Worldwatch's gloomy message is far from the whole story

Worldwatch Institute, a Washington think tank, has produced its second ``State of the World'' study. It's an alarming survey of environmental decay and resource destruction, linked to growing population pressure. In fact, it is so alarming, it reads more like a cry of despair than a balanced analysis. This is especially true of the press release accompanying the report -- a summary that will be the basis of many of the news reports and editorial commentaries on the study. The public deserves better treatment of such an important topic.

Worldwatch has the worthy goal of producing an annual report on the environmental state of the world. This is to help mankind monitor its ``progress toward a sustainable society.'' Referring to the role he sees this annual review playing, Worldwatch president Lester R. Brown says in this issue's foreword that, ``at a time when some global problems seem insurmountable, it is reassuring to know that information illuminating them can be quickly disseminated worldwide.'' Why, then, present the message in a perspective that seems more likely to alarm than to illuminate?

Certainly the world faces major environmental challenges. And population pressure is at least partly responsible for them. But merely to review this much-discussed problem while offering little practical insight for meeting the challenges only serves to raise fear in public thinking. Yet this is what the news release does.

It starts by noting that ``the cumulative actions of a world population approaching five billion are now capable of causing continental and even global changes in natural systems.'' It adds that ``as human pressures on the economy's natural support systems build, the more severely stressed ones are beginning to break down.'' Africa is cited as a particularly tragic example of such breakdown as famine has spread across many areas.

There is some truth in this. But it is far from being the whole story. Africa, for example, does indeed need to curb one of the fastest population growth rates on the planet. But as Fred T. Sai of the University of Ghana Medical School explained last Nov. 16 in Science magazine, population growth may be as much a result as it is a cause of Africa's economic problems. Africans ``have many reasons for wanting larger families,'' he said, including old-age insurance. He added that population growth can best be curbed in the context of economic development efforts which take account of family needs.

The Worldwatch statement picks up the unproven hypothesis that ``population growth may be indirectly reducing rainfall by decreasing the land's vegetative cover.'' It adds that ``if rainfall is slowly declining in Africa because of population-induced changes in land use . . . then the continent-wide decline in per capita food production can be reversed only by family planning, tree planting, soil conservation, and water resource development on a massive scale.''

Such things are highly desirable. But they are unlikely to restore rainfall. There is mounting meteorological evidence, such as the climatological study recently presented to Britain's Royal Meteorological Society by Mike Dennett of the University of Reading, that Africa's drought is part of a long-term climatic change and not a man-made phenomenon.

Likewise, while the measures cited are necessary for solving Africa's food problem, they are not the most essential element. As has been the case with the ``green revolution'' in Asia, Africa needs to shift from an agriculture suitable to a relatively sparse population to one that can sustain the much more densely populated continent which it has already become. But unlike Asia, Africa has little irrigation potential, and so needs a wide variety of crops that can be grown under diverse conditions on fragile soils.

As for what should be done to help Africa, the news release offers the following advice from Lester Brown: ``Reversing the ecological deterioration and economic decline now under way in so much of Africa may require international collaboration greater than any since the Allied powers mobilized during World War II. It demands leaders who will shift the world's attention, and its resources, from maintaining East-West hostility to restoring the natural systems that ultimately sustain all societies.''

That's wishful idealism. What's needed is for those countries that can do so to help African nations get on with the research needed to build a sustainable agriculture. This can be done without waiting for global utopia, as the Asian agricultural revolution illustrates.

The news release treats some other massive challenges -- acid rain, water shortages, global deforestation -- in equally dark and simplistic terms. The message being given is one of gloom and doom, although the Worldwatch team may not have intended it that way.

The study itself, which has room for considerable detail, is somewhat more balanced and contains much useful reference information. But here again, the emphasis is on threats being faced. Recommendations for action -- whether in family planning, soil conservation, or reducing air pollution -- have the flavor of scolding mankind and its political leaders for lack of vision or lack of courage in not using strong government intervention to carry out the remedial measures (often vaguely stated) which the report's authors consider necessary.

Isn't it time to get beyond this kind of hand-wringing, especially in what aims to be an annual assessment? Isn't it time to begin finding truly practical solutions to humanity's environmental problems -- solutions that will be politically, as well as technically, feasible for national leaders as they are, with all their human foibles?

Donella H. Meadows of Dartmouth College, one of the authors of the original ``Limits to Growth'' report, notes in the current issue of Technology Review that more than a decade of such analyses has ``forced us to stand back and look at all the complexity, admit it, and yet continue confronting it.'' She adds, ``When we do, we see far too many negative trends to be complacent and far too many positive trends to be hopeless. We mainly see a lot of work to do.''

The trouble with ``State of the World: 1985'' is that it emphasizes the negative, shortchanges the positive, and undercuts its credibility by being a vehicle for its authors' political philosophy.

A Thursday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor. -- 30 --

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