Signs of all our earthly times

Vital Signs 1998-99
February 26, 1999

This is surely the best in the seven-year series of Vital Signs published by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. Like its predecessors, it is a review of global trends in the environment, economics, population, food, energy, transport, the military, technology, climate, communication and society. Most of it has an environmental slant, but what, in some senses at least, cannot be called "environmental" nowadays? Food shortages reflect water deficits, soil erosion and climate vagaries. China's northernmost river, the Yellow River, ran dry for three days out of five in 1997, while water tables in the North China Plain, a region that grows 40 per cent of the country's grain (almost all irrigated) fell by 1.5 metres. Food shortages also reflect population growth of 80 million people every year. Perhaps we should not speak of food shortages but of population "longages".

Similarly, government budgets are necessarily limited, which means that when the world spends $700 billion on military activities a year, this must automatically translate into less money available for environmental problems - most of which could be resolved for $250 billion a year. Rightly do Lester Brown and his colleagues speak of "environmental security".

The book covers issues as prominent as car production worldwide, while noting that bicycle production has become twice as big. Oil consumption was up by 1.4 per cent in 1997, but wind power generation by 25 per cent. Fluorescent light bulbs, being longer lasting and four times more energy efficient than traditional incandescent light bulbs, show an eightfold sales surge in the past nine years. Almost one billion are now in use, and they save electricity equivalent to the output of 43 nuclear power plants or 100 coal-fired plants. The latter would have produced vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas - yet emissions have hit an all-time high. Fortunately oil and coal sales have grown by only 1 per cent a year in the 1990s, whereas solar cell sales have soared by about 17 per cent. BP and Shell have invested $1 billion and $500 million respectively in renewable energy sources, recognising a seismic shift emerging in energy markets.

The reader will also find issues as eclectic as "frontier forests", or the last undisturbed forests. Then there are mineral explorations, satellite launches, female education and small-arms proliferation (all up). Internet host computers increased by 36 per cent in 1997; of 100 million people on-line, half are in the US - but the total in Russia and Brazil has grown fivefold in the past two years, and users in China and India should multiply 15-fold in the next two years. Marginal as these issues might seem when compared with such big questions as agriculture, family planning and global warming, they could prove to be the cutting-edge indicators that presage sizeable future trends.

Such is the book's appeal that it is translated into no fewer than 21 languages. In my office, it will doubtless prove, like its predecessors, to be among the most useful of all books, and I expect to haul it off the shelf several times a week. I recommend it for the broad scope of its coverage, its reliability and its illuminating insights into what makes our world tick - and how we can keep it ticking. It will be of splendid value to scientists, economists, corporate heads, government planners, political leaders and environmentalists. In fact, and insofar as we are all concerned with our future wellbeing, I recommend this book to everyone. Buy it, keep it on the lounge table, with another copy by the telephone, the microwave and wherever else you may find moments for a daily browse.

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, Oxford.

Vital Signs 1998-99: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future

Author - L. R. Brown, M. Renner and C. Flavin
Editor - L. Starke
ISBN - 1 85383 543 9
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £12.95
Pages - 207

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