Global Threats

We live during times in which we are aware that hundreds of millions of persons suffer from conditions of severe poverty, economic deprivation and exploitation, political repression, social injustice, cultural exclusion, and other kinds of human rights abuse. We are also aware that this is a time when human civilization is facing an environmental crisis of historic proportions. We all have heard about global warming, deforestation, species extinction, depletion of natural resources, scarcity of water, toxic pollution, desertification and a variety of other environmental threats and risks. Many of us believe that if we do not act urgently in order to change our present unsustainable patterns of economic production and consumption, and control the growth of the human population of the planet, our children and grandchildren who will live in the latter half of this century, will be facing an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, a crisis carrying potentially severe consequences not only for human beings but for the myriad other species with which we share the planet. While there is always a tension between our vision and aspirations for a better world and our perception of the present reality, the problems we find ourselves facing are qualitatively different than what we have ever faced before. Here is a brief catalog of some of these major global threats:

Population Growth
– The human population of Earth is expected to reach approximately 10 billion by the middle of the century despite efforts to control and reduce the fertility rates. Almost all of the additional population growth will occur in less developed countries (LDCs), those least able to afford the burden of additional people to feed, clothe, house, and employ. The growth of the human population will place additional strains on natural and other resources that are already becoming critically depleted. In addition, population growth is an important factor in reinforcing other problems, for instance, rapid unplanned urbanization, the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and rising levels of internal and international migrations of people seeking better standards of living.

Chronic Poverty
– While the one and a half billion people living in the world’s rich countries generally have fairly commodious lifestyles, collectively they consume more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources, while the other three-quarters of the Earth’s human population, mostly those living in LDCs, barely scrape by with the bare essentials of life, and half of all human beings live on less than $2 a day. Some of the consequences associated with this endemic poverty are that: 850 million adults remain illiterate. 2.7 billion people lack adequate basic sanitation. 1.3 billion do not have clean water for drinking and cooking. More than 1 billion live in extreme poverty barely subsisting on the equivalent of less than $1 a day. Almost all of these are malnourished and lack adequate housing.

Social Inequality – The gap between the rich and the poor both between nations and within nations is widening rather than decreasing. 1.2 billion people are unemployed or employed in exploitative labor situations. Poverty and social inequality is placing unprecedented stress of tradition family structures and familial breakdown is becoming commonplace. There is persistent gender bias against women in many countries. Conflicts and civil wars based on ethnic or racial identity and competition for control of increasingly scarce resources such as arable land and fresh water are increasing. Increasing demands for higher standards of living are often met by incompetence, indifference, or political repression. Failed and collapsed states are common and often become breeding grounds humanitarian catastrophes and terrorism.

Depleted Natural Resources
– Fresh water is becoming scarce in many parts of the globe, and this trend is likely to continue if nothing is done to stabilize the atmosphere. Soil needed for growing crops is being eroded by run-off and development, or depleted by over-farming. Oceanic fisheries have been decimated and in some cases have collapsed. Rangeland is being overgrazed. Desertification is accelerating in many regions of the world that were formerly able to support human and other species. Deforestation for land and fuel is continuing and is eroding the Earth’s atmosphere’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas.

Global Climate Change
– The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the end of the twenty-first century the Earth’s average temperature will rise by as much as 10 degrees F due to global warming, largely produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as gas, oil, and coal. The Arctic ice cap, and Greenland’s ice sheet are melting as are glaciers world-wide. This global increase in temperatures in predicted to cause changes in global weather patterns, increases in droughts and floods, violent storms, and sea-level rise.

Environmental Pollution
- Nitrogen run-offs from crop fertilizers have altered the chemistry of rivers and streams. Dumping of human waste and the build-up of persistent toxic compounds has further damaged water quality. Atmospheric ozone is still being depleted despite measures undertaken to slow the process. Nuclear and other persistent toxic wastes make large quantities of land and water unusable for human needs. Burning of fossil fuels, such a coal, and the products of internal combustion engines create unhealthy atmospheric pollution in some cities, such as Bangkok, Beijing, and Mexico City.

Loss of Biodiversity
– Due to deforestation, desertification, air and water pollution, and global climate change millions of species are at risk of extinction. There is an accelerating loss of habitat for wild species leading to a loss of biodiversity. Wetlands and coral reefs are threatened by development and pollution. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of bio-invasions of alien species into already weakened ecosystems, further disrupting these systems ability to avoid collapse.

Nuclear proliferation
– Despite the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to maintain massive nuclear arsenals which are capable of destroying the Earth many times over. Attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and other lethal technologies of mass destruction, have proven largely ineffective as more states have joined the nuclear club or appear to have plans to do so. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much of US security policy has been premised on the presumed importance of preventing “rogue states” and terrorist organizations from acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

People who study these issues understand that these twin social and environmental crises of the twenty-first century are interlinked in various ways. We know, for instance, that the extreme poverty that afflicts roughly one third of humanity is one of the causes of environmental destruction of forest lands, endangered species, and fisheries, and is a major driver of the migration of millions of poor people from rural villages to urban slums. We also understand that the high-consumption life-styles of the roughly one billion people who live in the rich world are also contributing to the global environmental crisis. For instance, by continuing the profligate burning of fossil fuels we are adding to the burden of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere, which if left unchecked, will produce a global rise in the sea level which will inundate many coastal and low-lying areas. If we switch from gasoline to biofuels like ethanol that is made from crops like corn or soybeans, we drive up the price of food which hurts poor people, and indirectly promote deforestation by means of the economic incentive to convert rainforest into cropland, and will produce a net increase in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

While we want to promote economic development that will lift people out of poverty we realize that it cannot follow the same pattern as was followed the Western economies developed during the last two centuries. Billions more people emulating our Western high-consumption lifestyles would imposed additional burdens would on the Earth’s resources and environment would be too great to bear.

There is a sense that human civilization has reached a critical inflection point in its history at which the traditional ways in which we think and act have to change in fundamental ways. But it seems that our current political institutions are just not up to the task of tackling these sorts of problems in an effective and timely fashion. While academic theorizing and campaigning by social activists and nongovernmental organizations have succeeded in keeping these issues on the radar screen of social awareness, and some progress is being made in addressing some of these problems, these efforts have not yet succeeded in bringing about progressive change on the scale that is required.

The gap between what we need to do in the twenty-first century to solve these global problems and our effective capacity to solve them through the mechanisms provided by our existing national and international institutions is called “the global governance gap”. Whether one blames the governance gap it on “short-term” thinking, the parochialism of our current political institutions, ideological blindness, cultural warfare, or other factors, the bottom line is that our current methods for solving global problems are too slow and largely ineffective. As former World Bank official J. F. Rischard puts it: “Quite simply, the current setup for solving global problems doesn’t work. We need a better one and fast” (2002, 60).