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10-08-2015, 23:40


Another crucial factor that is affecting the evolution of society and the global economy is growing concern over the impact of industrialization on the earth’s environment. There is nothing new about human beings causing damage to their natural surroundings. It may first have occurred when Neolithic peoples began to practice slashand- burn agriculture or when excessive hunting thinned out the herds of bison and caribou in the Western Hemisphere. It almost certainly played a major role in the decline of the ancient civilizations in the Persian Gulf region and later of the Roman Empire. Never before, however, has the danger of significant ecological damage been as extensive as during the past century. The effects of chemicals introduced into the atmosphere or into rivers, lakes, and oceans have increasingly threatened the health and well-being of all living species. For many years, the main focus of environmental concern was in the developed countries of the West, where industrial effluents, automobile exhaust, and the use of artificial fertilizers and insecticides led to urban smog, extensive damage to crops and wildlife, and a major reduction of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. In recent decades, however, it has become clear that the problem is now global in scope and demands vigorous action in the international arena. The opening of Eastern Europe after the revolutions of 1989 brought to the world’s attention the incredible environmental destruction in that region caused by unfettered industrial pollution. Communist governments had obviously operated under the assumption that production quotas were much more important than environmental protection. The nuclear power disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986 made Europeans acutely aware of potential environmental hazards, and 1987 was touted as the “year of the environment.” Many European states now felt compelled to advocate new regulations to protect the environment, and many of them established government ministries to oversee environmental issues. For some, such official actions were insufficient, and beginning in the 1980s, a number of new political parties were established to focus exclusively on environmental issues. Although these so-called Green movements and parties have played an important role in making people aware of ecological problems, they have by no means been able to control the debate. Too often, environmental issues come out second in clashes with economic issues. Still, during the 1990s, more and more European govern- ments were beginning to sponsor projects to safeguard the environment and clean up the worst sources of pollution. In recent years, the problem has spread elsewhere. China’s headlong rush to industrialization has resulted in major ecological damage in that country. Industrial smog has created almost unlivable conditions in many cities, and hillsides denuded of their forests have caused severe problems of erosion and destruction of farmlands. Some environmentalists believe that levels of pollution in China are already higher than in the fully developed industrial societies of the West, a reality that raises serious questions about Beijing’s ability to re-create the automotive culture of the modern West in China. Destruction of the rain forest is a growing problem in many parts of the world, notably in Brazil and in the Indonesian archipelago. With the forest cover throughout the earth rapidly declining, there is less plant life to perform the crucial process of reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In 1997, forest fires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo created a blanket of smoke over the entire region, forcing schools and offices to close and causing thousands of respiratory ailments. Some of the damage could be attributed to the traditional slashand- burn techniques used by subsistence farmers to clear forest cover for their farmlands, but the primary cause was the clearing of forestland to create or expand palm oil plantations, one of the region’s major sources of export revenue. One of the few salutary consequences of such incidents has been a growing international consensus that environmental concerns have taken on a truly global character. Although the danger of global warming—allegedly caused by the release, as a result of industrialization, of certain gases into the atmosphere—has not yet been definitively proved, it had become a source of sufficient concern to bring about an international conference on the subject in Kyoto in December 1997. If, as many scientists predict, worldwide temperatures should increase, the rise in sea levels could pose a significant threat to low-lying islands and coastal areas throughout the world, while climatic change could lead to severe droughts or excessive rainfall in cultivated areas. It is one thing to recognize a problem, however, and quite another to resolve it. So far, cooperative efforts among nations to alleviate environmental problems have all too often been hindered by economic forces or by political, ethnic, and religious disputes. The 1997 conference on global warming, for example, was marked by bitter disagreement over the degree to which developing countries should share the burden of cleaning up the environment. As a result, it achieved few concrete results. The fact is that few nations have been willing to take unilateral action that might pose an obstacle to economic development plans or lead to a rise in unemployment. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have squabbled over the use of the waters of the Ganges and Indus Rivers, as have Israel and its neighbors over the scarce water resources of the Middle East. Pollution of the Rhine River by factories along its banks provokes angry disputes among European nations, and the United States and Canada have argued about the effects of acid rain on Canadian forests. Today, such disputes represent a major obstacle to the challenge of meeting the threat of global warming. Measures to reduce the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere will be costly and could have significant negative effects on economic growth. Politicians who embrace such measures, then, are risking political suicide. As President Bill Clinton remarked about a proposal to reduce the danger of global warming by raising energy prices, such a measure “either won’t pass the Senate or it won’t pass muster with the American people.” In any event, what is most needed is a degree of international cooperation that would bring about major efforts to reduce pollution levels throughout the world. So far, there is little indication that advanced and developing nations are close to agreement on how the sacrifice is to be divided. International meetings convened to discuss how to implement the agreement hammered out at the Kyoto conference have been mired in dispute, and in 2001, President George W. Bush declared that the United States would not sign the treaty as it stands.