What in the world are we doing?

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment
June 21, 2002

Humans have in some respects been the most successful species ever in the history of the earth. Our numbers exceed 6 billion, six times what they were at the start of the 19th century.

The question is: to what extent is this success suicidal? As Paul Raven remarks in his foreword to this atlas: "During a remarkably short period of time, we have lost a quarter of the world's topsoil and a fifth of its agricultural land, altered the composition of the atmosphere profoundly, and destroyed a major proportion of our forests and natural habitats without replacing them. Worst of all, we have driven the rate of biological extinction, the permanent loss of species, up several hundred times beyond its historical levels, and are threatened with the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century."

The statistics of change with respect to the human impact on the environment are indeed remarkable. The area used for growing crops has increased by almost six times since 1700. Of the easily accessible freshwater resources, we already use more than half. We have fished up to the limits or beyond of two-thirds of marine fisheries. We contribute 50 per cent more to the nitrogen cycle than all natural resources combined. We have boosted the methane content of the atmosphere by 145 per cent over natural levels. There is a large ozone hole over the Antarctic.

The purpose of this book, produced under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is to present, assess and analyse the trends taking place in human activities and in environmental responses. This is achieved through a judicious combination of text (much of which is written by Fred Pearce and Paul Harrison), maps, tables and graphs. The quality and clarity of production is high.

The book is not a harbinger of doom, nor does it accept data uncritically. Thus in its consideration of population-environment links it does not take a crude Malthusian approach but recognises human abilities to adapt. Likewise it recognises the sharp declines that have taken place in human fertility rates in certain countries, including China. It notes too that the world is starting to wean itself off the most polluting energy source - coal - and that energy efficiency has improved substantially in many economies. It notes that some thinly populated areas are severely degraded, whereas heavily populated suburban areas can act as homes for rare and endangered species. It also recognises that desertification is a complex phenomenon that results partly from natural climate change, and that some societies have succeeded in reducing environmental degradation in drylands.

I stress these examples not to indicate that this book is sceptical about all claims by environmentalists that we are headed on a steep and unstoppable downward spiral. Rather, I stress them because it shows a maturity of approach. Environmental concerns are not well served by those who cry "wolf".

The book seeks to connect the social and natural sciences. It aims to provide quantitative analyses of the links between human population density, rates of growth, migration, resource consumption, technologies and the state of the global environment. It starts with an overview of population trends, natural resource use and the state of major ecosystems.

This is followed by a detailed consideration of the links between population and natural resources, land use, the atmosphere, waste and chemicals, ecosystems and biodiversity. Finally there are some brief case studies that look at population-environment relations in the context of six case studies: the Northern Andes, Canaima National Park (Venezuela), the Dominican Republic, the eastern Himalayas, Madagascar and the Sonora Desert.

Much of the material in the atlas is reasonably familiar. The sources that have been employed include World Resources, the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World , and the WWF Living Planet Report . But the strength of the atlas is the way that these and other diverse sources are integrated and then presented in an appealing new format. The hope is expressed that it will appeal to policy-makers, decision-makers, students and the public. Its logical structure, excellent graphics and clear exposition will surely make this likely. It is the best available source of empirical information on population and environmental trends and will be of great value to undergraduates on geography and environmental studies courses.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment

Author - Paul Harrison and Fred Pearce
ISBN - 0 520 23081 7 and 23084 1
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £45.00 and £19.95
Pages - 215

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