State of the World 2003: Progress Local Not Global

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2003 (ENS) - Although the global community may not be making much progress on the daunting environmental and social problems humanity faces, local and grassroots initiatives are providing cause for optimism, according to the Worldwatch Institute's annual State of the World report.

"Our central message today is that what is often called an impossible revolution is already happening in a surprising number of small success stories around the world," said Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin at today's unveiling of the report at the organization's headquarters in Washington.

"Ours is essentially a good news message this year," Flavin said.

But he warned that "enormous efforts will be required to avoid leaving the next generation a degraded and less stable world, ecologically, economically and politically."


Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute. (Photo courtesy Worldwatch)
The 20th annual edition of the research organization's review of the health of the planet and its people highlights its deep disappointment in the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa this summer.

According to the report's authors, the lack of detailed commitments from the Johannesburg conference and "the acrimony that preceded them left many Summit participants pessimistic about the world's ability to move forward on the most important issues facing humanity in the 21st century."

Despite this disappointment, the institute's report found a silver lining at the Johannesburg conference in the increasing desire and ability of local communities to move forward with their own solutions to environmental and social problems, with or without the support of nation-states or international organizations.

"Over the past 10 years there has not been the degree of progress in addressing the big global issues, like climate change and biological diversity, but the real progress and real success stories are now occurring in these hundreds of smaller scale examples around the world," Flavin said.

"In this year's book we've documented successes in everything from energy to transportation, food and the combating of infectious diseases, all showing that local and national efforts can begin to turn the tide on the critical issues that State of the World has always focused on. We've found that in many respects, the world may be closer to turning the corner on many of these problems than previously understood."

These successes, however, have not occurred in a vacuum, and issues of poverty, disease, pollution and climate change are only a few of the issues that threaten the planet and its people.


A Ugandan mother brings her sick child to the home of a village distributor of chloroquine tablets for treatment. Following minimal training the distributor can sell the pre-packaged antimalarial tablets, a new initiative to promote home management of malaria. (Photo courtesy WHO)
The report details that some 5,500 children die each day from diseases linked to polluted food, air and water. Malaria still kills some 7,000 people every day, still primarily affecting children in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Bird extinctions are running at some 50 times the natural rate, the report states, a clear indication of continued habitat loss largely from human activity.

The global rate of ice melt has more than doubled since 1988, according to the report, and could raise sea levels by some 11 inches (27 centimeters) by 2100.

The positive outlook of the report comes from the growing evidence that the tools to combat many of these environmental and social problems are being developed and successfully implemented.

"Building a world where we meet our own needs without denying future generations a healthy society is not impossible, as some would assert," Flavin said. "The question is where societies choose to put their creative efforts.

"If we can build spacecraft powered by clean fuel cells, we can build cars that run the same way. If we can mine copper and other metals from the Earth, we can also extract them from landfills and abandoned buildings. And if we can protect tourists from contracting malaria,"he said, "we should be able do so for people who live with that threat everyday."

The issues of poverty, overpopulation, environmental degradation, sustainable development and biological diversity are all interrelated, a theme that is consistent throughout the report's eight chapters, which are titled: "A History of Our Future," "Watching Birds Disappear," Linking Population, Women and Biodiversity," "Combating Malaria," "Charting a New Energy Future," "Scrapping Mining Dependence," "Uniting Divided Cities," and "Engaging Religion in the Quest for a Sustainable World."


A cooperative pine and acacia plantation in the mountains near the town of Cam Lo in Quang Tri province. (Photo by L. De Matteis courtesy FAO)
Finding solutions to the concerns raised by Worldwatch often means addressing one core problem and then building on that success, and the report finds that increasingly the role of women within societies is an integral factor in developing solutions that work.

In the chapter on linking poverty, women and biodiversity, the authors write of a "Working for Water Programme" rolled out in 1995 by three government departments in South Africa. Initially formed for two goals, to remove invasive alien species and to create employment options for marginalized members of society, the program now employs some 20,000 people in 300 projects in South Africa.

Some 60 percent of the participants are women and the program has grown to include projects on reproductive health and AIDS/HIV education.

With the developing world now home to eight of the world's 10 largest cities, this interlinking between poverty and sustainability will only become more apparent in urban areas, according to the report.

"While the inequalities of wealth, power, opportunities, and survival prospects that hobble humanity are crystallized in cities, these places will have an important role to play in any shift toward development that does not destroy the environment," the report states.

"A slum can demonstrate both the very best and the very worst in society," says the report, "showing the ingenuity of poor people in desperate circumstances as well as the failure of government to make the most of this human energy."

The problems of the urban poor often seem overwhelming, but Worldwatch details how even a tiny bit of help can spark positive change. The authors write of how micro loans of as little as $50 have helped the wastepickers of the Payatas landfill near Manilla to secure loans for small businesses, land and housing.


Zabbaleen women sorting rubish (Photo courtesy Colégio Bom Jesus de Joinville)
The report also offers the example of the Zabbaleen society of wastepickers in Cairo, Egypt, who have become organized and started a variety of income generating projects that involve composting and recycling of rags and paper.

"Local communities are now taking a real leadership role in solving their own problems and even the poorest citizens can play a role in solving the world's problems," Flavin said.

The urban and rural poor also face a variety of health concerns, and how nations choose to battle infectious diseases has far reaching consequences, Worldwatch says in the report. The campaign to eradicate malaria through the use of DDT has resulted in other health and environmental problems, and combating the disease costs Africa some $3 billion to $12 billion annually, a tremendous drain on a cash poor continent.

"The problem with malaria is not just medical, but also the way it deepens the poverty of people who are barely scraping along," according to the report.

In addition, the disease is gaining ground because of environmental and social changes, and in virtually all areas where the disease is native, drug-resistant strains of the parasite have emerged. Worldwatch's report details efforts by countries such as Mexico, Tanzania and Cambodia that move beyond approaching malaria solely as a health issue by addressing the living conditions and education of the people most at risk from the disease.


This telecom installation of a local utility company uses 34 solar modules to measure water flow to Casablanca, Morocco. (Photo courtesy BP)
In the chapter on world energy use, the author details that the use of solar energy and wind power has grown by some 30 percent annually over the past five years. Renewable energy is proliferating in the European Union, Brazil, China as well as the United States, according to the report, and it is now a multibillion dollar global business and is cost competitive with many conventional energy technologies.

"It is a powerful combination of public demand, private investment and public policy change that has created this dynamic growth," Flavin said. "Political support, which may be the leading edge of change in many instances, is clearly growing in many parts of the world and makes us optimistic that this kind of growth in renewable energy will continue."

Flavin noted that despite the Bush administration's reluctance to embrace renewable energy, New York Governor George Pakati yesterday unveiled a plan to require some 25 percent of the state's electricity to be generated from renewable resources within the next decade.

This move, as well as the recent introduction of a climate change bill in the U.S. Senate, should help offset some of the pessimism felt by the obstructionist role the United State has played in many international environmental and social accords and conventions, added Worldwatch Director of Research Gary Gardner.


Gary Gardner is Worldwatch director of research(Photo courtesy Worldwatch Institute)
"We should not underestimate the power of civil society, the power of the democratic process," Gardner urged. "If we look at what is happening in states around the country, we are finding that grassroots pressure is beginning to cause politicians to act."

There is too much at stake to simply give up on the prospects of international agreements and accords, added Flavin, but this report can provide good news that many environmentalists and social activists sorely need.

"Over the past 10 years there has not been the degree of progress in addressing the big global issues, like climate change and biological diversity," Flavin said. "But rather than spending a lot of time bemoaning the fact that certain global processes are not advancing as rapidly as we might think they should, it is better to move forward on those fronts where progress is being made and can be made more dramatically."

The report's message, Gardner said, is that "the building blocks for a sustainable society are in front of us, but those building blocks will not stack themselves."

"The challenge is for us to use these opportunities that have been created in the past decade to help create the kind of sustainable world we want to live in."

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