EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Introduction

While progress continues on many fronts, disturbing signs of decline are beginning to emerge. In the early years of this new millennium, United Nations demographers stunned the world when they announced that the average life expectancy in 38 AIDS-afflicted countries in sub-Saharan Africa had fallen to only 45 years, 10 years below what it would have been in the absence of AIDS. 1

For the first time in the modern era, life expectancy, a seminal indicator of development, has dropped for a large segment of humanity. This failure of leadership to curb the spread of the virus in dozens of countries is quite literally reversing the march of progress. Is this breakdown of the political system an anomaly? Or is it an early sign that the complexity of emerging problems is overwhelming weaker national governments?

Troubles are not limited to Africa. In Russia, life expectancy for males has fallen to 59 years, down from some 64 years in 1990. In China, with dangerously high pollution levels, more people are dying from cancer than any other disease. The United States, with a highly productive economy but a troubled society, now has 960,000 farmers and 2 million prison inmates—more than twice as many people in jail as live on the land. 2

The gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, putting more stress on the international system. Differences in life expectancy are wider than ever, with people in Botswana and Swaziland living on average less than 40 years and those in Japan and Sweden living 80 years or more. One reason for the wide gap in life expectancy is the HIV epidemic; another is hunger. After declining in recent decades, the number of hungry people in the world turned upward in the late 1990s and continues to rise. 3

The stresses in our early twenty-first century civilization take many forms. Economically we see them in the widening income gap between the world’s rich and poor. Socially they take the form of the widening gap in education and health care. Environmentally we have a swelling flow of refugees as productive land turns to desert and as wells go dry. Politically we see the stresses within societies in conflict over basic resources such as cropland, grazing land, and water and, perhaps most fundamentally, in the growing number of failing states.

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1. U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision—Volume III: Analytical Report (New York: 2004), pp. 136–58, 169.

2. Cancer in China from World Health Organization (WHO), “Death by Causes, Sex and Mortality Stratum in WHO Regions, Estimates for 2002,” World Health Report 2004 (Geneva: May 2004); U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision Population Database, electronic database, at esa.un.org/unpp, updated 2007; “Number of Inmates in State or Federal Prisons and Local Jails by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, June 30, 2006,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, at www.ojp.gov/bjs/prisons.htm, updated 18 July 2007; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Ag 101: Agricultural Demographics,” fact sheet, at www.epa.gov/oecaagct, viewed 3 September 2007.

3. Life expectancy from WHO, World Health Statistics 2007 (Geneva: 2007), pp. 22–31; hunger from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Number of Undernourished Persons, at www.fao.org/faostat/foodsecurity, updated 30 June 2006.


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