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Expired · 2nd June 2010
Ray Grigg
A periodic survey of the state of our entire planet gives us the comprehensive information we need to evaluate the effect of our collective and individual behaviour here on Spaceship Earth. Think of it as a report card so that national governments and each one of us living in local communities have a context with which to judge the consequences of our actions and to weigh the importance of the events occurring around us. One of the most current surveys, done for 2008 by the New Scientist (Sept. 12/09), gives us information that is surprising ‹ and not so surprising.

The pleasant surprise is that the standard of living for humanity has generally been improving over the last 20 years. Although hundreds of million of people still live in desperate conditions, most measures indicate that the quality of life for humanity is getting slightly better. Sub-Sahara Africa is the region showing the least improvement. But infant and maternal mortality everywhere continues to drop. So does hunger for both children and adults – although the end of 2008 saw a slight rise in hunger probably due to higher food prices caused by the global financial crisis. For developing countries, the percentage of people in extreme poverty – earning less than $1.25 per day – fell from 40% to 25%, and for Sub-Sahara Africa, 57% to 50%.

For other improvements in 2008, more people were eating better, getting some form of education, drinking cleaner water, living with improved sanitation and suffering fewer infectious diseases. Life expectancy was slightly longer. The amount of money earned per person in the last decade also increased, although the greatest increases were in developed countries (from $18,000 to $23,000 per capita) with only small increases in the developing and poor countries. Worldwide, average earnings rose from about $5,000 to $7,500 per person, mostly due to the rich getting richer.

By the measure of standard of living alone, we seem to be on the right course. But this does not mean that we could not be doing much better, that we have the best economic systems serving our basic needs, or that wealth could not be distributed more wisely or equitably for the benefit of everyone.

The worrisome trend, however, is the general deteriorating state of the planet's environment. In the last 20 years, the rate of increasing forest cover in developing countries has dropped from about 0.9% to 0.75% per annum. The net loss of forest cover in Latin America has increased from 4.5% to 4.75%, South-East Asia has barely changed from annual losses of 2.8% and Africa's losses remain at 4.2%. Deforestation worldwide continues at about 1.3 million hectares per year. This represents habitat loss for species, reduced carbon sequestration, expanding desertification, increased erosion and intensified temperatures. While global climate change is widening the belt of equatorial tropical forests, it is shifting the savannah, temperate regions and boreal forests toward the poles. Most climates are experiencing more extreme weather.

Our global carbon dioxide emissions of 21.9 billion tonnes in 1990 increased by 12% to 23.8 billion tonnes in 2000, and by 7% to 25.6 billion tonnes in 2008. Despite international efforts, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in tandem with ocean acidification. These figures correspond closely to our ecological footprint, which has been increasing since 1990 for every country but India. Each person's "fair share" of the planet is calculated to be about 2.1 hectares. Indians use about half of this amount, Chinese have just reached their share, Europeans are at 5.1 ha per person, while Americans and Canadians have increased their footprint from 8.5 to 9.5 ha.

These environmental trends are negatively affecting humanity's standard of living. Armed conflicts, many now linked to climate change, population densities, water shortages and resource scarcities, have steadily increased from 100 to 350 per year since 1945. Accordingly, annual military expenditures have risen from $1 trillion to $1.2 trillion since 1992. Although the number of refugees has remained somewhat constant at 15 million per year, the number of people displaced by conflicts or natural disasters has risen from 22 million to 26 million since 2000.

While political events tend to create refugees, natural disasters tend to create displaced people. Since 1990, the average number of these natural disasters per year has risen from about 350 to 600, most of them climate related. Because the total number of victims has remained relatively stable at about 100 million, the statistics suggest that people are coping better with extreme weather events ‹ increased affluence helps people to prepare and respond to the adversity of natural disasters.

Non-human species are not as adaptable to climate change – some plants and animals cannot relocate fast enough to avert disaster, nor can they evolve quickly enough to survive the rising extremities of heat, drought or acidification. But species that can move are doing so – 52% are shifting to more temperate conditions (up to 1,600 km) and 62% are mating earlier. Scientists who are examining the unabated rise in our greenhouse gas emissions have updated predicted global temperature increases and have revised the subsequent biological impact on species. Earlier extinction rates of 20% to 30% have been changed to 40% to 70%. We can only speculate how this radical loss of species will affect our standard of living.

The conclusions we can draw from this recent survey of our entire planet is so far-so-good – but only for us. Although our situation is marginally improving for now, the biosphere around us seems to be in a state of accelerated change. This suggests impending uncertainties of unpredictable magnitudes. We are just getting glimpses of what this might mean. Meanwhile, it seems, most of us would rather not know – we're too busy with the present to worry about the future.