Planet under pressure
Planet under pressure is a six-part BBC News
Online series looking at some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the human
|By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
We are a successful breed. Our advance from our hominid
origins has brought us near-dominance of the world, and a rapidly accelerating
understanding of it.
Scientists now say we are in a new stage of the Earth's
history, the Anthropocene Epoch, when we ourselves have become the globe's principal
But several eminent scientists are concerned that we have
become too successful - that the unprecedented human pressure on the Earth's ecosystems
threatens our future as a species.
We confront problems more intractable than any previous
generation, some of them at the moment apparently insoluble.
BBC News Online's Planet under Pressure series takes a
detailed look at six areas where most experts agree that a crisis is brewing:
Food: An estimated 1 in 6 people suffer from
hunger and malnutrition while attempts to grow food are damaging swathes of productive
Water: By 2025, two-thirds of the world's people
are likely to be living in areas of acute water stress.
Energy: Oil production could peak and supplies
start to decline by 2010
Climate change: The world's greatest
environmental challenge, according to the UK prime minister Tony Blair, with increased
storms, floods, drought and species losses predicted.
Biodiversity: Many scientists think the Earth is
now entering its sixth great extinction phase.
Pollution: Hazardous chemicals are now found in
the bodies of all new-born babies, and an estimated one in four people worldwide are
exposed to unhealthy concentrations of air pollutants.
All six problems are linked and urgent, so a list of
priorities is little help.
It is pointless to preserve species and habitats, for
example, if climate change will destroy them anyway, or to develop novel crops if the
water they need is not there.
And underlying all these pressures is a seventh - human
There are already more than six billion of us, and on
present trends the UN says we shall probably number about 8.9 billion by 2050.
Population growth means something else, too: although the
proportion of people living in poverty is continuing to fall, the absolute number goes on
rising, because fecundity outstrips our efforts to improve their lives.
Poverty matters because it leaves many people no choice but
to exploit the environment, and it fuels frustration.
Above all, it condemns them to stunted lives and early
deaths - both avoidable.
Planet under pressure is more about questions than answers.
What sort of lifestyle can the Earth sustain?
How many of us can live at northern consumption levels, and
what level should everyone else be expected to settle for?
How can we expect poor people to respect the environment
when they need to use it to survive?
Are eco-friendly lives a luxury for the rich or a necessity
And how can we act when sizeable and sincere parts of
society say we are already overcoming the problems, not being overwhelmed by them?
As many see it, we are not doing too badly.
More people are living healthier and longer lives. For
increasing numbers, the future offers living standards undreamt of even a generation ago.
But we do have to think through the implications of our
success and to realise its weaknesses.
Living within the planet's means need not condemn us to
giving up what we now assume we need for a full life, just to sharing it.
The challenge we face is not about feeling guilty for our
consumption or virtuous for being "green" - it is about the growing recognition
that, as the human race, we stand or fall together.
Ingenuity and technology continue to offer hope of a better
world. But they can promise only so much.
You do not need ingenuity and technology to save the roughly
30,000 under-fives who die daily from hunger or easily preventable diseases.
And facing up to the planet's pressure points is about their
survival, and ours.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/10/01 14:00:33 GMT
© BBC MMIV
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