Planetary Report Card: Failing

by Lorna Salzman

WORLD POPULATION: 6.4 billion, over 4X the population at the start of the 20th century; will reach 9 billion by 2050, mostly in the poorest countries. Sub-Saharan population, which is growing by 2.5% per year, twice the rate of Latin America and Asia, is expected to double, to 2 billion, by 2050. India's population is expected to grow 52%, to 1.6 billion, by 2050, Pakistan's by 134%, and triple digit population growth is expected in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nepal.

CONSUMPTION SINCE 1950: energy, steel, timber doubled; fossil fuel & car ownership quadrupled; meat and fish consumption quintupled; paper use sextupled; air travel increased 100-fold.

AMERICAN ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT: Americans' environmental impact 20X that of developing countries' residents; 6 more planets would be needed for them to consume at our rate.

RICH-POOR DIVIDE: doubled in the past 40 years; upper 20% in Europe, Japan and North America consume over 80% of global energy and materials; poorest 20% consume 1%. Net worth of the world's 350 billionaires exceeds that of the poorest 2.5 billion people.

SOCIAL DEPRIVATION: 900 million adults are illiterate; poor countries pay over $350 billion a year to service their debt to developed countries ($2.4 trillion total).

BIODIVERSITY: each day we lose up to 150 species (historical background extinction rate was one species per year); since 1950 the "biotic holocaust" has extinguished up to 600,000 species; if trend continues, half of all earth's species will be gone in the next 50 years and it would take 5 to 10 million years to recover today's biodiversity.

FORESTS: half of the earth's original forest cover is gone and another 30% degraded or fragmented; half of remaining forest is threatened by logging; each year we lose 100,000 square miles of forest, mostly tropical; 50-90% of terrestrial species depend upon forests; over half of threatened vertebrates are forest species.

FOOD: 1 billion people are undernourished and 600 million are overnourished; 8 countries can't grow or buy enough food; by 2010 global food supply will fall short of demand; over 6 million people, mostly children, die annually from malnutrition; 20 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year.

WATER: 70% of all water used by humans goes to irrigation, with most of it leaking or evaporating; 2 billion people drink water contaminated with human/animal waste and chemicals, resulting in 1.5 billion cases of child diarrhea and 3 million deaths.

OCEANS: 70% of fish populations and 90% of top predators are overfished; warmer ocean temperatures have killed one quarter of the world's coral reefs; Australia's Great Barrier Reef faces complete collapse by the end of this century if warming continues.

ATMOSPHERE: carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are 6.5 billion tons per year, four times the 1950 amounts; atmospheric CO2 levels are now at 33% greater than pre-industrial levels; global warming is accelerating polar ice cap and mountain glacier melting, a rising sea level and more severe and frequent floods and droughts costing about $80 billion and 20,000 lives each year.

CLIMATE CHANGE PROGNOSIS: Many scientists now believe that average global temperature already exceeds the pre-industrial level by more than 2 degrees Celsius, which many consider an irreversible tipping point for climate change and that the climate disruption we are now experiencing will last for another 1000 years even if we stabilize CO2 emissions immediately at their present level.

Sources: Prof. Richard Steiner, Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks; "The Heat is On", Ross Gelbspan; Scientific American, December 2002; The Ecologist, November 2001.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.