The world is a dangerous place. We must protect it

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Terrorism in Moscow and Bali; impending war with Iraq; breakdown in Ireland and Israel: it is easy in the urgency of important events to forget the underlying trends and forces shaping our world. The vast issues of increasing poverty and environmental degradation only rarely – as at last month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg – bubble to the surface of political consciousness. Yet they lie at the heart of many of the gravest crises afflicting the world, and have the potential to cause many more.

Terrorism in Moscow and Bali; impending war with Iraq; breakdown in Ireland and Israel: it is easy in the urgency of important events to forget the underlying trends and forces shaping our world. The vast issues of increasing poverty and environmental degradation only rarely – as at last month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg – bubble to the surface of political consciousness. Yet they lie at the heart of many of the gravest crises afflicting the world, and have the potential to cause many more.

The threat of conflict over Iraq – the most dangerous since the Cuban missile crisis 40 years ago – is complicated by the world's need to secure plentiful supplies of cheap oil from the Middle East to fuel our gas-guzzling society. It need not have been like this. A quarter of a century ago the new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jimmy Carter, tried as President to get his country to save fuel and develop new sources of energy. He called it "the moral equivalent of war" (unfortunately, lacking an Alastair Campbell, he failed to notice that the initial letters spelt the word "meow", which attracted media ridicule). It fell foul of the vested interests of the US energy industries, as did a rather more half-hearted attempt by President Clinton to impose an energy tax. Had Carter succeeded, and won support, most of the world might not now be desperately trying to restrain the US from plunging headlong into what might well become a third world war.

The seemingly uncontrollable spread of terrorism – from the twin towers to Bali, from Kuwait to Moscow – is made much more intractable by poverty. It is, of course, over-simple to say that destitution is its direct cause. Most of the 11 September hijackers were middle-class Saudis. The running sore of the Israeli-Palestine conflict provides great motive power. But poverty does provide much of the oxygen in which terrorism thrives. As hard-pressed Third World countries have cut back on providing public services, for example, (often at the insistence of the IMF and World Bank), extremist religious groups have moved in to provide education and health care. This – and the gross and visible disparities in wealth between rich and poor countries – has helped to create the supportive population that all terrorism needs if it is to flourish. It has to be said, however, that Mr Bush's and Mr Blair's over-reaction in the Afghanistan war also played its part.

Other crises lie just over the horizon. Soon water is likely to prove a more precious and perilous liquid even than oil. Some 40 per cent of the world's people live in countries where water is scarce. Within 25 years, 66 per cent of an increased global population are predicted to live in such areas. As nations compete for vital supplies, water wars are expected. The loss of topsoil, as agricultural land turns to dust, is also pregnant with potential catastrophe. The UN says that erosion contributed to half of the 50 armed conflicts raging around the world in the mid-1990s. And it calculates that by 2020, some 60 million environmental refugees will have left the desertifying Sahelian region to head for north Africa and Europe. Perhaps most importantly of all, the world economy remains a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment: it cannot but fail if the parent company continues to slide towards bankruptcy.

Given the press of events, it is understandable – if deeply depressing – that so few of our leaders try to address these underlying issues and forestall future disasters. The failure of the Johannesburg summit to do more than avoid breakdown clearly demonstrated this. It is just as easy in the media to be distracted by the immediate. But at The Independent on Sunday we have made a conscious effort, for almost all of our history, to highlight these issues. And we have found that it is one of the things you, the readers, value most about us. We were delighted last week to have this recognised by being unanimously voted the environmental newspaper of the year. But we have no intention of resting on our fresh green laurels. Instead, the award will inspire us to do even more.

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