount consumed by all humankind prior to 1940. People dump 70,000
synthetic chemicals into the environment annually, after only minimal testing
against only a few recognized threats. In 1987, the United States released
1.2 million tons of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, 670,000 tons into
the soil and 250,000 tons into water bodies, plus 1.4 million tons into
landfills and public sewers.
Rich nations account for a quarter of the world's human
population but consume three-quarters of the world's natural resources and
generate three-quarters of its waste and pollution.
Most developed nations are experiencing some population
growth, albeit at a much lower level than that of developing nations. For
example, Great Britain is increasing at only a twelfth the rate of Bangladesh.
But, because each Briton consumes 30 times more commercial energy than a
Bangladeshi, British population growth contributes 3.9 times as much carbon
dioxide to the global atmosphere and hence contributes more to global warming.
Ironically, unplanned births account for all of Britain's population growth.
The effective size of the average American family in terms of per capita
pollution and consumption of critical resources is the equivalent of 30
citizens of the developing world.
Solution: Recycle like crazy. The United States
recycles a little more than half as much paper as does Japan. Germany requires
companies to take back packaging supplied with their products.
A U.S. company, 3M Corporation, shows the way: Since
1975 it has saved $1.2 billion by recycling waste and preventing pollution.
Recycling could be an economic boom for the U.S. economy, with a potential
for growing from a $50 billion-a-year industry in 1989 to a $200-billion-a-year
industry in 2000.
We also need to put a priority on eliminating pollution.
Right now, in nations that show concern about pollution, priorities are
often backwards. For example, the United States spends $9 billion a year
on contamination cleanup but only $200 million yearly to prevent contamination
in the first place.
The U.S. economy could run on half of the fossil-fuel energy used today,
possibly less. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit
group that studies resource use, says, "Our industrial performance
will leap ahead, our pollution flows will decline (so will our monthly bills),
and our showers will still be hot and our beer cold.
So many people, so few resources.
It took 10,000 lifetimes for the world's population
to reach two billion people. Now, in the course of a single lifetime, world
population is increasing to three times that figure. Within another lifetime
it may double again.
Nine out of ten new arrivals are in developing nations.
A British population expert, Paul Harrison, has calculated that this population
growth caused 79 percent of the tropical deforestation that occurred from
1973 to 1988, leading to tens of thousands of species extinctions during
each of those years. Harrison also declares that population growth accounted
for 69 percent of the increase in livestock numbers that occurred from 1961
to 1985, resulting in widespread soil erosion and desertification from overgrazing.
The growth also underlay the 46 percent rise in carbon dioxide emissions
from fossil fuels from 1960 to 1988.
Providing food for a growing human population is another
problem. Some analysts protest that agrotechnology will keep on expanding
the Earth's ability to feed people. But consider: From 1950 to 1984, we
achieved a 161 percent increase in world grain output, while since 1985
we have managed only a 6 percent annual increase. Moreover, today's harvests
are only a little higher than those of 1985, yet we have an extra 700 million
people to feed. While world population has increased by 14 percent, grain
output per person has declined by 9 percent since 1985.
Fortunately, future population growth is only a projection
of recent trends, and we can alter those trends. Demography is not destiny.
For example, Thailand's average family size in 1969 stood at 6.5 children;
in 1989 it was two children. Even in India, where the average family size
of almost four children has seen little change for years, Kerala State has
achieved replacement level fertility.
Solution: Fully 300 million couples in developing
countries want to practice family planning, but they lack the means to do
it. We of the developed world, through financial support, must help these
people to meet their goals so we can cut the future global population by
more than 2 billion. We also need to help upgrade the status of women in
the developing world by funding projects that will put these women into
school, win them jobs and enhance their social standing. Such measures usually
result in smaller family size.
Calculations of the World Hunger Project
Total world population today:
Number of people on a vegetarian diet that the Earth can sustainably support
with present agrotechnologies and equal distribution of food supplies:
Number of people that the world can support on a diet deriving 15 percent
of calories from meat and milk products, as do many people in South America:
Number of people that the world can support on a diet deriving 25 percent
of calories from animal protein, as is the case with most people in North
5 Third World Poverty
At least half the Third World's environmental problems,
such as deforestation, desertification and soil erosion, is caused by one-quarter
of the population of developing nations. These are the "bottom billion"
people who live on a cash income of a dollar a day. At least 400 million
of them are so impoverished that they are chronically undernourished - in
plain language, semi-starving. Bypassed by development, these "marginal"
people see no alternative but to scratch a living from marginal environments
- those too wet, too dry or too steep for normal agriculture. They wreak
fearsome damage in their efforts to keep body and soul together.
Their numbers are growing. They have the biggest families
by far, because they think of children as an economic measure: more hands
to help with farm work. Having many children also helps to ensure that enough
survive to support parents in old age.
Solution: If rich nations were to open their
markets to exports from the developing world, as they do to one another's
exports, Third World revenues would skyrocket by $lOO billion yearly, twice
as much as all foreign aid presently offers. Ending Third World poverty
would in turn strengthen the global economy because developing nations would
offer many new markets.
When poor people torch Amazonia and Borneo, the greenhouse gasses
will disrupt climate worldwide. When they turn grasslands into deserts,
the climatic dislocations could again reach around the globe. Isn't Third
World poverty something none of us can afford? There's some sense to the
notion that by taking care of people, we help take care of the population
Proportion of U.S. citizens to citizens of all other nations:
What's the Good Life?
Proportion of U.S. pollution to global pollution:
Amount of junk discarded yearly by the average American, as a percentage
of body weight:
Does the good life really consist of accumulating ever-more goodies? How
many people on their death beds ever say they wish they had lived higher
on the hog?
6 Soil Erosion
Wind and storm-water runoff carry away about 25 billion
tons of topsoil yearly, worldwide. At this rate, by the middle of the next
century we shall have lost virtually all our topsoil, and no substitute
for soil exists.
Erosion occurs even in the world's most prosperous nations.
It is as bad in parts of Indiana, one of America's agricultural states,
as in India. Loss of soil in the United States leads to loss of farmland
fertility; this and other on-farm costs from erosion amount to $18 billion
a year. Off-farm costs, such as disruption of downstream water systems,
are worth another $10 billion a year. That amounts to almost three-quarters
the value of America's $42-million corn crop.
Solution: Instead of effectively fostering erosion
through agricultural subsidies that encourage overuse of farmlands, nations
with serious erosion problems could adopt a U.S. approach, offering economic
incentives to farmers who protect topsoil. Result of the U.S. program: Erosion
dropped by a third between 1985 and 1990 and may do the same again by 1995.
Developing nations with hilly terrain and heavy rainfall
should work to ensure that watersheds retain tree cover. Trees can reduce
flooding and supply renewable stocks of timber and fuelwood. Impoverished
Ethiopia has found it worthwhile to build more than a million kilometers
(670,000 mi.) of anti-erosion terraces and bunds to safeguard steeply sloping
croplands, though even that fine effort helps a mere 6 percent of threatened
The topsoil the world loses every year theoretically could grow 9 million
tons of grain, enough to feed 200 million undernourished people or half
of all the semi-starving on Earth.
7 Water Shortages
One of the main sources of water for drinking and crop
irrigation worldwide is underground aquifers. This is water that has accumulated
in vast caverns and in porous sediments for thousands of years, seeping
in from the planet's surface. This source of water is used even in areas
of heavy rainfall, such as Florida. The U.S. farming
regions in the Midwest draw water from aquifers 10 to 50 times faster than
nature replaces it. China is also mining its water, meeting the needs of
China's billion residents with aquifers that can sustain only 650 million
Agricultural irrigation produces a third of our food
from a sixthof our croplands. In the future, we will need to grow three
times as much food if we are to take care of population growth and increase
Solution: All nations need to protect their sources
of fresh water and to safeguard water quality and aquatic ecosystems. Industry
should encourage the development of water-saving devices, and water-use
plans should highlight the need to minimize waste. In some nations, for
example the United States, government so heavily subsidizes water that incentive
to use it sparingly and efficiently is scant.
If Earth were the size of an egg, the size of the total volume of water
would be about one drop. Of this total, only about one-third is actually
available to humans as fresh water for drinking and irrigating (water in
lakes, rivers, and the accessible water table below ground). Source:
The Cousteau Almanac.
Sick, Sick, Sick
The economic cost through workdays lost to sickness in the developing world
is reckoned to be $125 billion a year, or roughly 10 percent of the economies
In the United States, farmers are taking water from the Ogallala aquifer
underlying the great wheat states at rates averaging 40 times that of natural
Providing clean water to the globe would be a prime means for cutting child
deaths in the Third World, presently equivalent to a jumbo-jet load of children
every quarter hour. During the 1990s we could save 100 million children.
Amount of money it would take to supply clean water to all people:
$36 billion per year.
Amount the world spends on military activities:
$36 billion every two weeks.
The daily amount of water available per person for basic household
needs in the developing world as a proportion of the amount of water an
American uses each time he or she flushes the toilet:
Number of people who suffer water shortages today: more than 1 billion
Number of people expected to suffer such shortages 20 years from now:
Diseases caused by water shortages:
150 million cases of schisstosomiasis, 200 million cases of diarrhea,
300 million cases of roundworm
8 Ozone Depletion
Ozone is an atmospheric oxygen compound that shields
the Earthfrom lethal solar rays. The release into the atmosphere of chemical
compounds containing chlorine - including coolants used in refrigerators
and air conditioners - is destroying the atmospheric ozone layer because
escaping chlorine molecules combine with the ozone to form acid compounds.
Data accumulated during the past decade have led a United
Nations panel of several hundred leading climatologists to the unanimous
conclusion that ozone depletion poses a grave threat to many living creatures,
including people. The experts differ among themselves only on the amount
and rate of ozone loss - and time after time they have found it is worse
than expected. In 1992, ozone loss in temperate regions, including North
America and Europe, turned out to be twice as great as expected. In 1993,
the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration reported that ozone
depletion over North America was the worst on record. Even if production
of the chief ozone-destroying chemicals ends, the chemicals already in the
atmosphere will continue to destroy ozone molecules for at least 60 years.
Solution: The best solution is to put an end
to the chemical culprits immediately. Unfortunately, most producer nations
are deferring final phaseout until the end of 1995. However, some producers
of the chemicals have voluntarily stopped production, and the ozone layer
already shows signs of recovering. Some possibly better news: In summer
1993, scientists were surprised to find a sudden slowdown in the accumulation
of ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere.
Most of the world's governments have agreed to phase
out the destructive chemicals by the end of the century. If the phaseout
is completed, the ozone layer should begin to recover within a few decades.
But emergent industrial powers such as China and India, seeking to install
refrigerators in every home, may continue to use cheap, ozone-depleting
refrigerants. They are asking for technical and economic help to avoid this,
and it is in the developed world's interest to provide all the assistance
Without the planned phaseout of the harmful chemicals
the United States alone could eventually suffer an additional 350 million
cases of skin cancer and tens of millions of additional cases of eye cataracts.
Just the first could entail economic costs reckoned at $40 trillion, while
prevention would cost $36 billion. There would also be suppression of immune
systems, with great increase in infectious diseases.
These health damages would be compounded by ecological
injury to major crop plants. Scientists have tested some 200 plant species,
most of them crops, and have found that two-thirds are harmed by increased
ultraviolet radiation through ozone-layer depletion.
Sizable damage also could occur to marine fisheries.
In the Antarctic Ocean, located beneath the atmosphere's biggest ozone "hole"
and the site of one of the world's most bountiful fisheries, the productivity
of phytoplankton - tiny plants that form the basis of marine food chains
- has already been reduced by 6 to 12 percent.
"Synergism" is the interaction of two or more
processes in such a way that the total effect of the combined processes
is greater than the sum of the individual effects. For example, if low sunlight
reduces a plant's photosynthesis, the plant becomes more susceptible to
the effects of cold weather; similarly, cold weather may increase the plant's
vulnerability to low sunlight. In this case, the compounded effect is greater
than the total effect produced by the separate low-light and cold-weather
impacts simply added together. In some cases, the compounded impact, or
synergism, can be 10 times greater than the sum of the component parts.
When we consider all environmental disruptions together,
we find a multitude of potential synergies that may have a deeply impoverishing
impact upon us. If this is so, we should expect an environmental debacle
both greater and sooner than most data predict based on studies examining
only individual environmental threats.
Solution: We need an intensive scientific effort
to investigate synergisms in their full scope. If we fail to anticipate
the synergisms that lie ahead, our best efforts to tackle environmental
problems may fall far short.
At the same time, environmental safeguards can offer
constructive synergisms. For example, tree planting in the humid tropics,
undertaken to generate a sink for atmospheric carbon to counter global warming,
could supply many spinoff benefits, including commercial plantations that
will reduce logging on remaining natural forests. In addition, reduced deforestation
would help preserve the abundant stocks of species in tropical forests.
And, both tree plantations and surviving natural forests in upland catchments
would regulate downstream water flows and thus reduce flood-and-drought
We know all too little about environmental synergisms.
If we could better predict potential synergisms in the environmental upheavals
that lie ahead we would be better able to anticipate, and even prevent,
some of their adverse repercussions.
Consider, for example, the synergism of ozone-layer
depletion and global warming. Marine phytoplankton, which are important
absorbers of carbon dioxide, are exceptionally sensitive to ultraviolet
radiation, which ozone depletion intensifies. Were marine phytoplankton
to be markedly reduced, the ocean's capacity to serve as Earth's leading
"sink" of carbon dioxide would decline significantly, thus accelerating
greenhouse-effect processes. Conversely, ozone-layer depletion cools the
stratosphere, which could increase global warming in the lower atmosphere.
10 Unknown Unknowns
Amongst all the uncertainty about our world, we can
be all but sure that some unrecognized environmental processes have the
capacity to generate major environmental problems in the future. Because
we know next to nothing about these processes, I call them "unknown
The name might seem a contradiction in terms. How can
we know what wedo not know? But consider: While we know all too little about
global warming, and still less about when it will arrive in full scope and
with what regional variations, we do know for all intents and purposes that
it is on its way. It is a "known unknown." Until recently, however,
we hardly knew of its very existence: It was an unknown unknown.
As we impose multitudes of further assaults on the Earth,
what new unknown unknowns are working up momentum in our environments, waiting
to leap out on us at some stage of the future? The question surely ranks
among our most difficult environmental challenges, yet it receives next
to no attention. We need to initiate investigations into the workings of
our planet, to go boldly, as it were, where no scientist has gone before.
We need to troubleshoot the planet, looking for pings and dings that we
do not yet know are there.
Solution: Mount a sizable scientific program
to tackle the challenge. Regrettably, not all scientists are inclined to
invest time and effort on taking shots in the dark, but those willing to
accept the challenge need full financial support. More important, we should
throttle back on the myriad insults we impose on our one and only Earth.
But we know that anyway. Or do we?
Acid rain did not appear on our radar screens during the decades that it
was building up unseen and unsuspected. Our unknowing has been costly: Europe's
forests may suffer annual damage worth $30 billion for decades. Nor did
we suppose there could be anything amiss with the ozone layer until, after
many years of chemical attack, its thinning became all too apparent.
- # of species biologists believe inhabit earth: 5 - 30 million
- # of identified insect species: 750,000
- Percentage of species believed to live in tropical forests: 50
- # of acres of tropical forest destroyed each hour: 5,800
- Annual value of plant derived medicinal drugs: $40 billion
- # of species no longer considered threatened since Congress passed
the Endangered Species Act in 1973: 6
- # of endangered animals in US with improving populations: 33
- # of animals with declining populations: 122
- Source: National Wildlife Magazine