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Environment and Society: Where is the Disconnect?
From carbon emissions and food prices to green businesses, the Worldwatch Institute's latest publication, Vital Signs, Volume 21 documents more than two dozen trends that are shaping our future. Through concise analyses and clear tables and graphs, the 21st volume of the Worldwatch Institute series demonstrates both increasing pressure on natural resources and scaled-up efforts to live more sustainably, and offers a starting point for those seeking solutions to the future's intensifying challenges.
For anyone hoping to arm themselves with well-researched facts about the state of the world, Vital Signs, Volume 21 is an important resource. Key points – some troubling, some encouraging – about humanity's schizophrenic relationship with energy and the environment come through in the report:
• Automobile production: World auto production set yet another record in 2012, with passenger-car production rising to 66.7 million.
• Natural disasters: Natural disasters in 2012 climbed to 905, roughly one hundred more than the 10-year annual average, with 90 percent weather-related.
• Organic farming: Land farmed organically has tripled since 1999, although it still makes up less than 1 percent of total farmland.
• Solar and wind power: Solar power consumption increased by 58 percent, and wind power consumption increased by 18 percent in 2012.
• Military budgets: World military expenditures in 2012 totaled $1,740 billion, the second highest yearly amount since World War II.
• Fossil fuels: Coal, natural gas, and oil accounted for 87 percent of global primary energy consumption in 2012.
• Greenhouse gas emissions: Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production reached 9.7 gigatons of carbon in 2012 (with a ±5 percent uncertainty range). This is the highest annual total to date.
• Food prices: Continuing a decade-long increase, global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012, reaching levels not seen since the 1960s and 1970s.
• Green business: More companies are seeking new legal requirement or third-party certifications that will hold them accountable to higher standards, embracing a triple bottom line prioritizing profits, people and the planet.
Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute's State of the World report is published annually in multiple languages. Published annually, Vital Signs tracks key trends in the environment, agriculture, energy, society and the economy to inform and inspire the changes needed to build a sustainable world.
By presenting cross-cutting analyses of global trends, the Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs, Volume 21 makes it clear that positive global change can only be achieved if the social, economic and environmental dimensions are fully addressed.
"A failure to connect — to think and act across the boundaries of different disciplines and specializations — could well be diagnosed as human civilization's fundamental flaw in the face of growing and real threats," writes Michael Renner, Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Director of the Vital Signs Project.
Drawing on a wide range of sources, Vital Signs, Volume 21 highlights this disconnect between sectors by providing authoritative data and concise analyses of significant global trends in food and agriculture, population and society, and energy and climate.
For example, Vital Signs, Volume 21 shows that agricultural subsidies — some $486 billion in the top 21 food-producing countries in 2012 — support factory farms that have colossal environmental footprints. They also often favor wealthy farmers and undermine farming in developing countries. By predominantly funding a few staple crops for the largest farms, subsidies support industrial-scale operations with low crop diversity which often sap soil nutrients and require heavy loads of fertilizers and insecticides.
Social concerns suffer from similar disconnects. At a time when climate change increasingly intersects with social and economic upheavals, disasters, and conflicts, governments continue to invest large sums in traditional forms of security policy. These troubling priorities mean that the U.N. peacekeeping budgets of about $8 billion per year are not enough to cover even two days' worth of global military spending. Military spending by high-income countries also dwarfs aid flows tenfold, with $1,234 billion spent on military programs in 2012.
"Governments have created a large and well-funded apparatus of security agencies," writes Renner, "but in numerous ways have failed to address many of the underlying reasons for the world's conflicts and instabilities."
On the energy front, technologies like wind and solar photovoltaics are rapidly becoming more cost-competitive. But governmental support is still essential, and policy uncertainties have put a brake on investments in renewable technologies. Meanwhile, global fossil fuel use is still growing, with coal, natural gas and oil accounting for 87 percent of global primary energy demand in 2012, and greenhouse gas emissions hitting record levels (9.7 gigatons in 2012 from fossil fuel consumption and cement production alone).
"Energy policy across much of the globe can only be labeled as schizophrenic," said Renner. "It seems driven more by the ideology of endless growth than by concern for a livable future, more by corporate strategies than by the public interest, and more by considerations of supply security and geopolitics than by shared human needs."
Vital Signs, Volume 21 presents these and other global trends and analyses of our planet and civilization. The resource uses straightforward language and easy-to-read graphs to present each indicator. Vital Signs is an invaluable guide to inform and governments, businesses, teachers, and concerned citizens everywhere to make the changes needed to build a sustainable world.
For more information, visit Worldwatch.
(Top) Photo by Fotolia/ vencav: Alternative energy consumption like wind turbines and solar panels both increased in 2012.
(Bottom) Cover courtesy Island Press, 2014: The cover of Vital Signs, Volume 21.