The State of the Earth

The State of the Earth: Environmental Challenges on the Road to 2100

Paul K. Conkin
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The State of the Earth
    Book Description:

    The pace of human progress accelerated profoundly in the twentieth century, spawning revolutionary advances in medicine, agriculture, and industry. Between 1900 and 2000, the world's population quadrupled, and production and consumption of goods increased by a factor of twelve. In The State of the Earth, award-winning historian Paul K. Conkin offers a balanced, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful assessment of the major environmental challenges that must be met after a century of torrid growth and development. Unlike many recent polemics that reduce serious environmental debates to partisan political arguments, The State of the Earth provides a thorough and scientifically informed introduction to current environmental concerns. Conkin demonstrates how the explosion in population, production, and consumption has begun to deplete critical resources such as soil nutrients and fresh water, leading to potentially widespread shortages in the world's poorest regions. Fossil fuel emissions have assured a rapid increase in greenhouse gases and contributed to rising surface and ocean temperatures, a warming that is almost certain to continue throughout the twenty-first century. Conkin explains how the complex interactions between pollution, warming, and resource depletion may threaten the planet's biodiversity and endanger innumerable species. The State of the Earth, however, is much more than a summary statement of potential catastrophes. Conkin details the long history of global conservation and environmental protection movements and places their efforts in accessible historical, theoretical, and scientific contexts. He anchors his analysis with the awareness that environmental concerns are simultaneously hotly debated political issues, variables in economic decision making, and matters of extraordinary social and cultural significance. Conkin's mission is neither to proclaim certain doom nor to suggest blithely that technological innovation and other free-market solutions will soon repair the damage already done. Rather, The State of the Earth explains the realities and consequences of ecological disruption, unsustainable growth, and environmental degradation. Conkin provides a sober and comprehensive introduction to the science and history of the environmental challenges facing humans in the new century, highlighting the need to act now on a global scale to reverse these troubling trends.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7152-4
    Subjects: Business, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Part One: The Setting and the Challenge
    • 1 Our Green Planet
      (pp. 3-22)

      The earth supports life. From all that we now know, it is the only such planet in our solar system, although it is possible that, in the past, one or more of the other eight planets, or their satellites, sustained life. It is even conceivable that life migrated to the earth from neighboring planets, with Mars the most likely candidate. It is also conceivable that living organisms reached the earth from comets or asteroids. At least a rich mixture of organic chemicals so reached the earth, and still do. In any case, the background to all environmental challenges of today...

    • 2 Population, Consumption, and the Environment
      (pp. 23-40)

      Almost any consideration of the earth’s present health, or its prospects during the next century, has to begin with the human population. The doubling of the world’s population between 1960 and 2000, the 6.5 billion people on earth in 2006, and the prospect of 9 billion by 2050 raise innumerable issues about available resources, about the level of pollution and waste, about massive extinctions, and about the quality of human life in crowded cities. Countries with nearly stable or even declining populations do not face some of these problems, but these are the very countries with the highest levels of...

  7. Part Two: Vital Resources
    • 3 Soil, Vegetation, and Food
      (pp. 43-64)

      Humans largely live on the surface of the earth. They draw their sustenance from living organisms that dwell on, or near, the surface. Without food and water, life cannot survive. Without productive soil (and the plant life supported by soil), the world could not support half of its present organisms, or even a tenth of its human population. At present, in many parts of the world soil is degraded, water is scarce, and food supplies are declining. In 2005 more than 840 million people lacked an adequate diet, and each year thousands starve to death, while millions more die because...

    • 4 Water and Energy: Will There Be Enough?
      (pp. 65-98)

      All of the most basic natural resources needed for human life are now either growing scarce or are frequently polluted. For the most part, the reason for this is a twofold development in the twentieth century—unprecedented population increases in underdeveloped countries, where per capita consumption has grown only slowly at best; and unprecedented increases of per capita consumption in industrialized countries, where populations are now stable or declining. Thus the squeeze comes from two directions, and in neither case is there any likelihood of any early relief. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America populations continue to grow, although at...

  8. Part Three: The Human Threat
    • 5 Pollution, Waste, and the Ozone Layer
      (pp. 101-130)

      For most people, references to an environmental crisis suggests images of polluted soil, air, or water, or pollution on surfaces or in objects of consumption. Most dangerous ingredients in our environment have natural as well as human sources (a few, such as radon or pollen, are completely natural), but it is the part that is of human origin that we generally refer to as pollutants. In most industrial countries, the largest body of environmental regulations relate to pollution and the types of human production and waste disposal that cause it. The cost of avoiding, containing, or removing pollutants has absorbed...

    • 6 The Extinction Crisis
      (pp. 131-162)

      Not all of the harmful effects of human activity involve pollution. Equally critical are the threats that humans pose to the welfare or even survival of other species in what is now a period of rapid extinctions. These include habitat loss, the spread of destructive alien species into new habitats, and the deliberate killing of nonhuman species. These and other challenges constitute what most naturalists view as a major extinction crisis.

      The earth supports an enormous variety of organisms. How many species are on earth today is beyond any measurement. About 1.75 million are described species, although the exact boundaries...

  9. Part Four: Climate Change
    • 7 Climate Change in a Glacial Epoch
      (pp. 165-188)

      The earth is now subject to cyclical periods of extensive glaciation. We are approaching what, if past patterns prevail, will be the end of a very stable and warm interglacial period. These have rarely lasted over eleven thousand years, and make up only 10 to 15 percent of the time in the last million years that the earth has enjoyed a very warm climate. In fact, based on historical patterns, we should already be in the first stages of a new age of rapid cooling. It is possible that we will in this century see evidence of what could be...

    • 8 Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change
      (pp. 189-224)

      Today, it is increasingly clear that human emissions of greenhouse gases have contributed to a recent warming in most areas of the earth. Even more rapid warming is very likely during this century. Unlike the largely successful international response to ozone layer thinning, parallel efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases have largely failed. Almost every factor that has favored ozone agreements has been absent in these efforts. Although it is clear that human actions affect climate, the extent of that impact is very difficult to assess, for some human actions help cool as well as warm the climate. The...

  10. Part Five: Environmental Policies and Philosophies
    • 9 Reform Environmentalists and American Environmental Policy
      (pp. 227-250)

      Most Americans who have become involved with environmental issues have sought reforms through the present political system. Some have devoted most of their effort to single issues, such as wilderness protection, or pollution control, or the protection of biodiversity. They have thus founded and supported nongovernmental organizations committed to such goals. But, in time, such specialized concerns have led to a broader environmental consciousness, or to what one might describe as an American environmental movement. Such reform environmentalists have been very successful even when they have been dissatisfied with the degree of governmental support for environmental improvement. Most federal environmental...

    • 10 Passionate Environmentalism
      (pp. 251-278)

      For many people environmental concerns have become their controlling passion, and for some converts to the Gaia theory even the basis of a new religion. A few have become martyrs to the cause, risking and losing their lives in environmental activism. But, as one would expect, these most committed environmentalists are not of one mind. They all have rejected what they usually refer to as shallow, or liberal, or reform environmentalism, which includes most of the better known, and better funded, nongovernmental organizations that are seeking new and stronger environmental legislation. But the exact boundaries between these establishment advocates and...

  11. A Personal Afterword
    (pp. 279-288)

    As I wrote this book, over the past six years, I at times felt a sense of hopelessness. I see no good answers to so many problems, beginning with the effects of population growth. What policies can rescue sub-Saharan Africa from an impending environmental disaster? How can India gain the resources to feed a population that could soar to over 1.5 billion before 2050? How can the five most populous nations of Asia (China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), with 2.83 billion people, or 45 percent of the world’s total, deal with scarcities of water and energy or mitigate the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 289-298)
  13. Index
    (pp. 299-308)