Vital Signs Show The Pain of Poverty
By J.R. Pegg
Environment News Service
24 May, 2003
An examination of Earth's
"vital signs" reveals alarming trends of poverty, disease
and environmental decline that threaten global stability, according
to the Worldwatch Institute's annual report on trends shaping the world's
There is little for humanity
to cheer about in the organization's "Vital Signs 2003," which
outlines how the continued failure to address widespread poverty serves
as a lightening rod for health, social and environmental problems across
The consumption choices of
the rich and the inability of political leaders to act has brought this
situation to bear, says Michael Renner, coauthor and project director
of Vital Signs 2003, and there are few signs that things will change
Vital Signs 2003 was produced
researchers at the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental
and social policy research organization, in cooperation with the United
Nations Environment Programme.
Humanity's challenge, Renner
explained at a press briefing held today in Washington D.C., is to find
a way to balance the need to protect the Earth's ecosystems without
denying the world's poorest individuals the opportunity to achieve a
"These twin goals cannot
be achieved as long as humanity remains divided into the extremes of
rich and poor," Renner said.
But this divide is growing,
not shrinking. Globalization has deepened economic disparities, Renner
explained, and the gap between the world's poorest and richest nations
has more than doubled since 1960.
Some 815 million people worldwide
are chronically hungry. (Photo by F. Mattioli, courtesy UN Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO))
The scope of the world's poverty is severe - almost half of humanity
lives on less than $2 a day - and the "world economy is rigged
against the interests of the poor," Renner said.
Agricultural subsidies in the developed world, trade barriers, unequal
trade relations and the crippling $2.4 trillion in foreign debt owed
by the world's poorest nations all contribute to this growing disparity.
Less income often means individuals
are far more susceptible to disease - the infant mortality rate in low
income countries is some 13 times higher than in the world's wealthier
Infectious diseases kill
some 14.4 million people a year, most of whom are among the world's
poorest. Those who perish from infectious disease are often individuals
in the early or prime years of life and the loss of these individuals
can contribute to further economic and social stress on a nation.
The recent outbreak of the
new disease SARS "shows how quickly economies can be thrown out
of whack," said coauthor Molly Sheehan.
Lack of clean water or sanitation
kills some 1.7 million people each year, 90 percent of which are children.
Seventy percent of the world's
HIV positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa and 82 percent of the
world's 1.1 billion smokers live in developing countries.
The consequences of poverty
manifest in the form of terrorism, war and contagious diseases, Renner
said, and the effects are felt both by the world's poor and its rich.
"An unstable world not
only perpetuates poverty," Renner said, "but will ultimately
threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy."
Desertification has made
even subsistence farming difficult for many of the world's poor. (Photo
by R. Faidutti, courtesy FAO)
And just as the fruits of the world economy are not shared equally,
neither are the consequences of environmental degradation.
The poor are more vulnerable to weather related disasters caused by
land clearing, deforestation and climate change.
Weather related economic
losses were highest in industrial countries, but the human toll was
far greater for developing countries.
In 2002, more than 150,000
Kenyans were displace by massive rains, while more than 800,000 Chinese
struggled with the most severe drought in more than a century.
The report concedes that
weather related disasters are likely to worsen as the climate continues
to change, a trend that highlights how the actions - or inaction - of
the world's rich affect the poor.
Last year was the second
warmest since record keeping began in the late 1800s and most scientists
are convinced this trend will result in more erratic weather and rising
The report finds that the
burden of responsibility for climate changes falls squarely on the shoulders
of the industrial nations, in particular the United States.
The United States has five
percent of the world's population but produces some 25 percent of the
total of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.
The pressures on the Earth's
ecosystem brought about by poverty are striking, the report finds, including
evidence that more than 12 percent of the bird species face extinction
within the next century.
Among the few positives in
the report are some progress in combating AIDs, a slight increase in
communication technology within the developing world and the global
increase in clean energy use.
But even these favorable
developments come as the world wrestles with increased security concerns,
Renner said, that have prompted the industrial world to ramp up defense
spending instead of using their wealth to address social, health and
Low income nations tend to
follow suit, Renner explained, and although low income countries only
account for seven percent of global military spending, this is more
than double their share of the world's gross economic product.
The aftermath of war often
leaves many without stable food supplies. (Photo by G. Diana, courtesy
The 32 richest nations spent some $839 billion on defense in 2001. The
United States responsible for some 36 percent of the global defense
"The message of increased military spending is that violence pays,"
The continued and seemingly
unbreakable chain of poverty for many in the world can foster a loss
of hope, Renner explained, and cause some to engage in desperate and
"Terrorism is the final
symptomatic outcome of a larger problem," he said.
Worldwatch Institute President
Christopher Flavin added that the world's focus on terrorism and unrest
in the Middle East, combined with a faltering economy, will further
divert resources needed to address the causes and consequences of global
Political will is needed
to move beyond words and into action, Flavin said, and the human tragedies
underscored by the statistics in this latest report need to serve as
"compelling reminders that social and environmental progress are
not luxuries that can be set aside when the world is experiencing economic
and political problems."
"We must not forget
that a very large share of the human population has been left behind,"
Flavin said. "Suffering that is allowed to fester today will lead
to adverse and unpredictable consequences for many tomorrows to come."
To access "Vital Signs