"Impossible" Environmental Revolution Has Already Begun

Despite little action on many critical issues at the recent World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, the beginning of 2003 reveals fresh evidence of humanity’s capacity to respond rapidly to unprecedented environmental and social threats. According to the Worldwatch Institute’s annual report State of the World 2003, scaling up recent successes in curbing infectious disease, increasing the income of the poor, and advancing the use of renewable energy, among others, would soon put the world’s economy on a more sustainable path.

“Building a world where we meet our own needs without denying future generations a healthy society is not impossible, as some would assert,” says Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin. “The question is where societies choose to put their creative efforts. If we can build spacecraft powered by clean fuel cells, we can build cars that run the same way. If we can mine copper and other metals from the earth, we can mine them from landfills and abandoned buildings. And if we can protect tourists from contracting malaria, we can do it for people who live with the threat every day.”

The challenge now, reports the 20th edition of State of the World, is to mobilize governments, businesses and civil society to construct economies that are healthy for both people and the planet.

The report’s research team documents a host of successes that prove humanity is capable of reinventing the world so that the needs of all are met with minimal harm to the Earth or to future generations. For example:

  • The use of solar energy and wind power has grown by more than 30 per cent annually over the past five years (compared to 1-2 per cent annual growth for fossil fuels) in countries such as Germany, Japan and Spain because of policies that have encouraged their use.
  • A concerted global effort to reduce the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) has led to an 81 per cent decline in their production during the 1990’s and a marked slowing in the growth of the Antarctic ozone hole, which is expected soon to begin healing.
  • The World Health Organization’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced polio cases globally from some 350,000 in 1988 to 480 in 2001.

In addition to these important achievements, other emerging successes could usher in anew era of economic progress that is much less damaging to the world’s ecosystems and to human health. The Netherlands has achieved an 86 per cent recycling rate for cars, and Denmark has put a total ban on aluminum cans in favor of reusable glass bottles, putting into practice a greater vision where recycling replaces today’s heavy dependence on virgin materials.

Some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in the poorest communities. Micro loans of as little as $50 have helped people as poor as the wastepickers of the Payatas landfill near Manila, Philippines, to secure loans for small businesses, land and housing. And the Community Reinvestment Act has helped push lending in poor US neighborhoods from an average of roughly $3 billion per year in the 1980s to $43 billion in 1997.

Throughout 2002, rapid change was also seen at national and state levels. Brazil and Germany announced major new commitments to the development of renewable energy, while the State of California defied US government policy by announcing the world’s first mandatory limits on global warming emissions from cars.

These success stories offer hope that humanity can address the serious global threats still undermining societies and ecosystems around the world. Among those discussed in State of the World 2003:

  • Malaria claims 7,00 lives every day and affects human developments more profoundly than any other disease.
  • Bird extinctions are running at some 50 times the natural rate due to habitat loss and other consequences of human activity.
  • 5,500 children die each day from diseases linked to polluted food, air and water.
  • The global rate of ice-melt has more than doubled since 1988 and could raise sea levels 27cms (nearly 11 inches) by 2100.

In the aftermath of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, it seems more likely that sustainable economic growth will emerge from the combined efforts of businesses, citizen’s groups and local governments than via consensus-based global agreements, according to State of the World 2003. The World Summit itself yielded roughly 280 partnership agreements among businesses and non-governmental groups, including collaboration among the UN, national governments, NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and the private sector to produce cleaner vehicles, and a “Water for Life” project that will provide clean water and sanitation to the poor in Africa and central Asia.

The report also notes that disparate communities can be brought together in the service of sustainability to great effect. It documents how environmentalists and religious people are joining forces in an alliance for environmental health and social justice, from the efforts of Buddhist monks in Thailand to combat deforestation, to the climate change campaign of the World Council of Churches.

“We have seen many times in human history that societies are able to learn quickly from experience, and to then act,” says State of the World 2003 project director Gary Gardner. “The growing interest in sustainability among diverse sections of society could provide the energy needed to boost pilot innovations to a global scale.” (Source: Worldwatch Institute. Visit www.worldwatch.org)

$200 Million Gates Fund for Diseases of the Poor

Microsoft corporation founder bill Gates has announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is launching a $200 million program to identify promising but overlooked medical research targeted at diseases most prevalent in poor and underdeveloped countries. Gates said a committee of leading medical researchers will work to identify the “grand challenges” in global health, such as ways to prevent the spread of HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and childhood diarrheal illnesses.

The Global Forum on Health Research — a Swiss foundation supported by the World Health Organization, the World Bank and others — says that only about 10 per cent of medical research money is spent on diseases and conditions that compromise 90 per cent of the world’s health burden. “It is highly unlikely the board will identify an idea that has not been thought about previously,” said Richard Klausner, director of global health for the Gates Foundation. He said the board would likely favor some “very high-risk, collaborative approaches,” which have been previously underfunded by government agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s not enough to make vaccines available,” said US National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhoui, who will also work on the committee. “At some point, you have to build up a knowledge base. Things are not going to change unless you have the top scientists using the top research methods of the world.”

Calling his initiative “another worldwide call to action,” Gates wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary that “market forces alone are often not enough to accelerate research into diseases in the developing world.” He wrote that “the role of philanthropy, in the best sense, is its ability to place a value on things that the market does not.”

Gates added that, with greater public attention, he hopes to encourage more public investment. “The chronic underfunding of research in diseases of the poor has led the rich world to view these health challenges as inevitable or insoluble,” he concluded. “Clearly, they are neither.” (Sources: Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services, USA; UN Wire)

Reprinted from Share International, Vol 22, No 2 — March 2003. Visit www.Share-International.org. Also visit www.worldwatch.org