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Science and Health:
The Earth Debate
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State of the Earth Overview

They met ten years ago in Rio to address a global crisis in the environment. Today, as 65,000 delegates prepare to gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 26 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development-the Johannesburg Summit 2002-over 13,000 people die each day from water-related diseases. According to newly published report from the United Nations, if current patterns of development continue, nearly half of the world's people will suffer from water shortages within the next twenty-five years, greenhouse gas emissions will grow, and the world's forests will continue to disappear.

On Friday, August 30, 2002, NOW with Bill Moyers and the BBC presented "The Earth Debate," a special ninety-minute program from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Panelists)

Below you'll a briefing on the crucial issues to be addressed — a state of the earth address. You'll also find what was promised by Agenda 21, the official list of goals that came out of the 1992 Rio Summit. Just two years ago many of the same groups met for the Millennium Summit, and came up with another sustainable development wish list, cited below.

EnergyWaterGenetic Diversity

Urban scene

"The growth of world population and production combined with unsustainable consumption patterns places increasingly severe stress on the life-supporting capacities of our planet. These interactive processes affect the use of land, water, air, energy and other resources. Rapidly growing cities, unless well-managed, face major environmental problems." --Agenda 21, United Nations Division for Sustainable Development

Those were the words of a decade ago. A brief look at "quality of life standards" shows that many people's lives have improved immeasurably in the last 30 years: Infant mortality rate cut nearly in half; life expectancy up by nearly a decade; undernourished people down by 100 million; literacy up to nearly 80 percent. However, THE ECONOMIST, queried in anticipation of the Johannesburg summit, echoing Gandhi, "How many planets will we need if we continue to develop at the same rate?"

Get additional facts and figures about population and development.

Urban slum scene

"Poverty is a complex multidimensional problem with origins in both the national and international domains. No uniform solution can be found for global application. The struggle against poverty is the shared responsibility of all countries." --Agenda 21

The annual output of the world economy grew from $31 trillion in 1990 to $42 trillion in 2000, compared to just $6.2 trillion in 1950. Although per capita income has increased 3 per cent annually in 40 countries since 1990, more than 80 countries have per capita incomes that are lower than they were a decade ago. A fifth of the world population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Get additional facts and figures about poverty.

Market in Africa

Hunger facts and figures are often relayed in terms of "food security" — or knowing from day to day that you will have enough food to feed your family. Food insecurity is greatest in developing nations where populations, urban areas, and pollution are growing most rapidly.

There are a multitude of environmental changes that contribute to food insecurity. Desertification results from overuse of land and scarcity of water. Urbanization takes over farmland and forest at a rapid rate — remaining land must do more work to support growing population. Available land per capita is already very low in Asia with 182 people per square km compared to the world average of 44 per square km. Soil degradation is caused by deforestation, poor land management and overuse of fertilizers and pesticide, and waste disposal. Today, over one third of the world's land is considered no longer suitable for growing food.

Get additional facts and figures on hunger.


The 1992 Earth summit at Rio noted that health, development and the environment create quite a conundrum:

Health ultimately depends on the ability to manage successfully the interaction between the physical, spiritual, biological and economic/social environment. Sound development is not possible without a healthy population; yet most developmental activities affect the environment to some degree, which in turn causes or exacerbates many health problems. Conversely, it is the very lack of development that adversely affects the health condition of many people, which can be alleviated only through development. --Agenda 21
The figures facing the world today are stark:
  • Between 5 and 6 million people in developing countries die each year from water-borne diseases and air pollution.
  • Poor environmental quality contributes to 25 per cent of all preventable illness in the world today.
  • Sixty per cent of the 2.2 million deaths a year in children under five caused by acute respiratory infections are associated with indoor air pollution (mostly from burning biomass fuels in confined spaces), lack of adequate heating and other unsanitary living conditions.

Get additional facts and figures on health.


The Rio Earth Summit's Agenda 21 treated the relationship between development and energy consumption in vague terms:

"Special attention should be paid to the demand for natural resources generated by unsustainable consumption and to the efficient use of those resources consistent with the goal of minimizing depletion and reducing pollution. Although consumption patterns are very high in certain parts of the world, the basic consumer needs of a large section of humanity are not being met." --Agenda 21

Not so with the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which propose that nations meet a voluntary target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. C02 emission levels are almost on target in Japan and the European Union, and well below target in Eastern Europe and Russia. Only in North America, Australia and New Zealand do emissions continue to grow.

Get additional facts and figures on world energy consumption.

Sea life

There's no doubt about it — water means life. It is necessary to grow food, and clean water is imperative for health. The Millennium Summit goals aim to cut in half the number of people without access to safe water supplies. This means that an additional 1.5 billion people will need to be served.

  • Almost 20 percent of the world's people depend on unimproved water supplies to meet their daily needs.
  • In developing countries, between 90 and 95 per cent of sewage and 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters where they pollute the usable water supply
  • Less than 1 per cent of the world's freshwater resources is accessible for human use

Get additional facts and figures on world water consumption.

Picking agricultural crops
Genetic Diversity

"Our planet's essential goods and services depend on the variety and variability of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result of human activity and represents a serious threat to human development." --Agenda 21

That was ten years ago. Today:

  • Desertification affects almost a quarter of the total land area of the world, and almost 70 per cent of the world's drylands face further degradation.
  • 75 per cent of the world's fisheries require immediate steps to freeze or reduce fishing to ensure a future supply of fish.
  • Almost a quarter of the world's coral reefs have been completely destroyed, and another 20 to 30 per cent are threatened with destruction within the next 10 years.

Get facts and figures on genetic diversity.

Sources: National Wind Technology Center; International Energy Agency, "Renewables in Global Energy Supply;" American Wind Energy Association "Fact Sheet," Global Wind Energy Market Report; United States Energy Information Administration; U.S. Department of Energy, Wind Energy Program; The World Energy Council, Survey of Energy Resources 2001; Sustainable Minnesota

More on estimated future world energy needs.

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