Computing the Risks: A Global Overview of Our Most-Pressing Environmental Challenges

By Hinrichsen, Don | International Wildlife, March-April 1996 | Go to article overview

Computing the Risks: A Global Overview of Our Most-Pressing Environmental Challenges


Hinrichsen, Don, International Wildlife


At Age 60: Setting Up Camp in Cyberspace

In celebration of the National Wildlife Federation's sixtieth anniversary, International Wildlife presents this overview of the state of the world. Tap into NWF's new World Wide Web site at http://www.nwf.org/nwf for up-to-the-minute conservation news.

The international scientific community, in its many pronouncements, reports, studies and documents, often seems hopelessly divided over many of the most fundamental environmental issues. These include climate change and its effects, the extent of species loss and ecosystem destruction, and the dwindling productive capacity of agricultural land. And yet, through the cacophony of claims and counter-claims, some patterns have emerged, including what may be called the unifying theory of environmental problems: human population growth.

The relentless engine of human reproduction adds a billion more people to the planet every 11 years - an unprecedented rate of growth. Population surges, increases in consumption and the acceleration of ecological changes to the globe have conspired to reduce drastically our time frame for response to environmental threats.

The following six computer screens highlight the most critical environmental challenges for the six populated continents. You can move between screens simply by turning the page. A column of support documentation accompanies each screen. All screens are based on data collected by environmental reporter Don Hinrichsen during eight years as a consultant to the United Nations and were rendered graphically by Dick Gage, an award-winning artist who lives outside Washington, D.C. To save any screen, simply close the magazine.

Taken together, the problems outlined in the following pages indicate the direction in which environmental degradation is taking both the Earth and humanity. These problems also suggest the challenges we, as a globe-shaping species, must meet if human society and the world economy as we know them are to survive and improve.

Despite Big Gains, Troubles Continue

Monitoring the environment in North America, one scientist put it, is like running on an endless treadmill: You have to keep moving just to stand still. Positive trends in one area are offset by negative ones in others. Though the United States has enjoyed some success in reducing urban air pollution and cleaning up waterways, two of every five Americans still live in cities where the air is unhealthful for part of the year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Forty percent of U.S. rivers and lakes are unfit for drinking, swimming or fishing. Canada's rivers and lakes are beset by secondary air pollutants, such as the acid rain that has turned 300 Ontario lakes into fish graveyards and caused another 48,000 lakes - 3 percent of the total to be classified as acid sensitive.

Despite improvements in land management, both the United States and Canada continue to lose both wild and agricultural lands. In British Columbia, the largest chopstick factory in the world converts wilderness into eating utensils for Japanese markets at the rate of 7.5 million pairs of chopsticks daily. Loggers in Canada, which encompasses 10 percent of the world's forests, have clear-cut about a million hectares (2.47 million acres) a year for the past decade, collectively amounting to an area the size of former East Germany. Remaining old-growth forests are being felled as fast as possible.

At least 50 percent of U.S. wetlands have been lost since colonial times, along with 25 million hectares (60 million acres) of long-leafed pine forests in the southeastern coastal plain and nearly 90 percent of all natural prairie areas in the Midwest and in the Canadian grain belt.

Loss of vital organic matter and soil nutrients to erosion costs U.S. and Canadian farmers more than $2 billion yearly in lost production. Despite soil-conservation practices, some 13 percent of U. …

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