Progressive Populist  [Printer-friendly version]
August 1, 2000


By Donella meadows

In the spirit of celebrating every success, but only to the extent the
success deserves, I would like to celebrate something that is kind of
hard to describe. The rate at which things are getting worse is
slowing down. We're not going in bad directions as fast as we once
were. The fever is high, but rising more slowly. We're still headed
for the iceberg, but our speed is declining.

The most striking example of this positive-negative phenomenon is
world population growth. We humans have more than doubled our number
since 1950 and will add 77 million more this year. The equivalent of
France plus Belgium plus Switzerland. The equivalent of the
Philippines plus Laos. The equivalent of five Mexico Cities. This one
year. China will grow by 12 million persons; India by almost 20
million; Africa by 19 million. The United States will add 1.4 million
through natural increase and another 1-3 million through immigration,
legal and illegal.

Lovable, full of potential as each human may be, no one I know thinks
that adding tens of millions more of us to this crowded planet helps
us solve any of our problems. Many think that population growth makes
all problems, from poverty to pollution, impossible to solve.

So here's what's worth celebrating. In the mid-1980s we were growing
not by 77 but by 87 million a year. Birth rates have dropped faster
than anyone, even optimistic United Nations forecasters, expected. In
the mid-1970s the average woman bore 3.9 children; now the average is
2.8. The richest populations average only 1.9 children per family,
below replacement level. Most industrialized populations have stopped
growing or are even slowly shrinking.

No one really knows why birth rates are going down, though family
planners, economic developers, educators and feminists are all happy
to claim the credit. Whatever the cause, it's a trend worth
celebrating. Though the population is still growing.

Here's another slowdown in a bad trend. For the past two years the
amount of carbon dioxide we have collectively spewed into the
atmosphere from fossil fuel burning has gone down. Global carbon
emissions in 1997 totalled 6.349 million tons. In 1998 the number was
6.318; in 1999 it was 6.307.

That's a tiny drop, less than two percent. To stabilize the climate we
need to cut emissions by 60 to 80 percent. The carbon dioxide content
of the atmosphere is still rising, the earth is still heating up. But
at a slower rate.

The causes of the slowdown are multiple. The collapse of the Soviet
Union is a major one. As its sloppy coal-burning industries shut down
or were refurbished, East Europe's carbon emissions dropped by 30
percent. West Europe's emissions, because of carbon taxes and
efficiency technologies, have dropped 0.7 percent. The United States
is going the wrong direction; its emissions rose more than 10 percent
since 1990. China's went up over the same period by 28 percent,
India's by 55 percent.

One piece of good news about China: its carbon emissions are not
growing anywhere near as fast as its economy. That's because it is
rapidly replacing dirty coal with natural gas. Not only are its
greenhouse gas emissions getting worse at a slower rate; its local air
pollution is improving.

Throughout the 20th century, human water use rose roughly twice as
fast as the population. The water curve is not rising as fast as it
was, however; in some places it is even turning down. U.S. water
withdrawals peaked around 1980 and have since fallen by about 10
percent. Industrial water use went down 40 percent, partly because of
the export of heavy industry to other parts of the world, but also
because of water quality regulations, which made efficient use,
recycling, and treatment economically attractive, legally mandated or
both. Irrigation use dropped partly because of increased efficiency,
partly because expanding cities bought water away from farmers (and
therefore took land out of food production). Per capita water use
dropped especially in arid places, where higher water prices cut

Throughout the U.S. water tables are dropping more slowly than they
used to be. That's progress, sort of.

World fertilizer use has stopped going up, though it is still high
enough to cause significant air and water pollution. The Soviet
collapse contributed to stopping that growth curve, as did European
water quality mandates and the rise of organic agriculture. There's
still more fertilizer leaching into many wells and lakes than the
waters can stand. But in many parts of the world there's less than
there used to be -- and without any decrease in crop yields.

Another cause for celebration. The number of nuclear power plants in
the world has essentially stopped growing. The 431 reactors now
operating will be at or close to the historic peak; from now on as
many old reactors are due to be decommissioned as new ones are due to
come into service. We still have an accumulation of horrific nuclear
wastes that we have no idea how to handle, which will continue to grow
as long as any reactors are operating, and which will remind future
generations for thousands of years to come of our 50-year burst of
enthusiasm for this technology. But the rate at which those wastes are
piling up is slowing.

It's hard to feel terribly celebratory about the fact that the rain is
slowing down but the floodwaters are still rising; or that we're still
losing altitude but we're no longer in free fall; or that we still
carry around the 20 extra pounds we've put on, but we've stopped
putting on more. Things are still bad, maybe getting worse. But we've
turned some kind of a corner. There are signs that we're doing better.
It must mean that we can do better yet.

(Donella Meadows was an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.)