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27 October 2021

From the NS archive: Growing apart

29 May 1992: What’s been happening to the world for the past 20 years?

By Vicky Hutchings

In June 1992, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the “Earth summit”, was held in Rio de Janeiro. Vicky Hutchings used the occasion to examine what had changed since a previous summit in Stockholm 20 years earlier. She found, in short, that little had been done to remedy poverty and ecological degradation, and everything had got worse. Global population had nearly tripled to 5.5 billion and where “there were 460 million chronically hungry people in 1970, there are now 550 million”. Megacities had become more prevalent, the wealth gap between developed countries and the rest ever wider, life expectancy in Africa and Asia was terrifyingly low, and, for reasons of short-term domestic policy, Western countries were dragging their feet on climate change measures. Now, some 30 years on from Rio, every metric has worsened.


Twenty years have passed since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Many problems predicted then have not come true. Tin, for example, did not run out in 1987. But other crises, never dreamed of, have become global nightmares. Most crucially, the world’s population has continued to increase. Between 1970 and 1990 it grew by 1.6 billion to nearly 5.5 billion. It is expected to reach 7 billion in 2010, before levelling off at 10.5 billion in 2110.

Ninety per cent of increase of the past 20 years was in developing countries. Yet while people worried about the population explosion in the early seventies, some despaired because they saw third-world countries being sucked into the global economy with all its nasty side-effects. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, traced industrial pollution, extinction of species, loss of wilderness, the crime and violence of urban blight to a single source: “too many people”. His nightmare future was a population of 60 million billion people in 900 years’ time all living in 2,000-storey buildings covering the entire earth.

Seventies thinkers considered the problem in linear ways. Aside from those like Edward Goldsmith who favoured a return to some pre-industrial Eden, others bent their minds to practical questions like: how soon can birth-control programmes be instituted? How soon can the “green revolution” be implemented? What will it cost the developed world in aid? In other words, let’s do something about population growth, and then it may be possible, with first-world money and know-how, to do something about starvation and poverty. Only later did it understand that poverty and population growth are interrelated, and that the world’s economic system was effectively trappingthe third world in a downward spiral of poverty, population growth and debt.

In the early seventies, the great drought of the Sahel, in northern Africa, killed more than 250,000 people. It also brought home the message that, in areas already degraded through overuse, lack of rainfall could tip the whole system into catastrophe. But many thought the green revolution, bringing with it the new “miracle” seeds, was the tool to save the developing world. It has taken these past 20 years to learn that there is a down side: the new seeds need expensive western pesticides and fertilisers. This has pushed the poorer and more marginal farmers to the edge, while benefiting those who can afford the costs.

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Worldwide, about eight million hectares of cropland are lost each year to erosion, waterlogging and salt pollution. There were 460 million chronically hungry people in 1970, there are now 550 million. The food problem has been exacerbated by two phenomena: first, the changing food patterns of the developing world. In Mexico, where a quarter of the population suffer from malnutrition, the share of land-growing grains for animal-feed has leapt from 5 to 30 per cent since 1960, to feed urban elites who demand a western-style diet.

The second phenomenon is third-world debt, and the rush to grow cash crops to pay for it. Total debt is US$1.3 trillion, requiring nearly $200 billion a year in interest alone. Since 1984 there has been a net transfer of resources from the less developed countries to the more developed, growing from $20 billion then to $40 billion in 1988. The situation worsened in the late 1980s when the price of raw materials dropped on world markets.

Such pressures also feed into the destruction of tropical rainforests, which are disappearing at an estimated 16.8 million hectares – at least – every year. The cities of the developing world, surrounded by the slums of disposed peasants, have far outgrown the cities of the developed world in size. In 1970, London was surpassed only by Shanghai in the developing world. Now Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, Bueno Aires and Seoul are also bigger. By 2000, there will be 17 cities in the developing world with populations larger than London’s. Mexico City is expected to reach more than 25 million.

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With the growth of the megacities have come all the pressures and problems associated with densely populated urban environments – waste disposal, sewerage, transport, air pollution – but not the means to deal with them. While air pollution has been lowered in most cities in the developed world, there has been a marked deterioration in developing countries. In 1970, 33 per cent of the urban population in developing countries had no access to clean water and 28 per cent no access to sanitation. While overall percentages have dropped, 31 million more people live now without clean water and 85 million more are without sanitation than in 1980. This is expected to grow by a further 202 million and 256 million by 2000. The low progress has been attributed to several factors: population growth, the world economic system and third-world debt.

In other areas, the gap between rich and poor parts of the world continues to remain gigantic: life expectancy is still lowest in Africa and Asia. Average life expectancy for an Ethiopian or Somalian is 42, for a Bangladeshi 49.5, for a Canadian or Swede more than 76. Deaths for children under five are equally depressing: 163 per thousand in Africa, 108 in Asia. In Europe, there are 15 deaths per thousand, with Sweden, Iceland and Finland at seven; Canada and the US nine and 12. Yet, with all its problems, it is on the developing world that the first world has fixed its attention – particularly over the matter of global warming and the ozone layer. Notwithstanding that a citizen of the first world does irreparably more damage to the environment, in terms of consumption, pollution and waste than someone living in the poor south, those in the developed world have become increasingly worried by signs that the poor world might try to emulate the rich.

[See also: From the NS archive: The melting of the ice]

China has announced its aim to have a fridge in every household by the year 2000. Other countries in the Far East, as well as Latin America, want to follow the western path of continuous economic and industrial growth. Growth rates for cars and trucks in Asia now exceed the world average, as does the growth for trucks in South America. The west, which has always treated environmental clean-up as something for the good times, was caught napping when the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer was discovered, and when scientists insisted global warming was on the cards. While the thinning ozone layer will take decades to heal, the world acted because the west found it relatively easy to live with phasing out CFCs and related gases. But with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, the US has led the west in dragging its feet on targets to cut emissions, since it will be far harder to reduce these. Japan is already more energy-efficient than the US.

If America were to introduce regulations and carbon taxes, President Bush is terrified the US economy would fall even further behind its new rival. So, in the run-up to Rio, global statistics have become a political tool. Last year, two different sources produced two entirely different claims to the essential truth. The Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) stated that the US was responsible for 17 per cent of greenhouse gases, while Brazil was responsible for 10.3 per cent. The Centre for Science and the Environment (based in Delhi) insisted that the WRI had overestimated by some 9 percentage points Brazil’s contribution to global warming, and underestimated America’s by 15 points.

Discussions of Rio have stressed the interrelatedness of the planet, but this has been mainly in terms of how global warming, poverty, pollution and the population explosion in the third world will affect us in the west, for example, huge numbers of economic refugees crowding the first world’s borders to escape starvation and poverty back home. Yet the possible effects of all these will hit the inhabitants of the third world harder than the first. And the increasing trend of multinationals to take advantage of the south’s poverty and low wages and set up shop there, in order to compete with the sweat-shops of the Far East, while continuing to produce and sell the goods at high prices in the first world, can only result in increasing unemployment and indebtedness in the west and pressure for lower labour costs.

Japan has managed its economic miracle through a low standard of living (only 44 per cent of its households are connected to sewerage systems) and a working week very much longer than in the west. America’s debt is now around US$1 trillion, with debt servicing approaching $100 billion. Nearly in third-world class.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).