EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Accelerating Environmental Decline

Most disruptive environmental trends, whether it be shrinking forests, falling water tables, or rising temperature, are accelerating. For example, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose from an estimated 280 parts per million (ppm) at the beginning of the industrial era in 1760 to 316 ppm in 1960. By 2002, the CO2 concentration had climbed to 373 ppm. After rising at less than 0.2 ppm each year during the preceding two centuries, it has climbed by 1.3 ppm per year since 1960more than six times as fast.8

Each decade, the rise in global average temperature has been greater than the decade before. As the earth's temperature rise accelerates, so does ice melting, as described in Chapter 4. Within a decade the melting of large glaciers on the west coast of Alaska and in northern Canada has gone from raising sea level by 0.14 millimeters a year to raising it by 0.32 millimeters—more than twice as fast.9

These studies are reinforced by one from the U.S. Geological Survey that describes an accelerating melting of glaciers in several of the world's mountainous regions. In the Peruvian Andes, for example, data collected on the Qori Kalis glacier show that the rate of retreat since 1995 has been doubling roughly every three years.10

As temperatures rise, so does the amount of energy driving storm systems. As noted in Chapter 4, Munich Re reports that the number of weather-related events, including hurricanes, typhoons, and winter storms, with $1 billion or more of insured damage increased from 3 in the 1980s to 25 during the 1990s. Even after adjusting for variables such as a disproportionate share of building in high-risk coastal regions and river floodplains, it is clear that storms are becoming more frequent and more destructive. The meteorological actuaries who project storm frequency and intensity expect this acceleration to continue as long as the temperature keeps rising.11

A similar trend exists with water tables. Thirty years ago, reports of falling water tables and wells going dry were rare. Today they are commonplace, as described in Chapter 2. In several places in the southern Great Plains of the United States, water tables have dropped by at least 100 feet (30 meters) over the last few decades. Under the North China Plain, where the annual drop in the water table was 1.5 meters a year during the early 1990s, the decline is now reported to be 3 meters in many areas.12

The acceleration of problems can be seen with rivers too: Several decades ago, if the Colorado failed to reach the sea, it was news. Now it would be news if it did so. In China, the Yellow River ran dry for the first time in 1972, and then occasionally in subsequent years, but by the early 1990s it was running dry every year.13

The earth's forest cover, another basic indicator of the planet's health, is also shrinking at an accelerating rate. Although it expanded by 36 million hectares in the industrial world between 1990 and 2000, it shrank by 130 million hectares in the developing world. This net loss of 96 million hectares in 10 years far exceeded that of any previous decade.14

Over the last 50 years, Indonesia's once vast tropical rainforest shrank from 162 million hectares to 98 million hectares—an average loss of 1.3 million hectares a year. In the new century, it is shrinking by 2 million hectares a year. Iran is also being deforested at an accelerating rate. The Economist reports that from 1955 to 1967, northern Iran lost 9,250 hectares a year. Then from 1967 to 1994, forests disappeared at 18,000 hectares per year. Since then the figure has jumped to 29,000 hectares per year. At this exponential pace, it is only a matter of time before Iran is deforested.15

In Southeast Asia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) is fast exporting its remaining tropical hardwoods. My colleague Janet Larsen writes that log exports to China are growing much faster than the trees—many of which are hundreds of years old—can be replaced. In the western hemisphere, deforestation is concentrated in Brazil and Mexico, both of which appear to be losing forests at an accelerating rate.16

One manifestation of overgrazing, deforestation, and overplowing is desertification and dust storms. Data for major dust storms in China compiled by the China Meteorological Administration indicate that desertification is accelerating. After increasing from 5 major dust storms in the 1950s to 14 during the 1980s, the number leapt to 23 in the 1990s. The new decade has begun with more than 20 major dust storms in 2000 and 2001 alone. If this rate is sustained throughout the decade, the total will exceed 100—a fourfold increase in just one decade.17

A similar acceleration appears to be under way for species extinction, which is now estimated to be at least 1,000 times the natural rate of extinction. Take primate species—some 240 in total, and our closest living relatives. Ten thousand years ago, as the last Ice Age was ending, baboons reportedly outnumbered humans by at least two to one. Now, as our numbers multiply, the numbers of other primates are diminishing, often to the point where their survival is in question. In 1996, the World Conservation Union-IUCN reported that 13 species of primates were critically endangered. By 2000, this number had increased to 19, a gain of one half. During the same period, the number of species endangered (the next most threatened category) went from 29 to 46, also expanding by half.18

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8. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Molly Sheehan, "Carbon Emissions and Temperature Climb," Vital Signs 2003 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), p. 41.

9. University of Colorado at Boulder, "Global Sea Levels Likely to Rise Higher in 21st Century than Previous Predictions," press release (Boulder, CO: 16 February 2002).

10. U.S. Geological Survey cited in American Institute of Physics, "New Research Shows Mountain Glaciers Shrinking Worldwide," press release (Boston: 30 May 2001); Peruvian Andes from Lonnie G. Thompson, "Disappearing Glaciers Evidence of a Rapidly Changing Earth," American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting proceedings, San Francisco, CA, February 2001.

11. Munich Re, Topics Annual Review: National Catastrophes 2001 (Munich, Germany: 2002), pp. 16-17.

12. Great Plains from USDA, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators 2000 (Washington, DC: February 2000), Chapter 2.1, p. 6; North China Plain from Michael Ma, "Northern Cities Sinking as Water Table Falls," South China Morning Post, 11 August 2001.

13. Yellow River from Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil, "China's Water Shortages Could Shake World Food Security," World Watch, July/August 1998, p. 11.

14. FAO, State of the World's Forests 2001 (Rome: 2001), pp. 58-59.

15. Forest Watch Indonesia and Global Forest Watch, The State of the Forest: Indonesia (Bogor, Indonesia, and Washington, DC: 2002), pp. xi, 3; Iran from "The Curse of Westoxification," The Economist, 18 January 2003, p. 9.

16. Janet Larsen, "Illegal Logging Threatens Ecological and Economic Stability," in Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, The Earth Policy Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 228.

17. U.S. Embassy, op. cit. note 5.

18. Species Survival Commission (SSC), Craig Hilton-Taylor, compiler, 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K.: World Conservation Union-IUCN, 2000).


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