EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Signs of Stress: The Biological Base: Introduction

In April 2001, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, reported that a huge dust storm from northern China had reached the United States, "blanketing areas from Canada to Arizona with a layer of dust." People living in the foothills of the Rockies could not even see the mountains. Few Americans were aware that the dust on their cars and the haze hanging over the western United States was, in fact, soil from China.1

This Chinese dust storm, the most severe of a dozen in the spring of 2001, signals a widespread deterioration of the rangeland and cropland in that country's vast northwest. These huge dust plumes routinely travel hundreds of miles to populous cities in northeastern China, including Beijingobscuring the sun, reducing visibility, slowing traffic, and closing airports. Reports of residents in eastern cities caulking windows with old rags to keep out the dust are reminiscent of the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s.2

News reports in China typically attributed the dust storms to the drought of the last three years, but that has simply brought a fast-deteriorating situation into focus. Overgrazing and overplowing are widespread. For example, the United States, a country of comparable size and grazing capacity, has 98 million cattle and 9 million sheep and goats, whereas China now has 127 million cattle and 279 million sheep and goats. Feeding 1.3 billion people, a population nearly five times that of the United States, is not an easy matter. Millions of hectares of highly erodible land were plowed that should have stayed in grass.3

Evidence of the intensifying conflict between the economy and the ecosystem of which it is a part can be seen not only in the dust bowl emerging in China, but also in the burning rainforests in Indonesia, the collapsing cod fishery in the North Sea, falling crop yields in Africa, the expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and falling water tables in India.

The ill-structured global economy's rising demands on ecosystems are diminishing the earth's biological productivity. The output of oceanic fisheries is reduced by overfishing, by oceanic pollutants, and by disruptions of the reproductive cycle of river-spawning fish as some rivers are dammed and others are drained dry. Overgrazing of rangelands is also taking a toll. Initially overgrazing reduces the productivity of rangelands, but eventually it destroys themconverting them into desert.

The productive capacity of the earth's forests is declining as they shrink by more than 9 million hectares per year. Lumbering, land clearing for crop production or ranching, and firewood gathering are responsible. Healthy rainforests do not burn, but fragmented tropical rainforests can be weakened to where they are easily ignited by lightning.4

An estimated 36 percent of the world's cropland is suffering a decline in inherent productivity from soil erosion. If this continues, eventually the cropland will become wasteland. In Africa, the failure to replace nutrients removed by crops is reducing crop yields in several countries. As local ecosystems deteriorate, the land's carrying capacity is reduced, setting in motion a self-reinforcing cycle of ecological degradation and deepening human poverty. With half the world's workforce dependent on croplands, fisheries, rangelands, and forests for their jobs and livelihood, any deterioration of these ecosystems can translate into a decline in living conditions.5

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1. "China Dust Storm Strikes USA," NOAA News (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), 18 April 2001; Ann Schrader, "Latest Import From China: Haze," Denver Post, 18 April 2001.

2. Dust storms in China from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), "Scientists, Ships, Aircraft to Profile Asian Pollution and Dust." press release (Boulder, CO: 20 March 2001); U.S. Dust Bowl from William K. Stevens, "Great Plains or Great Desert? The Sea of Dunes Lies in Wait," New York Times, 28 May 1996.

3. Livestock data from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), FAOSTAT Statistics Database, , updated 2 May 2001.

4. Shrinkage of forests from FAO, Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) 2000, www.fao.org/forestry/fo/fra/index.jsp, updated 10 April 2001, but see note in Chapter 8 on variations in estimates; information on forest fires from Emily Matthews et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute (WRI), 2000), pp. 24-26.

5. Loss of topsoil calculated from Mohan K. Wali et al., "Assessing Terrestrial Ecosystem Sustainability," Nature & Resources, October-December 1999, pp. 21-33, and from WRI, World Resources 2000-01 (Washington, DC: 2000); yield from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, Washington, DC, updated May 2001; jobs from WRI, op. cit. this note, p. 4.

Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute