Earth's vital signs: a mixed bag

Research institute notes progress on global challenges, but not fast enough

FIRST, the good news. Life expectancy is getting longer. The world is using more renewable energy sources, like wind. New compact fluorescent bulbs are saving millions of kilowatts of power. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons are shrinking. And most nations will soon stop producing ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons.

Yet planet Earth still has serious troubles. Of the world's 9,600 bird species, 6,600 are declining or in danger of extinction. The AIDS pandemic is accelerating. More than 500 crop-destroying insects and mites are becoming resistant to pesticides. Global warming remains a threat. Grain reserves are low at 62 days and at 60 days, prices could skyrocket.

Lester Brown, the founder of Worldwatch Institute, has tracked such trends for 20 years. His institute's latest global analysis, ``Vital Signs 1994,'' was just issued.

`Making progress'

Mr. Brown calls the outlook mixed. ``We're making progress, but not fast enough,'' he told the Monitor. ``It's ... like food production and population growth. Food production is increasing, but not as fast as population.''

He says: ``The evidence that we're not moving fast enough you can see in deforestation, loss of bird species, the decline in fish stocks, and the rise in atmospheric CO2 [carbon dioxide]. Here and there [we see] successes, some of them dramatic.''

In the United States, Brown says, a major breakthrough came in farming, where soil erosion was reduced by almost two-thirds since 1985. ``It's a major success story, but not widely known or appreciated,'' Brown says.

Success often comes in small ways. The compact fluorescent light bulb, which only recently gained popularity, has gained widespread acceptance in Japan, Europe, and North America. In Japan, compacts now provide 80 percent of the lighting in homes. Though costly, they last 10 times as long and use one-fourth the energy.

Energy efficiency

Worldwatch analyst David Roodman estimates that the 400 million compact bulbs now in use save the energy equivalent of 18 large, coal-fired power plants.

Another nonpolluting trend is the steady expansion of wind-generated power. Approximately 20,000 wind turbines are whirring worldwide, most of them in California and Denmark.

The next generation of turbines could be installed in Washington State, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Minnesota, and Maine, and in Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain. Europe could soon pass the US as the No. 1 producer.

Brown says one of his newest, and most meaningful, indicators is life span. Worldwide, the average human life expectancy now has climbed to 65 years, up 20 years since 1950. Industrial countries rose from 66 years in 1950 to 74 years today. China made remarkable progress, from 41 years in 1950 to 70 years today.

Yet in Russia, where pollution has grown to alarming levels, life spans are now dropping - because of pollution, cigarette smoking, and alcoholism, Brown says. Thailand and Uganda, due to AIDS, may also be losing ground.

Global management

Long-term, Brown notes that certain principles apply to global management. Soil erosion cannot indefinitely exceed soil formation. Carbon emission cannot forever exceed carbon fixation. Fish catches cannot exceed fish regeneration.

To violate these rules for too long risks a collapse of the world's ecosystems, he says.

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