The Program Earth on Edge
Earth on Edge
Get Involved
Science MattersThe ProgramBuy the Book and Video  
Description & Viewing Schedule

Description & Viewing Schedule | Video Previews
Send an e-Postcard | Featured Experts | Production Credits
Program Transcript | Press Materials

CBS News reports on a dust storm in Mongolia that is traveling across China and into the US, The New York Times reports that Florida may face a water deficit of 30% by the year 2020, and the New Orleans paper, the Times Picayune, describes a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that is as big as the state of New Jersey.

The proliferation of news stories such as these, along with the call for the first full-scale scientific survey of the Earth's ecosystems, known as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, inspired journalist Bill Moyers and his team of award-winning producers to take a look at what is happening to our planet and what we can do about it. Bill Moyers Reports: Earth on Edge probes two of the most critical questions of the new century: Will Earth continue to have the capacity to support the human species and civilization? Moreover, what can we do to protect our life-support system-the natural environment?

The two-hour documentary, which premieres on PBS June 19, 2001 at 8 p.m. (check local listings), travels from the Kansas prairie to the beautiful hills of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, from an ancient rain forest in British Columbia to the grasslands of Mongolia, and into the sea and the coral reefs of Brazil. Earth on Edge provides a close look at five ecosystems around the world, and describes the impact of human activity on the environment as well as the kind of behavioral changes that can restore it. But the time for change is running out.

"We are pushing our planet to the absolute limit of its ability to function," says Dr. Melanie Stiassny, one of the biologists interviewed, whose findings suggest that Earth is approaching critical environmental thresholds that may be irreversible. Also interviewed are Carl Safina, founder of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program; Habiba Gitay, an ecologist at the Australian National University; Michael Novacek, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History; and Adrian Forsyth, a tropical ecologist at the Amazon Conservation Association. On its journey around the world, Earth on Edge profiles individuals and programs that are confronting the challenge head on, understanding that our lives depend on Earth's ecosystems and that our energy, innovation, and dedication might help restore them.

In Kansan Charlie Melander's opinion, a farmer has an almost religious relationship to the land. Charlie is trying to honor that connection by farming in a way that will conserve the soil's nutrients and growing capacity for future generations. For him, this means reducing the herbicides and pesticides that he puts on his crops and using new farming techniques that help keep the topsoil from blowing away. The first prairie farmers, including Charlie's family who has been farming this land since the 1850s, found virgin soil, rich in nutrients and good for crops. When they broke the sod and tilled the ground, however, the land was exposed to drought and wind. In less than two centuries, more than one-third of the original topsoil on these prairies has blown away and half the nutrients have been exhausted.

Charlie Melander
Charlie Melander

But Charlie is bucking the tide. He feels that heavy advertising and government subsidies have distorted the economics of modern agriculture, and provide a disincentive for sustainable farming. "I maintain that we could change our environment almost overnight if suddenly we said we'll reward less fuel usage, less herbicide usage, less fertilizer usage," Melander tells Moyers.

"Why should I care about how you farm out here, as long as I get the food I need?" Moyers asks. "The equation's not that simple," Melander answers, explaining that current farming practices may cause future generations to suffer. "Whether you like it or not, you're going to be affected by what we do or don't do," he cautions.

In South Africa, the most pressing problem isn't water pollution, it's water scarcity — an unintended consequence of human behavior. South Africa's unique natural environment features plants — like the fynbos — that thrive on very little water, suiting them perfectly to this arid climate. When European colonists arrived in South Africa they set out to recreate the forested landscape familiar from their homeland. They scattered seeds for pine and eucalyptus that have grown into forests. Today, these invasive trees are a threat to the human population, competing for water by soaking up billions of gallons that once filled mountain streambeds. Already, one-third of South Africans have an inadequate supply of water.

South Africa's Working for Water Programme
South Africa's Working for Water Programme

Five years ago the government decided to combat the problem — the invasive trees had to go. They have since trained 40,000 formerly unemployed people to cut thousands of non-native trees down, restoring the precious water that flows from the mountains to the rivers. Already, people who live near the streams say that the water is flowing more strongly than they have seen in 20 or 30 years. The Working for Water Programme has successfully restored a precious resource to thousands of South Africans.

Download Adobe AcrobatFor a more detailed description of the South African efforts, read World Resources 2000-2001.
(Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

In Vancouver, British Columbia, an experimental collaboration joins one of Canada's biggest timber companies, MacMillan Bloedel (now owned by Weyerhauser), together with environmentalists and Canada's native people, known as First Nations. Born of intense conflict among the partners, this commercial venture now seeks to harvest timber in a way that simultaneously protects the environment and the employment opportunities for First Nations and other loggers.

Clayoquot Sound, Britsh Columbia, Canada
Clayoquot Sound, Britsh Coloumbia, Canada

By selectively felling trees instead of clear-cutting, and by using helicopters to fly the logs out instead of building roads for transport, the innovative timber operation is designed to mimic the forest's natural processes, allowing the ancient rainforests and the wildlife they support to survive. The new company, called Iisaak, must make a profit if it is to survive in the long term, but if these methods prove economically viable, limited logging in the forest will be sustainable for the future.

In Mongolia, nomadic herders have grazed large numbers of livestock on Mongolia's grassland for thousands of years. Rotating their animals over vast pastures in complex seasonal patterns, herders like Naisurendorj have anchored their country's economy without degrading its ecosystems. Recently, however, political and economic changes in the country have tripled the number of people who depend on the grasslands; moreover herd size is increasing to support a growing cashmere export industry; and fewer herders are willing to rotate their flocks from one pasture to another, an ancient practice that allows the grass to recover year after year. The grasses cannot withstand the assault and each year the plains become more and more like desert.


The effects of overgrazing are already apparent: as rangeland ecologist Maria Fernandez Gimenez explains, "At some point there's a limit to what the land can support. So how do you know when you're approaching the limit? That's what we're trying to figure out now." Without intervention, Mongolian scientists predict that the pastures may be exhausted within ten years. Incredibly, even a country with few people — like Mongolia — can lose a balance that supported it for centuries. But there is still time to save the largest stretch of grassland we have left.

Download Adobe AcrobatFor a detailed description of the situation in Mongolia, read World Resources 2000-2001.
Free (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Brazil is lush, but competing human demands on its natural resources are threatening the well-being of humans even in a place that looks like paradise. The coastal reef at Tamandare is a magnet for recreation and for fishers, but the beauty and the bounty of its waters mask the critical needs of the undersea environment. The reef was dying, a victim of overfishing, tourism, and the destruction of the mangrove forests inland on which they depend.

Beatrice Ferreira and Mauro Maida
Beatrice Ferreira and Mauro Maida

Marine biologists Beatrice Ferreira and Mauro Maida persuaded the Brazilian government to close off 1,000 acres of this endangered reef in hopes that the coral and marine life would recover. The experimental project improved the situation almost immediately. After only eight months, there was a substantial increase in the number of octopus, lobster, and other marine life. But for how long? Developers are investing millions to transform the region into a tourist mecca, accelerating the destruction of the mangrove swamp and the reefs that support Tamandare's coastal culture.

The scientific data that was the basis of the reporting in Earth on Edge can now be accessed by going to EarthTrends, a new web site that contains case studies, maps, data, and more about ecosystems around the world.

Discussion Guide | Buy the Book and Video | Moyers Mailing List | Site Map
Bulletin Boards | Classroom Materials | Resources | Glossary | Site Credits