Earth facing exhaustion as economies hit historic levels

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UNPRECEDENTED world economic growth is beginning to "hit the wall" of what the earth's natural systems can stand, according to an authoritative report published today.

The report says the global economy has grown by US$5 trillion in the past seven years, more than in the entire 10,000 years between the birth of agriculture and the end of the Second World War. But, the State of the World Report adds: "It has begun to outrun the capacity of the earth to supply basic goods and services."

The report takes the radical step of suggesting that, instead of trying to halt growth, greater use should be made of renewable energy, such as wind power, to allow the economy to continue to grow.

Published by the Worldwatch Institute, a prestigious Washington think- tank, the report echoes warnings by environmentalists 25 years ago of limits to so-called renewable resources such as water and soil.

It says that global output of goods and services has grown almost sixfold since 1950. Last year's growth, of $1.1 trillion, exceeded the growth in output throughout the world during the entire 17th century. If it continues to grow at this rate, it will almost double from $29 trillion today to $57 trillion in 2020. Yet even at present levels it is straining the planet's natural capacity.

"Over the last half century" says the report, "the use of wood almost doubled, that of paper increased nearly sixfold, fish consumption increased fivefold, water use tripled, grain consumption nearly tripled, steel use increased fourfold, and fossil fuel consumption increased nearly fivefold. The economy continues to expand, but the ecosystem, on which it depends, does not, leading to an increasingly stressed relationship between the two.

"Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying, and plant and animal species are disappearing."

Almost all of the world's seas are now being fished beyond capacity, water is getting scarcer on every continent, foodstocks are at record lows, and the carbon dioxide pollution that causes global warming at record highs. A tenth of the world's bird species, a quarter of its mammals, and a third of its fish are facing extinction, threatening the world's "web of life".

Yet, unlike early environmentalists, the report does not advocate ending growth, merely redirecting it. Whereas the threat of global warming places a limit on growth based on fossil fuels, it can continue for much longer if based on renewable energy, the report says. An economy based on recycling and the reuse of material can grow much larger than a throwaway one, and employ many more people.

The report cites signs that this shift is taking place. Wind power is growing by 25 per cent a year, doubling in less than three years. Over half US steel production is from scrap, while the state of New Jersey has 13 paper mills which use only waste.