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Day of Six Billion

Months ago, the United Nations decided to make an event out of the fact that the human population meter would soon click over another billion. They picked an arbitrary date – October 12 – and declared it the Day of Six Billion.

What kind of event did it turn out to be? A day of repentance? A celebration? In a world of soundbites, what was the right tone here? Six billion, oh woe? Six billion, yippee?

My guess is that in much of the world, “oh woe” ruled the day. That's how we're used to talking about ourselves. Overpopulation, population bomb, population explosion, the population problem.

I can surely understand why. From the point of view of the planet, we must indeed look like an explosion. In 1800, there were just one billion of us. We hit three billion in 1960 and have doubled again in the blink of a planetary eye. Our fifth billionth person is now just 12 years old; our fourth billionth is just 25.

Not only are there so many more of us, but each of us is bigger, as measured by the energy and material we use and the pollutants and wastes we spew out.

We are, as far as we know, the first creatures on this planet evolved enough to realize that there is such a thing as a carrying capacity and that there are penalties for exceeding it. Our scientists have begun to calculate how many of us at what standard of living the Earth can support. They don't agree on an exact number, but there's clear evidence that we're already beyond it.

Our fisheries are crashing.

Thousands of scientists are saying we must cut back our fossil fuel burning by 60 to 80 percent to have any hope of stabilizing our climate.

Our farmers are not keeping up with our population; grain output per capita has been falling since 1984.

Huge rivers -- the Colorado, Yellow, Nile, Ganges, Indus, Chao Phraya, Syr Darya, and Amu Darya – are so drained by irrigation and cities that their channels run dry for some or all of the year. In India, North China, California's Central Valley, and many other places, we are pumping down groundwater at rates that cannot continue.

Two researchers at the University of British Columbia have calculated our “ecological footprint” -- the amount of land needed to produce our resources and absorb our wastes. They say our footprint is now 20 percent greater than the productive land base of the planet. The only reason we can get away with that oversized impact is there are still stocks of forest, fish, soils, and waters to draw down.

We can't go on using up our resources forever, or even much longer. We don't get a choice about that. If we don't reduce our load on the planet voluntarily, the planet will do it for us. That will solve our population problem.

Of course, we don't have to submit to that outcome. There are signs that we are, in fact, an intelligent species. Birth rates are coming down. In the 1950s, the average woman bore six children; in the 1990s, that number fell to 2.9. In every rich nation, the fertility rate is below the replacement rate of two children per woman. But if fertility holds at present levels, the population of Europe will decline from 728 million in 1998 to 715 million in 2025.

We could, inspired by the awesome spectacle of our six billion, choose to bring our numbers down gracefully, gradually, everywhere, over a century or two.

However, we need NOT regard ourselves – especially not the poor among us, especially not the poor mothers of many children – as a cancer upon the Earth. Quite the contrary. What is bringing down birth rates in Thailand, in Costa Rica, in Malaysia, is the empowerment and enrichment of poor women. Education, health care, decent jobs, family planning programs – wherever these are generously available, family sizes come down.

The other thing that has to come down is consumption. The number of people is not what degrades the Earth; it's the number of people times the flow of energy and material each person commands. The ecological footprint of the average American is 13 times that of the average Indian. The four million babies born in the US this year will have twice the impact of the 26 million babies born in India.

If you know where to look, you can see how good lives can be lived with much less load on the planet. Organic farmers produce high yields of healthy foods without chemicals. “Green” architects design buildings that use less than half the energy per square foot and are more comfortable than buildings with a standard design. Drip irrigation grows crops with higher yields using less water. Windmills, solar collectors, and fuel cells produce power without crazing the climate. Best of all, many people are freeing themselves from the steady brainwashing of advertisers and deciding that they actually have enough.

Now that the Day of Six Billion has passed, I'd suggest that each of us refuse to simplify or trivialize it, refuse to caricature each other as either the scourges or the conquerors of the earth, refuse either to despair or to rejoice.

We know of the problems we cause each other and the millions of other creatures that co-inhabit our finite planet. We know of the accomplishments we've pulled off just to be able to support six billion of us, however inadequately or inequitably.

What I hope we will have the greatness to do is to respect each other, encourage each other, reach out to each other, commit to the vision of everyone being able to thrive and to contribute to a diverse, sufficient, equitable, joyful, sustainable, nature-rich world.

Everyone, however many billion that turns out to be.

– Donella H. Meadows


Terminated Technology

Monsanto, the US seed and pesticide giant at the forefront of the debate over genetically modified food, has decided not to market its “terminator” technology, which ensures crops produce sterile seeds.

Terminator became a major target in the debate over agricultural biotechnology. Monsanto and other companies stood to make huge profits from the technique, since it meant that farmers could not continue holding over the seeds produced in one growing season for use in the next – a widespread practice in most developing countries.

Monsanto does plan to continue to research seed sterility within its broader research program on biotechnology. Still, activists regarded Monsanto's climbdown as a victory for civil society's fight for food security.

Monsanto is the second major gene giant to back away from terminator technology. In June, the British-based AstraZeneca company announced that it would not commercialize seed sterility technologies.

–Danielle Knight, Inter Press Service


War's Environmental Costs

Several months of burning, ground fighting, and NATO bombings have inflicted massive environmental damage on the former Yugoslavia and neighboring countries.

The single most environmentally catastrophic event was the April NATO bombing of an oil refinery, an oil processing plant, and a chemical and fertilizer plant in Pancevo, near Belgrade. On the afternoon of the bombing, the Serbian environmental minister said the amount of carcinogenic matter in the air over Pancevo was 7,200 times permitted levels. And since Pancevo is on the banks of the Danube River, the pollution is expected to flow downstream to Romania and Bulgaria.

NATO also bombed other oil refineries and storage facilities, which combined to produce an oil spill nine miles long and about 250 miles wide, say Yugoslav authorities. This spillage puts the region's groundwater at risk, which serves 90 percent of its domestic and industrial needs.

One controversy that got occasional coverage in the mainstream media was the use by NATO forces of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. DU is toxic, carcinogenic, and radioactive. John Catalinotto, an editor of the book Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium, claims that just one “hot particle” of DU in the lungs is equivalent to one chest X-ray per hour. It is impossible to remove and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. [Editor's note: US military sources cited in the Christian Science Monitor say that 3,000 to 4,000 DU bullets were fired in the Kosovo campaign.]

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, now with Green Cross, is calling for a ban on military strikes against certain industries and infrastructure, such as nuclear power stations and some chemical and petrochemical plants. He's also calling for a moratorium on weapons that have “dangerous, long-term, and massive environmental consequences,” such as DU bullets.

–Phillip Frazer, News on Earth

Contact News on Earth at 175 Fifth Ave., Ste. 2245, New York, NY 10010; 212/741-2365; E-mail: noe@newslet.com.


School of Assassins

The House of Representatives has handed human rights supporters an unexpected victory by voting to withdraw funding from the US Army's notorious School of the Americas (SOA).

Despite intense lobbying by the Pentagon, the House voted last July by a surprising margin of 230-197 to delete all SOA funding – about two million dollars – from next year's foreign aid appropriations bill.

“This is a very important message sent by Congress that it wants military training to reflect human rights and our values,” said Lisa Haugaard, who works with the Latin American Working Group, a human rights organization in Washington, DC.

The School has been the premiere US training facility for Latin American military officers. In its 53-year existence, more than 60,000 officers have passed through it, learning skills in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and intelligence. Activists, who have long accused SOA graduates of being among the worst abusers of human rights in Latin America, have dubbed the facility the “School of Assassins.”

The House bill, when completed, will be referred to a joint House-Senate conference committee, who will hash out differences between the two versions so the bill can pass both bodies and be sent to President Clinton for signature.

– Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service


First Things First

Calling for “anarchy by design,”

34 graphic designers from the US and Europe have challenged their colleagues to drop clients who promote the consumer culture.

“The First Things First Manifesto 2000” – written by Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn and art director Chris Dixon – urges graphic designers to turn their attention to “pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills.”

According to the manifesto, “Unprecedented environmental, social, and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes, and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.”

In addition to Adbusters, the manifesto has been printed in the fall editions of graphic design's top publications.

– Chloe Frommer

Adbusters is also the sponsor of the annual Buy Nothing Day, which is November 26th. For more information on Buy Nothing Day or the First Things First campaign, contact 1243 West 7th Ave., Vancouver, BC V6H 1B7; Web: www.adbusters.org/


Curry Patent

Curry, a fiery sauce used in traditional Indian cuisine, is in danger of falling to Japanese patent hunters.

If their patent application is granted, Hirayama Makoto and Ohashi Sachiyo could gain exclusive rights to the process of making curry.

For the most part, India has watched helplessly as patents have been taken out on processes and products drawn from the country's vast storehouse of both traditional knowledge and biodiversity. For example, no less than 70 patents have been granted on the products of the neem tree, which is native to India and whose uses range from the treatment of fever, snakebites, leprosy, and as a natural insecticide and disinfectant.

However, the Indian govern-ment's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has so far succeeded in foiling US attempts to patent turmeric, a root used for centuries for healing and cooking.

– Ranjit Dev Raj, Inter Press Service


City Sponsorships

The world's two largest beverage companies have found new means to shut out the competition – by purchasing exclusive marketing access to entire cities.

Coca-Cola will pay Huntington Beach, California, $300,000 per year for 10 years to be the city's official beverage sponsor. In other words, only ads and machines bearing the Coca-Cola logo will be found on Huntington Beach streets.

And for $5 million, Pepsi-Cola will have exclusive vending rights for 10 years in selected buildings, recreation facilities, and city-controlled events in Sacramento, California.

– Chloe Frommer


US to Cancel Debt

President Clinton recently announced that the US will cancel 100 percent of debt owed to the United States by the world's poorest countries, provided the money is spent on basic human needs. His statement – made at a joint meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in September – laid down a direct challenge to other creditors to increase their current debt cancellation plans.

Explaining the decision, Clinton said: “Unsustainable debt is helping to keep too many poor countries and poor people in poverty.”

Clinton's announcement represents an expansion of the previous US commitment to debt relief made at the Cologne summit of the Group of Seven (G7) major powers in June. White House spokesperson Jake Siewert said the US had intended initially to forgive 90 percent of the debt owed by eligible nations. “Today we're talking about 100 percent debt forgiveness,” said Siewert.

The announcement followed intense pressure from the Jubilee 2000 movement (see “A Time for Shouting,” YES! Spring 1998), which is calling for the cancellation of all foreign debt owed by
poor countries.

– Jubilee 2000

Contact Jubilee 2000 USA, 222 E. Capitol St., Washington, DC 20003; 202/783-3566; Web: www.j2000usa.org.


Y2K Alert

As a precaution against potential Y2K mishaps, managers at Rhone-Poulenc, DuPont, Union Carbide, and Ashland Chemical have decided to temporarily halt production of certain hazardous chemicals in late December until after January 1, 2000.

Rhone-Poulenc will shut down its active ingredients plants worldwide to avoid problems with processes involving highly hazardous materials.

While many large chemical companies are planning a temporary halt to operations as a Y2K precaution, a recent report by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology indicates a near-total lack of readiness among small to mid-sized chemical makers. According to the report, in a survey of small and mid-sized chemical firms in New Jersey, Kansas, California, and Texas, 86 percent indicated they are not prepared for Y2K and 85 percent have not coordinated emergency plans with local community officials.

In a statement recently released in the New York Times, scientists and other experts expressed concern about hundreds of thermonuclear missiles and atomic reactors that remain vulnerable. Specifically, they warned of 4,400 nuclear weapons in the US and Russia that are on “trigger hair alert.” The experts fear inaccurate computer data caused by Y2K could make these missiles highly dangerous.

In addition, the experts expressed concern about the 35 US nuclear plants that are not yet Y2K compliant and the hundreds of reactors worldwide whose status is unknown.

The US Government Accounting Office is also concerned about the lack of independent review of the nuclear industry's Y2K testing and emergency preparedness.

– Jennifer McCullough

Information on Y2K nuclear safety issues can be found at www.y2kwash.org


Environmental Outlook

The UN Environment Program has released what it is calling the most authoritative environmental assess-ment ever of the crisis facing humanity in the new millennium. The conclusion? ”Our present course is unsustainable – postponing action is no longer an option.”

Global Environment Outlook 2000 (GEO-2000), which is based on contributions from UN agencies, 850 individuals, and 30 environmental institutes, concludes that the chief causes of environmental degradation are the continued poverty of the majority of the planet's inhabitants and excessive consumption by the minority.

“Despite successes on various fronts, time for a rational, well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out fast,” says Klaus Töepfer, UNEP's executive director.

Full-scale emergencies now exist in the availability of fresh water, land degradation, air pollution in many major cities, and global warming, says GEO-2000. Tropical forests and marine fisheries have been over-exploited, while numerous plant and animal species and extensive stretches of coral reefs will be lost forever.

At the core of GEO-2000's recommendations is a reinforcement of Agenda 21's call for environmental integration. “The environment is still considered an add-on to the fabric of life,” says GEO-2000. “Integration of environmental thinking into the mainstream of decision-making relating to agriculture, trade, investment, research and development, infrastructure, and finance is now the best chance for effective action.”

– United Nations
Environment Program

GEO-2000 is available from Island Press, 1718 Connecticut Ave., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009; E-mail: ipress@igc.apc.org.


Organic Schools

Students returning to Berkeley public schools this fall may have noticed a change – they now have organic options in the lunchroom.

The Berkeley school district decided late this summer to use as much organic food as possible in its school's cafeterias. The district also plans to completely remove irradiated and genetically altered foods, as well as milk containing bovine growth hormone.

The decision is part of a new school program aimed at teaching students where food comes from, as well as emphasizing healthy eating habits. Berkeley schools plan to grow 25 percent of the organic food on school property and will purchase the remainder from nearby farms.

– Jennifer McCullough


Blood of Mother Earth

In September, despite significant local and international opposition, the Colombian government granted Occidental Petroleum a license to begin exploratory oil drilling on traditional U'wa territory.

The U'wa, an indigenous tribe of 5,000 who live in the cloudforests of the Colombian Andes, gained international attention in 1997 when they threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental began drilling on their land. Under fire, Occidental withdrew their application, and their partner, Royal Dutch/Shell Group, sold their share of the project.

Last August, the Colombian government expanded the size of the U'wa reservation by a factor of four, which is still less than half of what the U'wa consider their ancestral territory.

One month later, Occidental's resubmitted application to drill was approved, only this time in a location that fell just outside of the newly drawn reservation border but still within the traditional U'wa territory.

Occidental believes that the reserves beneath the U'wa territory may contain more than 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil, making it one of the largest oil fields in the hemisphere. The Colombian government, suffering from a struggling economy and pressure from the US and international financial institutions, is eager to increase oil production to offset its substantial foreign debt.

U'wa representative Ebaristo Tegria said the decision to grant Occidental the license “spells cultural and environmental genocide” for the tribe. One of the biggest fears of the U'wa people is the escalation of violence that is endemic to the oil-producing regions of Colombia. In addition, the U'wa believe that their lands are sacred, that oil is the blood of Mother Earth, and that extracting it would upset the natural balance of the world.

Shortly after the drilling was approved, the Colombian People's Ombudsman's office issued a report that could pose a challenge to the legality of the license. The report states that the drilling site is 300 meters from an U'wa sacred site and only 500 meters from the border of the U'wa reservation, rather than the 5 kilometers previously claimed by Occidental and the government. Furthermore, the report documents a community of U'wa living within that 500 meter stretch and states that in violation of Colombian law, these people were not consulted before the project was approved.

“The U'wa do not want roads; they do not want money; they just want to continue being U'wa people,” the report states. “They don't want outsiders coming to damage the water, damage their food supply, their wild game, or to kill their children or their future.”

– Rod Arakaki

For more information on the U'wa, see “Indigenous Economics,” YES! Spring 1999, or contact Project Underground, 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703; Web: www.moles.org

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