Capitalism and the environment

April 5, 2000


  • Over the past 100 years the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (caused by land-clearing and industrial emissions) has increased by 25%.

  • Between 1950 and 1997 the global average sea surface temperature rose from 18.86oC to 14.4oC.

  • Antarctica is hotter now than any time in the past 4000 years. Arctic sea ice is up to a third thinner than 20 years ago. The world's mountain glaciers have shrunk between 22% and 92% this century.

  • In 1995 the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer increased to 22 million square kilometres.

  • Almost half of the world's forest has gone — 3 billion hectares.

  • Between 1970 and 1990 the amount of the Earth's surface covered by desert increased by 120 million hectares (equivalent to all the currently cultivated land in China).

  • At least 1000 plant and animal species disappear every year.

  • Industrial plants were discharging 661.8 cubic kilometres of untreated water each year in the late 1980s, forecast to rise to between 962.5 to 993 cubic kilometres by this year.


The most pressing problems could be solved immediately. Longer-term solutions could be carried out if the needs of people and the environment were put before company profits.

  • The total annual funding for Agenda 21, a plan for immediate action on the environment adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is US$560 billion. Between 1982 and 1990, the Third World paid close to that amount more in debt servicing to the advanced capitalist countries than it received in aid.

  • The United Nations plan for the conservation of tropical forests would require US$1.3 billion every year for five years. The plan to combat desertification would require US$4.5 billion annually for 20 years. The world spends this amount of money on military activities every 16 hours and 53 hours respectively.

  • According to the United Nations Human Development Report 1997 the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world is more than US$1.7 trillion, which is equal to the annual income of 47% of the world's population.

  • US ecologist Dr Barry Commoner estimated in 1974 that it would cost some US$600 billion to convert US industry to ecologically pure production processes. This was equivalent to what the Pentagon spent every two years.

  • In 1997 world production of cereals and root crops, the primary sources of food, amounted to 322 kilograms per head of population — well above the minimum requirement. In the 1990s each year more than 840 million people went hungry. Growth in world cereal growth outstrips world population growth.

  • Existing permanent electricity generators have a combined power of 10,000 billion kilowatts, equal to around 0.01-0.09% of the power of solar energy that reaches the Earth's surface. In 1990 the world used up 30 billion barrels of oil. Solar power researchers at the University of NSW say that existing low-yield solar cells over 1% of the Earth's land surface could generate the same amount of energy.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.