The doomsday reckoning

It could have been worse: the world has not starved, the oil has not run out and. there is life in the sea. But our environment is still in crisis
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, the doomsayers had all the best tunes. In those days, when forecasting the state of the planet at the millennium was a publishing goldmine, we could confidently expect to be living now on a dying, denuded planet, fuelled extensively by nuclear-power.

Limits to Growth, the report of the Club of Rome that sold 4 million copies, forecast catastrophe by the late 1990s, brought on by the exhaustion of mineral resources, food shortages and mounting pollution.

Teddy Goldsmith - editor of The Ecologist - edited a book called Can Britain Survive? in 1971, which reported that "there is only enough natural gas for another 25 years or so". He added: "By the end of the century there will be practically no tungsten, copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver or platinum."

Professor Paul Ehrlich predicted that "hundreds of millions of people" would starve to death in the 1970s and 1980s, and "all important animal life in the sea" would be extinct by September 1979.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority, backed by the Department of Energy, was predicting 71 atomic power stations and 33 fast-breeder reactors on line by the year 2000. In fact there are only 16 ordinary nuclear reactors in Britain, and the fast-breeder reactor programme has been abandoned. On the other hand, the American futurologists Herman Khan and Julian Simon forecast in 1984: "The world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than now. The outlook for food and other necessities of life will be better. Life for most people on earth will be less precarious economically."

The crisis in the environment spawned the UN's World Environment Day. It happens next Friday, and it is a good moment to judge the environmental judges. Who's been right, and who wrong? And how right or how wrong?


The good news is that the rate of population growth has slowed dramatically, from a peak of 2.2 per cent a year in 1963 to 1.4 per cent now. The UN expects there to be 9.4 billion people on the planet in 2050, far fewer than the 15 billion predicted in the 1970s. The bad news is that numbers are still increasing by 80 million a year, and virtually all the increase is taking place in the poorest countries, those least able to cope. But since each American uses 11 times more of the world's resources than an Indian or Chinese, population growth in the US will have more of a global impact than the much greater increase expected in the world's two most populous nations.


Good news: the world is still managing to produce more food. Last year's global grain harvest was a new record of 1,881 million tonnes. The world fish catch was also a record, at 93 million tons.

The bad news is that the amount of food produced per person is falling. The amount of arable land per head - it now amounts to an area the sixth of a football field - has been halved since 1950 and is due to drop by another third by 2030. For decades, yields per acre increased to compensate, but recently they have stagnated. World grain stocks are well below safety levels. All of the world's 15 major fisheries are being exploited at or beyond their limits, and 13 are actually in decline.

The worse news is that 11 million children under five still die each year from hunger or hunger-related diseases and 1 billion people do not get enough food to lead fully productive lives. This is because they are poor and cannot afford to buy the food they need.

Non-renewable resources

The good news is that the gloomy predictions of the 1960s failed to take into account the discovery of new reserves and the economic truth that, as prices rose and technology improved, exploitation became easier. No serious shortage of minerals is in prospect. There are enormous amounts of natural gas (the cleanest of fossil fuels). There is much less oil but production is still expected to rise sharply for a decade or two. The bad news is that there may be so much fossil fuel for us to burn that it will irreversibly damage the climate.

Renewable resources

The bad news is in the depletion of soil, water and forests. Every year 25 billion tons of topsoil, the skin of the earth, is blown or washed away. At least a sixth of the world's productive land has been degraded by "desertification". Twenty countries, with a combined population of 132 million, don't have enough water to meet their needs. By 2050 this is expected to rise to 25 countries with a population of 2,430 million. Over-use is rapidly depleting groundwater reserves from the US to China, where the Yellow River has failed to reach the sea for 13 years. Water scarcity causes international tension; many analysts expect "water wars" in future.

Trees bind the soil to the ground and regulate water supplies. But nearly half of the world's original forests have been lost and another 40 million acres are cut down in the world each year.

Good News? Precious little. An international treaty to combat desertification was agreed in 1994 but not much is being done to implement it. There is no treaty so far on forests or water.


Good news. A few charismatic species, such as whales and elephants, are being saved and more than 5,000 national parks and other protected areas have been set up around the world.

Bad news. As forests are cut down, wetlands drained and other areas destroyed, species are being driven to extinction at 1,000 times the natural rate. Two-thirds of all species may be lost over the next 100 years, equalling the mass extinction that saw off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It took 5 million years to recover from that.


Good news. Air and water pollution have been falling in rich countries. Sulphur dioxide pollution, one of the main causes of acid rain, has fallen by nearly half in Europe and nearly a third in the US since 1980. Lead is disappearing from petrol. Rivers are cleaner.

The bad news is that air pollution still takes a heavy toll, killing - by official estimates - 24,000 people a year in Britain and aggravating the asthma that afflicts one child in every seven. Photochemical smog has replaced the old "pea-soupers". The problems are far worse in Eastern Europe and the Third World.

Worse News. More than 2 million people in the Third World die each year from "indoor air pollution" caused by burning dung, crop waste and wood. Another 5 million die from drinking dirty water.


Bad news. Use of oil, gas and coal is increasing rapidly, causing serious air pollution and being the main cause of global warming.

Goodish news. Nuclear power is fading. New orders for reactors are almost at a standstill (there has not been a single one in the US for 20 years). As old ones are decommissioned, the role of the atom will fall sharply. But the problems of dealing with nuclear waste remain. If nuclear power is replaced by fossil fuels, climate change will intensify.

Good News. The world can manage with much less fossil fuel. Many studies show that rich countries could cut energy use by a third without imperilling growth. Renewable sources are finally beginning to come on stream: wind power is the world's fastest growing type of energy, and use of solar cells has doubled in the past three years. Shell and BP have both announced major renewable energy programmes.

Toxic Chemicals

Good news. Some of the most notorious chemicals in the 1960s and 1970s such as the pesticide DDT, and PCBs - used in a variety of goods, from electrical equipment to paint - have been banned or heavily restricted. Shipments of toxic waste are controlled by an international treaty.

However, we have little idea of the long-term effects of all but a few of the 70,000 and more chemicals that are in regular use. New dangers keep emerging, such as the wide range of chemicals now suspected of causing gender-bending changes in wildlife and a worldwide drop in human sperm counts.

Ozone layer

The world's governments have moved fast against the chemicals that attack the layer that shields out the harmful rays of the sun. Production of CFCs has been stopped in the West and is being phased out elsewhere. Experts calculate that this will prevent 19 million skin cancers over 60 years. The bad news is that the chemicals are so long-lived in the atmosphere that it will take 100 years before the ozone layer is completely healed.

Global warming

The 2,500 top scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change say it's really happening. The 14 warmest years since records began have all occurred since 1979; the five hottest since 1990. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are at the highest for 160,000 years. Glaciers are melting and ice-sheets breaking up; alpine flowers are "climbing" mountains at the rate of a foot a year; tropical diseases such as malaria are spreading. Rising sea levels are expected to swamp coastal areas and low-lying island nations. One alarming scenario - recently mentioned by the government's own Chief Scientist, suggests that the Gulf Stream could fail, giving Britain and Northern Europe the climate of Spitzbergen, while the rest of the world warms.

The world's governments took a first step towards cutting carbon dioxide emissions in Kyoto last December in an agreement largely brokered by Britain. But there's a tremendously long way to go.

Policy Priorities

Almost everything is urgent. The millions of deaths from pollution in poor countries cry out for immediate action. Issues such as the depletion of soil and water need tackling now to avert future disasters. And long time-lags in the world's climatic system mean that tackling global warming cannot be safely delayed.

But the good news is that some policies tackle several crises at once. Burning less fossil fuel cuts air pollution and combats global warming. Preserving forests and planting new ones reduces global warming and conserves soil, water and species. Concentrating help on the world's poorest farmers increases food production, reduces pesticide use and slows population growth as the poor need fewer children to provide them with security.

The next 25 years

Will the world get to grips with these crises? E F Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, written when the doom-mongers were in their pomp, warned: "Predictions are always unreliable ... particularly when they are about the future."