Tipping Points: Environmental Trends to Destroy or Save Civilization

With civilization standing at multiple self-generated tipping points, a renowned environmentalist outlines 10 environmental trends of grave concern and 10 trends that give us reason for hope.


| February/March 2010



environmental trends - world hunger

Spreading hunger, a consequence of environmental stress, is one of 10 troubling environmental trends humanity faces. The government of Bangladesh had to subsidize rice in 2008 when the cost of food skyrocketed.


PHOTO: PAVEL RAHMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

To mark our 40th anniversary, we asked our longtime contributing editor and sustainable development expert, Lester Brown, to look ahead and share his assessment of the most significant environmental trends that are affecting our world today. MOTHER EARTH NEWS

The Bad News: 10 Troubling Trends

I’ve been studying global environmental issues for decades, and for perspective, I read about ancient civilizations that declined and collapsed. Most often, shrinking food supplies were responsible for their demise. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil — the result of a design flaw in their irrigation system — brought down wheat and barley yields, and eventually the civilization itself. For some other early civilizations that have collapsed, it was soil erosion that triggered their decline.

Does our civilization face a similar fate? We are rapidly approaching if not at a number of tipping points. Unless we can reverse the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy, the answer may be yes. Here are the 10 greatest environmental threats I think we face today.

1. Soil Erosion. Erosion now exceeds new soil formation on about 30 percent of the world’s cropland. In some countries, it has reduced grain production by half or more over the past three decades. Kazakhstan, for example, has abandoned 40 percent of its grain land since 1980. Space photos of continent-sized dust storms coming out of the Sahelian region of Africa and northwestern China show us that the loss of topsoil is expanding.

2. Falling Water Tables. Water tables are now falling in countries that together contain half the world’s people. A World Bank study shows that 175 million people in India are being fed by overpumping aquifers. The comparable number for China is about 130 million people. As the wells go dry, the food supply will tighten in both countries.

3. Population Growth. Since 1950, world population has more than doubled. Stated differently, population growth from 1950 to 2009 exceeded that during the preceding 11,000 years since agriculture began. Today’s world population of 6.7 billion is growing by 80 million per year. In many countries, populations have simply outrun their resource base. The result is soil erosion, falling water tables, deteriorating grasslands, collapsing fisheries and shrinking forests. No civilization has ever survived the destruction of its natural support systems, nor will ours.

todd reece
2/4/2010 12:35:58 PM

The problems are vast in size. As a conservative Republican/Constitutionalist, I see the promise and the foundation for human development that the Founding Fathers left in place. They saw a nation of "200-300 million freemen and not a noble among them"(quote by John Adams). The overriding problem is that people are inherently selfish, greedy, and somewhat bad. They care for solutions to their problems first. We have become dependent on the .gov and the ability to get food around almost every street corner. We have forgotten the past where people HAD to store food, plan for hard winters, scrimp and save every dime, all to survive and perhaps lift up their children to a more carefree lifestyle. Well, all that sacrifice DID lead to a more prosperous life for the overwhelming majority of us. Most USA's poor people have TV, AC, a car or 2,cd players,xbox',cell phones, etc, hardly Haitian/or 3rd world impoverished. What to do? We become more self-sufficient. More -egads- green. We use the sun and available renewable resources for power. We allow for nuclear development. We drill at home and protect what resources we have from theft through slant drilling. People hold the key. If we reclaim personal responsibility, ethics, and morals, then alot of the vast problems will fade away. Solutions will be found if gov't gets out of the way. But THAT comes with a catch. The PEOPLE then would need to be more ethically aware and responsible.


jennifer spring_7
2/3/2010 3:43:08 PM

Dear George, You sound like you're doing everything you can, not throwing in the towel. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that civilization does seem to be plowing forward heedless of where overconsumption in every sense of the word leads. I hope we have begun a decade of cooperation, not competition. As Gaiatechnician describes, there are many tools out there we have not tapped.


fran tracy
2/2/2010 9:45:55 AM

I grow a garden and have pecan, apple, pear, and peach trees in my yard. I also have some grapes. I think we need todo what we can but Idonn't think this global warming thing is fact. Just look at the record lows in temperature and the amazing snow falls this year. They had the global warming summit and lookat the number of giagantic planes and fancy limosines that went to transport all those people for nothing. If they really believed in global warming, they should have plane pooled and sent as few ploanes as necessary and usesd electric cars to get around or public transportation. THIS WHOLE THING IS JUST A FARCE TO ROB THE MAJORITY AND ENRICH A FEW. How about the millions of dollars this country is spending each month to fly Nancy Polaisi back and forth in a giant jet with her family all llpaid for by the US tax payers.


fran tracy
2/2/2010 9:40:24 AM

I grow a garden and have pecan, apple, pear, and peach trees in my yard. I also have some grapes. I think we need todo what we can but Idonn't think this global warming thing is fact. Just look at the record lows in temperature and the amazing snow falls this year. They had the global warming summit and lookat the number of giagantic planes and fancy limosines that went to transport all those people for nothing. If they really believed in global warming, they should have plane pooled and sent as few ploanes as necessary and usesd electric cars to get around or public transportation. THIS WHOLE THING IS JUST A FARCE TO ROB THE MAJORITY AND ENRICH A FEW. How about the millions of dollars this country is spending each month to fly Nancy Polaisi back and forth in a giant jet with her family all llpaid for by the US tax payers.


george works
2/2/2010 6:35:36 AM

I fear that my comment was misunderstood. My house is powered with solar photovoltaic panels, and my water heated by a solar water heater. I retired and started a small farm raising food for local consumption. I bought several copies of Lester Brown's book "Plan B" and gave them to my friends. I try to do everything that I can for the environment and urge others to do the same. But I'm an engineer, and I look at the numbers. And, to me, they show a grim future. There are too many people, and we are living too well and consuming far too much to be sustainable.


gaiatechnician
2/1/2010 7:42:54 PM

I have the new 2 hour clam shaped solar cooking dish (The power of parabolic solar cookers without the danger or constant attention) almost ready to go but people act as if their arms are broken when I ask for them to test it. (And it is community commons licensed). What stops the environmentalists from testing new environmentally friendly stuff? It seems to me that they are just as stuck in a rut as the mainstream. If it comes from the leaders of the movement it is good. But if it comes from me, forget it! The scientific community has not tested the pulser pump on a large scale in over 20 years. Money has to be invested in appropriate technology research before people will use it. I made a mini working model of it and it worked for 20 years. A pump with no moving parts is of course useful to people around the world. But first the scientists have to find its best parameters for use and they have not done it. Brian


jennifer spring_4
2/1/2010 5:50:05 PM

I greatly appreciate Mary Saunder's comments. To the despondents writers who follow, I say that if we all dare to do our best to support life, heroically persevering in the face of disasterous appearances, who knows what the results will be? At least we will come to the end of our days at peace, knowing we did our best for the world we have loved and the children who inherit it. And perhaps we will actually tip the balance the other way, and save our world. The answer is in taking action. Physically going out into your yard and planting a pot of greens. Making that call to volunteer to help with a cause you admire. The mind is a problem solving tool that helps us decide on a course of action. If we do not act, the mind restlessly creates more problems to solve, even if that's making ourselves miserable. We all know that in dire times people are glad to work hard and heroically to save others. Now is that time. It's just in slow motion. Let's all be heros to the ones we love, the ones right nearby who will benefit from our optimism and courage. Let's look atthe good news, get the training we need, and pitch in.


mary saunders_3
2/1/2010 2:24:27 PM

Geoff Lawton's videos, Greening the Desert I and II, which I believe you can see on YouTube, demonstrate a hopeful project that produced figs on salted, miserable land far sooner than locals thought possible. I go back and watch it again as a kind of medicine. He used a meter's depth of mulch and got mushrooms in the desert in the mulch. Composting humanure, above ground so as not to taint aquifers, is also simmering along, under the radar if not underground. Geoff greened the desert in Jordon, but there is another example in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, in New Mexico. There are other examples in Africa, where just drilling holes in hardpan has been enough to create microclimates where plants can get a start. In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka pioneered in using daikon radish to till hard pan. In Oregon, Frank Morton, Wild Garden Seeds, grows an incredible amount of seeds on a limited number of acres. The Amish get great production with few inputs from off the land. We need to share the good information widely because it is not a time to overwhelm people to the point where they sit around hand-wringing. Examples of tended food forests, such as that re-planted in Indonesia by Willie Smits (TED) to save an orang baby, these are heartening stories that can help motivate constructive change. To counter Larry Santoyo, who facetiously says to obstructions, "OK, let's just die." Let's just do stuff anyway, even if the Man wants to keep all the money to himself.


george works
2/1/2010 10:01:58 AM

I'm afraid I agree with Mr. Taylor. We should encourage the good trends of course. But the fact is, the CO2 level in the atmosphere is already too high and is still increasing. And it has a half-life of 200 years. We are still building coal plants and at an increasing rate. The population is reportedly already billions more than the earth can sustain and it's still rising exponentially. Wind power, solar power and electric cars make up an insignificant part of the total picture. It takes decades and lots of CO2-producing industrial production to replace an infrastructure. We have almost certainly waited too long.


sean taylor
1/20/2010 2:00:44 PM

The answer is almost certainly no. Your good news looks rather insignificant compared to the incredibly vast scale of the bad news. In particular, there is no realistic solution to human overpopulation other than nature's original method of war, famine and disease. Now, if people really want to make a long-term difference on this planet, perhaps some clever molecular biologists could engineer super-viruses and "birth control rice" that quickly reduce the global population to a sustainable level. The alternative, it seems to me, is a nightmarish descent into Malthusian chaos, and I don't think plan B, C or D is going to stop it. Maybe it's time to move to plan Z?






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