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New UN environmental report paints a very bleak future for humanity

New UN environmental report paints a very bleak future for humanity
By Jonathan M. Gitlin | Published: October 27, 2007 - 09:00AM CT

Everywhere you turn there's more bad news on the environment. According to a new report released by the UN, it's not just other species that are in danger, humans are too. The United Nations Environment Program has released the Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report, and it doesn't make for happy reading.

Covering environmental news can be a bit depressing at times; you're constantly reading about disappearing polar bears or fish or bees, or the fact that new data suggests that CO2 is rising faster than we thought and it's going to get even hotter. Unfortunately for the optimists, GEO-4 compounds that stream of bad news.  Compiled by almost 400 leading scientists in their fields, the report paints a picture of a planetary population living well beyond their means.

Although there have been a few notable successes, such as the Montreal Protocol that stopped the continued depletion of the ozone layer, they're very few and very far between. On the other hand, crises are brewing anywhere one chooses to look.

The seas, studies show, are rapidly being depleted of fish stocks by overfishing. At the same time, warming temperatures are eradicating the coral reefs, sources of massive biodiversity, and agricultural run-off is creating enormous dead zones of deoxygenated water, devoid of life. Consumption of sea food tripled in the 40 years following 1961, and subsidies for fishing fleets have created a huge excess capacity. Many fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they will never recover.

The oceans aren't our only water problem. Fresh water, an absolute necessity, is also in trouble. Water supplies are increasingly polluted; contaminated water is the leading cause of death worldwide. The report points out that 70 percent of all fresh water is used for irrigation, but meeting the food needs of our ever expanding global population would require doubling current output over the next five decades. With  precipitation changes already being seen thanks to climate change, that's a bleak prospect. Industrial pollutants, from heavy metals to organic compounds, abound in the biosphere, and that means they abound in our food supply. While all of these problems disproportionately affect the poorer regions of the planet, the industrialized world is hardly exempt.

According to studies, our use of natural resources is unsustainable.  We currently use a third more than the planet has to offer, and that's with less than a 6th of the global population living in industrialized countries. Despite the rapid development of China and India, the resources simply do not exist to allow their billions of citizens to enjoy the same lifestyles seen in the US or Europe.

The human population of planet Earth is, in effect, maxed out on its credit cards and soon will have problems paying the mortgage. Unless concerted global efforts are made to address these mounting problems, GEO-4 concludes that we shall shortly pass the point of no return.

From where I'm sitting, that's the most depressing part.  Despite the stakes being so very high, a global consensus regarding how to tackle these mounting problems seems virtually impossible to come by. National interests and politics, vested interests and a degree of short-sightedness remain the order of the day. Populations are going to continue to skyrocket, with a predicted 9 billion by 2050. What kind of world will that be to live in, I wonder?

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