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Sobering global health report

At the begining of each year for the past 16 years the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute has published its “State of the World” report, a kind of global health report. It may be the most important prognosis we have for our future, yet the findings often receive little attention in the mass media.

Basic measures of planetary health already indicate serious illness -- often with little evidence that we are earnest about attending to these illnesses.

Here’s what the Worldwatch Institute has to say about the state of our world as we enter the new millennium:

Biological improverishment of the Earth is accelerating as human population grows. The share of bird, mammal and fish species that are now in danger of extinction is in double digits -- 11 percent of all bird species, 25 percent of mammals and 34 percent of fish.

Local ecosystems start to collapse when rising human demands on them become excessive. Soil erosion has forced Kazakhstan to abandon half its cropland since 1980. The Philippines and Ivory Coast have lost their once luxuriant stands of tropical hardwoods and the thriving forest product export industries that were based on them. In the United States, the rich oyster beds of the Chesapeake Bay that yielded over 70 million kilograms per year a century ago produced less than 2 million kilograms in 1998.

And still the pressures build. The projected growth of world population from 6 billion at present to nearly 9 billion by 2050 will exacerbate nearly all environmental problems, especially since almost all this growth will come in the developing world where countries are already struggling to manage the effects fo their rapidly growing populations.

Another trend affecting the entire workd is rising temperature. Record-setting temperatures in the 1990s are part of a 20th-century warming tend. Just over the last three decades (between 1969-71 and 1996-98), global average tempurature has risen by 0.44 degrees Celsius (0.8 degrees Fahrenheit). In the 21st century, tempurature is projected to rise even faster.

Rising temperatures are melting glaciers from the Peruvian Andes to to the Swiss Alps. The two ice shelves on either side of the Antarctic peninsula are retreating. Over roughly a half-century through 1997, they lost 7,000 square kilometers of ice. But then within a year they lost another 3,000 square kilometers. Scientists attribute the accelerated ice melting to a regional temperature rise of some 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1940.

One of the less visible trends shaping our future is failing water tables. Although irrigation problems such as waterlogging, salting and sitting go back several thousand year, aquifer depletion is new, confined largely to the last half-century, when powerful diesel and electric pumps made it possible to extract underground water far faster that the natural recharge from rain and snow. Overpumping of aquifers, which are concentrated in China, India, North Africa, the Middle East and the United States, exceeds 160 billion tons of water per year.

Another large-scale trend can be seen in the Amazon, where the forest is being weakened by logging and by clearing for agriculture. As the Amazonian forest dwindles, it dries out. As it becomes drier, it becomes more vulnerable to fire. The vulnerability to fire is also affected by forces outside the region, such as higher temperatures.

While the world economy is booming, the HIV epidemic is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, a region of 800 million people. Life expectancy -- a sentinel indicator of progress -- is falling precipitiously as the virus spreads. Before the onslaught of AIDS, life expectancy in Zimbabwe was 65 years. In 1998, it was 44 years. By 2010, it is projected to fall to 39 years.

Quickly stabilizing population depends on couples holding the line at two surviving children -- an achievable goal, the report goes on. Some 34 industrial countries have already reached population stability, and sever developing countries are approaching it, including Barbados, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Stabilizing climate means replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar cells and other renewable energy sources. Today the world gets a fifth of its electricity fro hydropower, but this source is dwarfed by the potential of wind. Three U.S. states -- North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas -- have enough harnessable wind energy to supply national electricity needs. China could double its current generation of electricity using only wind.

“The scale and urgency of the challenges facing us in this century are unprecedented,” said Brown. “We cannot overestimate the urgency of stabilizing the relationship between ourselves, now 6 billion in number, and the natural systems on which we depend. If we continue the irreversible destruction of these systems, our grandchildren will never forgive us. As the report notes, “Nature has no reset button.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000