State of the World 1997

January 1997
ISBN: 0-393-31569-X
229 pages

This fourteenth edition of State of the World coincides with two important milestones: the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the tenth anniversary of the 1987 Montreal protocol to protect the earth's ozone layer. With these two landmarks in mind, 1997 seemed a particularly good year to review progress in addressing global environmental problems.

In this year's book, we look at the broad Rio environmental agenda, ranging from climate to biodiversity, with a wide-angle lens in Chapter 1--and then with a much tighter focus we look at the decade-long effort to protect the ozone layer in Chapter 9. The first chapter describes the broad failure so far to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy, while the last shows that when faced with a clear crisis, the world community is capable of swift and effective action.

Whether progress is viewed as a glass half empty or half full, the international environmental agenda is increasingly crowded as the decade draws to a close. Extreme climatic events such as the destructive tropical storms that ravaged North America and Asia in 1996 and the crop-withering heat wave that claimed 465 lives in Chicago in the summer of 1995 have heightened concern about the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Dangers to the natural world are seen in the thousands of species of amphibians, birds, and mammals now threatened with extinction.

In this year's book, we have assembled the latest information on these new environmental threats, and have also described some of the surprising and potentially dangerous connections between these problems. One chapter, for example, examines the far-reaching effects that climate change may have on natural ecosystems, while another shows how dependent humanity is on the "services" provided by those ecosystems--from the pollination of crops to the maintenance of safe water supplies.

On the principal threats addressed in Rio, including climate change and the loss of biodiversity, progress so far has been slow and inadequate. Yet we see many signs that the policy wheels have begun to turn, and remain optimistic that the complex international agreements signed in 1992 will soon bear fruit. As described in Chapter 9, experience in tackling the ozone problem has shown that with the concerted efforts of scientists, industry leaders, government officials, and citizen activists, a strong international agreement can lead to surprisingly rapid progress.

The first step to action is awareness, and on this front there are many signs of hope. From insurance companies to agribusiness firms, concern about environmental trends is rising. The banking community is beginning to worry about the sustainability of its investments. And the insurance industry has begun to cut back on its coverage in regions that are vulnerable to tropical storms, which it believes are becoming more frequent and powerful as a result of global climate change.

All these trends strengthen the interest in Worldwatch research. We deeply appreciate the interest and the support from every corner of the planet. It helps us retain our optimism that we will, indeed, one day succeed in reversing the degradation of the planet and creating an environmentally sustainable global economy for our children.