In that most memorable of scenes from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), the villain-hero Ebeneezer Scrooge has just been shown a vision of his desolate future. Like his partner Marley, he will soon be dead, buried unceremoniously, then completely forgotten -- save for the moments when his life is ridiculed, mocked as an example the greatest miser in the history of London town. Terrified of this abysmal future, Scrooge cries out:
"Spirit! Is this the shadow of things that MUST be, or only MIGHT be. Tell me, Spirit!"
Fortunately for Ebeneezer, it was not too late to change his stingy ways, give up the futile accumulation of money, and find true happiness by devoting himself to helping the less fortunate human beings around him.
Perhaps it is not unreasonable to say that our planet today resembles the troubled Scrooge. Our environmental predicament is perilous, yet it is not too late to save ourselves. We can improve our world if and only if we act, soon, with compassion and intelligence. In facing this crisis there is no place for these classic Dickensian spirits: Apathy, Panic, or Ignorance.
Obviously, Earth 2000 is a culture far more complex than the Victorian society of 150 years ago. Today we have easy access to mountains and megabytes of paper and electronic data. But how can we discern which peaks of these information mountains are reliable, trustworthy, and wise?
Accurate information and keen insights is why this yearly book from the Worldwatch Institute -- Vital Signs -- is a publishing event of the utmost importance. The facts throughout this book are categorized into trends in these areas: food production, agriculture, energy, atmosphere, economy, transportation, communication, health and social problems, and military issues.
The facts and the numbers are astonishing. For example: Last year the world endured 35 wars: except for the Kosovo conflict, all the others occurred in third-world countries. Cigarette smoking last year was responsible for the deaths of 4 million people, a number which is expected to increase 2.5 times, to 10 million, by the year 2030. In 1999, the total number of persons infected with HIV was almost 50 million. About 2.6 million persons died from AIDS last year (most of these in Africa), pushing the total cumulative death toll from AIDS to 16 million. World population last year increased by 77 million persons, as the total population of Earth swelled past the 6 billion mark.
One of this year's most disturbing trends is the growing economic gap -- and the quality of life gap -- between the privileged persons and the poor. The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 1.1 billion persons are malnourished, at the same time that more than 1 billion persons suffer from health-related problems caused by obesity. Last year's edition of this book, in the section "Malnutrition Still Prevalent" shows that nothing has improved:
"Nearly 1 billion people worldwide do not get enough to eat each day, and several billion get enough calories but their poor diet falls short in providing basic nutrients. ... Regardless of the form it takes, malnutrition levies a heavy toll on human health, leading to increased susceptibility to disease, reduced levels of energy and productivity, and increased morbidity and mortality." As to be expected, the poorest nations, especially in South Asia and Africa -- Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Indonesia -- contain the highest numbers of malnourished persons."
If it all sounds like a nightmare of gloom and doom, take heart. In a number of areas, significant environmental progress is being accomplished. In the all-important realm of energy, the world is beginning to make the necessary shift from burning fossil-fuels (the major contributor to global warming) to non-polluting and renewable sources such as wind and solar cells. Organic farming -- without pesticides -- is thriving. More world treaties have been formed to control environmental degradation. Western Europe is now heavily taxing corporations who exceed pollution limits. Nuclear weaponry is shrinking; life expectancy is on the rise; and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) are growing in numbers of groups and volunteers, and already making an impact for positive social and environmental change.
The premise underlying Vital Signs 2000 is that the trends depicted here will shape the nature and quality of our lives in the coming years. Vital Signs 2000, the companion volume to State Of The World 2000, are the two most authoritative and insightful publications in their field. Everyone who wants to help to make this world a better place -- socially, economically, politically, sustainably -- should raise his own social and ecological awareness by beginning with these two books.
Michael Pastore, Reviewer