EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Pushing Beyond the Earth’s Limits: Growth: The Environmental Fallout

The world economy, as now structured, is making excessive demands on the earth. Evidence of this can be seen in collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, expanding deserts, rising CO2 levels, eroding soils, rising temperatures, falling water tables, melting glaciers, deteriorating grasslands, rising seas, rivers that are running dry, and disappearing species.

Nearly all these environmentally destructive trends adversely affect the world food prospect. For example, even a modest rise of 1 degree Fahrenheit in temperature in mountainous regions can substantially increase rainfall and decrease snowfall. The result is more flooding during the rainy season and less snowmelt to feed rivers during the dry season, when farmers need irrigation water. 15

Or consider the collapse of fisheries and the associated leveling off of the oceanic fish catch. During the last half-century the fivefold growth in the world fish catch that satisfied much of the growing demand for animal protein pushed oceanic fisheries to their limits and beyond. Now, in this new century, we cannot expect any growth at all in the catch. All future growth in animal protein supplies can only come from the land, putting even more pressure on the earth’s land and water resources. 16

Farmers have long had to cope with the cumulative effects of soil erosion on land productivity, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, and the encroachment of deserts on cropland. Now they are also being battered by higher temperatures and crop-scorching heat waves. Likewise, farmers who once had assured supplies of irrigation water are now forced to abandon irrigation as aquifers are depleted and wells go dry. Collectively this array of environmental trends is making it even more difficult for farmers to feed adequately the 70 million people added to our ranks each year. 17

Until recently, the economic effects of environmental trends, such as overfishing, overpumping, and overplowing, were largely local. Among the many examples are the collapse of the cod fishery off Newfoundland from overfishing that cost Canada 40,000 jobs, the halving of Saudi Arabia’s wheat harvest as a result of aquifer depletion, and the shrinking grain harvest of Kazakhstan as wind erosion claimed half of its cropland. 18

Now, if world food supplies tighten, we may see the first global economic effect of environmentally destructive trends. Rising food prices could be the first economic indicator to signal serious trouble in the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth’s ecosystem. The short-lived 20-percent rise in world grain prices in early 2004 may turn out to be a warning tremor before the quake. 19

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15. John Krist, “Water Issues Will Dominate California’s Agenda This Year,” Environmental News Network, 21 February 2003.

16. FAO, op. cit. note 3.

17. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

18. Mark Clayton, “Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry Implodes,” Christian Science Monitor, 25 August 1993; Craig S. Smith, “Saudis Worry as They Waste Their Scarce Water,” New York Times, 26 January 2003; USDA, op. cit. note 5.

19. IMF, op. cit. note 6.


Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute