In the 1890's, The American Press Association brought together the country's best minds to explore the major issues of the 20th century. These "futurists" correctly predicted the widespread use of electricity and telephones, the opening of the entire world to trade, and the emancipation of women. But they missed the rest.
They didn't look hard enough at the strong feelings of European nationalism, and didn't anticipate two devastating world wars. Likewise, they didn't see the growing anti-semiticism in Germany and predict what it would lead to down the road. Many of the extraordinary achievements of the twentieth century such as jet aircraft, computers and genetic engineering go well beyond what anyone could have predicted in the 1890's.
Lester Brown and the staff at the Worldwatch Institute publish a State of the World report every year. The 1999 edition is a millennial issue and focuses on long-term trends. It addresses the major issues of the next century, and encourages people and corporations to think ahead so they can respond to the challenges we face. I did not interpret the Worldwatch message to be full of doom and gloom, but rather a hard-nosed assessment of reality. It paints an alternative view to the rosy picture our economic and government leaders communicate to us. In so doing, it provides a more realistic picture.
Our commonly held view is, I believe, overly optimistic. President Clinton, in his national address on January 19, 1999, said our State of the Union is strong. Last Fall, Business Week in its "Special Double Issue on the 21st Century Economics" forecast even faster rates of economic progress in the next century. The editors concluded the global economy would solve many of the world's social problems and add to the investment portfolios of its readers. A headline proclaimed, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet."
The Worldwatch, in a more sober tone, report states: "What becomes clear from our research is that the economic model that evolved in the industrial West and is spreading throughout the entire world is slowly undermining itself. As now structured, it will not take us very far into the next century .... Fortunately, the need for a new economic model - one that is environmentally sustainable - is increasingly recognized both by governments and corporations.... We are entering a new century with an economy that cannot take us where we want to go. The challenge is to design and build a new one that can sustain human progress without destroying its support systems - and that offers a better life to all."
"Growth is the defining feature of the twentieth century, and has become the de facto organizing principle for societies around the world .... Economic growth has allowed billions of people to live healthier, more productive lives and to enjoy a host of comforts that were unimaginable in 1900. It has helped raise life expectancy, perhaps the greatest sentinel indicator of human well-being from 35 years in 1900 to 66 years today .... The growth in economic output in just three years - from 1995 to 1998 - exceeded that during the 10,000 years from the beginning of agriculture until 1900 .... Growth has become the goal of every society, North and South. Indeed, it has become a kind of religion or ideology that drives societies .... human beings strive to raise their standards of living by expanding their wealth. Aspiring politicians promise faster growth, and the performance of corporate CEO's is judged by how quickly their firms expand."
State of the World, 1999 stresses the need for a new economic model, one that is environmentally sustainable and will permit economic progress to continue. "An economy is environmentally sustainable only if it satisfies the principles of sustainability - principles that are rooted in the science of ecology. In a sustainable economy, the fish catch does not exceed the sustainable yield of fisheries, the amount of water pumped from underground aquifers does not exceed aquifer recharge, soil erosion does not exceed the natural rate of soil formation, tree cutting does not exceed tree planting, and carbon emissions do not exceed the capacity of nature to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide. A sustainable economy does not destroy plant and animal species faster than new ones evolve."
In the past, human populations have spoiled their life support systems leading to a collapse or even the disappearance of entire civilizations. Although it may appear that technology and the emergence of an integrated world economy have ended this age-old pattern, they may have simply transferred the problem to a global level. Worldwatch reviews some global repercussions of our century of unprecedented growth which are seldom addressed in our political and economic culture:
Population: We now have 6 billion people on Earth, four times the amount in 1900. Population is expected to grow to 10 to 12 billion in the next century. During the twentieth century the growth occurred in both the industrial and developing countries. During the next century almost all the growth will take place in the Third World and in cities. In 1900, 10% of humanity lived in cities. More than 50% will live in cities by 2010. Nigeria is projected to increase from 122 million today to 339 million by 2050; Pakistan from 147 to 357 million. Russia, on the other hand, will decrease from 148 to 114 million.
Human consumption: Human population has increased fourfold since 1900, and the world economy is 17 times as large. The human take on the natural systems is therefore a multiple of our increased numbers.
Global warming: We have measured global temperatures for the past 140 years. The 14 warmest years have occurred since 1980. 1998, the warmest year, was .4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the next warmest year (1997), the largest increase ever. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are expected to reach two times the pre-industrial levels by 2050, and to raise the Earth's average temperatures 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Higher temperatures mean there is more energy driving the Earth's climate system. This results in more evaporation, more destructive storms and more flooding, as well as more severe heat, drought and forest fires. Atmospheric and oceanic thermal transfer systems may be suddenly altered. Ice caps and glaciers are already melting and sea levels will rise.
"The global climate is an essential foundation of natural ecosystems and the entire human economy. If we are entering a new period of climate instability, the consequences could be serious indeed, affecting virtually all of Earth's ecosystems, accelerating the pace of extinction, and leaving few areas of economic life untouched. Even in a high-tech information age, human societies cannot continue to prosper while the natural world is progressively degraded."
Fresh water: "There is new evidence that water scarcity will be the world's leading resource issue as we enter the new century." Our growing population has required ever greater quantities of food. New technologies and expanded use of fertilizer and irrigation have contributed to an almost fivefold increase in grain production in this century. At the same time water use has quadrupled. "China and India, the world's two most populous countries, depend on irrigated agriculture for half or more of their food supply .... The water table under much of the north China Plain, a region that accounts for nearly 40 percent of China's grain harvest, is falling by roughly 5 feet per year .... In India, the water situation may be deteriorating even faster."
Loss of biodiversity: We are experiencing the largest period of mass extinction since the dinosaurs were eliminated 65 million years ago. Worldwatch states: "Perhaps the best single indicator of the Earth's health is the declining number of species."
No one can accurately predict the future. However, if we look closely enough at underlying and significant trends, we should be able to develop a reasonable roadmap of the future.