PLUS THIRTY, AS SEEN BY THE EARTH
By Donella Meadows, adjunct
professor at Dartmouth College. Published with permission
in the Web of Life Imperative
If, in the thirty Earth Day
celebrations we have held since 1970, the human population and
economy have become any more respectful of the Earth, the Earth
The planet is not impressed
by fancy speeches. Leonardo DiCaprio interviewing Bill Clinton
about global warming is not an Earth-shaking event. The Earth
has no way of registering good intentions or future inventions
or high hopes. It doesn't even pay attention to dollars, which
are, from a planet's point of view, just a charming human invention.
Planets measure only physical things-energy and materials and
their flows into and out of the changing populations of living
What the Earth sees is that
on the first Earth Day in 1970 there were 3.7 billion of those
hyperactive critters called humans, and now there are over 6
Back in 1970 those humans drew
from the Earth's crust 46 million barrels of oil every day-now
they draw 78 million.
Natural gas extraction has
nearly tripled in thirty years, from 34 trillion cubic feet per
year to 95 trillion. We mined 2.2 billion metric tons in 1970;
this year we'll mine about 3.8 billion. The planet feels this
fossil fuel use in many ways, as the fuels are extracted (and
spilled) and shipped (and spilled) and refined (generating toxics)
and burned into numerous pollutants, including carbon dioxide,
which traps outgoing energy and warms things up. Despite global
conferences and brave promises, what the Earth notices is that
human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric
tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million this year.
You would think that an unimaginably
huge thing like a planet would not notice the one degree (Fahrenheit)
warming it has experienced since 1970. But on the scale of a
whole planet, one degree is a big deal, especially since it is
not spread evenly. The poles have warmed more than the equator,
the winters more than the summers, the nights more than the days.
That means that temperature DIFFERENCES from one place to another
have been changing much more than the average temperature has
changed. Temperature differences are what make winds blow, rains
rain, ocean currents flow.
All creatures, including humans,
are exquisitely attuned to the weather. All creatures, including
us, are noticing weather weirdness and trying to adjust, by moving,
by fruiting earlier or migrating later, by building up whatever
protections are possible against flood and drought. The Earth
is reacting to weather changes too, shrinking glaciers, splitting
off nation-sized chunks of Antarctic ice sheet, enhancing the
cycles we call El Nino and La Nina.
"Earth Day, Shmearth Day,"
the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts. "Are you
folks ever going to take me seriously?"
Since the first Earth Day our
global vehicle population has swelled from 246 to 730 million.
Air traffic has gone up by a factor of six. The rate at which
we grind up trees to make paper has doubled (to 200 million metric
tons per year). We coax from the soil, with the help of strange
chemicals, 2.25 times as much wheat, 2.5 times as much corn,
2.2 times as much rice, almost twice as much sugar, almost four
times as many soybeans as we did thirty years ago. We pull from
the oceans almost twice as much fish.
With the fish we can see clearly
how the planet behaves, when we push it too far. It does not
feel sorry for us; it just follows its own rules. Fish become
harder and harder to find. If they are caught before they're
old enough to reproduce, if their nursery habitat is destroyed,
if we scoop up not only the cod, but the capelin upon which the
cod feeds, the fish may never come back. The Earth does not care
that we didn't mean it, that we promise not to do it again, that
we make nice gestures every Earth Day.
We have among us die-hard optimists
who will berate me for not reporting the good news since the
last Earth Day. There is plenty of it, but it is mostly measured
in human terms, not Earth terms. Average human life expectancy
has risen since 1970 from 58 to 66 years. Gross world product
has more than doubled, from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. Recycling
has increased, but so has trash generation, so the Earth receives
more garbage than ever before. Wind and solar power generation
have soared, but so have coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear generation.
In human terms there has been
breathtaking progress. In 1970 there weren't any cell phones
or video players. There was no Internet; there were no dot-coms.
Nor was anyone infected with AIDS, of course, nor did we have
to worry about genetic engineering. Global spending on advertising
was only one-third of what it is now (in inflation-corrected
dollars). Third-World debt was one-eighth of what it is now.
Whether you call any of that
progress, it is all beneath the notice of the Earth. What the
Earth sees is that its species are vanishing at a rate it hasn't
seen in 65 million years. That 40 percent of its agricultural
soils have been degraded. That half its forests have disappeared
and half its wetlands have been filled or drained, and that despite
Earth Day, all these trends are accelerating.
Earth Day is beginning to remind
me of Mother's Day, a commercial occasion upon which you buy
flowers for the person who, every other day of the year, cleans
up after you. Guilt-assuaging. Trivializing. Actually dangerous.
All mothers have their breaking points. Mother Earth does not
soften hers with patience or forgiveness or sentimentality.
OF SOURCES 2000 A.D.:
from the Union of Concerned Scientists
Human culture now has the potential to inflict irreversible damage
on the environment and on its life sustaining systems and resources.
Already, critical stress suffered by our environment is clearly
manifest in the air, water, and soil, our climate, and plant
and animal species. Should this deterioration be allowed to continue,
we can expect to alter the living world to the extent that it
will be unable to sustain life as we know it.
Indiscriminate dumping of toxic,
nuclear, and biomedical waste and environmental disasters of
enormous scale have begun to cut deep scars into the Earth's
ecosystem and disrupt its delicate ecological balance. Global
warming, though to be resulting from increased levels of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere from fossil fuel use and from deforestation,
may have the potential to alter climate on a massive scale. Air
pollution near ground level and acid precipitation, and stratospheric
ozone depletion causing enhanced ultra-violet radiation at the
earth's surface, are causing widespread injury to human and animal
populations, forests and crops. Our remaining rainforests and
many wild forest regions, essential to worldwide ecological balance,
are slated for clear cutting due to poor management policies.
Uncontrolled exploitation of depletable ground water supplies
have endangered food production and other essential human systems
and heavy demands for surface waters have resulted in serious
shortages in many countries. Pollution of rivers, lakes and ground
water has further limited the supply of potable water. Destructive
pressure on the oceans is severe. Rivers carrying heavy burdens
of eroded soil into the seas also contain toxic industrial, municipal,
agricultural, and livestock waste. With the marine catch at or
above the maximum sustainable yield, some fisheries are already
showing signs of collapse.
Soil productivity is on the
decline and per capita food production in many parts of the world
is decreasing, as a result of destructive agriculture and animal
husbandry practices. Already, more than ten percent of the earth's
vegetated surface has been degraded, an area larger than India
and China combined.
Over one third of the valuable
topsoil used to grow the grains that feed much of the world has
blown or washed away. This desertification, caused by overgrazing
domestic animals and by over-cultivation, salinization, and deforestation,
has already impacted over 35 percent of the land surface of the
earth (United Nations Environmental Program). Desertification
has caused many millions to abandon the land, lacking the bare
essentials of survival, they have migrated to urban slums, where
all that awaits them are meager government relief packages and
We are fast approaching many
of the earth's limits; its ability to provide for growing numbers
of people, to provide food and energy, and to absorb wastes and
destructive effluent. Current economic practices which damage
the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations,
cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems
will be damaged beyond repair.
No more than a few decades
remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront
will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.
We must begin to bring environmentally damaging activities under
control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's ecosystems.
The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental
decline, poverty, and unrest, leading to worldwide social, economic
and environmental collapse from which we may be unable to recover.
State of the Earth Report
from the United Nations
"From a global perspective
the environment has continued to degrade during the past decade,
and significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded
in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all regions. Progress
towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. A sense
of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds
and political will are insufficient to halt further global environmental
degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues-even
though technology and knowledge are available to do so.
The recognition of environmental
issues as necessarily long-term and cumulative, with serious
global and security implications, remains limited. The reconciliation
of environment and trade regimes in a fair and equitable manner
still remains a major challenge. The continued preoccupation
with immediate local and national issues and a general lack of
sustained interest in global and long-term environmental issues
remain major impediments to environmental progress internationally.
Global governance structures and global environmental solidarity
remain too weak to make progress a world-wide reality. As a result,
the gap between what has been done thus far and what is realistically
needed is widening.
Comprehensive response mechanisms
have not yet been fully internalized at the national level. The
development at local, national, and regional levels of effective
environmental legislation and of fiscal and economic instruments
has not kept pace with the increase in environmental institutions.
In the private sector, environmental advances by several major
transnational corporations are not reflected widely in the practices
of small- and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of
economies in many countries.
In the future, the continued
degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental
responses, and renewable resource constraints may increasingly
lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global
biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental
problems such as climate change, ozone depletion, and acidification
may have impacts that will confront local, regional, and global
communities with situations they are unprepared for. Previously
unknown risks to human health are becoming evident from the cumulative
and persistent effects of a whole range of chemicals, particularly
the persistent organic pollutants. The effects of climate variability
and change are already increasing the incidence of familiar public
health problems and leading to new ones, including a more extensive
reach of vectorborne diseases and a higher incidence of heat-related
illness and mortality. If significant major policy reforms are
not implemented quickly, the future might hold more such surprises.
GEO-1 substantiates the need
for the world to embark on major structural changes and to pursue
environmental and associated socio-economic policies vigorously.
Key areas for action must embrace the use of alternative and
renewable energy resources, cleaner and leaner production systems
world-wide, and concerted global action for the protection and
conservation of the world's finite and irreplaceable fresh-water
The Technological Answers
Skinner, 1971 (via
"In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us
in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best.
We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology.
To contain a population explosion we look for better methods
of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build
bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We
try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways
of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope,
control disease, better housing and transportation will solve
the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing
of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point
to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not
surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow
steadily worse and it is disheartening to find that technology
itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have
made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired
a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent
pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As
Darlington has said, 'Every new source from which man has increased
his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects
of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense
of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could
The Human Condition
If we could shrink the earth's
population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the
existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something
like the following.
There would be:
14 from the Western Hemisphere,
both north and south
8 would be Africans
52 would be female
48 would be male
70 would be non-white
30 would be white
70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian
89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual
6 people would possess 59%
of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United
80 would live in substandard
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
(ONE)1 would be near death;
(ONE)1 would be near birth;
(ONE)1 would have a college
(ONE)1 would own computer.
If you have food in the refrigerator,
clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you
are richer than 75% of this world.
If you woke up this morning
with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the
million who will not survive this week.
If you have money in the bank,
in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are
among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.
If you can attend a church
meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death,
you are more blessed than three billion people in the world.
If you have never experienced
the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony
of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500
million people in the world.
80% of our contemporary medical
and social disorders have stress related origins.
Mental illness ranks second
in the burden of disease in established market economies such
as the United States