Progressive Populist, 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 waste.

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.)