The environment will heal itself, all right, but humans should worry how. The population explosion is causing damage at a faster rate than the earth's ability to recover, and the damage threatens to become permanent. Furthermore, when an expanding population meets shrinking resources, the results are starvation, poorer health and pitched competition for survival. Among other resources, the world has reached its limit in crop harvests, and is declining in animal species, rain forests, top soil, fish stocks, and fresh water.
There are two types of damage that humans cause to the environment. One is long-term, even permanent destruction, such as the extinction of a species or the radioactive poisoning of Chernobyl.
The second is short-term damage -- and this is where conservatives latch onto false hope. It is true that the environment has the capacity to heal itself in some ways. Endangered species can rebound, the earth can create its own ozone, the oceans can absorb greenhouse gases. The rate of recovery depends on the type of damage being done. Species can recover in a few decades; ozone, a century; old growth forests, several centuries; the cooling of radioactive waste, hundreds of thousands of years. But here is a critical point: the environment cannot recover while we are still increasing the damage to it. In many areas, humans are destroying the environment faster than it can recover, as the following statistics will show. And if we continue in our current ways, the damage will inevitably become permanent.
In surveying statistics on the environment, it is important to keep two opposing trends in mind. One is the population explosion:
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...D.C., private communication with Lester Brown, April 27, 1992; pork data from Leland Southard, Livestock and Poultry Situation and Outlook staff, ERS, USDA, Washington, D.C., private communication with Lester Brown, April 27, 1992; poultry ratio derived from data in Richard V. Bishop et al., The World Poultry Market - Government Intervention and Multilateral Policy Reform (Washington, D.C., USDA, 1990).
14. Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 180.
15. Dina Umali, Irrigation-Induced Salinity: A Growing Problem for Development and Environment (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 1993).
16. Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992).
17. "1992 Annual Transactions Review: Drought Stimulates Contractual Innovation," Water Strategist, January 1993.
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