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From Stockholm to Johannesburg: most, but not all, of the world's major players accept that future economic growth must not cause the depletion of resources of which there is a limited supply; development must be sustainable over the long haul. (Background).

Every ten years, the world's leaders gather to discuss the state of the environment. The first such meeting was in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972, followed by Nairobi, Kenya in 1982, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992). The venue for the fourth summit is Johannesburg, South Africa.

The conference in Brazil was a very big affair; the leaders of 108 nations showed up, and a total of 172 countries sent delegations. This made it the largest gathering of world leaders in history. Other numbers were equally impressive:

* 2,400 representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs);

* 17,000 people attended the parallel NGO conference;

* Almost 10,000 journalists covered the event.

Officially, the Brazilian get-together is known by the unwieldy title of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED): unofficially it has the much more catchy name of "The Earth Summit."

Back in 1972, the first Earth Summit was called because of growing evidence that pollution was hurting the world's environment.

The American marine biologist Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962. The book dealt with the misuse of chemical weed killers, pesticides, and fertilizers. Ms. Carson showed through scientific research that these chemicals had already damaged the environment and were reducing bird populations. The title of her book refers to the disappearance of songbirds because of the effects of the insecticide DDT (see sidebar on page 6).

Silent Spring was a bestseller and has been called one of the most important books of the 20th century. It raised the awareness of millions of people to the fragility of Nature and kick-started the environmental movement. The Environmental Defence Fund was established in 1967, Friends of the Earth in 1968, and Greenpeace in 1970. And, on 22 April 1970, the first Earth Day was held to protest corporate and governmental abuse of the environment. But, not everybody heeded the warning.

The chemical industry went after Ms. Carson with both barrels--the quality of her science and her sanity were questioned. Both were proved to be very sound and Silent Spring established a very important principle; sometimes technology is such a threat to Nature that its use has to be restricted. For the first time, the need to regulate industry in order to protect the environment became widely accepted, and environmentalism was born.

Sadly, Rachel Carson did not live to see any of this come to pass; she died of breast cancer in 1964 at the age of 54.

Ten years after Silent Spring another important book was published on behalf of The Club of Rome. In Limits to Growth, scientists used a technique called "systems dynamics" to peer into the future. They set up a computer model of the world's economy and included something called feedback loops. A feedback loop is a closed path that connects an action to its effect on the surrounding conditions, which, in turn, can influence further action.

An example might be something that was not heard about much in 1972: the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming. Fossil fuels are burned to provide electricity so air conditioners can keep us cool on hot, humid summer days. But, the gases given off by burning fossil fuels form a thermal blanket over our cities raising ground temperatures. As it gets hotter we crank up the air conditioner, thereby using more electricity which must be produced by burning more fossil fuels, and so on--a feedback loop.

This shows that human responses to a problem can make the problem even worse. When shortages of a commodity are threatened, for example, consumers typically begin to hoard it. But, squirrelling away stocks of, say rice, just makes the shortage worse. At that point, people commonly eat the seed that is the key to more plentiful food in the future. Now, you've got a real disaster on your hands.

The Limits to Growth people said humankind is on a collision course with Nature, because there is a limited supply of certain essential resources. The land and water that was on our planet at the dawn of time is all there is, or ever will be. But, as our population has exploded from one billion a century ago to six billion today, the land and water supply is becoming exhausted.

On the other hand, a lot of people think The Club of Rome study is way too gloomy. These more optimistic scientists included the late Herman Kahn and his associates. In 1976, they published an alternate view of the future under the title The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World. Mr. Kahn put his faith in technology, which would serve to push back the natural limits of the planet. A bright future is predicted on page one of the book: "200 years ago almost everywhere human beings were comparatively few, poor, and at the mercy of the forces of Nature, and 200 years from now, we expect, almost everywhere they will be numerous, rich, and in control of the forces of Nature."

Mr. Kahn's team suggested a human population of 24 billion in 2176, each with an average income of $26,000, a far cry from the 1976 average of $1,690.

To Mr. Kahn and his associates, interference with this natural evolution of society would be completely wrong-headed. As they saw it, tampering with the growth process would force the residents of the poorest developing countries--and, indeed, the poorest residents of the developed countries--into a life of poverty. In contrast, they saw continued growth as providing betterment for both groups; although, due to an expected decline in the gap between the rich nations and the poor, those in the poorest nations would benefit most from continued growth.

The example of food production is given to show how Nature's apparent limits might be overcome. New hybrid seeds would produce richer harvests. Solar-powered irrigation systems would be Earth-friendly. If soils became depleted, food could be grown hydroponically. A single-cell protein might be developed as a viable means of converting municipal waste into a food supplement.

The pro-growth and no-growth sides have debated the issue vigorously ever since.

In 1995, The Club of Rome went back to take a second look at "Limits." The conclusion in Taking Nature Into Account is that, "Although thousands of scientists have devoted their efforts to the question of how reliable (the 1972 study) was and whether it is even at all possible to forecast the future in this manner, `Limits' has, in our view, come through all the criticism untarnished ...

"The limits to growth no longer merely lie ahead, in the future; they are with us today, and have been for the last twenty years."

Some numbers three decades after Limits to Growth was published seem to suggest the prediction may not be far off the mark.

Here's what John Vidal wrote in The Guardian (U.K.) newspaper in 1999: "The stresses are clear; a warming Earth may already have started to play havoc with climate; more than one-third of the world is expected to be short of fresh water within a generation; the United Nations states that 1.23 billion acres of African land have been moderately to severely degraded in the past 20 years, and more than a million species, especially from the remaining forested areas, will probably be lost in the next 40 years--by which time world population may be twice what it was just 10 years ago.

"With the resource pressures have come conflicts and wars, with increasing human rights abuses and land-grabs. Already, more than 30 countries are in dispute over water resources. Almost all the world's 5,000 tribal groups report that their way of life is threatened."

While a year earlier, the same newspaper wrote: "Humans have destroyed more than 30% of the natural world since 1970 with serious depletion of the forest, freshwater, and marine systems on which life depends."

By the time of the Earth Summit of 1992, there was widespread, though not unanimous, agreement that our planet's ecosystem was under stress.

At the Rio de Janeiro meeting just about everyone was Mother Nature's friend. Treaties and other documents were signed, and most of the world's nations agreed to pursue economic development in ways that would protect the Earth's environment and nonrenewable resources. The mare documents agreed upon at the 1992 Earth Summit were:

* The Convention on Biological Diversity; a binding treaty requiring nations to take inventories of their plants and wild animals and protect their endangered species;

* The Framework Convention on Climate Change, or Global Warming Convention; a binding treaty that requires nations to reduce their emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases;

* The Declaration on Environment and Development, or Rio Declaration, laid down 27 broad, non-binding principles for environmentally sound development;

* Agenda 21 outlined global strategies for cleaning up the environment and encouraging environmentally sound development;

* The Statement of Principles on Forests, aimed at preserving the world's rapidly vanishing tropical rainforests, is a non-binding statement recommending that nations monitor and assess the impact of development on their forest resources and take steps to limit the damage done to them.

Sounds good. But, once back in their home countries most of the 108 world leaders who went to Rio turned their attention back to domestic issues. Creating jobs, increasing wealth, and making an economy grow are what gets politicians elected, not saving the last remaining habitat of some rare spotted toad.

Under the Agenda 21 plan, poorer countries promised to develop their industries with an eye toward protecting the environment. Industrialized countries pledged to help them do that. A special commission was created to make sure countries followed through on the promises they made, but the commission was given no power to enforce those promises. At its first meeting in 1994, the commission found that the industrialized countries were providing only half the funding they promised for the effort.

But, there have been advances. Technology has been harnessed to counter growing acid rain, water, air, and land pollution. Today's factories are cleaner by far than they were just 20 years ago. Recycling programs are diverting billions of tonnes of trash from garbage dumps. Vast areas of the world have been redefined as national parks. The Montreal Protocol (1987) banned chemicals that destroy the ozone layer. There is now an international treaty (The Kyoto Accord--see page 16) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Increased knowledge of the human impact on Earth has changed the popular imagination of Nature.

Just three generations ago, people were thought to be outside and above Nature; today, humans are seen as the key player in its development. In the words of the Rio Declaration: "Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development." A century ago, wilderness was understood as dangerous; today, it is perceived as precious. Love of animals, above all of the remaining big ones--tigers, elephants, and whales--has grown.

At the time of the first Earth Summit in 1972, "Green Thinkers" were thought to be a bit weird. Today, Green Party candidates win seats in countries with proportional representation and "Green" has become a marketing tool for corporations. Advances have been made in renewable energy, cleaner cars and trucks, and energy-saving technologies are widely seen as important to the future.

As the industrial age fades, the "biotechnology" future is dawning. Thirty years of research into genetics have laid the foundations for further control of the environment, and gene technology is now used in agriculture, medicine, energy, and construction. As genetic knowledge increases, the possibilities to reconstruct the natural world will, in theory, be infinite.

But, there's still an enormous mess to clean up and we continue to add to the total load of pollutants. Up to 10,000 new chemicals are introduced each year with little research done into their long-term effects. And, the most powerful leader in the world, U.S. President George W. Bush, still seems bent on increasing the use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute asks "Why has so little progress been made on the ambitious agenda that was laid down a decade ago? And, what must be done to ensure that the next decade is one of sustainable social and environmental progress?" He answers those questions himself by saying the world needs to adopt fundamentally different technologies, the development of new business models, and the embracing of new lifestyles and values.


1. Have teams of students read the books cited in this article--Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, The Next 200 Years, Taking Nature Into Account, The Skeptical Environmentalist. These teams should then lead a discussion aimed at drawing up lists of optimistic and pessimistic forecasts. Finally, review the lists to determine if the future, on balance, looks good or bad.

2. In 2001, The Futurist magazine reported that the Earth lost about 50% of its wetlands in the 20th century. It added that, "Because of the numerous essential services they provide, wetlands are estimated to be the most valuable ecosystem on Earth." Appoint a team of students to research wetlands and list in point firm what those "essential services" are.


According to The Club of Rome in 1995: "Of the approximately 100 wars now being fought in the world, more than 70% originate in part in exhausted resources and collapsing life-support systems."

Number of pages in the 1994 final text of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations which paved the way for setting up the World Trade Organization: 22,000; in the Agenda 21 document produced by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: 273

Number of world leaders who had officially confirmed they would attend the 1992 Earth Summit three months before it was held: 100+; Number of world leaders who had officially confirmed they would attend the 2002 Earth Summit three months before it was held: 1 (Britain's Tony Blair)

Number of cars in the world in 1900: 50,000 in 2000: 550,000,000

Brain Food (interesting links
and references) - http://

The Club of Rome - http://

Earth Summit 1992 - http://

Earth Summit 2002 - http://

World Business Council on
Sustainable Development -

The State of the Environment:
Past, Present, Future? -

RELATED ARTICLE: The Gaia Hypothesis.

The English scientist James Lovelock put forward a theory in the 1970s he called The Gaia Hypothesis. Named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Mr. Lovelock's notion was that our planet behaves like a single organism; it can regulate its temperature, dispose of its wastes, and fight off disease. So, according to the Gaia Hypothesis the planetary environment is a self-regulating process. This can be illustrated by looking at the number of people. As the population increases, economic growth goes up to provide the goods and services the people need. This causes larger jumps in industrial output, which, in turn, causes, more pollution. The increase in pollution triggers more sickness and a rise in death rates, slowing down population growth. This view of the world suggests that Earth has a complex feedback system that seeks always to balance the physical and chemical environment.

RELATED ARTICLE: Side effects.

Othmar Zeidler was a German scientist who, in 1874, isolated a chemical. He couldn't see much use for it and pursued other studies. In 1939, Paul Muller of Switzerland rediscovered dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane and saw its potential. Fortunately for the non-chemist, its name was shortened to DDT and it was put to work as an insecticide. It worked like a dream, bumping off billions of mosquitoes, beetles, flies, and other insects that carried diseases such as malaria, bubonic plague, elephantiasis, yellow fever, typhus, and river blindness.

The World Health Organization began spraying DDT all over the place, virtually stamping out malaria from more than 20 countries in which more than a billion people lived. In India, DDT reduced malaria from 75 million cases a year (with one million deaths) to less than five million cases a year (with less than 5,000 deaths) in a decade. The life span of Indians was extended from 32 to 47 years. The world was so grateful that Paul Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1948.

A few people wondered what the long-term effects of DDT use might be. One was nature writer Edwin Way Teale, who warned, "A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of Nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away." Another was Rachel Carson, who wrote to the Reader's Digest to propose an article about a series of tests on DDT being conducted not far from where she lived in Maryland. The magazine rejected the idea; nobody wanted to listen to bad news about the miracle insecticide.

Of course, it turns out that everybody should have worried a lot. DDT doesn't break down very well; it persists in the environment for decades and it concentrates as it moves up the food chain. People such as Rachel Carson showed that DDT caused reproductive failure in many species of bird. The chemical also came under suspicion that it might cause cancer in humans. DDT was banned in most of the industrialized world in the 1970s, but it's still used in the battle against malaria.


Bjorn Lomborg thinks the environment is in better shape than most greens would have us believe. In March 2002, Mr. Lomborg was appointed to head up Denmark's Institute for Environmental Assessment, and his views tie in with those of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Simply stated, the corporate notion is that competition and the discipline of the marketplace is the best way to ensure a cleaner environment.

Bjorn Lomborg used to be a deep green himself, but now he argues that environmentalists are wrong on almost every particular. In 2001, his book The Skeptical Environmentalist was published in which he attacks many of the sacred beliefs of the Earth firsters.

In an article in The Economist, Mr. Lomborg wrote: ... "Energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less since The Club of Rome published Limits to Growth in 1972. Second, more food is now produced per head of the world's population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient--associated with the early phases of industrialization and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it." He points out that as people become richer they can afford the cost of pollution clean up. As evidence of this, Mr. Lomborg writes that the air in London, England today, "is cleaner than it has been since 1585." He says known oil reserves that could be extracted at reasonable cost are big enough to keep the world supplied for 150 years. Meanwhile, the cost of solar energy has dropped by 50% in each of the last three decades and will continue this trend, making it an economical substitute for oil before that resource runs out.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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