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Premieres on PBS Tuesday, June 19, 2001 at 8 p.m. ET
"With its population projected to grow to 20 million from 15 million over the next 20 years, forecasts say that without new sources of supply Florida by 2020 would face a water deficit of as much as 30 percent"Every day brings news of how human beings are affecting the life-support system known as Earth. But what's the truth behind the headlines? What are these stories really telling us?
Journalist Bill Moyers and an award-winning team of producers travel the globe to report on the impact of the human species on Earth. BILL MOYERS REPORTS: EARTH ON EDGE, which premieres on PBS on Tuesday, June 19, 2001 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), explores one of the most important questions of the new century: What is happening to Earth's capacity to support the human species and civilization?
"This is not a report on saving the Pandas or even a beautiful scenic view," says Bill Moyers. "Scientists are asking whether the earth can continue to sustain human life. We are reporting on what they are finding."
The broadcast coincides with the launch of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international scientific effort to gauge the health of the world's forests, grasslands, and farmlands, as well as coastal and freshwater resources. Preliminary findings were featured in the study, World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life, prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute. Their statistics are staggering: half the world's wetlands lost in one century, half the world's forests chopped down, 70 percent of the world's major marine fisheries depleted, and the world's reefs at risk. "Anyone who follows the news knows that the environment is under pressure, but what is the big picture? Scientists want the facts, and they are starting to comb every room in the global household to see what we have to do to go on living here," says Moyers.
From the Kansas prairie to the beautiful hills of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, from an ancient forest in British Columbia to the grasslands of Mongolia, and down below the sea to the coral reefs of Brazil, EARTH ON EDGE provides a close look at five ecosystems around the world, describing the impact of human activity on the environment and 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. On its journey around the globe, EARTH ON EDGE profiles individuals who are confronting the challenge head on, people who understand how their lives depend on Earth's ecosystems and how their own energy and dedication might help restore them.
In Kansas, Charlie Melander is defying the conventions of contemporary farming practices by trying to use America's rich farmland in a way that prevents its loss to pollution and erosion. The land his family has plowed for three generations was virgin soil until the 1850s, an untouched storehouse of minerals and nutrients anchored by the prairie grass. When farmers broke the sod and tilled the ground, the land was exposed to drought and wind. In less than two centuries, over one-third of the topsoil has blown away and half the nutrients have been exhausted. The Midwestern farmland is continuing to loose topsoil at the rate of twenty tons a year. Melander decided he was part of the problem and started making changes in how he farms the land drastically cutting back on pesticide and herbicide use, planting narrow strips of tilled soil instead of upturning entire fields, and reintroducing animals to the ecosystem of his land.
But he's bucking the tide. Heavy advertising by the companies that sell soil additives like herbicides and fertilizers, along with government subsidies for their use, have distorted the economics of modern agriculture. They 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 a cost of current farming practices is polluted water and the prospect of eroded fields that won't bear crops for future generations. "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 problem isn't water pollution, it's water scarcity an unintended consequence of human behavior. European colonists in South Africa preferred a forested landscape to the country's natural low-growing vegetation, and they scattered seeds for pine and eucalyptus. Today, forests of these invasive trees are a threat to the human population, competing for water in an arid climate by soaking up billions of gallons that once filled mountain streambeds. Five years ago the government decided the trees had to go, and trained 40,000 unemployed people to cut thousands down to restore the precious water that flows from the mountains to the rivers. These environmentalists with chainsaws have already had a positive impact on increasing the flow of rivers in the Cape of Good Hope.
The human species has had a profound impact on water the world over, and it is a resource that is critical to all life. While the world's population has doubled since 1940, human water consumption has quadrupled much of it to irrigate farms to provide a sufficient food supply for the growing population. Melanie Stiassny explains that governments around the world subsidize farmers to build irrigation systems, but inefficient irrigation systems often deliver only half the irrigated water to the crops and waste the rest. When water supplies dry up, land is severely degraded, or rivers polluted, the population has to move on. Habiba Gitay, an expert on climate change, says "we've already seen in certain parts of the world that you've got conflicts occurring over water rights."
Peacefully and productively resolving the conflicts of competing agendas is one of the great environmental challenges that face the world's population. Traveling to Vancouver, British Columbia, Moyers' team tells the story of an experimental collaboration involving one of Canada's biggest timber companies, MacMillan Bloedel (now owned by Weyerhauser). Environmental protesters halted the clear cutting of old-growth cedar, hemlock and fir in Clayoquot Sound, but when the logging stopped, so did the potential for jobs for Canada's native people, who are known as the First Nations. This economic conflict gave rise to a new collaboration. Working together, MacMillan Bloedel and First Nations, with support from environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, have formed a new company called Ilsaak to harvest trees in a way that mimics the natural process and allows the ancient rainforests and the wildlife they support to survive. Strategies like using helicopters to fly timber out instead of carving up the forest with roads and cutting trees selectively are more costly in the short-term. But if these methods prove economically viable, the logging and the forest will be sustainable for the long-term. Logger Jake Van Dort finds honor in the new approach. "We're not just going out and raping and pillaging the whole place," he says, "we're going through with some care, you know, and some thought."
In Mongolia, the story is not different vested interests in conflict over resources, but individual families competing for pastureland. On the vast plains of Asia, herding has been a way of life for centuries and ancient techniques of migration enabled grazing pastures to restore and regenerate over seasons. Today, as families strive toward a more settled and prosperous life, they raise larger goat herds closer to markets to meet the demand for cashmere and the vegetation can not withstand the assault. "The grasses that you see right now were so high in my childhood years," a Mongolian herder named Naisurendorj recalls. "No matter how much the horses and oxen ate, it would be still the same height as my stirrups. Now you see they all have become sparse. It is becoming more and more like desert." The thinning grass no longer protects the topsoil, which blows away with the persistent Mongolian wind. Maria Fernandez Gimenez, a rangeland ecologist from the University of Arizona, has spent years studying grasslands in Mongolia. She sees trouble ahead for the land and the people, explaining "you have a downward cycle of decreasing mobility and increasing overuse and conflicts over access to pasture." Without some kind of intervention, the pastures could be exhausted within ten years, according to some scientists. As happened recently when a Mongolian dust storm blew pollution from China all the way to the mainland United States, what happens in Mongolia has implications elsewhere.
Brazil is as lush as Mongolia is barren, but it, too, faces the same problem the pressure of competing human demands on natural resources. The coastal reef at Tamandare is a magnet for tourists and for fisherman, but the beauty and the bounty of its waters are at risk. Marine biologists Beatrice Ferreira and Mauro Maida persuaded the Brazilian government to close off 1000 acres of this endangered reef in hopes that the coral and marine life would recover. And it worked. "After only eight months of closure you could see an increase four times the number of octopus, four times the number of lobster," says Maida. But while the government invested $4 million in this experimental project, developers are investing $800 million to turn the region into a tourist mecca like Cancun, which will threaten the underwater ecology.
Marine biologist Carl Safina explains that marine life is threatened the world over. "I hear buzzers going off all around me," he says, "80 percent of the world's fisheries are either at their very limit of what they can produce without going into major long term decline, or are already in major decline, or depleted."
Moyers tells individual stories, in far-flung locations, but in the end it is strikingly clear that the program is about what has been done to the Earth and what can still be done to turn things around. "We don't like to react to the first warning light that comes on the dashboard," Safina says, "we like to make sure that we're really hearing a big grinding noise before we can all agree that maybe we should stop and get out and take a look at what's wrong."
BILL MOYERS REPORTS: EARTH ON EDGE will be augmented by an extensive web site, www.pbs.org/earthonedge, as well as an education and outreach campaign directed by the World Resources Institute, a leading environmental think tank. The site will provide in-depth information about ecosystems as well as updates on their status and information about how you can take action. WRI is also organizing a series of live events and panel discussions promoting public dialogue around the issues raised by EARTH ON EDGE and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. World Resources 2000-2001 will also be offered as a companion book to the series for $27.00. The book contains more information about ecosystems as well as case studies from around the world.
Major funding for BILL MOYERS REPORTS: EARTH ON EDGE is provided by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Germeshausen Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Herb Alpert Foundation, The Surdna Foundation, and the Kohlberg Foundation, Inc. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. Funding for the BILL MOYERS REPORTS: EARTH ON EDGE companion web site and outreach activity is provided by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Ford Motor Company, the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, and the ARIA Foundation.
BILL MOYERS REPORTS: EARTH ON EDGE is a production of Public Affairs Television, Inc. in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, presented on PBS by Thirteen/WNET in New York. Producers: Gail Ablow, Leslie Clark, Pamela Hogan; Editors: Alison Amron, Robert Kuhns; Field producers: Deborah Grau, Candace White; Executive editor: Bill Moyers; Executive producers: Judy Doctoroff O'Neill, Judith Davidson Moyers; Director of production: Felice Firestone; Director of special projects: Deborah Rubenstein.
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Rose Lynn Marra
Kelly & Salerno Communications
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