by J.R. Pegg / Environment News Service –
WASHINGTON (May 24, 2003) — An examination of Earth’s “vital signs” reveals alarming trends of poverty, disease and environmental decline that threaten global stability, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s annual report on trends shaping the world’s future.
There is little for humanity to cheer about in the organization’s Vital Signs 2003, which outlines how the continued failure to address widespread poverty serves as a lightening rod for health, social and environmental problems across the world.
The consumption choices of the rich and the inability of political leaders to act has brought this situation to bear, says Michael Renner, co-author and project director of Vital Signs 2003, and there are few signs that things will change anytime soon.
Vital Signs 2003 was produced researchers at the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental and social policy research organization, in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme.
Humanity’s challenge, Renner explained, is to find a way to balance the need to protect the Earth’s ecosystems without denying the world’s poorest individuals the opportunity to achieve a better life.
“These twin goals cannot be achieved as long as humanity remains divided into the extremes of rich and poor,” Renner said. But this divide is growing, not shrinking. Globalization has deepened economic disparities, Renner explained, and the gap between the world’s poorest and richest nations has more than doubled since 1960.
Why the ‘Rich-Poor Gap’ Is an Environmental Problem
Some 815 million people worldwide are chronically hungry. The scope of the world’s poverty is severe — almost half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day — and the “world economy is rigged against the interests of the poor,” Renner said. Agricultural subsidies in the developed world, trade barriers, unequal trade relations and the crippling $2.4 trillion in foreign debt owed by the world’s poorest nations all contribute to this growing disparity.
Less income often means individuals are far more susceptible to disease — the infant mortality rate in low-income countries is some 13 times higher than in the world’s wealthier countries.
Infectious diseases kill some 14.4 million people a year, most of whom are among the world’s poorest. Those who perish from infectious disease are often individuals in the early or prime years of life and the loss of these individuals can contribute to further economic and social stress on a nation.
The recent outbreak of the new disease SARS “shows how quickly economies can be thrown out of whack,” said co-author Molly Sheehan. Lack of clean water or sanitation kills some 1.7 million people each year, 90 percent of whom are children.
Seventy percent of the world’s HIV positive people live in sub- Saharan Africa and 82 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers live in developing countries.
Poverty, Inequity, Disease and War
The consequences of poverty manifest in the form of terrorism, war and contagious diseases, Renner said, and the effects are felt both by the world’s poor and its rich.
“An unstable world not only perpetuates poverty,” Renner said, “but will ultimately threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy.”
Desertification has made even subsistence farming difficult for many of the world’s poor. And just as the fruits of the world economy are not shared equally, neither are the consequences of environmental degradation. The poor are more vulnerable to weather related disasters caused by land clearing, deforestation and climate change.
Weather-related economic losses were highest in industrial countries, but the human toll was far greater for developing countries.
In 2002, more than 150,000 Kenyans were displace by massive rains, while more than 800,000 Chinese struggled with the most severe drought in more than a century.
The report concedes that weather-related disasters are likely to worsen as the climate continues to change, a trend that highlights how the actions — or inaction — of the world’s rich affect the poor.
Weather Change: A Force of Mass Destruction
Last year was the second warmest since record keeping began in the late 1800s and most scientists are convinced this trend will result in more erratic weather and rising seas.
The report finds that the burden of responsibility for climate changes falls squarely on the shoulders of the industrial nations, in particular the United States.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population but produces some 25 percent of the total of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.
The pressures on the Earth’s ecosystem brought about by poverty are striking, the report finds, including evidence that more than 12 percent of the bird species face extinction within the next century.
Among the few positives in the report are some progress in combating AIDs, a slight increase in communication technology within the developing world and the global increase in clean energy use.
But even these favorable developments come as the world wrestles with increased security concerns that have prompted the industrial world to ramp up defense spending instead of using their wealth to address social, health and environmental problems.
Military Spending Short-changes the Earth
Low-income nations tend to follow suit, Renner explained, and although low-income countries only account for seven percent of global military spending, this is more than double their share of the world’s gross economic product. The aftermath of war often leaves many without stable food supplies. The 32 richest nations spent some $839 billion on defense in 2001. The United States was responsible for some 36 percent of the global defense spending. “The message of increased military spending is that violence pays,” Renner said.
The continued and seemingly unbreakable chain of poverty for many in the world can foster a loss of hope, Renner explained, and cause some to engage in desperate and destructive measures.
“Terrorism is the final symptomatic outcome of a larger problem,” he said.
Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin added that the world’s focus on terrorism and unrest in the Middle East, combined with a faltering economy, will further divert resources needed to address the causes and consequences of global poverty.
Political will is needed to move beyond words and into action, Flavin said, and the human tragedies underscored by the statistics in this latest report need to serve as “compelling reminders that social and environmental progress are not luxuries that can be set aside when the world is experiencing economic and political problems.”
“We must not forget that a very large share of the human population has been left behind,” Flavin said. “Suffering that is allowed to fester today will lead to adverse and unpredictable consequences for many tomorrows to come.”
To access “Vital Signs 2003”, see http://www.worldwatch.org