-- Here, for a change, is some hopeful news about the environment: Although global economic and environmental cooperation seems to be crumbling everywhere, sprouting through the cracks are a slew of hardy perennials. They include advances in re-newable energy, materials reduction and control of infectious disease.
They also include seeds for raising incomes of the poor, which, if nurtured, could bring a historic new economy and help solve the problem of global warming.
The use of solar energy and wind power has grown by more than 30 percent annually during the past five years, compared to 1 or 2 percent for fossil fuels. Some regions in Europe now get as much as 20 percent of their electricity from wind power alone. The World Health Organization's Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced the number of polio cases from some 350,000 globally in 1988 to a few hundred per year today. The WHO also halved the global prevalence of iodine deficiency in the last decade.
The Netherlands has achieved an 86 percent recycling rate for cars, while Denmark has banned aluminum cans in favor of reusable glass bottles. The building blocks are appearing for an economy whose materials circulate, rather than migrate from mine to consumer to landfill.
Micro-loans of as little as $50 have helped millions of the world's poorest people, such as the waste pickers of the Payatas landfill near Manila, to secure capital for small enterprises, land and housing. In the United States, the Community Reinvestment Act has helped push lending in poor U.S. neighborhoods from an average of roughly $3 billion per year in the 1980s to $43 billion in 1997.
We do not deny the clear downward slope of many critical global trends. Some 5,500 children die each day from diseases linked to polluted food, air and water. Bird extinctions are running at some 50 times the natural rate due to habitat loss and other consequences of human activity. The global rate of ice melting has more than doubled since 1988 and could raise sea levels by 27 centimeters by 2100. The difference between the good news and the bad news boils down to our choices. Whether the success stories of the past decade can be multiplied to the point at which they put global trends on a sustainable course will be determined by where societies choose to put their creative efforts. If we can build spacecraft powered by clean fuel cells that emit only water vapor, why not build cars that run the same way? If we can extract copper and other metals from deep within poisonous mines, why not do so from more accessible landfills, which in the United States contain a supply of copper equal to more than half of the stock currently in use. If we can routinely protect tourists from malaria, why not do it for people who live with the threat every day?
Political will is often the missing element in moving solutions from the shelf to the street. Yet the will to build a sustainable world is emerging. In 2001, Brazil and Germany announced major new commitments to the development of renewable energy. Last year the state of California defied U.S. government policy by announcing the world's first mandatory limits on global warming emissions from cars.
And just a few days ago Brazil's newly inaugurated president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, suspended the purchase of fighter planes for his country, declaring that combating hunger is a higher priority.
Political will is alive and well, at least in some quarters. When exercised on behalf of people and the planet, it is proving surprisingly potent. By learning from the scores of successful initiatives pursued in the past decade, world leaders can begin to turn around many of the trends that seem so intractable today. In doing so they could create a healthier and more sustainable economy.
Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute. Gardner is director of research at the insitute and project director for its annual State of the World survey.
© 2003 the International Herald Tribune