"World on Edge details the vice closing around us: a quadruple squeeze of global warming and shortages in food, water and energy. Then it explains the path out—and how little time we have left to take that path. Got anything more important to read than that?" —Peter Goldmark, former head of the Port authority of New York and New Jersey, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and CEO of the International Herald Tribune
Chapter 1. A Planet under Stress: The Case for Plan B
Thus far, this chapter has focused primarily on how environmental changes can affect the food prospect, but there could be other wake-up calls, including more destructive storms or deadly heat waves.
Unless we quickly reverse the damaging trends that we have set in motion, they will generate vast numbers of environmental refugees—people abandoning depleted aquifers and exhausted soils and those fleeing advancing deserts and rising seas. In a world where civilization is being squeezed between expanding deserts from the interior of continents and rising seas on the periphery, refugees are likely to number not in the millions but in the tens of millions. Already we see refugees from drifting sand in Nigeria, Iran, and China.40
We are now looking at the potential wholesale evacuation of cities as aquifers are depleted and wells go dry. Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, and Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, may become the early ghost towns of the twenty-first century.41
A reversal of the basic trends of social progress of the last half-century has long seemed unthinkable. Progress appeared inevitable. But now we are seeing reversals. As noted earlier, the number of hungry may be increasing for the first time since the war-torn decade of the 1940s. And a rise in life expectancy—a seminal measure of economic and social progress—has been interrupted in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the HIV epidemic. As millions of able-bodied adults die, families are often left with no one to work in the fields. The disease and spreading hunger are both weakening immune systems and reinforcing each other, something epidemiologists had not reckoned on.
The failure of governments to deal with falling water tables and the depletion of aquifers in the Indian subcontinent could be as disruptive for the 1.3 billion living there as the HIV epidemic is for the people in sub-Saharan Africa. With business as usual, life expectancy could soon begin to fall in India and Pakistan as water shortages translate into food shortages, deepening hunger among the poor.42
The world is moving into uncharted territory as human demands override the sustainable yield of natural systems. The risk is that people will lose confidence in the capacity of their governments to cope with such problems, leading to social breakdown. The shift to anarchy is already evident in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Business as usual—Plan A—is clearly not working. The stakes are high, and time is not on our side. Part I details the mounting evidence that our modern civilization is in trouble. The good news, as outlined in Part II of this book, is that there are solutions to the problems we are facing. The bad news is that if we continue to rely on timid, incremental responses, our bubble economy will continue to grow until eventually it bursts. This book argues for a new approach—for Plan B—an urgent reordering of priorities and a restructuring of the global economy in order to prevent that from happening.
40. China from U.S. Embassy, "Desert Mergers and Acquisitions," Beijing Environment, Science, and Technology Update (Beijing: 19 July 2002); Nigeria from "Combating Desertification and Deforestation," Africa News Service, 23 April 2002; IRNA (Iranian News Agency), "Official Warns of Impending Desertification Catastrophe in Southeast Iran," BBC International Reports, 29 September 2002.
41. Christopher Ward, "Yemen's Water Crisis," based on a lecture to the British Yemeni Society in September 2000, July 2001; "Pakistan: Focus on Water Crisis," U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks, 17 May 2002.
42. Figure of 1.3 billion from UNAIDS, op. cit. note 3.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute