DOWN TO EARTH: Environment and Human Needs by Erik P. Eckholm
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DOWN TO EARTH: Environment and Human Needs

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An expert, all-encompassing appraisal of the global environment ten years after the historic Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme. Eckholm, a people-centered environmentalist (Losing Ground, The Picture of Health), emphasizes that the ""global underclass,"" with ""no time to worry about environmental trends,"" is the most deeply affected by environmental quality; similarly, the environmental struggle is ""unavoidably intertwined"" with the struggle to improve their lot. Using recent population data, Eckholm shows that an increased standard of living (better food, health, medicine) in most cases causes a sharp decrease in population growth. (Africa is the troubling exception.) Though the world is not on the abyss of mass starvation feared ten years ago, undernourishment (experienced by some 800 million) is still severe and ""increases both the frequency and severity of disease."" (The infant-death ratio in some poor countries is one death per five infants--vs, one in 100 in Northern and Western Europe.) The sea, another area of dire prediction ten years ago, is more resilient than previously believed. But overfishing has taken its toll, and for the first time the global catch has leveled off; prices for fish have consequently risen--again, hitting the poor hardest. One success has been controls on whaling, and now many whale stocks should recover; careful harvesting, in Eckholm's view, is compatible with recovered stocks--man is ethically justified in utilizing, with care, all natural resources. But given our limited knowledge of the ocean, strict controls should remain in place. Noting the recent worldwide government-and-industry attack on pollution controls, Eckholm responds with a strong economic argument: the financial costs of environmental and human degradation are higher than the cost of built-in controls, even in the Third World. (In 1978, according to the US Council on Environmental Quality, $21.4 billion in damage to health, buildings, materials, crops, and property-values was avoided at a cost of $17 billion in complying with air-pollution regulations.) On the problem of acid rain, Eckholm sees little hope of immediate progress. Also far off is reasonable control of soil degredation (at a current loss of 7.4 million arable hectares each year) and deforestation (7.4 million hectares lost each year). Once more, the causes are local economic conditions; the hardest hit, the Third World poor. Eckholm criticizes government for not recognizing the supreme value of wood to many poor, and for policies favoring industry over agriculture. Habitat destruction, in turn, is the major cause of extinctions--and destruction is most rapid in the least-studied areas, such as tropical rain forests. For an up-to-date understanding of any of these areas--or for a balanced overview--readers will be checking with Eckholm in the coming years.

Pub Date: June 4th, 1982
Publisher: Norton