The condition of the environment is a worldwide issue. Air and water pollution do not recognize borders; poor soil conditions in one nation may reduce another country’s food supply. At the same time, different regions do face different problems. One key distinction is between the environmental threats faced by developed nations, such as the United States and western European countries, and developing nations, such as India and Mexico. Most agree that these nations may have dissimilar crises, but debate remains over whether the solutions to their problems are unique as well.
The environmental problems faced by developed nations are largely the result of their economic strength and higher standards of living. Overconsumption is cited by many observers as a cause of resource depletion in the First World. Americans, and to a lesser extent western Europeans, Japanese, and other residents of developed nations, are more likely to own one or more cars, purchase more food and clothes than subsistence levels require, and use considerable amounts of electricity. Americans consume a disproportionate amount of the planet’s resources. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but uses 25 percent of its resources. Overall, the developed world has 23 percent of Earth’s population but consumes two-thirds of the resources. Environmentalists contend that this high level of consumption will ultimately lead to the depletion of the planet’s resources, resulting in adverse consequences for human populations. Developed nations have reduced their rate of population growth, so overpopulation is not as great a problem as it was previously considered to be; however, because of the high level of consumption, each new person in a developed nation will use three times as much water and ten times as much energy as a child born in a developing country. The industries needed to create products for consumption also affect the environment through the emission of greenhouse gases and other wastes.
In contrast, the environmental crises faced by developing nations are the result of poverty. For example, Third World countries often lack the resources and sanitation facilities to provide the public with clean water. Tropical deforestation, caused by the slash-and-burn techniques of poor farmers, is another dilemma. However, as Rice University president Malcolm Gillis has observed, agriculture is not the only manifestation of the effects of poverty on deforestation. In most, but not all, poor nations, the role of poverty in deforestation is magnified by the ever-more-desperate search for fuelwood by impoverished people.” This search for wood is exacerbated by the key environmental problem in developing nations—overpopulation. Third World nations may consume vastly less than America and Europe but their population growth rates are much higher. These nations lack the natural resources and social services that will be needed in order to provide their burgeoning populations with adequate food, shelter, and employment in the coming years. As developing nations move closer to First World status, the accompanying growth in industry could also affect the environment, especially through the emission of greenhouse gases. The global warming agreement reached in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 exempted developing nations such as China, India, and Mexico from requirements to reduce their emissions. But according to the United Nations, countries exempted from the agreement will create 76 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions over the next 50 years.
The exemptions in the Kyoto agreement (which must be approved by 55 nations but as of this writing has not been submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification) raise the question of whether developed and developing nations should utilize the same methods in order to conserve the environment. If the environment truly is a worldwide issue, then the solutions may also be universal. However, international agreement on environmental issues is often difficult to achieve because countries are not at equivalent stages of social and economic development.
Developed nations rely significantly on government regulations to protect and restore the environment; however, many analysts—particularly Americans— believe that the same economic forces that create the wealth of developed countries can solve their environmental troubles. Industry, capitalism, and the freemarket system might create overconsumption, but they can also solve its ill effects, these commentators maintain. John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation, a policy institute that advocates the free market and limited government, writes, “Corporate America’s unique contribution to solving real environmental problems will come from innovation—finding new ways to produce goods and services, package and deliver them to consumers, and dispose of or recycle the wastes generated by their own production or by consumption.” In contrast, a system in which the government owns all the land or imposes strict command-and-control regulations on people and businesses is seen as ineffective. The poor environmental condition of communist nations is often cited by these observers as evidence of the inability of government regulations to conserve the environment.
As developing nations grow and become more economically self-sufficient, industrial solutions may become more viable in those countries. However, many commentators assert that Third World and post-communist countries should not follow the United States’ lead. These observers see industry as the planet’s foe rather than its savior; they believe companies are more likely to be motivated by the quest for profit than a desire to preserve the environment. A better way to improve the environment is to rely on a country’s indigenous values, many people maintain. For example, some environmentalists believe that the religious traditions of India promote ecologically friendly values, including vegetarianism and a moderate use of resources. They also prefer traditional agricultural methods, which do not rely on pesticides and chemical fertilizers and therefore do not cause groundwater pollution. Frances Cairncross, a senior editor at the Economist, is among those who argue that if industry is to be relied upon, it should be as environmentally advanced as possible: “Industry in the developing countries has a special opportunity. Because it is making new, ‘greenfield’ investments [investing in undeveloped and often unpolluted land], it can leap a stage and go straight to the best modern practice.”
As noted earlier, the Kyoto global warming agreement reveals the difficulty of finding universal solutions to environmental problems. Developing nations would not consider even voluntary participation in emission reduction, arguing that such measures would impede their efforts to improve their economies and industries. Even within developed nations, the response to the treaty has varied. In June 1998, the European Union reached an agreement that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent. However, many people in the United States have more negative attitudes toward the agreement; they assert that achieving the reduced emission levels could hurt the nation’s economy. For example, some American analysts contend, companies might move their plants to developing nations, causing job losses in the United States. Moreover, they argue, emission controls could cause U.S. oil and gas prices to rise. Although the Clinton administration played a key role in reaching an agreement in Kyoto, President Bill Clinton is among those who believe developing countries need to limit their own greenhouse gases before the United States can ratify the treaty. Without the participation of the United States—the world’s leading polluter— the treaty might not succeed.
As the Kyoto controversy suggests, international agreement over solutions to global environmental problems is not easily attained. The debate over environmental issues in the United States is also divisive. These global and national debates are the subject of Conserving the Environment: Current Controversies. In this book, the authors examine such topics as the state of the environment, the preservation of biodiversity, methods for reducing pollution, and whether the free-market system can solve environmental problems.