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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

'STATE OF THE WORLD 2003'

Have we got the will to survive?


"State of the World 2003," this year's edition of a report published annually by the Worldwatch Institute, arrived in my mailbox several days before the shuttle tragedy, but it sat on my desk unopened until the morning of Columbia's fiery descent.

That morning, drawn to the report's cover photo of Earth, taken from space, I started reading.

A few days later, The Japan Times carried an e-mail from Laurel Clark -- one of the shuttle's two female astronauts -- written on the day before she died. "Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring," she wrote to her family and friends of the view that lay below her.

Together, the shuttle disaster, the photo of Earth, and Clark's words were a troika of events that poignantly captured the tone of this year's Worldwatch report.

In short, today we live in a world of tragedy, suffering, magnificence and awe, and while our society is troubled and our globe fragile, both are dynamic and resilient as well. Consequently, with a concerted effort, we have the resources needed to realize a socially and environmentally sustainable society. For the most part, we even know what we have to do, and how to do it.

One of the questions that remains to be answered is also addressed, both directly and indirectly, in "State of the World 2003": Do we have the wisdom and political will to reinvent ourselves in order to create such a society?

This year's is the 20th edition of the Worldwatch report, and it, as much as any before, provides a thought-provoking and, in turns, distressing and optimistic glimpse of the world we live in.

Each year, Worldwatch editors select several themes to explore in depth. This year's edition has eight chapters, with titles including "Watching Birds Disappear"; "Charting a New Energy Future"; "Uniting Divided Cities"; and "Engaging Religion in the Quest for a Sustainable World."

Quest for advancement

Each is authored by a different researcher, and the writing is uniformly informative and accessible. In addition, fact boxes, tables and figures highlight key concepts, and each chapter is thoroughly sourced and referenced.

In light of the Columbia tragedy, the first chapter, by Chris Bright, titled "A History of Our Future," is particularly relevant to the human quest for technical advancement. As Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, explains in the report's preface, "Bright describes a remarkable advance in human tool-making among a group of people in the Middle East 40,000-50,000 years ago that led to rapid human social evolution -- a critical step toward the development of human civilization and everything that followed."

The step that was taken -- fashioning blades from stone -- is notable for the advancements it made possible, and especially because it appears to have occurred quite rapidly. Prior to this, Bright writes, "The principal technologies were the use of fire and a relatively simple kit of stone flake tools. This tool kit was the product of nearly 2.5 million years of development. Improvement in it had come at a pace that is, by our standards, excruciatingly slow -- so slow that it could be likened to evolutionary change."

By learning to fashion blades that were larger and stronger than previous flake tools, "What those Middle Eastern people did was to break the slow, evolutionary tempo of technical development and create an opening for accelerating change," Bright explains. As Flavin notes, this "demonstrates humanity's seemingly limitless potential for change in response to outside pressures."

This potential for change is the focus of Bright's chapter. "We, the generations who share the planet today, are facing a challenge to innovate on a level that may be as profound as the achievement of our distant ancestors. But we do not have 500 generations' worth of time to accomplish this task. Depending on the degree of misery and biological impoverishment that we are prepared to accept, we have only one or perhaps two generations in which to reinvent ourselves," he writes.

So it seems the bad news is that time is limited, perhaps very limited. The good news is that we can reinvent ourselves. And this time we are blessed with more than just stones and calloused hands to shape them with.

No one knows why our ancestors suddenly got their act together, but one theory suggests that the cause was environmental stress. "It is known that the transition occurred during a period of climatic instability, and climate change might have challenged the ingenuity of societies in areas where resources were dwindling," Bright explains.

Whether environmental factors played a role or not, the potential parallels with challenges we now face over population growth, resource depletion and climate change offer pause for thought.

Encouraging analogy

Bright also notes that the new mode of tool-making did more than just accelerate the development of sophisticated work implements. "It apparently began as a way of making better tools, but it progressed into the arts, trade and religion," and eventually "created new ways of interpreting the world -- new ways of building deep context for social and individual life," he writes.

Bright's analogy is encouraging, and suggests that despite the numerous environmental problems we face, humankind can adapt and innovate, even without the benefit of hindsight.

Furthermore, the dividend of reinventing ourselves could be a new Augustan era of social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Like the other Worldwatch authors, Bright is careful not to offer too much hope or too much fear. Still, he lists five concerns as the most serious threats we face: population growth; global "geochemical flux" due to pollutants altering key ecosystem processes; the long-term risks of toxic chemicals; biotic mixing by invasive exotic species; and, last, "by virtually every broad measure, our world is in a state of pervasive ecological decline."

Bright is a realist, but he does not dwell too long on the challenges we face, instead choosing to round out his chapter with examples offering hope and insight.

In closing, he revisits our Middle Eastern forebears. "Our technologies and social consciousness would hardly seem to have a parallel in their culture. And yet in some fundamental respects, our struggles echo theirs. We, too, rely on technical achievement to catalyze cultural change," he writes.

Sadly, many of today's achievements are highly valued despite their ability to destroy. From cruise missiles to monoculture plantations, we remain oblivious to the finiteness of what astronaut Laurel Clark called "our magnificent planet Earth."

If Bright is right, we have but a generation or two to reinvent ourselves and our priorities.

For a society inured to its own monumental shortcomings, such as AIDS, ecosystem degradation and war, that's not a whole lot of time.

"State of the World 2003" does not attempt to offer a comprehensive look at the global environment. For this, see "Global Environment Outlook 3," at www.unep.org/geo/index.htm and "Vital Signs 2002," another Worldwatch publication ( www.worldwatch.org). Stephen Hesse welcomes feedback at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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