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The Facts


Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] New Internationalist 329[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] November 2000[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

Sustainability - The Facts

'We must shift our emphasis from managing resources to managing
ourselves and to learn to live as an integral part of nature.'

W Rees and M Wackernagel, Our Ecological Footprint

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Excessive consumption, unnecessary production, vast quantities
of waste and scandalous disparities between rich and poor have
combined to put the future of both humankind and the planet in
question. There is ever-more statistical evidence that
this development path is unsustainable.

Bye, bye birdie
[image, unknown] Habitat destruction through resource extraction, urbanization and expanding farmland is destroying thousands of species and reducing the planet’s biodiversity to dangerous levels.

• An estimated 50,000 plant and animal species will become extinct in the coming decades; in the tropics, ecosystem destruction is so severe that 60,000 plant species, 25% of the world’s total, could be lost by 2025.1,2
• Mono-cropping and dependence on a handful of basic crop varieties is endangering genetic diversity. Just 20 plants now supply 80% of humanity’s food and most farmers grow identical types of wheat, rice and potatoes.3
• There are more than 2,000 varieties of rice in Nepal. Yet in the Pokhara Valley 64 of the 75 varieties known by farmers are extinct or threatened with extinction.3

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Running on empty
[image, unknown] As demand for fresh, clean water for irrigation and industry mounts, underground aquifers are being drained faster than they can be refilled. Pollution and changing climatic conditions are adding to the burden on fresh water supplies.

• 31 countries with a collective population of half-a-billion people are experiencing chronic water shortages. This may reach 3 billion people in 50 countries within 25 years. The vast majority of this water-stressed population will live in Africa and South Asia.6
• Nearly half the world’s major rivers are going dry or are badly polluted. In China, 80% of the major rivers are so degraded they no longer support fish life.7
• Worldwide overpumping of aquifers, concentrated mostly in China, India, North Africa, the Middle East and the US, exceeds 160 billion cubic metres of water per year.5
• The Ogalalla aquifer in the US Midwest provides water for a fifth of US irrigated farmland and is being pumped dry at the rate of 325 billion cubic metres a year.5

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Gas pains
As CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels rise, the Earth is heating up. Seven of the ten hottest years in the past 130 years occurred during the 1990s. Hotter air makes the water cycle run faster which leads to more intense storms and more rainfall.
• CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased dramatically in the last 40 years from 316 parts per million (ppm) to 367 PPM, a jump of 17%.5
• Scientific examinations of the Vostok ice core in the Antarctica found CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at their highest levels in 420,000 years.5
• On average each person in the world emits 4 tonnes of CO2 a year, though figures vary greatly from country to country. Emissions per person in North America average 19 tonnes, five times the world average and ten times the developing-world average.5
• A worldwide CO2 reduction of 50-70% is necessary to slow climate change. But world energy demand is forecast to grow by 65% by 2020 and without urgent action CO2 emissions will follow suit.8

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Tree trauma
[image, unknown] The Earth’s forests absorb CO2, produce oxygen, anchor soils, moderate the climate, influence the water cycle and provide a rich habitat for myriad plants and animals.
• Half the world’s original forest cover of some three billion hectares has been destroyed in the last 40 years; only 20% of what remains is undisturbed by human activities.6
• More than 90% of forest loss is in the tropics; about 14 million hectares of tropical forest are hacked down each year, two-thirds of that due to farmers clearing land.1
• More than 90% of forests in the Mediterranean have been cut while from 1995 to 1997 more than 60,000 square kilometres of forest cover in Brazil was destroyed – an area twice the size of Belgium.9

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Shop till you drop
Photo: Chris Stowers / Panos Western consumerism is spreading across the planet as people search for meaning and fulfilment in their toaster ovens and mobile telephones. In the process the Earth’s finite resources are being plundered and the planet despoiled by poisonous wastes.

• The amount spent globally on advertising aimed at boosting consumption topped $430 billion in 1998. Spending on advertising has increased four-fold in Asia and five-fold in Latin America in the last decade.10
• Over 80% of Americans believe that they buy and consume far more than they need.11
• By 1996, middle-class consumers in China, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand almost equalled the total population of the industrialized countries. The top 20% of Malaysians and Chileans now have higher average incomes than the average German or Japanese.11

Selected consumption by the world’s
richest countries, which represent
20% of total global population.11
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The fat and the lean
World food production has risen dramatically over the past 40 years though we are reaching the limits of available arable land. There is more than enough food available to feed every person on the planet yet millions of poor people go hungry while millions of others eat too much of the wrong kind of food.

[image, unknown] • 80% of all malnourished children in the developing world in the early 1990s lived in countries with food surpluses.5
• The World Health Organization estimates that roughly half the global population suffers from poor nutrition – of that half 50% eat too little and
50% eat too much.
• Obesity is the second-biggest killer of Americans after nicotine, claiming at least 250,000 lives a year. A third of obese US adults are at risk of heart disease and diabetes and a fifth of US children are overweight or obese, a figure which has more than doubled in the last 20 years.4
• Liposuction (an operation to reduce fat) is the leading form of cosmetic surgery in the US with over 400,000 operations performed a year while a third of all the vegetables consumed by US kids are in the form of French fries and potato chips.4,5

1 Living Planet Report 1999, WWF International.
2 ‘Species Extinction’, Factsheet 3B, Rainforest Action Network.
3 ‘Mountain biodiversity at risk’, IDRC Briefing No 2, September 1999.
4 Earth Island Journal, Spring 2000.
5 State of the World 2000, The Worldwatch Institute.
6 ‘Planet Earth 2025’, People & the Planet, Vol 8/4, 1999.
7 Share International, Vol 19, No 3, April 2000.
8 ‘Global ecology and the crisis of free-market economics’, John Baird, SIMS.
9 ‘Emptying the gene pool’, Le Monde Diplomatique, October, 1998.
10 ‘Economics for ever: Building sustainability into economic policy’, Panos Media Briefing No 38, March 2000.
11 ‘Making Sustainability Bite; Transforming Global Consumption Patterns’, International Institute for Environment and Development.

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