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Worldwatch, still gloomy, airs blame, hopes

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute each year seems to shout at the top of its metaphorical lungs that the human family must reinvent the way it looks at and treats the planet or suffer catastrophic consequences.

Some in the media -- like NCR -- pick up the warning and broadcast it as we can. But the change of mind, perhaps more fundamentally a change of spirit, required to take the new course remains more a dream than a reality.

Worldwatch last week gave another bleak assessment of the global landscape as it issued its annual "State of the World" report.

According to Worldwatch, governments lag badly in meeting goals set at the 1994 Rio de Janeiro summit on the environment. "Unfortunately, few governments have even begun the policy changes that will be needed to put the world on an environmentally sustainable path," the independent institute stated.

Among Worldwatch's gloomiest conclusions: Millions of acres of tropical forest still disappear each year, carbon dioxide emissions are at record highs and population growth is outpacing food production.

The report found hope in increasing numbers of grassroots groups, particularly in Bangladesh and India, the report said.

The Worldwatch report is toughest on the United States and the World Bank.

It says U.S. leadership has faded since the summit, in contrast to strides by Europe in fighting pollution and by Japan in maintaining foreign aid.

Worldwatch says the World Bank, which lends $20 billion a year to poor countries, touts environmental lending but pours funds into "development schemes that add to carbon emissions and destroy natural ecosystems."

Worldwatch identifies a disparate group of eight "environmental heavyweights" -- China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Japan and Germany -- that it says must join in taking the lead because they have the greatest impact on the planet's health. The eight account for more than half of the world's population, half of its forests and half of its carbon dioxide emissions. "These eight nations have the Rio agenda -- and the fate of the earth -- in their hands," the report said.

Worldwatch is one of those organizations that has come to the conclusion that all humanity will sink or swim together in the coming century. It is a notion that supersedes ideas of traditional nationalism and even international corporate competition. What happens in the so-called Third World, with its rapidly growing populations and increasingly damaged resources, affects the entire planet. All ecosystems are part of one planetary ecosystem.

That's why it is discouraging to watch the United States shy from efforts at developing sustainable energy systems or working for greater aid to developing nations. The United States, once the world's largest contributor of foreign aid to developing countries, has fallen behind Japan, France and Germany in humanitarian and economic assistance to the developing world.

Second to Japan since the early 1990s, the United States dropped to fourth place last year, the result of a 26 percent cut in aid, according to figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The United States currently contributes about 12 percent of all nonmilitary aid to the developing world -- compared to 37 percent in the 1970s and more than 50 percent in the 1950s. Worldwide an estimated 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty with an annual income of $370 or less.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become difficult to disentangle relief, development, democracy and security. Traditional views of defense based on military threats in a bipolar world have to be replaced by a much more modern and flexible concept of human security, which recognizes that a variety of factors -- including poverty and impoverished resources -- can cause insecurity, conflict and acute human need.

The eradication of poverty is possible within our lifetimes. The challenge is to find the vision and sustained political commitment needed to complete the task.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997