Rachel's Democracy & Health News  [Printer-friendly version]
November 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The world has changed completely during the
past 50 years. But our institutions, our language, and our mental
tools have not changed. As a result, we are stubbornly pursuing a
course that is destroying the future.]

By Peter Montague

We are living in a world that is essentially new. Almost everything
has changed in the past 50 years. Perhaps we are trying to understand
this new world using habits of thought from the old world. Maybe that
is why things seem so confusing. Let's consider some of the ways the
world has changed since 1950.

In the largest sense, here is the big change of the past 50 years: For
aeons, there was a shortage of people and an abundance of nature. We
set up all our institutions (churches, corporations, governments,
laws, courts, media, schools) to encourage population growth and
economic growth (the accumulation of capital assets -- farms,
factories, highways, ports, power plants, and so on). Now we find
ourselves with a shortage of nature, a superabundance of people, and a
glut of capital assets -- more than we know what to do with, really.
Because of this fundamental shift, almost everything is different now
than it was 50 years ago. But our institutions, our language, and our
mental tools have not changed. As a result, we are stubbornly pursuing
a course that is wrecking the future.

Let's review some features of our new world:

Trends in the Destruction of Nature

1. More Humans

During the last 50 years, global human population more than doubled,
from 2.8 billion people to 6.5 billion (in round numbers). The U.S.
Bureau of the Census estimates that global population will reach 9.4
billion by 2050, a 44% increase in 45 years. It might even grow faster
than that, doubling in 35 years to 12 billion, but even 9 billion
would surely stress the planet's already-stressed ecosystems mightily.

Where will we put 44% more farms (with their fertilizers and
pesticides and demand for fresh water), 44% more mines, more roads,
highways, parking lots, airports, cars, trucks, buses, ships, trains,
planes), more cities, hospitals, prisons, ports? And of course more
wastes at every step.

All this will require at least 44% more power plants, which produce
their own unique wastes (among them toxic or radioactive sludges,
solid residues, and global warming gases).

We're already at a point where we've had to acknowledge there's no
place left to throw things "away" -- there is no "away" -- the planet
has been thoroughly doused with toxicants. Fog, rain and snow
now contain measurable levels of toxic waste.

2. Global warming is upon us. Fifty years ago this seemed a remote
theoretical possibility. Today it is a widely-acknowledged problem,
looming ever larger the more we learn about it.

The likely consequences of global warming are more intense and more
frequent hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons, more severe and frequent
droughts, floods, wild fires, and heat waves; rising sea levels with
coastal inundation; more human disease (malaria, yellow fever, dengue
fever) and other negative impacts on human health.

The main human contributions to global warming are emissions from
automobiles and electric power plants burning fossil fuels. In its
authoritative report, World Energy Outlook, the OECD (Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development) projects a 55% annual increase
in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 unless national policies
change pretty quickly. So far, nations have shown little inclination
to make the needed changes, least of all the biggest emitter, the U.S.

3. Destruction of ocean productivity. Fifty years ago the oceans
seemed unimaginably vast, so huge that humans could not possibly
affect them. Yet today we know that humans have managed to...

(a) contaminate every part of the world's oceans with industrial

(b) pollute vast near-shore ecosystems with excessive nutrients
(mainly nitrogen), giving rise to large "dead zones," enormous algae
blooms (red and brown tides), contaminated groundwater and massive
fish kills;

(c) progressively destroy many of the world's coral reefs; and

(d) exhaust many of the world's fisheries. In November, 2006, a study
published in Science magazine predicted the collapse of all ocean
fisheries by 2048 unless major changes occur in fishing practices.

4. Fresh water

Water pollution is reducing the useable supply of fresh water in most
countries, even as the demand for fresh water is rising. At least 80
countries holding 40% of global population were facing water shortages
in 2000. According to the United Nations, by 2025, 2/3rds of the
global population is expected to be living in water-stressed regions.
In addition, in 2000, 2.4 billion people (40% of the global
population) were living without basic sanitation.

Because surface water sources have been depleted or polluted, many
countries have started pumping their underground supplies, but nature
generally replenishes underground sources only very slowly.
Furthermore, underground water supplies are now becoming polluted. In
its authoritative report, Environmental Outlook, the OECD said,
"Available evidence suggests that there is a trend towards a worsening
of aquifer water quality in OECD regions. Once groundwater sources are
contaminated, they can be very difficult to clean up because the rate
of flow is usually very slow and purification measures are often
costly," the OECD says. (pg. 103) Worse, growing water scarcity is
already giving rise to conflicts within and between countries --
water wars -- that are likely to increase as time goes on.

5. Forests

Within OECD countries, original "old growth" forests are being cut and
replaced by secondary growth and by simple monoculture tree farms,
which require artificial fertilizers and pesticides to survive. Thus,
although the total area of forests is holding steady in OECD regions,
the quality of forested lands, measured by natural habitat and
biodiversity, is steadily declining. Some trees may grow quickly but
forests take centuries to mature. The prospect for tropical forests is
worse. With 37 million acres being cut down each year, "Tropical
deforestation is expected to continue at alarming rates over the next
few decades," says the OECD. (pg. 125) In the blink of an eye,
between 2000 and 2020, the world is expected to lose almost 6% of its
total remaining forested land, the OECD says. (pg. 136)

6. Acid Rain

Acid rain, snow and fog, caused by emissions of sulphur and nitrogen
oxides, damage forests, soils and fresh water ecosystems. Acid rain
"has been identified as an important factor in forest demise," says
the OECD (pg. 127), and "Current acid deposition levels in Northern
Europe and parts of North America are at least twice as high as
critical levels." (pg. 190) In Europe the situation is expected to
improve in the next 10 years but elsewhere in the world, it is
expected to worsen. Outside OECD countries, both sulphur and nitrogen
oxide emissions are expected to increase substantially in the next two
decades: "Thus, acid depositions are likely to continue to contribute
to acidification of surface waters and soils in these areas and reduce
the quality of the most sensitive ecosystems." (pg. 190)

7. Loss of Biodiversity

Humans are relentlessly clearing and plowing up the habitat needed by
other creatures, mostly converting it to farmland. Then many of the
farmlands themselves are being despoiled by poor irrigation practices
(which bring salts up from deep soils and deposit them in the top
layers) and by soil erosion. According to the OECD, two-thirds of the
world's farmlands have already been degraded to some degree and one-
third have been "strongly or very strongly degraded." (pg. 138)
Furthermore, half the world's wetlands have already been destroyed.
(pg. 136) And the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems is "under
serious threat" with 20% of the world's fresh water fish extinct,
threatened or endangered. (pg. 138) Half of all primates, and 9% of
all known species of trees are at some risk of extinction, the OECD
says. (The United Nations is even less optimistic about the future
of primates.) Between now and 2020, biodiversity in OECD countries is
likely to degrade further. (pg. 138) The United Nations reports that
24% of all mammals on Earth, and 11% of all bird species, are now
considered globally threatened with extinction.

Species are now going extinct at a rate somewhere between 100 and 1000
times as fast as the historical rate of extinction of species. We are
shredding Creation.

In addition, ecosystems are being scrambled by invasive species and
by the unintentional spread of genetically engineered organisms into
the wild.

8. Chemicals are Destroying Wildlife

As global warming melts Arctic ice, polar bears swim toward distant
ice flows, which now no longer exist, and they drown. The demise of
the polar bear is now predicted for later this century. How do we
explain drowning bears to our children?

Fish in much of the fresh water of the U.S. are having their gender
changed by exposure to biologically-active chemicals -- including the
residues of pharmaceutical products flushed from households into
sewage treatment plants, then into streams and rivers. Many male fish
are being feminized.

Frogs are disappearing around the world, for a variety of reasons
ranging from habitat destruction to excessive ultraviolet radiation (a
byproduct of DuPont's destruction of the earth's ozone shield) to
pesticides and other industrial poisons.

Chemicals are interfering with all the biological systems that allow
wildlife to thrive -- harming their immune systems, their reproductive
systems, giving them cancer and a host of other diseases. Sea turtles
are endangered by mysterious growths appearing on their faces, making
it impossible for them to eat, starving them to death. Killer whales
(Orcas) are disappearing from the Pacific Northwest because of
Monsanto's PCBs wrecking their reproductive systems. This short list
barely scratches the surface.

All of these problems, and more, were studied by a group of 1360
scientists from 95 countries during the period 1999-2005. Their study,
called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, drew three broad

1) Of 24 ecosystems they studied worldwide, 60% are being degraded by
human activities. "We're undermining our ecological capital all around
the world," said Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank.

2) Global degradation is increasing the chances of sudden, drastic
changes in ecosystems, such as the collapse of fisheries or the
emergence of new diseases from fragmented forests.

3) The pressure on ecosystems is disproportionately harming the poor.
The report says healthy ecosystems are essential for alleviating

In releasing their report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
scientific board of directors did not mince words:

"At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is
putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability
of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer
be taken for granted," they said.