A Sustainable World

From the Foundation's 1997 Annual Report

Time passes. Listen. Time Passes.(1)

We gallop headlong toward the new millennium. As we rush forward at a pace and with a global sweep unprecedented in human history, we pass not only into the next age, but into a profoundly new relationship between our species and the planet on which we live.

For most of human history, our activity on the Earth has remained small with respect to the grand, global geophysical processes that make life possible. These processes control the composition of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans and the nature of the climate. They determine where forests grow, the quantity and characteristics of fresh water, and provide the ecological context in which evolution and natural selection generate the diverse richness of life.

For most of human history, we have had almost no measurable impact on these processes. There were too few of us to matter. We lived on but a small fraction of the planet and interacted with only a tiny portion of other life forms which had evolved since life began some 3.5 billion years ago. We cleared forest patches, not forests. We polluted a stream, not a continent. We always had sanctuary in the next valley, on the next island, beyond the far mountain.

That now has changed. People are no longer bit players in the wings of the global stage. "The rates, scales, kinds and combinations of changes occurring now are fundamentally different from those at any other time in history; we are changing Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it."(2) Now there are so many of us, and the technologies we employ have such global reach, that there is, quite literally, no ecosystem on Earth's surface free from human impact.

Some impact is quite subtle, at least superficially, for example, the light dusting of persistent organic pollutants carried by atmospheric currents, a dusting whose traces can now be found in people and trees and frogs and fish around the world and undermine health and function.

Other impacts are gargantuan, even at first blush. Scientists estimate that as much as 50% of the total surface area of land in Earth has been transformed or degraded by human action.(3) In the oceans above the continental shelves of the Temperate Zone, humans command about 35% of the ocean's productivity; on land this figure is almost 50%. And in the air, since 1860, our actions have released at least 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, upsetting the natural geochemical cycle of carbon and increasing, as a result, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 30%.

There is no mystery as to why or how this has happened, even if our realization of its scale has crept upon us only lately. It has happened because we no longer are a few hundred million souls scattered across continents. That was the circumstance in 1650, before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Now we number almost 6 billion, headed toward 10 billion or more.

It has happened because the way we build our modern lives places heavy demands on natural resources and creates prodigious amounts of waste. As of 1995, demand for seafood had risen to the point that over 50% of recognized marine fisheries were considered at or beyond the limit of sustainable use. Half of the world's forest cover has been removed in the past century. Aquifers in agricultural zones around the world are falling because irrigation depletes them faster than they are replenished naturally.

And it has crept upon us because we rarely, if ever, imagined that the scale of human activity could grow so large that it would impinge upon the planet's ability to maintain an environment conducive to life on Earth. There was always that next valley, a new mountain, another river.

Now there is no doubt. Enough data are in and scrutinized and reanalyzed to know, in fact, that our actions now have global ramifications. We can no longer ignore the reality that we live on what scientists call "a human dominated planet." This is a change of millennial proportions, one which will stand out as one of the most important transformations of the 20th Century, if not of the first millennium itself. This transformation irrevocably alters our constraints, opportunities and responsibilities as we move into the millennium that beckons. It changes the human prospect. It alters what is feasible for human aspiration. If we are to prosper in this transformation, and we can, we must construct a society that acknowledges this new reality.

Time passes. And the pace of change quickens. That is the nature of exponential growth. Human population doubled from 1650 to 1850 (500 million to a billion people). It had doubled again by 1930. The most recent doubling, from 1950 to 1986, took only 36 years. And it is set again to double by 2050..

Time passes. And the human economy and its impact on the systems that support life on Earth grows even faster than our population. From 1990 to 1997, the global output of goods and services expanded by $5 trillion. This growth matched all that had taken place "from the beginning of civilization to 1950."(4)

For the last decade, China has experienced some of the fastest growth of any nation, with immense benefit to the people of China, especially those living along the eastern coast. But that growth has come with costs which now loom increasingly large: water tables are falling everywhere—for example, in north central China by some 30 meters since 1960. Water in 11% of China's rivers is unsuitable not just for human consumption but even for irrigation due to pollution. Air pollution caused an estimated 178,000 premature deaths in Chinese cities, as well as 1.7 million cases of chronic bronchitis. The World Bank estimates the costs of air pollution damage alone were $32 billion, or almost 5% of the country's GDP. China must develop economically, but maintaining the current rate of growth along the current path is neither possible nor desirable. China's planners recognize this, and have begun to invest prodigiously in energy efficiency, in seeking alternative pathways for energy development, and in far more stringent controls and incentives to limit pollution.

More time will pass. As we mark the years into the early part of the 21st century, we will witness further economic expansion. The question is whether that growth will chart a course that can be sustained, or whether we will move inexorably toward a moment when we outstrip the Earth's capacity to provide resources and absorb waste at levels that can support human well-being.

A decade ago, biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy wrote: "I am utterly convinced that most of the great environmental struggles will be either won or lost in the 1990s, and that by the next century it will be too late. That is not to say that all the undesirable change will have taken place. Rather, by then the momentum of the problems coupled with the inertia of society will render the problems insuperable."(5)

Few scientists observing the course of events would argue that we have won Lovejoy's struggle. The climate agreement struck in December 1997 in Kyoto, for example, calls for only minor reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, whereas scientific assessments indicate deep reductions will be imperative to avoid serious climate disruption.

Yet few would concede defeat. There are signs, in a number of sectors, that give reason for optimism that the path of development is shifting. These include acknowledgment by world leaders that environmental problems "are often at the heart of the political and economic challenges we face around the world…We would not be doing our jobs as peacemakers and as democracy builders, if we were not also good stewards of the global environment."(6) They include new sensitivities at major multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank. They include dramatic new investments by private companies in technologies that will be far more environmentally friendly than those which they replace.

Great opportunities clearly exist. New sources of energy can be tapped. Advances in materials design will be achieved. Energy efficiency will be heightened. Better ways—old and new—will be implemented to shape the myriad of economic choices made by individuals, business, agriculture and government that have environmental impact. New policies can be adopted to explicitly value the natural systems on which our prosperity and health is based.

These opportunities don't undermine the development aspirations of the poor. They don't thrust developed nations backward to a pre-Industrial living standard, or threaten the tremendous gains in health and longevity that some fortunate fraction of humankind has experienced. To the contrary, in contrast to the inevitable erosion of prosperity that will result from pushing the world's economy beyond ecological limits, these opportunities create the means by which sustainable development can be achieved.

After two decades of work in this arena, the W. Alton Jones Foundation remains committed to achieving a sustainable world economy, developing new ways for society to interact responsibly with the planet's ecological systems. Our grant portfolio and grantmaking strategies, focused on a small suite of issues at the core of this challenge—energy, biodiversity, systemic contamination and economics—reflect this commitment.

Link to Sustainable World Grants


(1)Thomas, Dylan. 1954. Under Milk Wood. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd. London.

(2)Vitousek, P.M., H.A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco and J.M. Mellilo. 1997. Human domination of Earth's ecosystems. Science 277: 494-499.

(3)Vitousek et al., ibid.

(4)Brown, Lester. "The Future of Growth." State of the World 1998. Worldwatch Institute.

(5)Lovejoy, Thomas E. 1988. Plenary Adress, Annual Meeting, American Institute of Biological Sciences, Davis, CA.

(6)Albright, Madelaine K., U.S. Department of State, "Environmental Diplomacy: the Environment and U.S. Foreign Policy". Dept. of State Publication 10470.

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