New Internationalist

The Facts

November 1990

new internationalist
issue 213 - November 1990


danger and opportunity

Tea. Fred begins to feel an appetite for something a bit more substantial. Facts! He wants facts! But there are not facts about the future. And no tea leaves to read either (teabags have seen to that). Just an old pack of Tarot cards.

Speculation. There's money and power to be made from that. But Fred just wants to know. Are there dangers that can be avoided? Are there opportunities that can be grasped?

The NI takes a sceptical look at what we can reasonably predict.


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By 2000 the arable land in use per head will have fallen to 0.25 hectares from 0.37 hectares in 1975. Between 1980 and 2000 the number of people experiencing acute fuelwood deficit or scarcity will have increased from 1,395 million to 2,986 million.8 Estimates that 11 million hectares of forest are being lost every year have recently been revised upwards to 17 million.9

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Only 40% of the world's potential arable land was in use in 1975, and that will have increased to 50% in 2000. The critical issue is not the availability but the ownership of land, restricting its productive use. Since 1970 Japan has shown how rice yields can be raised on average 0.9 per cent per year; there is no reason why the basic nutritional needs of the world cannot be met.8



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The world spends more than $1,000 billion per year on arms - more than the total income of one half of the world's population. Military spending since 1960 has doubled in the North and grown sixfold in the South. Just one nuclear submarine belonging to one of the 'superpowers' can destroy all the major cities in the other.10

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At a conservative estimate arms budgets can be cut by at least $250 billion over the next few years.10 In the US, for example, spending $1 billion on guided missiles creates about 9,000 jobs; the same amount spent on local transport would create 21,500 jobs and on educational services 63,000 jobs.8 But a fundamental shift in economic power and militaristic attitudes will be needed for the 'peace dividend' to be realized.8



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If we carry on abusing the earth's resources we shall be unable to sustain future populations. There are now about 5.3 billion people in the world. By the year 2020 there will be about 8.1 billion, and by 2100 perhaps 11.3 billion, or more than twice present levels.1

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Women who are poor and uneducated have more children than women who are educated because more of their children die in infancy. Improve the status of women and access to family planning and population growth will fall. In Cuba the population growth rate fell from 2.5% per year in 1960 to 1.0% in 1982 while life expectancy reached 75 years, the same as the US. But in South Africa population growth rate rose from 2.4% to 3.1% during the same period and life expectancy stayed at 63, similar to China or India.2



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The annual production of waste per head will have doubled during the twentieth century, while the proportion of this waste that is biodegradable will have fallen from more than 90% to under 50%.4 The number of cars will grow from 400 million today to 700 million by 2010.5 In many cities traffic speeds are now slower, because of congestion, than they were in the age of the horse.6

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By 1992 there will be more than 16 million miles of fibre-optic communication cable, each of which can carry 160 times more information than a copper wire.7 The need for commuting in and between cities could be drastically reduced. In terms of 'carrying efficiency'' (the space and time used to transport one person), the bicycle is roughly twice as efficient as the car, the bus seven times and surface rapid rail twelve times. The US Department of Energy estimates that renewable energy resources in the US exceed annual use by 250 times.8



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The project to 'map' the human 'genome' will reveal the genetic secrets of the DNA that helps to mould our physical and mental characteristics - the secret of life. By 2050 we may be able to buy a compact dix holding our complete genome.11 Everyone could then be screened for genetic disorders, for which there may be no cures, and the information - for a price - passed onto prospective employers or insurers.12

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More than 4,300 genetic disorders have been identified as depending on a single faulty gene. It may soon be possible for these disorders to be controlled or even eliminated.13 In agriculture, biotechnology could have a major impact on crop yields - the yield from cassava in Africa could be quadrupled if the plant could be made resistant to African cassava mosaic virus.14



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In Africa, the number of people living below the poverty line ($370 per capita per year) is set to increase from 180 million today to 265 million in 2000. In Eastern Europe the number of poor people as a percentage of the total population will actually grow.3

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In South Asia the total number of people living in poverty is expected to fall from over 500 million today to some 360 million by 2000, and In East Asia from 290 million to 60 million. There is even expected to be a slight fall in Latin America to less than 50 million. These estimates are, however, based on optimistic and fairly conventional predictions for economic growth.3


The truth about Tarot
There is a mistaken belief in the Anglo-Saxon world that Tarot cards originate in the occult and fortune telling. The Tarot pack was invented in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and is widely used across the world today in ordinary card games. It was not associated with the occult until the eighteenth century at the earliest. Belief in the mystical powers of the pack spread across Europe from France with the nineteenth-century revival of interest in magic. See Michael Dummett, Twelve Tarot Games, Duckworth 1980.

1 The State of the World's Population 1990, UNFPA and World Population Prospects 1988, UN.
The Global Possible, ed Robert Repetto, World Resources Institute, 1985.
World Development Report 1990: Poverty, World Bank 1990
4 UNESCO Sources, No 17. JulyAugust 1990.
Populi, Jane 1990, UNFPA
6 Rethinking the Role of the Automobile, Worldwatch paper 84 1988.
7 J Naisbitt and P Aburdene, Megatrends 2000, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1990
State of the World 1990, Worldwatch Institute 1990.
9 WWF News
no 66, JulyAugust 1990
Real Security, Geoff Tansey. World Development Movement Occasional Paper 2. 1990.
Making sense of the genome's secrets. Susan Watts, in New Scientist, 4 August 1990
Your genome in their hands, Christopher Joyce, in New Scientist, 11 August 1990.
13 WHO Press Release WHO/36. 20 July 1990.
Miracle or Menace?, Robert Walgate. Panos Institute, 1990.

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This feature was published in the November 1990 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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