|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)|
By Roger E. Kasperson, Jeanne X. Kasperson, and B.L. Turner, II
The signals of trouble the environment sends are often obscure, dim and complicated - by the time the threat is real, the cure is too late. This is what environmental scientists have taken to calling "overshoot". Better information - about the past, the present and the likely future of a problem - is an essential requirement of intelligent environmental governance.
Particularly useful would be "transferable" data - research findings from one part of the world that are useful in another, however different the two sites might be in their topography, climate and socio-economic role. In the following article, an international research group from dark University in the United States, led by Roger Kasperson, reports on possible commonalities found at nine research locales around the world where environmental degradation is severe.
The results of their work, part of the United Nations University efforts to improve environmental monitoring, will be published by UNU Press. The authors, Roger E. Kasperson, Jeanne X. Kasperson and B. L. Turner, II are geographers with the George Perkins Marsh Institute at dark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, the United States. - Editor
The causes and consequences of human-induced environmental change are not evenly distributed over the earth. They converge in various places around the globe where human activities now threaten continuing rapport with nature - locales as sharply disparate in their topography and climate as the rain forests of the Amazon, the wintry wastes of the North Sea, and the high peaks and valleys of the Himalayas. Such environmentally endangered areas were extensively discussed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.
It is not just that these areas are in the greatest immediate danger. More forebodingly, they may be harbingers of broader and longer-term situations associated with global change. Such locales are of interest because they facilitate on-site explorations of the complex yet sometimes narrowly located interactions between the driving forces of global change and local environmental vulnerabilities. They allow the environmental scientist to examine the relationships of both scale and time to the processes of change.
For the past five years, our research group has been making a comparative analysis of nine environmentally threatened regions (see map). Four were in Asia: around the Aral Sea on the Eurasian border; the Himalayan Middle Hills in Nepal; the rain forests of Eastern Sundaland in Indonesia; and on the Ordos Plateau along the Huang He (Yellow) River in northeast China. There was one area each in Africa (Ukambani dry hills of Kenya), Europe (the North Sea), North America (United States Southern High Plains), Central America (Basin of Mexico around Mexico City), and South America (several sites in Amazonia).
Case studies were conducted in each of these regions, following the same research protocol. The nature of human-impelled changes necessarily varies from region to region, reflecting the differing impact of human activity on both the natural setting and societal well-being. The analysis seeks to explain not only the trajectory - that is, the slope and rate of change over time of each of the variables - but also the causal relationships among them. Along with global economic forces, the interactions one region has with other areas, nearby or distant, are major factors that help set regional vulnerabilities. Much evidence from the project, for example, suggests the growing dependence of many agricultural economies on fluctuations in world market prices and shifting demand in distant markets. Another major consideration is the role played by the environmental manager at "centre stage" (often the individual farmer) vis-à-vis that of state policies or action.
It must be emphasized that the research did not point to any one, or even several, factors that dominate regional dynamics - nor have we found any "smoking gun" of global environmental change. But there are cross-cutting issues which are worthy of further attention.
Man Gains, Nature Loses
One of these is the evidence that environmental deterioration often proceeds in parallel with improved conditions in human well-being. In only one site - the Aral Sea - had there been a broad decline in human welfare (and this, it should be noted, followed several decades of improved living standards). The other regional cases, by contrast, all evince overall improvement in the wealth and well-being of the inhabitants - though, in some instances, there were significantly different outcomes for different population groups in the region. This was the case, for example, in the dry hills region of Kenya, at the sites in Amazonia, and in the Middle Mountains of Nepal.
Another common finding is that distant regions are most likely to bear the costs of environmental "drawdowns" or impoverishment of nature. This seems particularly true in instances where outside agents control the extraction of resources or surpluses from the region. This was the case of international logging in Eastern Sundaland, mining in Amazonia, and agricultural production in both the Aral Sea region and the Nepal Middle Mountains. Another is where wastes and effluents from production and consumption in one place are physically exported to another. Such is the case in the industrial regions we studied: in Mexico City's dumping of its metropolitan waste into adjacent drainage outside the basin; in the contaminants, both atmospheric and marine from the North Sea region that affect air and water quality elsewhere in Europe; and in the toxic contamination of the Aral Sea region and the desiccation of the Sea itself. Where such "sinks" are overloaded, the resulting costs may be passed on to future generations.
The studies revealed environmental degradation arising from two major contradictory scenarios - one of marginality and powerlessness, the second of too much success and attention.
Six of the locales are relatively sparsely settled, and open to resource extraction by powerful external forces: as with international logging in Eastern Sundaland, mining in Amazonia, and agricultural and other exploitation around the Aral Sea, in Nepal, Kenya, or the Yellow River's high plateau region in northern China. A seventh region, in the United States South-west, is also marginal to the national economy and vulnerable to world cotton markets, but it is protected by US agricultural subsidies and trade policies.
In the remaining two regions, the reverse is responsible for damage to natural resources. Both the Basin of Mexico and the North Sea are in the global economic core - and degradation is the product of success. The former typifies the pollution problems that can spin out of a mega-city concentration, the latter, the sort of overdemands wealth can make on common sinks and resources.
Delay and Overshoot
In their seminal work The Limits to Growth and the subsequent Beyond the Limits, Donella Meadows and colleagues argue that human society has a tendency toward what they call "overshoot" - when environmental changes occur rapidly, signals of such changes are confused or ignored, and society's responses to the change are slow. As a result, environmental degradation overshoots the responses, creating the potential for collapse of some kind.
In all of nine regions, it was evident that societal responses have been delayed and ineffective, often badly so. This is particularly the case with the seven marginal regions mentioned above in which signals of environmental endangerment have typically been ignored, suppressed, or devalued. The widespread nature of delay and half-hearted responses provide little basis for optimism that in the coming decades existing national policies, programmes, and institutions will prove adequate to the task of meeting mounting environmental change in many regions of the world.
To put it another way, most of our regions appear to be on trajectories headed toward criticality - with shrinking time for effective responses if deteriorating situations are to be stabilized. Responses in most of the regions have focused on "downstream" measures - designed chiefly to cushion the impacts of environmental deterioration on human health and welfare. Even in the Aral Sea and the Basin of Mexico, where environmental waste, ruin and threats to human health have reached advanced critical stages, interventions aimed at altering the basic driving forces have yet to be firmly implemented.
What Slows Response?
The impediments to effective responses typically appear to lie in the domain of political will and political economy. Distant elites or consumers who exercise control over driving forces often accept the environmental price exacted by the ongoing exploitation of a peripheral region. A particularly common pattern of impediment is the linkage between state policies aimed at revenue generation in a distant region, implemented and sustained through political corruption involving local elites. The Aral Sea and the Eastern Sundaland are perhaps the most notable cases, but the phenomenon is a generic one found, to some degree, in many of the regions.
The inescapable conclusion emerging from our work is that global environmental change can look quite different through a regional lens than it does from a wider world perspective. Emerging international efforts to combat worldwide environmental degradation will need greater regional focus if they are to be successful.