MotherEarth Problems & possibilities 1995

Despite the apocalyptic terms that often frame the environmental debate, we believe there is hope, if sometimes only diverse glimmers, that grassroots energy and creativity can help us face our challenges. MoJo's review of the State of the Earth offers a snapshot of our problems, their impact, and potential solutions. A thought for Earth Day 1995: Even if we don't take responsibility for the planet, the earth will go on without us. Environmentalism is human self-preservation, for us and for future generations.

Agriculture

KEY PROBLEM:
The promise is fading that a "Green Revolution" will feed the world. Use of fertilizers, pesticides, new plant strains, and irrigation have increased production per acre, but there are big drawbacks--e.g., fertilizers pollute and pests evolve too quickly for pesticides.
IMPACT:
Increasing hunger by 2050, when soaring population growth is expected to triple the global demand for food.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
Several groups, including the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., are pioneering sustainable farming practices to reduce soil erosion and chemical contamination.

Water

KEY PROBLEM:
The earth's water is 97 percent saline; most of the rest is snow and ice. Fresh water is distributed unevenly and is increasingly polluted; its capture carries environmental costs.
IMPACT:
Today, at least a billion people lack clean water, most of them in rural areas. From 1950 to 1990 global water use doubled, leading to more dams, river diversions, and depletion of aquifers.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
More than 2,000 groups in 43 countries support the Manibeli Declaration to block World Bank funding for destructive dams.

Toxics

KEY PROBLEM:
Toxic waste levels are not expected to decrease as the global economy grows fivefold by 2055. The U.S. is the largest producer of industrial materials--and probably toxic waste.
IMPACT:
Hazards include increasing reproductive failure, impaired development of the young, and genetic alteration.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
A German entrepreneur is working with Volkswagen and other manufacturers to build products, from cars to VCRs to detergent, out of reusable components.

Energy

KEY PROBLEM:
Analysts now say that the supply of fossil fuels may last another 300 years--but these resources are not renewable, and their extraction and use cause environmental damage. Nuclear power is not a viable alternative, given its costs, risks, and waste disposal problems.
IMPACT:
Oil's low cost hinders conservation pressure and slows the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
Over the past decade, more than 250,000 homes in the developing world have added rooftop solar systems.

Forests

KEY PROBLEM:
Experts estimate that forests lost in the 1980s would cover an area twice the size of Texas, most in biologically rich tropical forests like those in Brazil and Indonesia. More forestland was degraded or fragmented.
IMPACT:
Extensive loss of habitat and biodiversity; exhaustion of a prime resource for energy, building construction, and paper.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
Sustainable forestry is gaining momentum, from Mexico to Papua New Guinea. In the U.S., the number of acres of sustainably harvested forestland increased fourfold last year.

Biodiversity

KEY PROBLEM:
Many scientists warn that we are facing a major species die-off akin to the demise of the dinosaurs. Twelve percent of mammal species and 11 percent of bird species were classified as threatened in 1980.
IMPACT:
Failing ecosystems; loss of genetic diversity; the possibility that undiscovered cures from medicinal plants and animals will be lost forever.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
The threatened extinction of Pacific coast salmon has united grassroots and government groups in a multitude of habitat restoration projects.

Atmosphere

KEY PROBLEM:
Greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane rose steadily with industrialization. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) also contribute to ozone loss. Current atmospheric chlorine levels are nearly six times normal and rising.
IMPACT:
Possibly a 26 percent increase in nonmelanoma skin cancers and untold damage to flora and fauna.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
An international agreement requires industrial countries to phase out production of CFCs by 1996. CO2 and methane emissions began declining slightly in 1989.

Population

KEY PROBLEM:
The U.N. estimates the world's population could climb from 5.6 to 9.8 billion by the year 2050, with the most rapid changes in urban areas, where population could triple because of global rural-to-urban migration.
IMPACT:
Escalating demand for resources; concomitant environmental destruction.
ENCOURAGING SIGN:
Current U.N. strategy seeks to reduce poverty, raise women's status, and support family planning. More than 30,000 participants from around the world are expected in Beijing at this fall's U.N. conference on women.

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SOURCES: World Resources Institute; Pacific Institute; International Rivers Network; Worldwatch Institute; Ecotimber International; Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley.

Research by Holly Lloyd with Liz Enochs, Jennifer Lind, and Justin Lowe
Research assistance by Lexis/Nexis