ON this day, the United Nations claims, some 100 to 300 plant
and animal species around the world will die out - far above what
scientists believe is the natural rate of extinction, and largely
attributable to human impact on the environment. Also today, the UN
predicts, 40,000 people (mostly children) will die from hunger and
hunger-related diseases. Much of that loss, too, is because of
human impact on the environment.
These are the defining figures that have brought more than 100
heads of state or government, 10,000 delegates, and another 20,000
observers to the "Earth Summit," which starts here tomorrow.
Since the last gathering convened 20 years ago, both the
seriousness of global environmental problems and general awareness
about them have increased dramatically, as has the level of human
suffering due to related poverty. (See summary of issues, Page 10.)
Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the UN Conference on
Environment and Development, as the meeting here in Rio is
officially called, puts the problem this way:
"Humanity is confronted with deepening disparities within and
between nations. There is pervasive hunger, poverty, illiteracy,
and ill health. The ecological consequences of ozone depletion,
climate change, soil degradation, deforestation, loss of
biodiversity and the increasing pollution of air, water and land
threaten our common and sustainable future."
Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the United Nations
Environment Program (UNEP), stresses that there are in fact no
"global" ecological issues, but instead "the global crisis facing
our planet is the sum total of the billions of daily actions of
individuals, industries, and governments."
Among the problems detailed in the UN report:
rMore than 25 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year due to
erosion tied to agricultural activities. Use of chemical
fertilizers has doubled during the past 20 years, but the period
also saw the number of chronically hungry people increase by 90
million to a total of 550 million.
rSome 900 million people in urban areas are exposed to unhealthy
levels of sulphur dioxide, and more than one billion are exposed to
excessive levels of particulate emissions.
rSix and one-half million tons of garbage are dumped into the
oceans every year.
There are other problems as well. James Gustave Speth, president
of the World Resources Institute points out that because of a 50
percent increase in the rate of tropical deforestation during the
1980s, "an area ... about the size of the state of Washington now
is lost each year; that's an acre and a half a second."
"Humans continue to alter in a few decades precise ecological
balances that have evolved over billions of years," says Dr. Tolba
of UNEP. "The facts show again and again - in dwindling fish
stocks, projected shortfalls in fuel wood, quickening soil erosion,
and millions of tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere
- that time is running out. …