IN the 20 years since the first global conference on the environment, there has been some progress toward conserving resources and lessening pollution. But, overall, the situation continues to worsen, and it will take nothing less than a rapid "revolution" in lifestyle and government action to avoid not only serious environmental damage but economic decline and social instability.
This is the sobering conclusion of the Worldwatch Institute's annual "State of the World" report, released over the weekend. Many of the topics are familiar - loss of biological diversity, decline in nonrenewable energy sources, major problems with women's reproductive health (especially in developing countries), the rapid growth of cities, the adverse impact of mining, grazing, and logging. These are among the major subjects to be discussed at the "Earth Summit" (the UN Conference on Environment and Dev elopment) to be held in Rio de Janeiro this June.
Throughout, the connection between environmental degradation and human well-being is made plain. For example, overgrazing has harmed 73 percent of the world's range land. This and related developments (like soil erosion and polluted fresh-water sources) have caused per capita grain production around the world to decline over the past seven years.
Worldwatch cites a World Bank report showing that incomes in more than 40 developing countries fell during the 1980s. Like many environmental groups, Worldwatch connects environmental and economic decline with unchecked population growth. It concludes that "building an environmentally secure world ... requires a wholly new economic order."
It is anticipated that the 150-nation "Earth Summit" will feature a North-South confrontation over relative responsibility for environmental problems that know no national boundaries and how to pay for solving those problems.
The solution outlined in the report is sweeping and controversial: major changes in diet, transportation, and housing; economic restructuring and income redistribution; debt forgiveness and more foreign aid from wealthy nations; stronger international governance, including perhaps giving up some national sovereignty.
"Creating an effective system of international environmental governance ... will require wide departures from business as usual," writes researcher Hilary French. For example, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade "is in need of an overhaul in order to inject some environmental sensibilities into it."
"Either we turn things around quickly or the self-reinforcing internal dynamic of the deterioration-and-decline scenario will take over," Worldwatch president Lester Brown warns. "If this Environmental Revolution succeeds, it will rank with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions as one of the great economic and social transformations in human history."
The Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is a private organization supported by foundations and the UN Population Fund. Its annual report is translated into 27 languages, distributed to government agencies worldwide, and is used in 633 US colleges and universities.