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#669 - Scientists Say Future Is In The Balance, 22-Sep-1999

In 1992, Sir Michael Atiyah, president of the Royal Society of
London, and Dr. Frank Press, president of the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences, issued a joint statement under the title,
"Population Growth, Resource Consumption and a Sustainable
World."[1] The Royal Society, founded in 1660, is sometimes
called the United Kingdom's Academy of Science.

This joint statement, issued by two of the world's leading
scientific organizations, was unprecedented. The Royal Society,
in particular, had in the past been very reluctant to issue
pronouncements on matters of public policy that might stir
controversy.

Unfortunately, this important joint statement was almost entirely
ignored by the world's media. Therefore, we are reprinting it
verbatim as part of our series on "the meaning of
sustainability."

The statement says that if population growth continues and
patterns of human activity remain unchanged, "science and
technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible
degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of
the world."

"The future of our planet is in the balance" the statement says.
"Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if
irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in
time. The next 30 years may be crucial."

The joint statement:

WORLD POPULATION

In its 1991 report on world population, the United Nations
Population Fund (UNFPA) states that population growth is even
faster than forecast in its report of 1984. Assuming nevertheless
that there will in the future be substantial and sustained falls
in fertility rates, the global population is expected in the UN's
mid-range projection to rise from 5.4 billion in 1991 to 10
billion in 2050. This rapid rise may be unavoidable; considerably
larger rises must be expected if fertility rates do not stabilize
at the replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman. At
present, about 95 percent of this growth is in the less developed
countries (LDCs); the percentage of global population that live
in the LDCs is projected to increase from 77 percent in 1990 to
84 percent in 2020.

THE ENVIRONMENT

Although there is a relationship between population, economic
activity, and the environment, it is not simple. Most of the
environmental changes during the twentieth century have been a
product of the efforts of humans to secure improved standards of
food, clothing, shelter, comfort, and recreation. Both developed
and developing countries have contributed to environmental
degradation. Developed countries, with 85 percent of the world's
gross national product and 23 percent of its population, account
for the majority of mineral and fossil-fuel consumption. One
issue alone, the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, has the
potential for altering global climate with significant
consequences for all countries. The prosperity and technology of
the developed countries, however, give them the greater
possibilities and the greater responsibility for addressing
environmental problems.

In the developing countries the resource consumption per capita
is lower, but the rapidly growing population and the pressure to
develop their economies are leading to substantial and increasing
damage to the local environment. This damage comes by direct
pollution from energy use and other industrial activities, as
well as by activities such as clearing forests and inappropriate
agricultural practices.

THE REALITY OF THE PROBLEM

Scientific and technological innovations, such as in agriculture,
have been able to overcome many pessimistic predictions about
resource constraints affecting human welfare. Nevertheless, the
present patterns of human activity accentuated by population
growth should make even those most optimistic about future
scientific progress pause and reconsider the wisdom of ignoring
these threats to our planet. Unrestrained resource consumption
for energy production and other uses, especially if the
developing world strives to achieve living standards based on the
same levels of consumption as the developed world, could lead to
catastrophic outcomes for the global environment.

Some of the environmental changes may produce irreversible damage
to the earth's capacity to sustain life. Many species have
already disappeared, and many more are destined to do so. Man's
own prospects for achieving satisfactory living standards are
threatened by environmental deterioration, especially in the
poorest countries where economic activities are most heavily
dependent upon the quality of natural resources.

If they are forced to deal with their environmental and resource
problems alone, the LDCs face overwhelming challenges. They
generate only 15 percent of the world's GNP, and have a net cash
outflow of tens of billions of dollars per year. Over one billion
people live in absolute poverty, and 600 million on the margin of
starvation. And the LDCs have only 6-7 percent of the world's
active scientists and engineers, a situation that makes it very
difficult for them to participate fully in global or regional
schemes to manage their own environment.

In places where resources are administered effectively,
population growth does not inevitably imply deterioration in the
quality of the environment. Nevertheless, each additional human
being requires natural resources for sustenance, each produces
by-products that become part of the ecosystem, and each pursues
economic and other activities that affect the natural world.
While the impact of population growth varies from place to place
and from one environmental domain to another, the overall pace of
environmental changes has unquestionably been accelerated by the
recent expansion of the human population.

INTERNATIONAL ACTION

There is an urgent need to address economic activity, population
growth, and environmental protection as interrelated issues. The
forthcoming UN Conference on Environment and Development, to be
held in Brazil, should consider human activities and population
growth, in both the developing and developed worlds, as crucial
components affecting the sustainability of human society.
Effective family planning, combined with continued economic and
social development in the LDCs, will help stabilize fertility
rates at lower levels and reduce stresses to the global
environment. At the same time, greater attention in the developed
countries to conservation, recycling, substitution and efficient
use of energy, and a concerted program to start mitigating
further buildup of greenhouse gases will help to ease the threat
to the global environment.

Unlike many other steps that could be taken to reduce the rate of
environmental changes, reductions in rates of population growth
can be accomplished through voluntary measures. Surveys in the
developing world repeatedly reveal large amounts of unwanted
childbearing. By providing people with the means to control their
own fertility, family planning programs have major possibilities
to reduce rates of population growth and hence to arrest
environmental degradation. Also, unlike many other potential
interventions that are typically specific to a particular
problem, a reduction in the rate of population growth would
affect many dimensions of environmental changes. Its importance
is easily underestimated if attention is focused on one problem
at a time.

THE CONTRIBUTION OF SCIENCE

What are the relevant topics to which scientific research can
make mitigating contributions? These include: development of new
generations of safe, easy to use, and effective contraceptive
agents and devices; development of environmentally benign
alternative energy sources; improvements in agricultural
production and food processing; further research in plant and
animal genetic varieties; further research in biotechnology
relating to plants, animals, and preservation of the environment;
improvements in public health, especially through development of
effective drugs and vaccines for malaria, hepatitis, AIDS, and
other infectious diseases causing immense human burdens. Also
needed is research on topics such as: improved land-use practices
to prevent ecological degradation, loss of topsoil, and
desertification of grasslands; better institutional measures to
protect watersheds and groundwater; new technologies for waste
disposal, environmental remediation, and pollution control; new
materials that reduce pollution and the use of hazardous
substances during their life cycle; and more effective regulatory
tools that use market forces to protect the environment.

Greater attention also needs to be given to understanding the
nature and dimension of the world's biodiversity. Although we
depend directly on biodiversity for sustainable productivity, we
cannot even estimate the numbers of species of organisms --plants,
animals, fungi, and microorganisms -- to an order of
magnitude [a factor of 10]. We do know, however, that the current
rate of reduction in biodiversity is unparalleled over the past
65 million years. The loss of biodiversity is one of the
fastest-moving aspects of global change, is irreversible, and has
serious consequences for the human prospect in the future.

What are the limits of scientific contributions to the solution
of resource and environmental problems? Scientific research and
technological innovation can undoubtedly mitigate these stresses
and facilitate a less destructive adaptation of a growing
population to its environment. Yet, it is not prudent to rely on
science and technology alone to solve problems created by rapid
population growth, wasteful resource consumption, and harmful
human practices.

CONCLUSIONS

The application of science and technology to global problems is a
key component of providing a decent standard of living for a
majority of the human race. Science and technology have an
especially important role to play in developing countries in
helping them to manage their resources effectively and to
participate fully in worldwide initiatives for common benefit.
Capabilities in science and technology must be strengthened in
LDCs as a matter of urgency through joint initiatives from the
developed and developing worlds. But science and technology alone
are not enough. Global policies are urgently needed to promote
more rapid economic development throughout the world, more
environmentally benign patterns of human activity, and a more
rapid stabilization of world population.

The future of our planet is in the balance. Sustainable
development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation
of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may
be crucial. [End of joint statement.]

--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

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[1] See the original statement at
http://www.spiritone.com/~orsierra/rogue/popco/warn/warn01.htm.
Or at: http://208.240.253.224/page7.htm .

Descriptor terms: sustainability; science; royal society;
national academy of sciences; statements;