State of the world: guarded

January 24, 1994

The problem with many environmental crises is that they creep up so slowly they are easy to ignore. For many years now, the public has listened to dire warnings only to look around and note that everything seems fine, at least on the surface.

Many of these warnings have come from the Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit research organization based in ) Washington, D.C. For the past 11 years the group has issued an annual State of the World report, detailing progress (or lack of it) in such areas as balancing food production with population growth, preserving rain forests or ending poverty.

The 1994 report brings more alarming news, but this time the warnings are hard to ignore, particularly in regard to food supplies. Three decades of dramatic increases in productivity came to a halt in the 1980s, and with them the hope that food production could keep pace with rapid population growth. One statistic of note: In Asia, rice production has fallen below consumption rates for the past three years. As rice stocks were depleted, prices rose; last year, the price doubled between late August and early November. Unless rice farmers can produce a banner year in 1994, price increases may become chronic.

The world has already seen a similar scenario with seafood. Per capita catches have declined 9 percent since 1989, which accounts for the fact that the cost of a fish dinner can now rival the price of a fine cut of meat. The report concludes that achieving a humane balance between food and people now depends more on family planners than on farmers.

Coal miners once had a habit of taking canaries with them into the mines. Poisonous gases they couldn't detect would kill the canary -- and provide a warning that could save their lives. Today, trends in food production and population provide another clear warning that the Earth does have limits, and that humans may be rapidly nearing the planet's carrying capacity. Once again, birds underscore the seriousness of those warnings.

The institute also reports that about 70 percent of the world's 9,600 species of birds are declining in response to the spread of human populations. As many as 1,000 of those species may be facing extinction.

Birds play an essential role in controlling insects or other prey. When they no longer can sustain themselves, human beings should give serious thought to their own survival as well.

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