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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

1999 State of the World Report

Air Date: Week of

Each year, the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, releases its State of the World report. In this year’s edition, population pressures are pegged as one of the most serious threats to the planet’s health. Host Laura Knoy speaks with Lester Brown, president of the Institute and a lead author of the report.


KNOY: Each year the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, releases its State of the World Report. It assesses current environmental trends around the world and looks to possible alternatives for the future. In the past century, it says, world population has quadrupled and the world economy has grown seventeen-fold, putting it on a collision course with the Earth's ecosystems. Lester Brown is president of the Institute and a lead author of the report. He says while there are signs of a new sustainable economy developing, there's a larger problem, and that's the sheer number of people on the planet.

BROWN: We're seeing the emergence of something we've come to describe here at the Institute as demographic fatigue. In countries that have had several decades of rapid population growth, the challenge of trying to educate all the children coming of school age, or trying to provide jobs for young people coming in the market, or trying to deal with the environmental consequences of population growth such as deforestation, these governments are simply being overwhelmed. And when a new problem emerges, such as the HIV virus, countries don't have the energy or the fiscal resources to deal adequately.

KNOY: Given the high rate of AIDS infection in Africa, as you mention in the report, and given the food shortages and water shortages that you also predict, does that mean the population might actually level off in the coming century?

BROWN: Well, one of the biggest surprises of the last few years is that some countries that were projected to double or triple their populations over the next half century or so may now actually reach population stability within a few years because of rising death rates. For example, in countries where the HIV infection rate in the adult population is now 20% or 25%, these countries, barring some miracle, are going to lose a fifth or a quarter of their adult population within the next decade. And this was not supposed to be the way population stability would come. It was supposed to come because countries moved toward smaller families.

KNOY: Describe the sustainable economy that you think we need to move to.

BROWN: Well, the new economy, instead of fossil fuel-based, is a solar hydrogen-based economy, and by solar I mean all the sources of energy that derive directly from the sun, including solar cells, wind, in some cases biomass as well. With transportation, it's becoming clearer that there's a conflict between the automobile and the city. In London, for example, the average speed of an automobile moving through the city today is roughly the same as that of a horse-drawn carriage of a century ago. Or, in a developing country city like Bangkok, the average motorist last year spent the equivalent of 44 working days sitting in traffic jams. So, we're going to have to rethink transportation systems for cities. And what we see emerging is a combination of rail and bicycle as being the key to providing mobility in urban areas.

KNOY: You say in the report, Mr. Brown, that if we don't change our ways, the economy will crumble because it will no longer have the ecological base, the food and the water and the air and the resources, to keep it going. And you give some examples from the past of other civilizations that have also depleted their ecological bases and have crumbled.

BROWN: Well, there are a number of examples of this. One would be the societies in North Africa, which was once the granary of the Roman Empire. Today that land is almost all desert and the tier of countries across the north of Africa import typically half of their total grain supply. Another example would be the Mesopotamian civilizations that emerged in what is now southern Iraq, and developed a rather advanced civilization for the time based on irrigated agriculture. But those irrigation systems began to become waterlogged and salty, and eventually the populations declined. We see example after example around the world. Indeed, many of the archaeological sites that we now study are the sites of societies that somehow moved on to an environmentally unsustainable economic path and were not able to make the needed course corrections, either because they didn't understand what was happening or they couldn't summon the political will needed to make the adjustments.

KNOY: In the 1999 State of the World Report, you say that while the 20th century focused on human rights, the 21st century should focus on human responsibilities.

BROWN: We are now responsible for the habitability of the planet, because of the scale of human activity, because of our numbers. No generation before us has had this responsibility, and we have to begin assuming responsibility for that or future generations will inherit a biologically impoverished planet.

KNOY: Lester Brown is President of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC. Mr. Brown, thanks a lot for joining us.

BROWN: My pleasure.



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