Environmental "Tipping Points": Ecosystem Health and Community Vitality Go Hand In Hand

Plus Frances Moore Lappé, Marine Freight, and More in the November/December 2005 issue of World Watch

Washington, DC— In places as diverse as the Philippines, India, and New York City, people are addressing complex environmental problems by finding their positive "tipping points"—a point where catalytic action can set off a cascade of positive changes that tip the system towards sustainability. "We don't have to solve an entire problem at once. We make a few key changes and let a system use its self-organizing powers to mend itself," write Gerald Marten, Steve Brooks, and Amanda Suutari, authors of Environmental Tipping Points: A New Slant on Strategic Environmentalism.

Where top-down regulations and high-priced technical fixes aren't working, positive environmental tipping points offer a third way to restore communities, both natural and human. The authors use case studies from Apo Island, the Philippines, Rajasthan in India, and New York City to illustrate how small changes can lead to both environmental rejuvenation and an increased sense of community, reversing larger negative social and environmental trends. "Environmental tipping points show that saving an ecosystem and a community can go hand in hand," state the authors.


As demand for cheap, imported goods into the U.S. grows, so does the potential for catastrophic consequences from the ever-widening stream of marine freight. The huge container ships bringing those goods can pollute port communities, introduce invasive species, and even threaten national security. Irving Mintzer and Amber Leonard look at the problem of marine freight, highlighting the need for a comprehensive, integrated national strategy to support the smooth and economically efficient operation of the U.S. goods movement system to avoid the existing and looming impacts of the expanding U.S. marine freight trade.

One problem the authors note is the continued under-investment in new technologies employed at U.S. ports, giving both Asian and European ports a comparative advantage for years to come. Problems are not limited to inability to screen all items coming into the port for potential security threats, but also include massive human health and ecosystem casualties. Freight-related emissions (from both trucks and ships) are a major source of local exposure to a panoply of pollutants, endangering health in port areas; California officials say that diesel emissions account for 80 percent of overall cancer risks from exposure to toxic air pollutants. Additionally, ballast water from marine cargo vessels make "inviting habitats for all sorts of aquatic hitchhikers," creating a range of bioinvasions of fragile ecosystems.


In this month's editorial, Senior Researcher Brian Halweil writes there is strong evidence that countries that invest in their rural areas have made some of the best progress in raising incomes. The growing prosperity of millions of small farms in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan following World War II, and China in more recent decades, inspired the dramatic economic booms those countries later enjoyed. In contrast, notes Halweil, persistent poverty in sub-Saharan Africa correlates with stagnant farm production and low investment in rural areas.

Halweil points out that an organization called the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has demonstrated high impact on relatively modest investments in the remote areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. IFAD's portfolio includes 192 projects in 115 countries; its budget totals about $400 million per year, or roughly one-fiftieth of U.S. spending on pet food.


Two features this month—At Democracy's Edge, an essay by Frances Moore Lappé, and You Say You Want a Revolution? by Gar Alperovitz—point to initiatives that address economic security and environmental sustainability while also providing a basis for a long-lasting changes in democracy.

Lappé writes in her essay that our society currently exhibits the symptoms of "thin democracy": a condition in which an elected government is coupled with a free market divorced from ethical values. The solution to "thin democracy" is a "living democracy" in which "society believes in its citizens and their values, and thus assumes that the best outcomes flow from engaging them in all dimensions of public affairs." And it's emerging, according to Lappé: for instance, in only eight years, the Working Families Party has been critical in lifting the New York state minimum wage by $2.00 an hour.

"Economic insecurity radically weakens all forms of civil society network building, including those that nurture democracy and communities' interests in their environments," writes Alperovitz in You Say You Want a Revolution? New economic institutions, such as employee-owned businesses and neighborhood-based community development organizations, have shown that communities can come together to enhance both economic and environmental conditions.


Mindy Pennybacker in "Green Guidance" notes ten tips on protecting children's health as they return to school at the same time flu season begins. Tips include hand washing and proper hygiene; using integrated past management; and testing for lead and arsenic in certain types of playground equipment.


Online Species Trade Booming

U.S. Great Lakes Thawing Earlier

Two New Reports Show Industrial Toxins Common in Human Bodies

U.S. EPA Environmental Justice Plan Falls Short

Land Use is Top Global Environmental Concern

World Bank Involvement in Economic Reform: "A Warning Flag"?


We’re Number 1 … 29!

Rank of Norway on the United Nations Human Development Index (2003): 1

Rank of United States : 10

Rank of Cuba: 52

Rank of Japan in life expectancy at birth in 2003 (82.0 years): 1

Rank of United States (77.4 years): 29

Rank of Cuba (77.3 years): 30

Rank of Bahrain in share of one-year-olds immunized against measles in 2003

(100 percent): 1

Rank of Cuba (and 23 other countries) (99 percent): 2

Rank of United States (93 percent): 70

Rank of United States in per-capita spending on health care in 2002 ($5,274/person): 1

Rank of Switzerland ($3,446/person): 2

Rank of Cuba ($236/person): 97

Rank of Cuba in spending on public education as share of GDP in 2000–02 (18.7 percent): 1

Rank of United States (5.7 percent): 30

Rank of Russian Federation in value of arms exports, 2004 ($6.2 billion): 1

Rank of United States ($5.5 billion): 2


Source: United Nations, Human Development Report 2005.