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In a series of six interconnected short essays, the editors of The Economist present an up-to-date summary of global environmental issues, including sustainable development, the amount of information available on the environment, climate change, and the role of both technology and market forces in helping to shape the future of environmental systems.
The process of globalization has produced increasing modernization among both contemporary and modern cultures. Will human adaptability be enough to offset the massive culture changes that accompany such meta-trends as development of a global economy and society?
One of the more dramatic but least-known global economic phenomena is the illegal traffic in endangered species. Demands for rare pets, aphrodisiacs, or clothing ensure that this international environmental crime will continue to grow. But more than just a trade in biological commodities, this new set of illegal activities that violate international environmental accords also includes dumping of hazardous wastes and the manufacture and use of environmentally-destructive materials.
Many of the achievements of the global environmental movement have been attained through the work of advocacy groups that are transnational. The “greening” of development banking and the development of a commission to study the impact of damming rivers are among such achievements. But much of the transnational environmental movement still has a very local base among small groups of committed individuals.
According to a National Academy of Sciences report, around 1980 the collective demands of humans upon Earth's resource base exceeded the regenerative capacity of global environmental systems. In economic terms this has produced a “bubble” economy that will keep expanding until it bursts—or until humans decide to stabilize population growth and climate and eliminate both environmental change and human poverty.
The World Bank is one of the most important components of the international economic and monetary system. The Bank has long been criticized for funding projects which produce environmental problems. Although the Bank has promised to begin to focus on funding sustainable economic growth rather than, for example, dams that may produce more harm than good, critics question whether the Bank can or will change.
A general consensus exists among scientists that the roots of the current environmental crisis are to be found in a combination of population growth, affluence, and increasing technology. No such consensus exists, however, about the ultimate cause of either population growth or the desire to consume. Notwithstanding this lack of agreement, society needs to sublimate the desire to acquire things for the good of the global commons.
A shift in economic theory similar to the transition between the Ptolemaic geocentric universe and the Copernican model is necessary to save the Earth from continuing environmental degradation. Will we continue to see the environment as a subset of the economy, resulting in an economy that is disjunctive with the ecosystem, or begin to see the economy as a subset of the environment, allowing us to produce an environmentally sustainable economy?
The spread of factory farming—the intensive raising of livestock and poultry in enclosed conditions—has allowed meat to become a more important part of diets worldwide. It has also reduced local diversity of breeds and increased the dangers from animal diseases. As more developed countries place stricter environmental regulations on factory farming, this industrialized agriculture spreads to developing countries with weaker or no legislation.
One of the issues most often ignored, even by well-meaning environmental activist groups, is that of environmental justice, the notion that such variables as race or economic status should not work against the environmental quality of any specific location. Within the last decade, however, one of the oldest and most powerful environmental advocacy organizations, the Sierra Club, has taken important stands on issues of the importance of quality of life for all.
One of the more promising solutions to a global food shortage is the continuing development of biotechnology, including but not limited to such things as genetic engineering, that might be able to do such things as reducing erosion while simultaneously producing more food. Environmental groups, however, have a well-established suspicion of artificial substances that are necessarily part of the new agricultural technologies.
In the vast open spaces of the American West, energy development in the form of natural gas extraction competes with livestock raisers for the same land. Much of the problem lies in the curious nature of mineral rights in which the owners of the minerals under the land are often different from the owners of the land itself—and mineral rights nearly always take precedence over surface rights.
Several facts about energy consumption need to be recognized: any use of energy is going to have some negative environmental impacts, current reliance on fossil fuels cannot continue, most alternative energy systems (such as wind or solar power) are still inefficient enough to be very expensive. The solution that many energy experts are seeking is a scaling down of energy production and control—from huge power plants to those that power small areas such as cities or neighborhoods
The widespread use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biomass energy could not only reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, thereby strengthening the economy, but could also significantly improve environmental quality in the world's most energy-hungry region. To facilitate the adoption of energy systems based on something other than oil or coal, the United States needs a strong national energy policy.
Everyone from the President of the United States to the hopeful consumer has jumped on the hydrogen energy bandwagon. This will be the energy of the future: cheap, non-polluting, and infinite in supply. But many energy experts warn that, as an alternative to other sources, hydrogen is just “a better mousetrap” when it comes to solving energy shortages. More important, it is still a mousetrap that is a long ways away from being able to catch a mouse.
Preserving our living natural environment is important for the maintenance of existing economic systems and the hope for future economic prosperity. It is impossible to calculate the importance of a healthy biosphere for either the Earth's material well-being or the health of the human race. But there are powerful moral arguments as well as economic ones that should compel us to take responsibility for the future of the natural world.
For hundreds of millennia, species emerged and stayed in relatively discrete geographical regions. With the expansion of worldwide transportation systems and goods of all kinds being moved about the world, many species have gained the capacity for movement. These invasive alien species are contributing factors in approximately 30 percent of all the extinctions of plants and animals since 1600.
The traditional approach to the protection of biodiversity has been government action and financing. As both money and action has been diverted to other purposes, those concerned with conservation of biodiversity have turned increasingly to market oriented funding sources. Private funding sources often recognize the economic benefits of preserving biodiversity more quickly than do governments.
Most conservation biologists agree that the world is undergoing a mass extinction of plant and animal species brought about by habitat degradation and loss resulting from human activities. Skeptics challenge the alarming reports from biologists by noting the lack of precision in the data on extinction, and politicians—for whom extinction is an abstract—largely ignore the issue. A major part of the problem is the difficulty in calculating the rates of species loss and in convincing decision makers that biological loss matters.
The movement toward a global economy has meant a standardization in the management of much of the world's land. These new standardized land management practices have, in turn, led to a decrease in the number of farmers.
In the drought-stricken American West, a new round of water wars has erupted, with farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and urban dwellers all contesting for an increasingly scarce water resource. The first major river system to become a casualty in the conflict for water is the Klamath River of northern California and southern Oregon where federally mandated irrigation rights produced enough water withdrawal to cause a massive salmon dieback.
More than half of all the world's freshwater resources are now consumed by humans and their agricultural and industrial systems. As a consequence of increasing uses of water for irrigation, we are now seeing not just humans competing with humans—but farmers against factories—for water. What is now emerging in some areas of the world is interspecies competition for a dwindling resource.
Experts agree that the Earth's diminishing water supply is in increasing demand, particularly for agricultural production. Increasing demand and shrinking supply puts the world's food security in an increasingly precarious position. Problems of groundwater depletion, surface water pollution, and the cost of developing new water supplies all contribute to the problem.
Each summer of the past two decades, forest fires in the West have seemed to increase in number and intensity. The major reason is the decades of fire suppression that have left western forests with such high fuel levels, thus fires that would have once been minor events now become major ones. Government officials are clashing with environmentalists on the best way to reduce these annual conflagrations.
The environmental dangers of many agricultural pesticides and other chemicals have been recognized in the United States and other industrialized countries for decades. But the tradeoffs between increased agricultural production and the use of these chemicals is a difficult one for developing countries where their use has increased rather than decreased.
The United States is far ahead of much of the world in cleaning up its surface water supplies, due to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Although water pollution problems persist in the United States, those problems are less severe than in most of the world's less-developed countries. It has been estimated that nearly one-third of the world's people suffer from diseases associated with polluted water.
The largest sources of pollution—those that contribute to global warming or the depletion of the ozone layer—do not often manifest themselves in human biological systems. A major problem of public health in the early years of the 21st century is monitoring human blood and other bodily fluids to determine the toxic levels of harmful chemicals present in the environment and, therefore, in humans.
Chemicals, whether natural or man-made, have a way of not only working their way into environmental systems but becoming concentrated in those systems as a result of the process of bioaccumulation. As materials such as perchlorate—a primary component of rocket fuels—escapes from military containment and enters groundwater systems, it often appears in dangerous concentration in vegetables that use that water.
Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans is contributing to increased ocean acidity and subsequent changes in aquatic biological systems. The change is severe enough to cause some environmental scientists to refer to oceanic carbonization as a “weapon of mass destruction.”