EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Pushing Beyond the Earth’s Limits: Introduction

When historians look back on our times, the last half of the twentieth century will undoubtedly be labeled “the era of growth.” Take population. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people in the world. By 2000, there were 6 billion. There has been more growth in world population since 1950 than during the preceding 4 million years. 1

Recent growth in the world economy is even more remarkable. During the last half of the twentieth century, the world economy expanded sevenfold. Most striking of all, the growth in the world economy during the single year of 2000 exceeded that of the entire nineteenth century. Economic growth, now the goal of governments everywhere, has become the status quo. Stability is considered a departure from the norm. 2

As the economy grows, its demands are outgrowing the earth, exceeding many of the planet’s natural capacities. While the world economy multiplied sevenfold in just 50 years, the earth’s natural life-support systems remained essentially the same. Water use tripled, but the capacity of the hydrological system to produce fresh water through evaporation changed little. The demand for seafood increased fivefold, but the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries was unchanged. Fossil fuel burning raised carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fourfold, but the capacity of nature to absorb CO2 changed little, leading to a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere and a rise in the earth’s temperature. As human demands surpass the earth’s natural capacities, expanding food production becomes more difficult. 3

  Table of Contents Next


1. United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: 2003).

2. International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Economic Outlook Database, at www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo, updated April 2004; Angus Maddison, Monitoring the World Economy 1820–1992 (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1995).

3. World economy from IMF, op. cit. note 2; water use from Peter H. Gleick, The World’s Water 2000–2001 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001), p. 52; demand for seafood from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Yearbook of Fishery Statistics (Rome: various years); carbon emissions from G. Marland, T. A. Boden, and R. J. Andres, “Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions,” in Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, 2003), at cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/trends/trends.htm, updated June 2004.


Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute