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Protecting world resources: is time running out?

By Robert C. CowenNatural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1982

'Gloom and doom' reports about the world environment appear regularly. Just as regularly, the sense of urgency they generate dissipates, and the point-of-no-return deadlines they set prove to be premature.

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But the challenges they identify remain to be addressed and to be dealt with.

This article is the fifth in a series written in conjunction with the Foreign Policy Association's 'Great Decisions '82' program.

In this era of Reaganomics - with the United States federal budget emphasizing military buildup over social or environmental concerns - who remembers ''The Global 2000 Report to the President''?

Released with much fanfare on July 24, 1980, by the Carter administration, it was billed as the most comprehensive assessment yet made of what some scientists believe to be humanity's march toward ecological disaster.

It was, in fact, the official US government version of the many ''limits to growth'' studies that made similar dire prophecies in the 1970s. As such, it was intended to be the basis for a new foreign policy initiative in which the United States would lead the world out of environmental danger through a combination of precept, example, and judiciously targeted foreign aid.

US representatives announced this intention in foreign capitals. Ambassadors from a number of nations were briefed on the ''Global 2000'' findings in Washington. The new foreign-policy initiative was to have been inaugurated with a global summit meeting early last year.

The Reagan administration, which takes a less messianic view of foreign aid, has quietly ignored all of this. The Carter call to action seems to have faded from public consciousness as well.

Yet the challenge raised by ''Global 2000'' remains. The world does appear to be heading toward various kinds of environmental decay. These still need to be dealt with both on a national and a global level.

The report tried to convey a sense of urgency by pointing out the possible consequences of these trends by AD 2000:

* World population will grow from 4 billion in 1980 to 6.35 billion in 2000, with the poorest countries accounting for 90 percent of the increase.

* While food production will rise, it is the more-developed nations that will benefit.

* The amount of farmable land will decline on a per capita basis - an expected 4 percent increase in acreage being more than offset by population growth and loss of land to erosion, desertification, salting, or waterlogging.

* As much as 20 percent of existing plant and animal species will become extinct.

* The need for water will have doubled in almost half the world, while water supplies remained inadequate.

* Forests, already severely depleted in many countries, will lose a further 40 percent of their acreage globally. At the same time, commercial timber supplies will fall by 50 percent. Available firewood will meet only 80 percent of world need. (Firewood shortage already is a major problem in parts of Asia and Africa.)

* Signs of climatic change due to atmospheric carbon dioxide may have become evident.

Such a list does, indeed, point up a need to husband the world's resources. But the ''Global 2000'' report may not have been the best vehicle for presenting this challenge. As both its authors and its critics admit, its message was hardly new. It could be expected to have little impact without the new foreign policy that President Carter thought would follow from it.

Moreover, the document was assembled from the memorandums of many government agencies over three years. (Mr. Carter had asked for a one-year study.) Critics claim that, as a result, some of its findings rest on outdated or faulty data, a point even its authors grant.

Its tone has been criticized as unduly pessimistic. For instance, the report warns that ''if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.''

''What a big 'if' that is,'' said the late ecologist Rene Dubos, responding to what he called the report's ''hysterical statements.'' He added that ''wherever human beings are concerned, trend is never destiny.''