It's pretty easy to get discouraged about the state of the world one year before the next millennium. Look at the headlines: World population is soaring (though the rate of increase has diminished somewhat), epidemics are devastating whole continents, the release of global warming gases has reached record highs, biodiversity is eroding everywhere as forest cover and natural habitat disappear, and we in the United States continue our selfish ways, using up an ever-greater share of the Earth's limited resources.
Is everything gloomy as we approach the year 2000? Taken as a whole, E's cover story, an environmental report card for the Earth, can be seen as a rather pessimistic prognostication. But as the magazine enters its 10th year of publishing, we see some very encouraging signs, proof that human ingenuity and a growing awareness of our planet's fragile ecosystem are having an important effect.
What's there to be happy about? Even though we continue to add cars to the world's fleet at a frightening rate, bicycle use is also increasing, particularly in Europe. In Germany, which leads the world in banishing auto traffic from its city centers, pedal power has grown by 50 percent in the last 20 years. It's up in Denmark and Holland, too, and even in the U.S., a bicycling lobby has emerged to take back some city streets and park routes.
Another salutary development is a dramatic increase in renewable energy as a percentage of the worldwide grid. The sale of solar cells, for instance, which has averaged 15 percent annual growth, grew an amazing 43 percent in 1997. The biggest sales are in Third World countries which, if they're lucky, can bypass the industrial world's dependence on fossil fuels as they build modern energy and communications networks.
Although the goal of achieving peace on Earth remains elusive, worldwide spending on the military continues to decline, as has the number of armed conflicts. The threat of a global missile exchange has gradually subsided, though there is heightened regional dangers as India, Pakistan and perhaps even Iraq join the nuclear club (and such worries are reflected in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' “doomsday clock,” which recently reached nine minutes to midnight). Our collection of disparate nations is no global village, but the Internet and improved telephone communications have brought us closer together than ever before. Some 100 million people are now online.
When was launched in 1990, there was much less environmental awareness than there is today. Most Americans now know (69 percent) that vehicle exhaust is the leading cause of air pollution and that species loss is due to habitat destruction (73 percent). E can't take credit for an increase in general knowledge: Thank the environmental curriculums in place on the K-12 level in more than 30 states. We do, however, consider ourselves part of the solution, and hope to continue in that role for a good long time to come.
Despite looming challenges, we don't think of the fight for the environment as a lost cause. But as we approach 2000, making a green commitment matters more than it ever did.