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

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.

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.

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