Influential body says last
chances must be seized
Published on Thursday, January 9,
2003 by the Guardian/UK
by Paul Brown
The human race has only one or perhaps two generations
to rescue itself, according to the 2003 State of the
World report by the Washington-based Worldwatch
The longer that no remedial action
is taken, the greater the degree of misery and
biological impoverishment that humankind must be
prepared to accept, the institute says in its 20th
Overuse of resources, pollution and destruction of
natural areas continue to threaten life on the planet.
Conditions continue to deteriorate rapidly, the report
says, although there are some hopeful signs in that
technical solutions to the problems have been found
and - where there is political will - adopted. In most
cases, though, nothing is being done.
Among the worst trends worldwide is
that 420 million people live in countries which no
longer have enough crop land to grow their own food
and have to rely on imports. Around 1.2 billion
people, or about a fifth of the world's population,
live in absolute poverty - defined as surviving on the
equivalent of less than $1, or 62p, a day.
About one quarter of the developing
world's crop land is being degraded, and the rate is
increasing. The greatest threat is not a shortage of
land, says the report, but a shortage of water, with
more than 500 million people living in regions prone
to chronic drought.
By 2025 that number is likely to
have increased at least fivefold, to between 2.4bn and
3.4bn. A probable world population increase of 27%
over the same period will create social and ecological
Global warming is accelerating, and
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 370.9
parts per million, the highest level for at least
420,000 years and probably for 20m years.
Toxic chemicals are being released
in ever-increasing quantities, and global production
of hazardous waste has reached more than 300m tonnes a
year. There is only a vague idea of what damage this
does to humans and natural systems, the report says.
Another threat is the movement of
highly invasive species to regions where they may pose
problems to native species.
The state of the world's natural
life support system is perhaps the most worrying
indicator for the future, says the report. About 30%
of the world's surviving forests are seriously
fragmented or degraded, and they are being cut down at
the rate of 50,000sq miles a year, it says.
Wetlands have been reduced by 50%
over the last century. Coral reefs, the world's most
diverse aquatic systems, are suffering the effects of
overfishing, pollution, epidemic diseases and rising
A quarter of the world's mammal species and 12% of the
birds are in danger of extinction.
On the hopeful side, the report
says that renewable energy technologies have now
developed sufficiently to supply the world. They could
significantly reduce the threat to the world from
pollution - but currently there is a lack of political
will to introduce them fast enough.
Another industry which causes
widespread destruction, mining for minerals, could be
largely replaced by re-use and recycling.
Mining consumes 10% of the world's
energy, spews out toxic emissions, and threatens 40%
of the world's undeveloped forests but these effects
could be drastically reduced.
Another crisis which the report
identifies is in the world's cities, where one billion
people seek shelter in shanty towns, often on
hillsides, flood plains, in rubbish dumps or
downstream of industrial polluters.
The inhabitants of these settlements live at constant
threat of eviction, but also of natural disasters and
disease. Urban centers in the south now dominate the
ranks of the world's largest cities.
Slum dwellers are organizing for
greater rights and better lives, the report says. One
of the great challenges for governments is to help
their poorest citizens feel secure in their own homes,
make a living and improve their environment.
Dark clouds, silver linings
-Malaria claims 7,000 lives every
- Bird extinctions running at 50 times natural rate
- Global rate of ice melt more than doubled since
1988; sea levels may rise 27cm by 2100
- New fishing technologies help to locate and further
exploit declining stocks
Reasons for hope
- Populations have stabilized in
Europe and much of south-east Asia
- Organic farming is the fastest-growing sector of
world agricultural economy
- Wind and photovoltaic electricity generating
capacity to increase 30% a year for five years (1% for
- Production of ozone-depleting CFCs fell 81% in the
90s, slowing growth in ozone hole
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003