Earth's environment is deteriorating at a record rate, but the decline
could be reversed by sensible programs, says the fifth annual STATE OF
THE WORLD report from the Worldwatch Institute released last month. It
would cost perhaps $150 billion per year to reverse the trend of
environmental destruction worldwide and put the developed and
developing nations onto a path of sustainable economic growth, the
The money is needed for reforestation, halting and reversing the loss
of topsoil and the growth of deserts, family planning and other
measures to curb population growth, development of energy sources that
do not damage the environment, and dealing with the heavy burden of
third world debt. The debt is an environmental issue because it leads
poorer countries to waste their resources to obtain immediate capital.
"Putting the world on a sustainable footing will not be easy, given the
environmental degradation and the economic confusion that now prevail,"
says Lester Brown, director of the institute. To do so would take "a
wholesale reordering of priorities, a basic restructuring of the global
economy, and a quantum leap in international cooperation.
"To continue with a more or less business-as-usual attitude--to accept
the loss of tree cover, erosion of soils, expansion of deserts, the
disappearance of plant and animal species, the depletion of the ozone
layer, and the buildup of greenhouse gases--implies the acceptance of
economic decline and social disintegration," Mr. Brown says.
The report points to a ready source of funds for the needed programs:
the $900 billion currently spent on military buildup each year by the
world's nations. Mr. Brown points out that during the past decade China
"walked away from the arms race" and in the process doubled per capita
income and increased food production by 50%.
This is the institute's fifth annual report on the state of the world.
Among the issues examined this year are ways to use energy more
efficiently, reforestation, action to stem the accelerating extinction
of plant and animal species, family planning, and control of toxic
In assessing the earth's "vital signs," the report says "the readings
are not reassuring." The earth's forests are shrinking, its deserts are
expanding and its soils eroding--all at record rates.
Underground water tables are falling in North Africa, China and India,
and groundwater in the United States and other areas is increasingly
contaminated by pesticides and other toxic substances. Lakes are dying
from acid rain in the industrial North of the globe, and the entire
world faces the prospect of imminent warming because of the 'greenhouse
effect,' the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the
atmosphere which prevents the sun's heat from escaping back out into
space, thus heating the earth unnaturally.
"The health of the earth's inhabitants cannot be separated from that of
the planet itself," the report warns.
SO FAR AS WE CAN SEE, THE BEST ADVICE IS STILL "THINK GLOBALLY, ACT
Copies of the STATE OF THE WORLD report are available for $9.95 from:
Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC
20036; phone 202/452-1999.
CALIFORNIA LEADS THE WAY WITH A LAW LABELING PRODUCT HAZARDS
A major earthquake shook California Feb. 27, but it wasn't a geologic
event--it was the state's new law, Proposition 65, kicking in,
requiring warnings on consumer products that contain cancer-causing
chemicals. The aftershock will be felt for years to come and the
effects may drift eastward, revolutionizing the way people across the
U.S. deal with toxic substances.
Under the law, no business may expose people (workers, consumers, or
the general public) to chemicals that can cause cancer or birth defects
without giving "clear and reasonable warning."
The California law was passed overwhelmingly by popular referendum in
November, 1986, and became effective last month. The law, for the first
time, shifts the burden of proof from consumers onto companies, which
must now prove their products and emissions cause "no significant risk"
or they must give public warnings.
The law also contains a bounty provision whereby citizens who sue
violators can keep 25% of any fines.
The law now covers only 29 chemicals, but an additional 149 will be
added later. Covered today are common toxics like benzene, lead, vinyl
chloride, chromium, arsenic, and asbestos.
Grocery store chains are fearful the law will require the labeling of
every item on the shelf. "Every single one of the 15,000 items in a
market has measurable amounts of at least one of the 29 chemicals,"
says Jeffrey Nedelman, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of
America. Mr. Nedelman is exaggerating, but his point is well taken: the
law requires grocery stores and other sellers of consumer products to
look into the contents of what they sell. This of course is the
intention of the law. It represents a radical departure from the "buyer
beware" philosophy that has prevailed in the past and which has allowed
American consumer products to become saturated with hazardous chemicals.
The California wine industry is worried that it will be required to
label its products as teratogens (causing birth defects). For now, the
law is only requiring warning signs at the point of sale (supermarkets,
restaurants, taverns, liquor stores) but environmentalists are pushing
to have the bottles themselves labeled as health hazards. "We are
saying if there is any product for which labeling is appropriate it is
alcohol because it is often drunk by people who do not buy it," says
David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund, a coauthor of the law.
We have said for a long time that labeling products with their
hazardous contents is the first step toward solving the problem of
toxic exposures and the solid waste crisis. Until people know what
chemicals are in their breakfast cereal and in their morning newspaper,
they can't make sensible decisions about what to eat or how to dispose
of their solid waste. Hats off to the environmental leaders of
California--once again they have shown us the way.
Copies of Prop 65, formally known as The SAFE DRINKING WATER AND TOXIC
ENFORCEMENT ACT, may be obtained from the California Secretary of State
in Sacramento: (916) 445-6371.
Descriptor terms: worldwatch institute; studies; findings;
environmentalists; earth; reforestation; population control; erosion;
ozone; greenhouse effect; military; groundwater; acid rain; ca;
legislation; proposition 65; cancer; carcinogens; consumer protection;
toxicity; developmental disorders; occupational safety and health; risk
assessment; lawsuits; birth defects; david roe; environmentalists;