Good look at a bad state

Wednesday, June 26, 1991

By Tracy Sorenson

State of the World 1991
A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society
Project director Lester R. Brown
New York, Sydney: W.W. Norton/Allen and Unwin, 1991. 254 pp., $19.95 pb
Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

The State of the World 1991 authors describe their work as a "presumptuous endeavor": "a handful of office-bound researchers in Washington, D.C. attempt first to describe the intricate currents and countercurrents of humanity's interaction with the global environment, and then proceed to recommend how to shift the currents in other directions".

Those concerned about the environment can be glad they presumed. There's a wealth of detail here for those wanting hard facts to fill out impressionistic knowledge. The language is accessible, and the organisation of the chapters is such that the reader is never allowed to lose sight of the "big picture".

That big picture, as we know, isn't looking too good. This survey, the eighth of its kind, would be very depressing, almost overwhelmingly so, were it not for the writers' insistence that solutions can be found if we change our thinking dramatically enough and quickly enough.

There are sections on environmental clean-up tasks necessary in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a discussion of the public transport alternative for car-bound cities and an invaluable world survey of women's access to abortion.

The book points to the biggest contradiction facing humanity in the last years of the 20th century: exponential economic expansion versus the finite resources and capacities of the planet.

Some of the figures are dizzying. For example, the sum total of wealth produced during the 1980s added more than $4.5 trillion to the gross world product by 1990, an amount that exceeded the entire world product in 1950. That is, growth in global economic output during the '80s was greater than that during the several thousand years from the beginning of civilisation until 1950.

Meanwhile, environmental indicators for the last two decades showed the level of destruction that that growth involved. During the 20 years since 1970, the world lost nearly 200 million hectares of tree cover; deserts expanded by some 120 million hectares; 1.6 billion people were added to the world's population; and the world's farmers lost 480 billion tons of topsoil.

A small critical point: the assertion that abortion was kept low in

Poland and Czechoslovakia through the availability of contraception and education programs sounds sadly like reliance on propaganda from the governments of the old regimes. Information available in the past year has tended to show that these two countries did, in fact, have an "abortion culture" rather than a "contraception culture".

The international status of the State of the World reports has steadily grown in their eight years: they now have semi-official status for national governments, UN agencies and the international development community. This year's product is an essential addition to any green library.