CONFERENCE STATEMENT: THE PROBLEM: The planet Earth has finite resources and a fragile atmosphere. It is under increasing pressure because of rising population and industrialization and the consequent destruction of resources and pollution of the environment. The quality of life of individuals and societies depends upon sustaining a healthy environment.
Yet both the scale and the pace of transformation of the environment by human activities has been rapidly expanding. This expansion has pushed the environmental issues squarely onto the agendas of our newly interconnected global society. The result is an increasing awareness of the relationship between environmental protection and social well-being, providing new opportunities for constructive action.
`UNTIL now,'' says environmentalist George M. Woodwell, ``the environment has been large in proportion to the demands that we've put on it. Now our influences are large.''
To Dr. Woodwell, director of the not-for-profit Woods Hole Research Center, those influences include pollution of global water supplies, increases in toxic wastes, expansion of the world's deserts, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the extinction of entire species of plant and animal life.
Some of these problems have immediate and tangible consequences - and, as a result, direct and local solutions. ``If you could tomorrow morning make water clean in the world,'' says ecologist William C. Clark of the Kennedy School at Harvard University, ``you would have done, in one fell swoop, the best thing you could have done for improving human health by improving environmental quality.''
But for many environmentalists the knottiest problem - the one carrying the most long-range and least understood threat - is the global warming trend. Popularly known as ``the greenhouse effect,'' it appears to be caused by an increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases in the earth's atmosphere. Like greenhouse windows, the CO2 lets the sun's rays through - and then traps the heat inside.
Already, says Woodwell, the warming trend is evident. ``The earth is five-tenths to seven-tenths of a [Centigrade] degree warmer now than it was about a century ago,'' he says. Moreover, the pace seems to be quickening. ``Five of the warmest years in this century,'' he notes, ``have occurred in the 1980s.''
Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a noted environmentalist, agrees. While other explanations are possible, he writes, it is a fact that ``the year 1987 was the warmest in recent history.''
As a result of the global warming trend, Dr. Raven continues, ``the world climate is expected to rise between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees C. between now and 2050 - a level of change that would cause catastrophic disruption to world agriculture - while the sea level may rise between 1.4 meters and 2.2 meters [4.5 to 7 feet] by 2100 [due to the melting of the polar icecaps].''
That may not sound like much. But each degree of change causes vegetation zones to migrate 60 to 100 miles toward the poles - extending deserts, wiping out entire forests, and restructuring farming areas. And no one can estimate the effect of shrinking polar icecaps radiating less and less heat back into space.
In the past century, says Woodwell, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 30 percent. At present, the atmosphere contains about 700 billion tons of carbon, a figure that is growing by about 3 billion tons a year.
Where does the extra 3 billion tons of carbon come from? Woodwell's figures show that an estimated 5 billion tons are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Perhaps half of that is reabsorbed by the oceans - leaving a balance of 2.5 billion tons pouring into the atmosphere. The remaining 0.5 billion tons can be attributed to a combination of biological factors - including deforestation (which reduces the number of plants available to recycle CO2 through photosynthesis) and the warming of soils, which speeds the rate at which organic matter decays and releases CO2.
``If we continue on the current course,'' says Woodwell, ``we shall be entering a period of indefinite warming - and leaving a period of comparatively stable climates over the past centuries. And an open-ended warming is just not something we can live with.''
``I see little alternative to reducing the buildup of carbon dioxide to zero,'' he concludes. ``We really do have to stabilize climates globally if we wish to continue to use the earth effectively.''
How can that goal of stabilization be met?
For many environmentalists, the answer is as obvious as it is uncomfortable: Cut back the global use of fossil fuels.
A 50 percent decrease, says Woodwell, would reduce the global ``carbon budget'' of the atmosphere by 2.5 billion tons - almost enough to eliminate the 3 billion-ton annual increase. Measures to reduce deforestation could make up the additional 0.5 billion tons, he says.
Such goals, he insists, are reachable, in part through tighter conservation measures. ``Our initial analyses suggest that a 50 percent reduction is possible [in the industrial world] without changing GNP [gross national product] very much,'' he says. ``We're already doing things with cars and houses that have reduced the use of energy by 50 percent - and we can do much, much more.''
In this regard, the industrial world is quite rightly the focus of attention. ``The use of industrial energy or minerals by the industrialized world amounts to 90 percent of the total available [worldwide] for most commodities,'' writes Raven.
``So much is wasted in this society,'' says Indian filmmaker Vineet Narain, noting the vast amounts of energy used to produce packaging materials for consumer products in the developed nations.
As an example of an alternative, he notes that ``in India re-cently, people have developed something like your paper plates: They take the big leaves of trees, press them in a kind of mold, and make a dried plate for parties.'' After the party, the plate is thrown in garbage, where it naturally decays.
``The whole question is of the individual's attitude toward nature,'' he adds.
Michael Hooker, chancellor of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agrees. ``I'm concerned mostly, I think, about the obscene avariciousness with which we [in the Western nations] consume resources,'' he says. He sees it as ``a reflection of our culture, which tells me that there's something wrong spiritually with us - that, at least in American society, we consume material culture, use it up, spend it, waste it.''
The need for rethinking energy use, challenging enough for the developed world, is exacerbated in the developing world. In third-world countries, says futurist Theodore J. Gordon, ``fossil fuel burning is the principal source of energy, and to engage in goals that limit fossil-fuel burning worldwide deprives most people in the world their source of heat.''
To be sure, there are some positive factors. The developing nations tend to lie in the low latitudes, where more solar energy is available. And even within current patterns of energy use there is a potential for conservation - a point emphasized by Kenyan journalist Patrick Mungai.
``The question is not whether there is enough energy,'' says Mr. Mungai. ``The question is, `How efficiently are we using the natural resources that are available?''' If the average family in Kenya burns a ton of wood over a certain period of time, he says, ``the question is, `How can you make them use that ton of wood more effectively?''' But the central issue for developing nations, many observers agree, focuses on a single concept: better redistribution of current as-sets. Such redistribution, in an in-creasingly interdependent world, may require new methods of accounting. ``What we need,'' says Dr. Clark, ``is a set of environmental accounts that take seriously the notion that resources and environment are part of the productive stock of a society - just the way that the capital stock investment in a factory or an educational system are part of the productive future potential of that area.''
That, however, is not happening. At present, he says, international accounting is structured so that ``in virtually every country of the world you actually get credits into your national accounts by chopping down a forest and washing the soil into a river - it's a positive benefit in your gross domestic product.''
Such accounting has a direct impact on such difficult problems as that of the third-world debt. British politician Shirley Williams, noting that the global warming trend may be exacerbated by the destruction of forests in Latin America, points out the folly of present-day policies that encourage deforestation.
``We are putting the most immense pressure on the Brazils and the Argentinas to produce more cash crops in order to pay the interest on the debt,'' she notes. Since such crops are typically grown on newly deforested land, she concludes that ``we in the West have to answer for the fact that we are speeding up the destruction of the environment on which we ourselves depend.''
Her answer: some form of accounting whereby the developed nations begin to ``pay rent for those environmental resources they do not wish to see destroyed.'' Under such a system, nations with large rain forests, for example, could get assistance from the de-veloped world aimed specifically at preserving such world-class resources. Another answer might be to set cumulative limits on fossil-fuel pollution, so that nations with long histories of fossil-fuel pollution would be permitted much less future use than newly industrializing nations.
The problems facing the environment, however, go beyond the distinction between the developed and the developing world. Another concern is the overload on the environment caused simply by the bulk of the human population - currently 5 billion, and heading for between 9 and 14 billion in the next century. Human beings share their environment with at least 5 million other species of plant and animal life. And one way to measure human dominance, writes Raven, ``is to calculate the proportion of the total energy available [on earth each year] that we appropriate for ourselves: What fraction of the total do [humans] consume directly, waste, or co-opt [as in clearing pastures]?''
The answer, he reports, is about 40 percent - a figure that is steadily rising as human population increases. ``If we achieve no improvements in the ways in which we use the world's resources,'' he warns, ``we would need 80 percent of the total by the middle of the next century just to stay even.''
How to contain this increasing demand? One answer is to target the large users. ``We ought to be leaning on the American government like mad to raise energy taxes,'' says Mrs. Williams, who finds it ``ludicrous that energy is priced where it is in the United States today.
``I think that the Western world ought to adapt a regime of steadily increasing energy prices - a common regime, to get away from competitivity problems. There ought to be a sustained steady increase in the price of energy, roughly marrying to the speed at which one can bring about energy conservation.''
Mr. Gordon agrees. Most energy research and development programs, he says, are ``tied to the price of petroleum. R&D is engaged in because of the promise of future profit - and when the promise of future profit is low because the prices of fuel are low, we have no incentive to do the R&D.''
Despite increasing global interdependence and an increasing recognition that environmental problems transcend national boundaries, however, most environmental decisions are still made by individual nations. ``We do not have institutional forums appropriate to this increasingly interdependent world,'' says former World Bank president Robert McNamara, who calls for a strengthening of such institutions as the United Nations Environment Program.
That will not be easy. ``There will clearly be enormous conflicts about whose rights and whose responsibilities are going to be put in,'' says Radcliffe College president Matina Horner. She sees a need for ``an interdependent arena'' that could ``redefine rights and responsibilities and the appropriate balance between them.''
On one point, however, most observers agree: There is a sense of urgency about the problem. No longer does humanity have the luxury of waiting until the causes of environmental degradation are wholly understood. ``If you wait until causality is established,'' quips Harvard University sociolo-gist Amitai Etzioni, ``we will be dead - environmentally and other-wise.''
Instead, says Mr. McNamara, we need to ``buy insurance'' against ``potentially irreversible'' damage to the environment - even though we may not have established the ultimate cause of the problem.
At the same time, says former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, the problems chosen for attack must be the most pressing ones - and not simply the ones easiest to identify. Otherwise environmental policy misses the mark - becoming, he says, ``like looking for your keys under the lamppost even though that isn't where you lost them, because that's where the light is.''
Whatever efforts are taken, however, many observers see potential benefits for global interdependence.
``Maybe,'' concludes Joan Abrahamson, a lawyer and community activist, ``the identification of the common threat to the world through the environment is another way to unify us - as sad as that is. Maybe by developing appropriate technology to combat this threat, we can learn how to do cooperative problem solving that might even be related to security issues and other issues that face us.''
ACHIEVABLE GOALS for the year 2000 Create plans in each nation for the sustainable use of its land. While sustainable use may not be attainable in every nation by the year 2000, plans and timetables for their implementation can be developed. Establish a planetary trust for the conservation of living resources at levels adequate to preserve regional and global life-support systems. Such a trusteeship would allow the world's populations to determine priorities for the protection of particular resources, habitats, and species. Achieve reductions in rates of fossil fuel use to first stabilize and ultimately reverse environmental degradation caused by such problems as global warming; air, soil, and water pollution; acid rain; and toxic wastes.
HOW it could be done: Establish an international system of environmental accounts designed to assess such transboundary issues as crossnational pollution; manufacturing, heating, and power-generating activities; and operations of multinational corporations. Strengthen those international environmental institutions that can perform environmental accounting tasks, provide mixed-nation research teams for basic fact-finding and analysis, and establish computer models for sound accounting. Consider creating a system of global rents for conservation of natural resources, with payments scaled to the GNP of contributing nations and to their historic use of nonrenewable resources. Vigorously fund the research and development of alternative energy sources. Levy taxes on or otherwise increase prices of fossil fuels, proportional to the costs they incur for environmental protection, with great sensitivity to the impact of such increases on developing nations.