Humans have been altering the environment for centuries, and the changes they have made mean that we live on a planet capable of supporting billions of us. But as our reviews show this week, these changes have a cost, met by poor people who are the least able to cope. Flood and famine have been constants in human history but have been exacerbated by climate change. And in the post-cold war era, states have collapsed, taking with them systems that held violence in check and supported populations whose food supplies were endangered.
The lesson of the disasters of the Victorian era is that support can minimise casualties from disasters - but official indifference is the high road to disaster. Responses to modern emergencies show that this lesson has been learnt by many. But a United States administration that walks away from the Kyoto protocol on climate change and minimises environment spending in its research priorities risks visiting more disasters on the developing world and on its own people. Improvements in the machinery for responding to disasters have not been matched by national or international machinery for reducing their number. Research and action need to be stepped up if the human impact on the earth is to be managed in the interests of people and their environment.