By Donella Meadows
–December 5, 1991–
Twenty years ago I would have been writing this column on a manual typewriter. Today I’m writing it on a laptop computer that fits inside my briefcase with room to spare. The computing power of this little laptop would have occupied a space as large as my office 20 years ago.
I’ve been using the computer to write a book that documents global trends over the last 20 years. A lot has happened over two decades. It’s not easy to decide, looking at the record, whether to be encouraged or discouraged.
In 1971 there were 3.6 billion people and 240 million automobiles in the world. In 1991 there are 5.4 billion people and 560 million automobiles. In the single year 1970 about 72 million people were added to the world; in 1990 about 91 million were added.
Twenty years ago only nine percent of the women of the developing world had access to modern technologies of birth control. Now that fraction has risen to more than 50 percent. Birth rates are falling gradually everywhere. Deaths rates are falling gradually too, which is why the population is still growing so rapidly.
In Africa food production has doubled in just 20 years. In Asia it has tripled. That’s an amazing achievement, but it has had high environmental costs. Between 1970 and 1990 the worldwide use of fertilizers rose from 70 million to 145 million metric tons per year. The use of pesticides has increased from 1.3 to 2.9 million metric tons per year.
According to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 1991, between 1970 and 1990 world forest area decreased by about 480 million acres, an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Over the same period 290 million more acres of desert were created, an area equivalent to all the cropland in China.
And in the Third World the average amount of food PER PERSON has barely changed — except in Africa, where it has steadily declined. More food is going not to feed hungry people more, but to feed more hungry people.
In 1990 the world turned out about twice as many industrial goods as in 1970, but industrial output per capita has risen by only 30 percent. Nearly all the per capita economic growth has taken place not in the poor countries, but in the rich ones.
Between 1970 and 1990 the world economy burned 500 billion barrels of oil, 90 billion tons of coal, and 1100 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Over the same period geologists found more new fossil fuels (or reassessed old discoveries upward) than the world burned. Therefore some people think there are more fossil energy resources than there were 20 years ago.
There aren’t, of course. There are 500 billion FEWER barrels of oil, 90 billion FEWER tons of coal, and 1100 trillion FEWER cubic meters of natural gas. Furthermore, those enormous quantities of hydrocarbons have all been turned into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. In 20 years the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 320 to 355 parts per million.
In 1971 the United Nations was preparing for the world’s first conference on the environment. No more than 10 nations had environmental ministries then. Now well over 100 countries have departments of the environment, all of them getting ready for the second global environmental summit, to be held in Brazil next June. The central item on the agenda will be that rising curve of carbon dioxide and the global climate change it portends.
Twenty years ago Richard Nixon was preparing to run for his second term as president. Now George Bush is doing the same, which may cause him, the U.N. conference organizers hope, to stop blocking the global climate negotiations. There is a wonderful Republican precedent for him to follow. Over the past 20 years the human race recognized the global problem of ozone layer destruction and reached a strong international agreement to cease producing the chemicals that cause the problem. The Reagan administration was a leader in that global negotiation.
Fortunately the technical means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have been developed in the past 20 years. In 1970 a typical American car traveled about 9 miles per gallon of gas. Now the average new car in the U.S. gets 28 mpg, the best gets over 50 mpg, and on the drawing boards of many car companies are models that get over 100 mpg. Contrary to what Detroit and the White House want you to believe, most of these cars pass all safety tests and cost no more to make than do current models.
Now one can buy compact fluorescent light bulbs that produce the same amount of light with one-fourth as much electricity. Now some electric utilities are working as hard to sell energy efficiency as they used to work to sell energy use. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have believed either of those two developments could be possible.
Over the past two decades the human economy has roughly doubled its physical presence, from vehicles to garbage to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result there has been enormous erosion of the planetary resource base. And over the same period there has arisen a wave of concern about the environment, more information, more publications, environmental organizations, technologies, and institutions on the national and global level to help the human race live harmoniously within the environment that sustains us.
Sometime over the past 20 years I heard someone say, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” As far as I can tell from the global statistics, for two decades now that race has been going neck and neck.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991