Our Ravaged Planet
John Roberts bemoans the ailing health of the planet and hence the lives of the millions of poverty stricken people who have to live in it.


A recent report* gives statistics of the extent of the inroads into the health of the human environment during the past 30 years. More than 30% of the natural world has been destroyed since 1970. Consumption pressure from increating affluence has doubled during the past 25 years and continues to accelerate. 'Sustainable development' often lauded by governments, has received and is receiving, only lip-service

Among the very serious problems listed are the depletion of freshwater resources - half of all accessible supplies are now being used by humans - 6% p.a. is the rate of decline of freshwater eco-systems. Wetlands are drying up and species are becoming extinct through the destruction of their habitats, wasteful irrigation schemes and inefficient water use being partly responsible but increasing populations allied with increasing consumption are principally to blame. Asia, containing the bulk of the world's people, uses most resources, but Taiwan, the US and Singapore are depleting the resources fastest of all - the UK comes about middle in the list of culprits.

During these years, wood and paper consumption has increased by two-thirds world-wide; most of the world's fish resources are either fully exploited or already in decline. The loss of the great cod fisheries off Newfoundland was a portent of what is to come. The average North American or Japanese consumes ten times as much of the resources as the average Bangladeshi. In our world economically richer means environmentally poorer.

One can clearly ascribe these effects to the runaway success of 'free market' capitalism, generally spear-headed by the transnational corporations. The huge depredations that they have made into formerly self-contained economies are proceeding apace. Only a phenomenon like the current recession can do anything to slow them down. And then the cost is formidable.

But we cannot solely blame private entrepreneurs. Some of the worst ravages have occurred in the former Soviet Union - the drying-up of the Aral Sea and the litter of nuclear waste in the Arctic are as bad as anywhere on earth. The chief objection to the private marketeers is that they are more efficient at their constructive but destructive work.

The alternatives are seen as worse. A slump will bring back unemployment and poverty to millions who have been busy creating a thriving world. That they have also created areas of wasteland is incidental: profit-seeking was not designed to be environmentally disastrous. That just happened. But it does lay an obligation on us to avoid a repetition when steps are taken to recover from the current economic 'downturn' and build up employment again.

To employ thousands or millions in cutting down more of the world's forests and to produce so many cars and roads that the world's cities become choked and arable land covered with concrete will be unwise or dangerous. To continue to make arms to lay waste countries in Africa or the Middle East and swallow up the resources of poor states will not be satisfactory.

Stripping the world's oceans of the remaining fish-stocks in order to feed an already overfed Western world and its pets will be fatal in the long run. Growing cash-crops to feed a rising standard of living in the wealthy industrial countries while neglecting the agriculture of indigenous people will be unacceptable.

But more fundamentally, the world has been living for much of this century upon stored fossile fuel. That has supported, not only such heavily-subsided transport as Concord and other technological marvels, but, through the production of fertilizers, has made possible the feeding of a gross over-population of the planet. If we continue to use resources at this profligate rate, our children and their descendants will have much to reproach us with.

(* From the World Wide Fund for Nature, the New Economics Foundation and the WOrld Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, England)

Taken from the John Roberts World News Letter