Daniel D. Chiras, Colorado, 1992
In an outlying village in Ethiopia, two children are lowered into a communal grave that houses the bodies of others who have died in recent days. Villagers stare vacantly at the men who cover the bodies with dirt; to the friends and relatives of these children who watch, death has lost much of its significance. Against the constant hunger and death, few mourn another child’s passing.
Worldwide, 700 people will die from starvation, extreme malnutrition, or infectious disease stemming from food shortages in the half hour it takes you to watch the evening news. This year alone, the death toll from hunger and associated diseases is estimated to be 40 million people. This is the equivalent of 300 jumbojets, each carrying 400 passengers, crashing with no survivors every day of the year. Almost half of the victims are children. Despite an outpouring of aid from the rich nations, hundreds of millions will die in years to come.
A False Sense of Security?
For Africans of the southern Sahara, the future looks bleak. Long-term drought, overpopulation, continued misuse of the land, and political struggles all create spreading deserts that swallow farmland at an alarming rate. In this dilemma, nature dictates an extreme solution: people must die to reestablish the balance.
But what about those of us in the wealthy nations of the world? Need we worry? To many people, the answer is no. Resource shortages are a thing of the past. Newspaper headlines assure us of an “oil glut” that has forced the oil-producing countries to slash prices, a move that has helped ensure economic stability in many countries. Some critics believe that our sense of security is illusory. But why not feel secure; with an ally as powerful as technology, how could we not prosper?
Part of the answer may lie in the way we mistreat our soil, perhaps our greatest resource of all. In the United States, for example, farmers currently cultivate 170 million hectares (421 million acres) of land. According to estimates by the Department of Agriculture, nearly one half of the United States’ farmland is eroding faster than it can be replaced by natural processes. Making matters worse, there is very little land in reserve to replace the prime land now eroding away. Some experts believe that crop production could fall by 10% to 30% in the United States in the next 50 years if soil erosion continues unchecked. Costs of food will rise as good farmland is destroyed. The United States may lose its position as a leading food exporter. Grain shipments to hungry nations may be reduced as well, unless something is done… quickly.
Consider also one of our most valuable resources, oil, thought by many to be the lifeblood of industrial societies. Oil’s economic importance to developed nations became clear in the 1970s when per-barrel prices jumped from $ 3.00 to over $ 35.
A whirlwind of inflation began, perilously gripping the industrial world, nearly halting industrial production. The American economy was driven to its knees. Millions of workers were laid off as inflation brought industrial production to a near standstill.
Despite current, short-term gluts and falling prices, the long-range future of oil is dim. Estimated worldwide oil supplies will last only 65 more years at current consumption. Should consumption rise, as expected, even fewer oil years await us. Clearly, time is running out for oil.
Long before our wells run dry, however, the rich, oil dependent nations could begin to flounder. By some estimates, somewhere around 2000 or 2010 global oil production will fall short of demand, sending prices sharply upward. The inflation of the 1970s will seem like warm spring breezes compared to the hurricane winds of global inflation.
You and I, and millions of people like us, will very likely see the end of oil within our lifetimes. The time is ripe for charting new paths, but this nation and others are sitting back, doing very little to develop alternative fuels and cut existing waste.
Declining resources are only part of the threat to modern society. Pollution and development also threaten to destroy the delicate web of life. Foremost on the list of pollutants is acid rain and snow.
Today, over 245 ponds and lakes in the Adirondacks have lost their aquatic life because of acids from industry and transportation. Deposited by rain and snow, these acids kill fish, algae, and aquatic plants. In southern Sweden 20000 lakes are without or soon to be without fish because of widespread acid deposition. In Canada, 100 lakes have met a similar fate. But the effect of acid rain is felt much wider. For instance, much of the once-rich Black Forest in Germany has been poisoned by this toxic rain.
As these examples suggest, the environment is in trouble – and so are we. Despite more than 20 years of effort and significant gains in environmental legislation, most of our environmental problems are growing worse. Consider some examples:
Since 1970, world population has increased by 1.6 billion people, climbing from 3.7 billion to 5.3 billion. Today, we’re adding nearly 90 million people to the world population each year.
Since 1970, the number of species on the official list of endangered and threatened species has increased from 92 to 539 (in 1989).
Since 1970, annual global carbon dioxide emissions have increased from 3.9 billion metric tons to over 5.2 billion tons.
Since 1970, the number of African elephants has declined from 4.5 million to only about 500000.
The past 20 years has seen America grow to be a world leader in waste production. Today, Americans throw away 160 million tons of municipal garbage each year.
That’s enough to fill the superdome two times a day, 365 days a year - the equivalent of about 1300 pounds of trash for every man, woman and child each year.
Each year, American industries produce an estimated 250-280 million tons of hazardous wastes (over 2000 pounds of hazardous waste for every man, woman, and child in this country).
Pollution is choking our cities. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 110 million Americans live in air considered hazardous to their health. An estimated 50000 Americans die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution.
The long-term future of the world is in jeopardy. It is not just the poor of Ethiopia or Chad or Sudan who stand to lose, but also the wealthy residents who make up one-fourth of the world’s population but consume 80% of its resources. The rich and the poor are locked in a crisis created by overpopulation, vanishing resources, and excessive pollution.
Paul Valery once noted that the tragedy of our times is that the future is not what it used to be. In reality, though, the future is rarely what we think it will be. The tragedy of our times is that few people realize that the future has changed. We are, as a whole, going about our daily lives as if nothing has happened, lulled into complacency by old and fairly unrealistic dreams. Oil gluts, falling gasoline prices, and economic stability have given us a false sense of security at a time when we need, more than anything, three key ingredients: foresight, planning, and action - both individually and collectively.
This book examines the crisis of population, resources, and pollution that engulfs humankind. You will find it a hopeful book, filled with solutions. It views our dilemma in much the same way that the Chinese view crises. Their word for crisis is wei-chi. The first part means “beware of danger”. The second part means “opportunity for change”.
In this spirit, I invite you to look at the critical paths we are now on. You will see that the human race can survive and prosper. But changes must be made - big changes in the way we think and the ways we act.