Flippen on Lorey, 'Global Environmental Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: Resources, Consumption, and Sustainable Solutions'

David E. Lorey, ed.
Brooks Flippen

David E. Lorey, ed. Global Environmental Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: Resources, Consumption, and Sustainable Solutions. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2003. xx + 312 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8420-5049-4; $84.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8420-5048-7.

Reviewed by Brooks Flippen (Department of Social Sciences, Southeastern Oklahoma State University) Published on H-Environment (November, 2003)

A Call To Action

A Call To Action

Too often today citizens perceive environmental degradation as an over-hyped concern of just another Washington lobby, an issue with no real relevance to their daily lives. If they do care, they often fail to grasp the complexity of the matter or the manner in which they, as individuals, might help. The purpose of this compilation of articles, edited by David Lorey, Director of the U.S.-Latin American Relations Program at the Hewlett Foundation, is to address this ignorance. It is to impress upon readers the importance and immediacy of the environmental threat facing the world today, and to suggest potential solutions. As such, this book is an excellent selection for an undergraduate course or lower-level graduate seminar. The twenty articles included delve, at times, into science, policy, and history. They collectively provide enough complexity to cover the breadth of their subject adequately, yet the majority do so in a way that will not overwhelm the general reader.

Lorey explains at the outset that the book focuses on "green" environmental issues, not simply those negative side effects produced by industrial development but those that "relate to the preservation, restoration, and sustainable use of natural resources, biodiversity and habitat" (p. xi). Lorey then divides the book into five sections, acknowledging that each is related and does not stand alone.

The first section focuses on the importance of continuing population growth and, perhaps, is the most provocative. In the initial essay, Joseph Speidel demonstrates the complex web of forces that drive population growth and its connection to environmental decay. "The impact of humans on their environment is related to population size, per capita consumption and the environmental damage caused by the technology used to produce what is consumed," Speidel explains (p. 4). Noting that there was only a slow increase in human numbers for much of history but a dramatic increase recently, Speidel places much of the blame on developing countries. In many of these countries, the decline in the death rates continues to outstrip the decline of birth rates. In regard to per capita consumption, it is the countries already developed that prove the culprits, the article noting their disproportionate use of natural resources and their production of waste. Speidel notes the importance of family planning and poverty in developing countries, and the need for new "economic systems and new technologies that are more efficient, generate less waste, and require less consumption of natural resources" in the developed countries (p. 8).

In the second essay, Paul and Anne Ehrlich together with Gretchen Daily revisit the question of a finite human carrying capacity for the earth, a question that made them so controversial thirty years ago. While the authors once again avoid predicting a Malthusian calamity, their essay adds weight to Speidel's cry for population reductions. Covering issues of land, soil, maldistribution, and an apparent lack of concern among much of the public, the authors question whether agricultural innovations will keep pace with the demands of population growth, whether "food security could be achieved indefinitely for a global population of 10 or 12 billion people" (p. 31). This food security, they claim, is critical for the fate of the environment, since hungry masses will no doubt ignore the impact of their actions in their struggle to survive. Sure to annoy some conservatives, the authors bemoan the "blind faith in the effectiveness of the present market systems in answering the growing problem" (p. 26).

In the third essay, Robert Kates utilizes the "IPAT Formula," developed by scientists decades before, to tie in the relative importance of population, affluence, and technology. The result is one of the most complex articles of the volume, ultimately calling for changes in consumption patterns. Together with the first two essays, the reader is left with the impression of the importance of population growth and the need for urgent action.

The second major section of the book deals with the problems of fresh water, obviously critical for all populations. Water, Sandra Postel argues in the first essay, "will be a serious constraint to achieving the food requirements projected" (p. 64). Groundwater overdrafting, soil salinization, and the demands of urban growth will limit the water available for irrigation and crops, a problem that international trade will fail to meet. Prudent actions include, among others, better water harvesting, terracing, and methods of irrigation, together with the judicious use of crops and equitable distribution of food.

The three remaining essays, the first by Joyce Starr, the second by Paul Smith and Charles Gross, and the third by Robert Boyle, focus more narrowly on the problems of water shortages, but, in doing so, illustrate the ramifications of inaction. In the arid Middle East, Starr explains, a number of rival nation states are "sliding into the perilous zone where all available fresh surface and groundwater supplies will be fully utilized" (p. 71). The result, she implies, will be "water wars." Without offering much in the way of specifics, she calls for "decision makers to collectively address the need for a comprehensive approach to water management strategy" (p. 84). In a similar vein, Smith and Gross raise the specter of conflict in another critical area of the world, the "Asia-Pacific region" (p. 87), noting the complexity and importance of the issue, but, like Starr, offering little in the way of solutions. The final article by Boyle focuses on the fate of the Salton Sea in southeastern California. Once a freshwater lake, the water is now contaminated, a case-study in the importance of water to both animal and human habitats.

Three articles comprise the third section of the book on global climate and atmospheric change, a section relatively short given that this subject is perhaps the most controversial and well-publicized of all environmental issues today. While many conservatives will undoubtedly claim that these essays place too much blame on the impact of human action, the articles together make a strong case for human causation. As if to make this point, the first article is a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of distinguished scientists established over a decade ago. The IPCC report documents the role of greenhouse gasses in global warming and notes the potential impact on everything from natural habitats to human economic activity. The second article by Stephen Schneider is less technical but more dramatic. Written as a news report from the future, the article notes the storms, droughts, and other climatic-related threats that will complicate human existence. This article seems to answer the most basic question: why should we care if the climate changes? The final article by Peter Vitousek, et al., is another more complex article, and, perhaps as a result, is best in documenting human causation. "Human activities during the past century have doubled the natural annual rate at which fixed nitrogen enters the land-based nitrogen cycle," the authors conclude, a pace that is likely to accelerate. "Serious environmental consequences are already apparent" (p. 157).

The fourth section of the book focuses on biodiversity and, just as the previous two sections, begins with a broader article, in a sense an overview before the following articles narrow the focus. Why should we care? Because, these articles collectively note, all of life is intertwined. The first article by John Tuxill and Chris Bright notes that while species creation and extinction are on-going processes, the rate of the latter is the highest since the Cretaceous Period and the demise of the dinosaurs. We are only beginning to grasp, the authors claim, the importance of apparently minor changes to our ultimate survival. Weak on providing specific solutions, the authors succeed in noting how all the issues in the book--population, water, atmospheric change, and a plethora of others--cannot be understood as separate problems, the solution to one intricately related to all the rest.

Perhaps the best example of biodiversity is the tropical rainforest, the focus of the second article in this section by Chris Wille. In a more narrative fashion, Wille documents the efforts of an alliance of concerned citizens in the preservation efforts of the moist forests of Costa Rica. Threats here still exist, of course, but the reader draws from this article hope that through education and the work of committed citizens, further loss of this key ecosystem can be prevented. Turning the reader's attention from the rainforest to the oceans, the following article by Anne Platt McGinn tells a similar tale of calamitous destruction by human activity. Focusing on seven bodies of water, McGinn tells of various forms of pollution--oil, metal, chlorines, and others. She ends the article with a hopeful call for action, suggesting ways to "re-set the compass" (p. 203). Once again the author notes that improvement is possible through adequate financial commitments, cooperation, and a "philosophical change of heart" (p. 204).

As if to emphasize that the problems are not hopeless, the book concludes with a fifth section on sustainable solutions, a collection of seven essays exploring the issue of natural resource utilization in a way that protects natural capital for future generations. This section begins with a cautious tale of what happens to a society that does not stress such sustainability. Jared Diamond explores the case of Easter Island, once a complex and advanced society that spiraled into chaos and cannibalism through overuse and improper management of the island's fragile resources. "My main hope for my son's generation," Diamond concludes, "is that we may now choose to learn from the fate of societies like Easter's" (p. 214). With such a note, the section then branches off with two articles exploring the efforts necessary for sustainability in different ecosystems, the tropics (Daniel Janzen) and the marine (Charles Peterson and Jane Lubchenco). This is followed by articles noting the growing efforts of private enterprises to practice sustainability (Business for Social Responsibility) and the efforts of non-governmental organizations (Sheila Jasanoff). Reading about these efforts is encouraging, but, in the end, it is the individual, through his or her own choices and actions, that most dramatically affect the environment. The final article by Michael Brower and Warren Leon is, appropriately enough, a study of the impact of daily household consumption. Air and water pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and other environmental threats all have in varying degrees the common denominator of how we live, work, travel, and eat. Seemingly small changes in how we live can have a huge impact on the future for the environment and our children.

It is a hopeful end to this book, but the reader is left wondering if such changes are enough. As most of this book documents, the problems facing our environment are critical to our very survival, they are manifold, and they are complex. Are the necessary changes noted at the end sufficient to address them, or have we already crossed the Rubicon? Editor Lorey clearly believes the former, but the reader may find himself or herself despondent, feeling hopeless against the magnitude of the problem. Indeed, what happens if the public does not heed warnings such as this book before it is too late? This book may shock readers, angering or worrying them, but, as Lorey suggests, recognition of the problem is the first step towards a possible solution.

While obviously delving into the past, this book's focus is the present and the future. One might consider this book in tandem with a more historical-oriented text, perhaps Donald Hughes's fine recent work, An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life, just reviewed by Michael Egan for H-Environment (July 2003). In any event, this is a strong addition to the literature, a book not to be ignored.

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Citation: Brooks Flippen. Review of Lorey, David E., ed., Global Environmental Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: Resources, Consumption, and Sustainable Solutions. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8436

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