Navigating The Rough Road From Rio

When the Earth Summit was held in Brazil in 1992, Secretary-General Maurice Strong said of the unprecedented United Nations gathering: ``Let's be realistic. The road from Rio is going to be more difficult than the road to Rio.''

Some progress has been made since then. Nations and international organizations are doing more to stem pollution and protect natural resources. The recent UN population conference in Cairo produced important advances. So did the international meeting on trade in endangered species.

But there's also plenty of evidence that the ambitious goal of sustainable development - matching economic needs to environmental realities while closing the gap between rich and poor around the world - remains largely unfulfilled. And in important ways the problems actually are becoming worse.

This is the stark message and the challenge of the Worldwatch Institute's annual ``State of the World'' report. Published annually since 1984, the foundation-funded organization's book is translated into 27 languages and widely distributed to policymakers, business leaders, and universities in many countries. Its attitude toward global problems is not for all ideologies. But the facts Worldwatch cites are difficult to dispute, and its conclusions are hard to ignore.

The direct line from environmental degradation to economic decline to political instability to social insecurity is becoming increasingly evident, institute researchers report.

Global fisheries have declined to dangerous levels, forests are being overcut in many parts of the world, and aquifers are dangerously low due to overpumping. Among the economic results: 33,000 people unemployed in northeastern Canada because of the collapse of the cod and haddock fishery off Newfoundland; tropical hardwood exports from the Ivory Coast down to one-tenth of the $300 million annual high because of overcutting; Indonesia's economic output four percent less than it would be without deforestation and soil erosion.

``With the thresholds for sustainable yields now being crossed for so many resources, relationships that have been stable for centuries or millennia, are becoming highly volatile,'' writes Worldwatch president Lester Brown.

Political and social symptoms include hunger, refugees (whose numbers have grown from 15 million five years ago to 23 million), and violent conflict. Countries displaying these symptoms include Afghanistan, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti.

``One unfortunate and little noticed consequence of these various trends of environmental and economic decline is that international assistance programs are focusing more on aid and less on development,'' reports Worldwatch. ``In effect, expenditures are shifting from crisis prevention to crisis management.''

It's not just the crises that are of concern, however, but also the long-term trends. Environmental degradation, urban development, and population growth are adding up to a situation where food output per capita is declining in many places. This includes not only fisheries but grain production as well.

Japan imports more than three-quarters of the grain it consumes, and South Korea and Taiwan about two-thirds. As China accelerates its shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, it too will see grain production drop as consumption increases.

``My guess is that grain prices will be higher next year than they are now,'' Mr. Brown told the Monitor's George Moffett the other day. ``We could find ourselves in a situation before very long when 1.2 billion Chinese consumers are competing with us for our grain. And they've got the purchasing power.''

The ideological basis of sustainable development is that environmental protection, economic improvement, and social advancement are all connected. ``State of the World'' provides valuable evidence that this is so. @QUOTE = There's plenty of evidence that the ambitious goal of sustainable development remains largely unfulfilled. And in important ways the problems are becoming worse.

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