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Early Signs of an Environmental Awakening

Early Signs of an Environmental Awakening

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Published by: Daisy on Nov 17, 2008
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Crossing the Threshol
Early Signs of an Environmental Awakening
by Lester R. Brown
For more information about the Worldwatch Institute and other Worldwatch publications, please visit our website athttp://www.worldwatch.org
 Excerpted from ...
March/April 1999
Crossing the
March/April 1999
t a time when the Earth’s average temper-ature is going off the top of the chart,when storms, floods and tropical forestfires are more damaging than ever before,and when the list of endangered species grows longerby the day, it is difficult to be optimistic about thefuture. Yet even as these stories of environmental dis-ruption capture the headlines, I see signs that theworld may be approaching the threshold of a sweep-ing change in the way we respond to environmentalthreats—a social threshold that, once crossed, couldchange our outlook as profoundly as the one that in1989 and 1990 led to a political restructuring inEastern Europe.If this new threshold is crossed, changes are like-ly to come at a pace and in ways that we can onlybegin to anticipate. The overall effect could be themost profound economic transformation since theIndustrial Revolution itself. If so, it will affect everyfacet of human existence, not only reversing the envi-ronmental declines with which we now struggle, butalso bringing us a better life.Thresholds are encountered in both the naturalworld and in human society. One of the most famil-iar natural thresholds, for example, is the freezingpoint of water. As water temperature falls, the waterremains liquid until it reaches the threshold point of 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). Only amodest additional drop produces dramatic change,transforming a liquid into a solid.The threshold concept is widely used in ecology,in reference to the “sustainable yield threshold” of natural systems such as fisheries or forests. If the har-vest from a fishery exceeds that threshold for anextended period, stocks will decline and the fisherymay abruptly collapse. When the demands on a forestexceed its sustainable yield and the tree cover beginsto shrink, the result can be a cascade of hundreds of changes in the ecosystem. For example, with fewertrees and less leaf litter on the forest floor, the land’swater-absorptive capacity diminishes and runoff increases—and that, in turn, may lead to unnaturallydestructive flooding lower in the watershed.In the social world, the thresholds to suddenchange are no less real, though they are much moredifficult to identify and anticipate. The political revo-lution in Eastern Europe was so sudden that with noapparent warning the era of the centrally plannedeconomy was over, and those who had formidablydefended it for half a century realized it was too lateto reverse what had happened. Even the U.S. CentralIntelligence Agency failed to foresee the change. Andafter it happened, the agency had trouble explainingit. But at some point, a critical mass had beenreached, where enough people were convinced of theneed to change to tip the balance and bring a cascad-ing shift in public perceptions.In recent months, I have become increasinglycurious about such sudden shifts of perception forone compelling reason. If I look at the global envi-ronmental trends that we have been tracking since wefirst launched the Worldwatch Institute 25 years ago,and if I simply extrapolate these trends a few yearsinto the next century, the outlook is alarming to saythe least. It is now clear to me that if we are to turnthings around in time, we need some kind of 
This is not to discount the many gradualimprovements that we have made on the environ-mental front, such as increased fuel efficiency in carsor better pollution controls on factories. Those areimportant. But we are not moving fast enough toreverse the trends that are undermining the globaleconomy. What we need now is a rapid shift in con-sciousness, a dawning awareness in people every-where that we have to shift quickly to a sustainableeconomy if we want to avoid damaging our naturalsupport systems beyond repair. The question iswhether there is any evidence that we are approach-ing such a breakthrough.While shifts of this kind can be shockingly sud-
Early Signs of anEnvironmental Awakening
by Lester R. Brown

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