Myth: We shouldn't worry; the environment will heal itself.
Fact: The environment heals slowly -- we are destroying it rapidly.
The environment will heal itself, all right, but humans should
worry how. The population explosion is causing damage at a faster rate
than the earth's ability to recover, and the damage threatens to become
permanent. Furthermore, when an expanding population meets shrinking resources,
the results are starvation, poorer health and pitched competition for survival.
Among other resources, the world has reached its limit in crop harvests,
and is declining in animal species, rain forests, top soil, fish stocks,
and fresh water.
There are two types of damage that humans cause to the environment.
One is long-term, even permanent destruction, such as the extinction of
a species or the radioactive poisoning of Chernobyl.
The second is short-term damage -- and this is where conservatives
latch onto false hope. It is true that the environment has the capacity
to heal itself in some ways. Endangered species can rebound, the earth
can create its own ozone, the oceans can absorb greenhouse gases. The rate
of recovery depends on the type of damage being done. Species can recover
in a few decades; ozone, a century; old growth forests, several centuries;
the cooling of radioactive waste, hundreds of thousands of years. But here
is a critical point: the environment cannot recover while we are still
increasing the damage to it. In many areas, humans are destroying the
environment faster than it can recover, as the following statistics will
show. And if we continue in our current ways, the damage will inevitably
In surveying statistics on the environment, it is important to keep
two opposing trends in mind. One is the population explosion:
World population growth (1)
Year Length of
Population reached Interval
1 billion 1804 200,000 years after rise of modern humans
2 billion 1927 123 years
3 billion 1960 33
4 billion 1974 14
5 billion 1987 13
6 billion est. 1998 11
7 billion est. 2009 11
8 billion est. 2021 12
9 billion est. 2035 14
10 billion est. 2054 19
11 billion est. 2093 39
At present, we are adding the population of China to this planet
every decade. Feeding and supplying this population explosion are placing
huge demands on the environment. And this brings us to the other, opposing
trend: the environment's resources are either reaching their limit or shrinking.
The result will be like two trains barreling towards each other on the
same railroad track. Biologists, historians and economists all concur that
whenever growing populations have met shrinking resources, the results
have been pitched competition for survival. This is why the above chart
sees population growth slowing over the next century.
The population explosion is compelling a growing number of scientists
to advocate replacing our growth economy with a sustained economy. Lester
Brown, President of Worldwatch Institute, writes:
Among the principles of sustainability are the following: Over the
long term, species extinction cannot exceed species evolution; soil erosion
cannot exceed soil formation; forest destruction cannot exceed forest regeneration;
carbon emissions cannot exceed carbon fixation; fish catches cannot exceed
the regenerative capacity of fisheries; and human births cannot exceed
human deaths. (2)
In the long run, humans will have no choice in establishing a sustained
economy. Either we establish it ourselves, or nature will do it for us
- and we can be sure that nature will not be as kind to ourselves as we
With this in mind, we should review the statistics showing which wildlife
and natural resources have either reached their limit or are shrinking.
In both cases, it is an expanding human population that pays the price,
in the form of starvation, poorer health and increased competition:
The first statistic is that 100 species a day are going extinct due
to human causes alone. This is a sharp increase from a mere two centuries
ago, when this rate was almost at zero. If this extinction rate continues
to match the rising human population rate, then in 50 years the earth will
have suffered the second worst mass extinction in history, after the dinosaurs.
A few scientists question how well we can know what is happening to
the world's 4 million-plus species. Fortunately, scientists can get an
excellent idea from the study of birds. Birds are nearly perfect barometers
of the biosystem's health for several reasons: we have already identified
all 9,600-plus species of birds; birds are easy to track and record; they
occur all over the world; and they respond quickly to changes in the environment.
Therefore, they are ideal studies on the environment. Unfortunately, the
state of the world's bird population shows it to be in deep trouble. Some
70 percent of all bird species are either in decline or facing extinction.
(4) This is serious not only for the larger devastation it represents,
but also because birds make vital contributions to the life cycle. Birds
pollinate flowers and trees, spread seeds through their droppings, and
keep the rodent population in check. The decline of birds will have profound
repercussions in the ecosystem.
The second statistic is radioactive waste. Once produced, these nuclear
wastes have lethal half-lives so long that disaster is absolutely guaranteed
by the laws of chance. As of 1992, the United States alone has produced
over 25,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. (5) Much of it is put
into supposedly "safe" barrels, taken off shore and dumped into
the ocean. Keep in mind that humans have no known material that will last
thousands of years, especially under high heat. Concrete crumbles in less
than a hundred years; plastic melts under the high temperatures of radioactivity.
Also keep in mind that the ocean is a biologically and chemically rich
and active environment, and nature has an astounding capacity to absorb
and recycle anything within it. If we can adapt organisms to eat oil, Agent
Orange and DDT, it is difficult to imagine these barrels will be safe from
natural attack for long.
The third statistic is the rain forests of Brazil. Humans are burning
them at record rates. We've all heard the statistic that every 10 seconds,
a section of forest the size of a football field goes up in flames. The
rain forests cover only 2 percent of the earth's surface, but they produce
half of our oxygen, as well as recycle a small portion of our greenhouse
gases. Destroying them is a profoundly stupid idea. They also are home
to half the world's species - a rich abundance of life and diversity that
has allowed scientists to isolate medicines and cures for diseases. So
far, humans have burned 10% of the forests and killed or affected the habitats
and migration patterns of 30% of the area's life.
The fourth statistic is that we are threatening to fish out the oceans.
Soaring demand between 1950 and 1989 drove the world annual fish catch
from 22 to 100 million tons. But something unusual occurred over the next five
years. Despite growing demand, the fish catch hit its limit, even declining
slightly. A search for the reason why reveals that all 17 major fishing
areas of the world have either reached or exceeded their natural limits,
and nine are in serious decline. (6) Industry horror stories began as early
as the 1970s, when Iceland's fishing industry was decimated and the Peruvian
anchovy catch fell from 12 million to 2 million tons in just three years.
In 1993, some 50,000 Canadian fishers had lost their jobs due to disappearing
cod in the North Atlantic. (7) With 200 million people around the world
employed in fishing, you can imagine the tremendous political pressure
to keep fishing rates at their current level. (8)
The fifth statistic is grain. What happened with fish is also occurring
in grain production. From 1950 to 1984, world grain production rose from
631 million tons to 1.649 billion tons. (9) Much of this increase
occurred for two reasons: farmers expanded their farmland, and dramatically
boosted their yield per acre through the use of fertilizers. In 1984, however,
world grain production reached its natural limits. Despite soaring demand,
average yearly production has remained stuck at 1984 levels. The first
reason is that new farmland is becoming more and more difficult to find.
The second is that the mass introduction of fertilizer is now complete,
and we have seen all the improvements that fertilization can bring; unfortunately,
adding even more fertilizer does not increase yield.
Despite a growing population, providers have been unable to supply
either more grain or fish. This has resulted in less food for the average
person. Grain production per person has fallen from 346 to 303 kilograms
from 1984 to 1993. (10) Fish catch per person has fallen from 19.2 to 17.6
kilograms from 1989 to 1993. (11) These levels are not satisfactory; experts
calculate that the 1992 grain yield was nutritionally inadequate for 1
billion people. (12) Vegetarians point out that people can make more efficient
use of their grain (and probably live healthier lives) by consuming less
meat. For example, it takes two pounds of grain to produce a pound of poultry;
four pounds of grain for a pound of pork, and seven pounds of grain for
a pound of beef. (13)
The sixth statistic is the gradual loss of our farmland. There are
two causes for this. One is that poor farming techniques allow rain to
erode topsoil faster than usual. In his book Earth in the Balance,
Al Gore writes that "the Mississippi River carries away millions of
tons of topsoil from farms in the middle of America" and that Iowa,
which "used to have an average of sixteen inches of the best topsoil
in the world... now is down to eight inches." Rush Limbaugh correctly
points out that, "thanks to technological breakthroughs, fewer and
fewer acres have been suffering severe erosion in the United States."
(14) But this is not to imply, as Rush does, that slower erosion rates
are still not a serious problem. After all, it still represents a shrinking
resource in the face of a growing population. And we know that once farmland
turns into desert, there is no hope of reviving it. Thousands of years
ago, the once famous "Fertile Crescent" supported a major population
in the Middle East, but it was farmed so much, and so poorly, that it turned
into a desert.
But it doesn't take the loss of topsoil to reduce grain production;
ruining the soil accomplishes the same thing. Today, a growing percentage
of farmland is being salt-poisoned. This occurs when water is irrigated
into the land, bringing with it all its minerals; when the water evaporates,
salt concentrations are left behind. As the concentrations grow, the land
produces less and less, and finally becomes ruined. Treating this problem
is enormously expensive. Experts estimate that 8 to 12 percent of the world's
irrigated land suffers from serious salinization, and another 25 to 33
percent suffer from moderate salinization. (15)
The seventh statistic is fresh water. The continental water basins
of farming nations around the world are dropping, as demand for water grows
faster than the rain cycle can replenish it. (16) As a short-term solution
to fulfilling the population's immediate water needs, nations are diverting
water from agriculture to cities. Unfortunately, lack of water for irrigation
also lowers grain production, so this is really no solution at all. Attempts
to deal with the problem have led to the creation of an active water market
in the western United States. In 1992, 14 western states conducted 146
water transactions, with most of the water going from agriculture to cities.
(17) Obviously, the depletion of our groundwater is not a sustainable activity.
And these examples are not to mention the deadliest threats to human
survival: global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. Global
warming is dangerous because it would cause more severe weather, increase
the range of deserts, melt the polar ice caps, cause a rise in sea level
(which, according to the fossil record, is a major cause of mass extinctions),
as well as expand the habitat of deadly tropical diseases. The destruction
of the ozone layer is dangerous because this layer protects all life from
the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays. Thanks to quick action in international
diplomacy, the man-made chemicals responsible for the destruction of the
ozone layer have already been banned. But there is no such luck banning
fossil fuels. The oil companies seem to be politically omnipotent.
On the other hand, one could look at it this way. The environment will
heal itself -- but not in the way humans would like it to.
Return to Overview
1. Population Division, Department for Economic and Social Information
and Policy Analysis, World Population Growth from Year 0 to Stabilization,
(United Nations, New York), mimeograph, 6/7/94.
2. Lester Brown, Vital Signs 1994, (New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1994), p. 15.
3. Jon Erickson, The Living Earth, (Blue Ridge Summit: TAB Books,
Inc., 1989), p. 169.
4. Worldwatch estimates based on Nigel Collar, BirdLife International,
Cambridge, U.K., as cited by Vital Signs 1994, p. 128.
5. Nuclear Assurance Corporation, Atlanta, GA. Cited by The American
Almanac, table 953.
6. U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Yearbook of Fishery
Statistics: Catches and Landings (Rome: various years), as cited by
Vital Signs 1994, pp. 32-3.
7. Mark Clayton, "Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry
Implodes," Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1993.
8. Lennox Hinds, "World Marine Fisheries," Marine Policy,
9. USDA, World Grain Database (Washington D.C., 1992); USDA,
World Grain Situation and Outlook, Washington D.C., November 1993.
11. U.N. FAO, Yearbook of Fishery Statistics: Catchings and Landings
(Rome: various years); 1992-3 data from Maurizio Perotti; population data
from U.S. Bureau of Census.
12. Brown, p. 26.
13. Conversion ratio for grain to beef based on Allen Baker, Feed Situation
and Outlook staff, Economic Research Service [ERS], USDA, Washington, D.C.,
private communication with Lester Brown, April 27, 1992; pork data from
Leland Southard, Livestock and Poultry Situation and Outlook staff, ERS,
USDA, Washington, D.C., private communication with Lester Brown, April
27, 1992; poultry ratio derived from data in Richard V. Bishop et al.,
The World Poultry Market - Government Intervention and Multilateral
Policy Reform (Washington, D.C., USDA, 1990).
14. Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1994), p. 180.
15. Dina Umali, Irrigation-Induced Salinity: A Growing Problem for
Development and Environment (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 1993).
16. Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1992).
17. "1992 Annual Transactions Review: Drought Stimulates Contractual
Innovation," Water Strategist, January 1993.