Entering The Millenium...
Facing The Threat
Of Self-Extinction


PARIS (AFP) - For the first time in history mankind will enter a new century faced by the threat of self-inflicted extinction.
With explosive population growth bringing not just more people but also more pollution, more toxic waste, more greenhouse gases and more irreversible damage to the biosphere, the environment has moved in 100 years from a peripheral to a central concern of the global political agenda.
More has also meant less: fewer available resources as the forests, soil, water and air come under attack, and the disappearance of tens of thousands of plant and animal species.
Since 1900 the world's population has more than tripled to six billion, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Meanwhile the 14 hottest years since records began in 1866 have occurred since 1980.
The world's average surface temperature has risen by up to one degree centigrade, bringing the threat of melting ice-caps and rising sea-levels.
Chinese environmentalist Hou Jie warns that "the problem of fresh water supplies is likely to be the most important issue of the 21st century."
For Greenpeace's Jon Walter, another problem is the obsession with the market economy, which "takes no account of environmental costs, referred to in the economic jargon as 'external' costs."
If man is threatened, his fellow species are even worse off.
One fifth of equatorial forests were lost between 1960 and 1990, says World Wildlife Fund International chief Claude Martin, while Greenpeace estimates 80 percent of the oldest forests have been destroyed in the past 100 years.
One result is that 31,000 plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, Martin says.
World Watch Institute's John Tuxill puts it in even starker terms: "We are in the midst of a mass extinction, an event not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago."
The discovery in 1985 of a hole in the ozone layer set alarm bells ringing ever louder, leading to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a legal precedent that set binding reductions on chemical emissions primarily responsible for its depletion. Optimistic scientists predict the layer may recover by the mid 21st century if strict enforcement of the protocol continues.
A similar rethink on nuclear power, once seen as a cheap, clean source of energy, began after accidents at Chelyabinsk, Russia, Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl, Ukraine illustrated the dangers involved.
The search is on therefore for alternative energy sources such as the sun, the wind and the waves.
Renewable natural sources are seen as holding the most promise for sustainable development, a concept pioneered by the World Conservation Union in the late 1970s.
The development of a fuel cell car that would hugely reduce the consumption of fossil fuels is well advanced, while an estimated 500,000 homes already get their electricity from solar cells.
The production of recycled paper and steel from scrap is beginning to reach levels rivalling the production from forests and mines.
Wind energy technology is making headway in the industrial West and attracting growing interest in developing countries.
However Lestor Brown of the World Watch Institute believes the old western industrial model of a "fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy" will not work for China, India "or for the other two billion people in the developing world."
Moreover "in the long run, with an increasingly integrated global economy, it will not work for the industrial economies either."
The work of the green movement at the end of the century is very different what it was 100 years ago.
Early ecological efforts centered on preservation as governments and philanthropists set aside lands in national parks and trusts.
But massive industrialization and the development of nuclear weapons meant that for the first time mankind was capable of bringing about his own destruction.
In 1962 US biologist Rachel Carson shocked the world with "Silent Spring", a cry to ban DDT and related pesticides which she warned would eliminate many forms of wildlife.
The Club of Rome's 1972 report "The Limits to Growth" used mathematical models to demonstrate that bio-economic development would be restricted by depleted resources.
1972 also saw the first global conference held under UN auspices and the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme based in Nairobi.
A succession of conferences and conventions aimed at defending the environment have sharply increased the number of arrangements governing the global use of resources, and the 1992 Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit", the largest gathering of heads of state in history, appeared to herald a belated green awareness by world leaders.