On the first Earth Day in 1970, experts warned that the planet's natural systems were being dangerously destabilized by human industry. Here is how we have fared on some key fronts since then.

reprinted with permission from WorldWatch, March/April 2000


As our growing population increased its burning of coal and oil to produce power, the carbon locked in millions of years worth of ancient plant growth was released into the air, laying a heat-retaining blanket of carbon dioxide over the planet. Earth's temperature increased significantly. Climate scientists had predicted that this increase would disrupt weather. And indeed, annual damages from weather disasters have increased over 40-fold.

Solution: A faster shift to nonpolluting, renewable solar, wind, and hydrogen energy systems.


Our consumption of chemicals has exploded, with about three new synthetic chemicals introduced each day. Almost nothing is known about the long-term health and environmental effects of new synthetics, so we have been ambushed again and again by belated discoveries. One of the most ominous chronic effects: as pesticide use has increased, so has the evolution of pesticide-resistant pests.

Solution: A large-scale shift to organic farming; a shift away from excessive consumption of synthetic chemical products; and application of the precautionary principle to the chemical industry.

Population has increased by as much in the past 30 years as it did in the 100,000 years prior to the mid-20th century. And as the number of people has grown, the amount of land used by each person -- either directly or through economic demand -- has also expanded. As a result of this double expansion, incursions of human activity into agricultural and forested land have accelerated.

Solution: Stabilize population, especially by improving the economic and social status of women; design cities in ways that reduce distances traveled between home, work, shopping, and school; and in urban transit systems, shift emphasis from cars to public transportation, bicycling, and walking.

The global economy has more than doubled in the post 30 years, putting pressure on most countries to increase export income. Many have tried to increase revenues by selling more ocean fish for which there is growing demand, since the increase in crop yields no longer keeps pace with population growth. Result: overfishing is decimating one stock after another, and the catch is getting thinner and thinner.

Solution: Stabilize population growth; stop subsidizing fishing fleets; and end the practice of feeding ocean-caught fish to farmed fish (it takes five pounds of ocean catch to produce one pound of farmed fish), which is still a very profitable and common practice.


7 moments that helped define the trends of the past 30 years ...

The Car: Mannheim, Germany, 1885

  Karl Friedrich Benz takes the world's first gasoline-driven automobile out for a test drive and reaches a speed of 9 miles per hour. It's not yet faster than a horse, but the global infatuation with motorized speed is about to begin. Though petroleum has been around for decades, used mainly for lighting lamps, the advent of the internal combustion engine causes a surge in demand, and the fossil-fuel age begins. 


The Gusher: Masjid-l-Salaman, Persia, May 26, 1908


Drillers strike oil, and the rights are quickly acquired by the British government. The new enterprise, British Petroleum, turns out to be sitting atop the largest oil reservoir in the world, and thus is established a Western dominance of oil that will prevail throughout the 20th century. That dominance will be strengthened by the establishment of the US-controlled Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco) in 1933 and the Iranian coup in 1953. The resulting flow of cheap oil allows the fossil-fuel economy to dominate global industrialization.


The Golden Arch: Oak Park, Illinois, late 1950s


McDonald's decides to open franchises all over the world. In order to establish uniform standards of production for its French fries, the company requires suppliers in each country it enters to grow its global standard potato-the Idaho russet. Other varieties, often better adapted to local conditions of soil, rainfall, temperature, and growing seasons, are displaced. The French fries policy becomes a model for the "monoculturization" of agriculture on a global scale. It is an approach that eventually increases food supply for the expanding human population but also opens the way to increased erosion, soil depletion, dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, nitrogen pollution of rivers and bays, and the decline of genetic diversity in the world's major food crops.


The TV: Western Europe, 1952


The first international standard for transmission of TV images (in lines per frame and frames per second) is established, opening the way to mass-audience broadcasts. Appetites for consumption are stimulated first in the industrial countries where TVs catch on quickly, then in the developing world where subtitled or dubbed American or European shows serve as implicit but vivid advertisements for first-world overconsumption.


The Highway: Washington, DC, 1956


The US Congress passes the Interstate Highway Act, authorizing construction of a national network of high-speed roads across the United States. The American penchant for traveling long distances, even in routine trips between home, work, shopping, and recreation, is greatly facilitated. Suburbanization is accelerated, natural areas are paved over, and pollution increases as major cities build beltways and open the way to "edge" cities. High mobility becomes a model for other countries, which develop their own highway systems-causing massive increases in deforestation, oil spills, air pollution, and carbon dioxide emissions.


The Backlash: India, mid-1970s


The Indian government, faced with surging population, adopts a policy of enforced birth control. Many men and women undergo compulsory sterilization. The policy triggers a great backlash, and the birthrate climbs instead of declining. Demographers project that by 2010, India will have passed China as the most populous country on Earth.


The Flood: Yangtze River Basin, china, 1998


Chinese developers clear thousands of hectares of forest to make space for the country's burgeoning population, thus setting the stage for one of the largest disasters in history. Stripping tree cover reduces the watershed's capacity to slow the flow of surface water. Global warming increases evaporation -- and thus increases rainfall. When the monsoon of 1998 comes, the heightened volume and velocity of the runoff -- and unprecedented numbers of people living in the water's path-drive over 100 million people from their homes. The following year, Hurricane Mitch inundates Honduras and Belize, where similar deforestation has taken place. The disruptive impacts of climate change appear to be well under way.


And 7 moments (past and future) that could be keys to the next 30 years...

Civil Society: Uttarakhand, India, 1958


A popular movement arises to protest government mismanagement of Himalayan forests, and the operations of large timber companies engaged in what is widely regarded as a form of looting. Led mainly by women, the Chipko movement asserts the traditional rights of villagers to manage their local forests rather than submit to management by a distant bureaucracy. The Chipko movement raises the profile of nongovernmental environmental movements in India, as thousands of women stand in the way of tree-cutters. In the ensuing years, grass-roots groups proliferate, and become more numerous in India than in any other country. By the 1990s, they have become a "third force" in human organization worldwide -- a "civil society" that may soon be strong enough to begin to counterbalance unresponsive government and industry.


Precautionary Principle: New York, 1962


Rachel Carson publishes a book, Silent Spring, calling attention to the rising burden of chemical pollutants on the environment. As the burden continues to worsen in the following decades, it provokes discussion of a new Precautionary Principle the principle that the burden of proof of safety should be on those who wish to introduce a new chemical, not on those who claim to have been injured by it. In the 1990s, the principle will be invoked by members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of the world's leading climate scientists, in their argument that "uncertainty" in climate science should not be a reason to avoid preventive action on climate change.


Earth Summit: Stockholm, Sweden, 1972


The United Nations Conference on Human Development becomes the first global effort to place the protection of the biosphere on the official agenda of international policy and law. It will be followed by the UN Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT) in 1976, the first World Climate Conference in 1979, and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) in 1992 -- leading to what has become an essentially continuous process of international discussion on issues that concern transnational threats to human security.


Micropower: Sri Lanka, about 1990


In 100 villages, solar panels are installed on rooftops to provide low-cost electricity to homes that are not on the electric grid. Similar installations are being made, around the same time, in the Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, and other developing countries. They form the first scatterings of a movement toward the use of decentralized electric power systems, based on nonpolluting solar or wind power, that will eventually revolutionize the energy industry worldwide.


GMO-Free Food: western Europe, 1998


European protesters compel transnational biotech companies to halt the rush to use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. Monsanto's bullish advertising campaign is scrapped; major food producers and retailers change their food-processing formulas; Monsanto halts its program to force farmers to buy "terminator" seed.


The Climatic Wake-Up Call: Somewhere on Earth, soon


An extreme weather event strikes a major population center head-on, with cataclysmic results. The event may be a gigantic hurricane or storm surge striking a coastal city, or it may be an inland flood inundating a heavily populated river basin. This time, the disaster achieves a perceptual critical mass in the global public -- an undeniable recognition that the greatest threats to human security are not those of military invasion, but of environmental degradation. As a result, large-scale campaigns are undertaken to gird for -- and stabilize -- the future impacts of climate change.


Bioregionalism: US and Canadian Pacific, early 21st century

Along the northern Pacific coast, there is yet another clash between native peoples and the companies logging the region's remaining old growth rainforest. But after decades of controversy over the management of coastal forests and waters, the native activists discover they have a constituency much broader than anything their predecessors enjoyed. From Oregon through British Columbia, they have awakened a latent bioregional awareness -- a widely-shared view that the region is unique, both ecologically and culturally. This awareness begins to reshape local politics, to make it better reflect the long-term interests of the region itself. As the region thrives, people elsewhere come to believe and act on the principle that environmental progress often comes easier when natural regions are given precedence over political ones.

This article was reprinted with permission from World·Watch, March/April 2000, published by the WorldWatch Institute. The Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to fostering an environmentally sustainable society in which human needs are met in ways that do not threaten the health of the natural environment or the prospects of future generations. Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1904; (202) 452-1999; email; website