Study predicts dire future for world
By Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published in The State (SC) April 6, 2005
MILWAUKEE - A new study paints a grim picture of today's
environment, arguing that the world is living far beyond
But as part of the study, experts laid out four scenarios
that offer hope that humans can turn things around.
Those scenarios paint pictures of the world in 2050 in
which policy-makers in some cases make a mess of things.
But in other instances, a combination of enlightened leadership,
free markets and the promise of technology come together
to solve mounting pollution and resource problems.
"In other words, the future is in our hands,"
said Stephen Carpenter, a zoology professor at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison.
Carpenter co-chaired a section of the four-year Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment that tries to look decades into the
future to see how humans might attack the myriad problems
of an industrialized society.
The $24 million United Nations-backed study was released
last week. The aim of the study is to help decision-makers
sort out environmental issues while working on other problems,
such as poverty, hunger and economic development.
All told, 1,360 scientists from 95 countries participated
in the study.
Carpenter's group surveyed 100 government, business and
scientific leaders from around the world on what they
think the future holds. He was aided by Elena Bennett,
a postdoctoral fellow at the university of Wisconsin.
Using those interviews, the team drew portraits of ways
to solve problems in 2050. The scenarios range from pictures
of a highly fragmented world obsessed with security issues
- but little interest in the environment - to a world
where environmental issues are top priorities.
Carpenter, an expert on human ecology interactions, has
used the same kind of research to draw scenarios about
northern Wisconsin's future.
As for his work with the millennium project, Carpenter
said, "We didn't want this just to be another gloom-and-doom
study, so what we tried to do was spend some time thinking
about what we could do about it."
Despite the report's gloomy assessment, Carpenter describes
himself as an optimist, and he believes that countries
will do a better job of attacking global environmental
problems in the future.
"Over the next 50 years, I see a mixture of stumbling
(by world leaders) and successes," he said.
Said Bennett: "I think what we see is that it's
way more complicated than I had thought - it's not simply
a black-and-white issue."
But first the troubles:
The study found that more land has been converted to
agriculture since 1945 than during all of the 18th and
19th centuries. More than half of all manufactured fertilizers,
which were invented in 1913, have been used since 1985.
The flow of nitrogen to oceans has doubled since 1860.
At least 25 percent of marine fish stocks have been overharvested.
Water use from rivers and lakes has doubled in the last
40 years. Between 1960 and 2000, reservoir storage capacity
has grown fourfold, meaning that the amount of water held
in a natural state has declined.
Invasive species are increasingly upending local ecosystems.
Great Lakes states have worried about invasive species
for years, but the problem goes both ways. The Baltic
Sea is the home of 100 invasive species - one-third of
which come from the Great Lakes.
Global climate change has worsened because of the dominance
of the use of coal, oil and natural gas. Since 1980, 20
percent of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed
and another 20 percent are badly degraded, in part because
of modest increases in sea temperatures.
Amid this backdrop, Carpenter and his colleagues determined
that the world will respond to these problems in different
ways. In reality, he said leaders are likely to pick and
choose among the following:
World powers embrace global trade and liberal trade practices,
leading to a more equitable distribution of wealth. The
middle class grows, and many people are lifted out of
poverty. World powers are in a better position to deal
with global issues such as climate change and dwindling
However, environmental issues could be overshadowed as
economic issues trump the environment. A stronger global
economy boosts demand for goods and other services. That
could harm forests and move more land to agricultural
production, and potentially, intensive farming practices
could lead to greater pollution. Other basics such as
potable water could suffer as well, especially among the
Carpenter is not pooh-poohing globalization. "You
really need it to advance economic growth on a worldwide
basis, and without economic growth you can't attack fundamental
problems," he said.
Order from strength
The world becomes more fragmented, and concerns about
security and protection increase. Nations look after their
own interests as the best defense against economic uncertainty.
The role of government expands as oil companies, water
systems and other strategic businesses are either nationalized
or are subject to more oversight by government.
The result is that global cooperation suffers. Agreements
on global climate change, international fisheries and
trade in endangered species are only weakly enforced.
Industries that market natural resources - coal, timber
and mining, for example - move to wealthier countries.
Ecosystems become vulnerable. There are growing shortages
of food and water in poorer countries.
Carpenter says this model is clearly the least optimistic.
Some observers have concluded that it's meant to criticize
the United States under the Bush administration. But Carpenter
said: "It's really not the case. I think this scenario
is an extreme example."
Bennett agreed. "There is a surprising variety of
opinion about which world we are in today," she said.
Power and managing environmental issues move downward
to local units of government. Society invests in new ways
to improve ecosystems. Barriers to information virtually
disappear. There is better understanding of the resilience,
fragility and flexibility of ecosystems, and leaders understand
that mistakes will be made. There is great variation among
regions about how to solve problems. Some areas thrive,
while others falter and continue to see their environments
With so much attention on local governance, there are
some failures in managing global problems such as climate
change and pollution. Communities slowly realize they
can't manage everything at the local level. Gradually,
they begin to develop networks of communities, regions,
even nations, to work on global problems. This works especially
well in regions where there are shared assets, such as
a river valley. Eventually, people figure out what works
and what doesn't.
This is perhaps the most optimistic of outcomes, where
a globally interconnected world leans heavily on technology
and the marketplace to reward environmental innovation.
Solutions are designed to benefit both the economy and
the environment. People are required to pay for the pollution
they create, and conversely, others are paid to clean
and maintain watersheds or create energy from non-polluting
sources. The innovation quickly expands to developing
countries, and incomes there rise.
But many solutions depend on big, engineered systems
that depend on business markets, which are inherently
risky. Technical innovation can't solve all problems.
Problems keep cropping up, and the challenge is trying
to adapt to them more quickly.