THE INTERACTION Council is a group of ex-heads-of-state from many countries. Its members include Pierre Trudeau of Canada, Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, and others from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Interaction Council is a forum where these people, who are retired but who still carry considerable clout, can update themselves about weighty matters, debate, and work out possible policies to take back to their home governments.
So I was flattered to be asked in 1985 to prepare a paper for the Interaction Council about the state of the world's resources and environment. There was just one problem. "Be sure not to go over two pages," I was told. "They never read anything over two pages."
Two pages on the state of the planet? Well, I did the best I could. Here's what I came up with - the world's shortest report on the state of resources and the environment (the numbers have been updated to 1990).
Each day on this planet 35,000 people die of starvation, 26,000 of them children. This human toll is equivalent to 100 fully loaded 747-jets crashing every day. It is the same number of deaths every three days as were caused by the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion. And each day, because of population growth, there are 220,000 more mouths to feed.
Yet enough food is already raised each year to feed not only the current human population of 5.2 billion, but also the population of 6.1 billion expected by the year 2000.
Each day 57 million tons of topsoil are lost to erosion, enough to cover more than my entire town of Plainfield, New Hampshire, to a depth of 8 inches. Each day there are 70 square miles more of desert, each four years an area greater than West Germany.
Yet the amount of food produced on the planet has doubled in the past thirty-five years. Hundreds of thousands of farmers know and practice agricultural technologies that preserve the soil, minimize the use of harmful chemicals, and still produce high yields. If their techniques could be widely adopted, world food production could be doubled again.
In the Third World 60 percent of the people do not have access to clean drinking water, which causes billions of preventable illnesses, infections, and deaths each year. One-fourth of the world's freshwater runoff is now made unusable by pollution.
Yet the amount of money that could provide clean water to everyone is only one-third the amount the world spends on cigarettes. The annual stable freshwater runoff of the planet is sufficient to supply double the present rate of human use - more if water is conserved or if unnecessary pollution is stopped.
Each day there are 80 square miles less of tropical forest. The annual loss of forest is equal to an area larger than Maine or Indiana. This forest loss results in soil erosion, flooding and drought, siltation of water reservoirs, extinction of species, and enhancement of the greenhouse effect.
Yet much of that deforestation is economically unviable, sustained only by the subsidies of governments that do not understand the direct economic value of a living forest. Saving the forest would actually make money for some of the poorest nations of the world.
Each minute 60 million barrels of oil - which is nonrenewable - are burned. We pay for it in spills, toxic wastes, foreign debt, urban air pollution, acid rain, and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at such rates as to threaten global climate change.
Yet the world could produce all its current goods and services with at most one-fourth of the energy it now uses just by using it more efficiently. Two thousand times our total global energy consumption arrives free from the sun each day; it is infinitely renewable and nonpolluting.
Each day on this planet $2 billion is spent on armaments.
Each day between ten and one hundred species of life become extinct because their habitats have been destroyed by human activity.
For the first time in history over 50 percent of the human race is literate. Seven full-time television channels and 31,000 simultaneous telephone circuits now link 109 nations through 14 satellites in earth synchronous orbit. United Nations data systems are providing the world's first standardized, comprehensive information on population, environment, and economic activity. Our ability to gather and communicate information has never been greater.
The world as a whole still has more than enough resources to meet all human needs. Never before has the human population had such power, knowledge, organization, and riches with which to manage those resources wisely and to meet those human needs sustainably. Simultaneously, never before have so many resources been wasted and destroyed on such a large scale in so many parts of the planet or have so many people lived lives of deprivation and suffering.
I never heard whether the Interaction Council did anything with this information. But the important question is, what will the rest of us do with it?
All material (except for some code, external links and Optional Readings) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003