World Economy Threatened by Environmental Ills

WASHINGTON, DC, January 19, 1999 (ENS) - A special millennial edition of the State of the World report, released by the Washington based Worldwatch Institute Saturday predicts that environmental degradation could wreak havoc with the global economy. Lester Brown, president of the research institute warns that serious problems lie ahead unless a fundamental economic transformation is accomplished - a shift to a 21st century economy that is far less resource intensive and polluting than the 20th century economy has been.

"In a globally interconnected economy, rapid deforestation, falling water tables, and accelerating climate change could undermine economies around the world in the decades ahead," said Brown and Christopher Flavin, lead authors of the new report.


Lester Brown (Photos courtesy Worldwatch Institute)
Since 1900, world population grew by more than four billion - three times the number of people when the century began. At the same time, the use of energy and raw materials grew more than ten times.

"These trends cannot continue for many more years," the report says. "As the 21st century approaches, the big question is whether we can muster the ingenuity to change - and do so rapidly enough to stave off environmentally-based economic decline. The one thing we can say for sure is that the 21st century will be as different from the 20th as that one was from the 19th."

World energy needs are projected to double in the next several decades, but no credible geologist foresees a doubling of world oil production, which is projected to peak within the next few decades.

While protein demands are projected to also double in the century ahead, no respected marine biologist expects the oceanic fish catch, which has plateaued over the last decade, to double. The Worldwatch report warns that the world's oceans are being pushed beyond the breaking point, due to a lethal combination of pollution and over-exploitation.

Eleven of the 15 most important oceanic fisheries and 70 percent of the major fish species are now fully or over-exploited, according to experts. And more than half the world's coral reefs are now sick or dying.

report Growing stress can also be seen in the world's woodlands, where the clearing of tropical forests has contributed recently to unprecedented fires across large areas of Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and Central America.

Environmental deterioration is taking a growing toll on a wide range of living organisms. Of the 242,000 plant species surveyed by the World Conservation Union in 1997, some 33,000, or 14 percent, are threatened with extinction - mainly as a result of massive land clearing for housing, roads, and industries. This mass extinction is projected to disrupt nature's ability to provide essential ecosystem services, ranging from pollination to flood control.

The atmosphere is under assault. The billions of tons of carbon that have been released since the Industrial Revolution have pushed atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to their highest level in 160,000 years - a level that continues to rise each year.


Christopher Flavin
As scientists predicted, temperatures are rising along with the concentration of carbon dioxide. The latest jump in 1998 left the global temperature at its highest level since record-keeping began in the mid-19th century. Higher temperatures are projected to threaten food supplies in the next century, while more severe storms cause economic damage, and rising seas inundate coastal cities.

"Our analysis shows that we are entering a new century with an economy that cannot take us where we want to go," said Brown. "Satisfying the projected needs of eight billion or more people with the economy we now have is simply not possible. The western industrial model - the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that so dramatically raised living standards in this century - is in trouble."

"No challenge is greater, or more satisfying, than building an environmentally sustainable global economy, one where economic and social progress can continue, not only in the 21st century, but for many centuries beyond," Brown and Flavin conclude.