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Generic patterns and issues

Ideally, comparative regional assessments, particularly if they involve data collection and analyses at different scales, provide a means by which to discern broad patterns of relationships and trajectories of change. This ideal requires a common protocol among the case-studies, such as the one drawn up for this project, as well as the availability of common data to all groups of researchers. For a variety of reasons, these common data sets were not available for each case-study, and the different case-study authors had to address various parts of the protocol with evidence that was not quantitatively comparable. This limitation makes statistical comparisons unsuitable (as they would be in any case because of the small number of studies), but the rich array of evidence and the understanding of how that evidence fits together suggest broader lessons.

Specificity and context

No single set of regularities emerges from comparison of the regional trajectories of change and associated case-study interpretations that explains the diversity of the regional cases and the complexities implicit in the slopes and shapes of the trajectories. Although most regions revealed similar long-term decreasing sustainability, each must be examined within its particular historical, landscape, and societal context for a satisfying interpretation. The observations that follow suggest some cross-cutting issues worthy of further attention but do not point to one or several factors that dominate the dynamics of change or the "smoking guns" of global environmental change within these areas.

Environmental degradation and improved regional well-being

It has long been recognized that environmental change is an inevitable outcome of human occupation and use. How this change is best examined and characterized, however, has been a source of contention. Change that constitutes "ecological degradation" may improve the productivity, sustainability, and quality of the land as judged by its human users. Indeed, notions of what constitutes "environmental degradation," like concepts of "pollution," are themselves scientifically and culturally contentious (Douglas 1966; Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Krimsky and Golding 1992). Our case-studies were selected from areas where environmental change was thought be of a kind that was harmful to the occupants or the particular use; it is this sense of environmental degradation that we address here (this is consistent with Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, 7).

The nine case-studies suggest that environmental degradation often proceeds in parallel with rising human well-being. Only one of our case-studies, that of the Aral Sea, involves a broad decline in human well-being in the aggregate that has occurred following several decades of increase in the material standards of life in the region. The other regional cases involve aggregate improvement in wealth and well-being, though in some cases with significantly different results for a substantial minority of the regional population (e.g. Ukambani, Amazonia, the Nepal middle mountains).

The complexity of the relationship between environmental change and human wealth and well-being has been widely discussed, particularly by economists and technologists (Ausubel and Sladovich 1989). Land and its "natural" stocks offer resources that, under certain economic, political, and technological systems, are used to increase the well-being of some or most of the users. Where this use involves resource extraction (e.g. large-scale clear-cutting of forest or mining of water), inadequate replacement (e.g. agricultural intensification without requisite inputs), or diminishment (e.g. pollution), environmental degradation occurs. As particular resources are exhausted, substitution allows regional populations to move to the exploitation of other resources and environmental components. Technology and management play critical roles in such continuing adaptation, maintaining or even increasing the stream of livelihood opportunities over time. Environmental sinks set certain limits, of course. When they are exceeded, even technology may not be able to sustain continued wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the interactions among technology, adaptation, substitution, spatial linkages, and mitigation of damage allow regions to continue to improve their well-being over long periods of time in the face of evident environmental degradation. This dynamic averts regional economic collapses or, after a period of adjustment, permits regional regrowth, according to the "technological fix" or "optimist" perspective on the use-change-outcome relationship (Simon and Kahn 1984).

The Llano Estacado and the North Sea are the best positioned of our regions to make these kinds of adjustments, owing to their position within advanced industrial economies. The other cases are more difficult to assess, but, because of growing linkage to and dependence on a global political economy that reduces options, decreasing wellbeing and increasing risk are possible outcomes (e.g. Ukambani, the Aral Sea, the Llano Estacado).

Symptoms of emerging criticality

Since environmental change is ubiquitous throughout the world, identifying and diagnosing symptoms of emerging environmental criticality in the overall "noise" of environmental change are essential (however perplexing). Most current attention in discussions of global environmental change focuses on rapid land-cover change (especially deforestation), on global climatic change and ozone depletion, and on loss of biodiversity. At the regional scale, however, it is not at all clear that these are the dominant problems. Rapid land-cover change is characteristic of many of our cases and, more generally, occurs in many regions throughout the world undergoing intensive human occupation. While such changes often lead to short-term losses, regeneration and shifts in human uses allow continuing adaptations and productive use of the regional environment in the face of dire predictions.

It is perhaps instructive that, of the nine regions, those with the steepest trajectories to criticality are arid or semi-arid areas where water-resource depletion threatens continued human occupancy and well-being. The Aral Sea, with its extensive mismanagement of regional water resources, is the most striking case. But two other more prosperous situations - the Llano Estacado in the United States and the Basin of Mexico - reveal long-term trends of water depletion and dependence that are unsustainable over the long term and that involve a rising potential for erosion in life-support systems and for eventual regional collapse. This pattern seems to reflect the distinctive qualities of water as a resource: its indispensability for many human activities combined with the tremendous, almost prohibitive cost of importing it over any substantial distance when local supplies prove inadequate, and its central role in many human conflicts (Falkenmark 1986; Gleick 1991,1992).

The indicators of human impacts that appeared to elicit most public concern involved human health, as in the case of the Aral Sea and the Basin of Mexico. In both cases it has been environmental contamination and the overwhelming of environmental sinks that have precipitated these impacts. Emigration or economic decline were not yet apparent in any of the regions, at an aggregate level, although several regions seem poised to witness such declines. The observation about the sink-health path to criticality may suggest that it is the more difficult one for human societies to respond to inasmuch as sinks have long fallen outside the control of the market and have proved difficult to regulate through other institutions.

Spatial and temporal export

It is clear that distant regions and generations often bear the costs of environmental "draw-downs" or impoverishment of nature. Our studies suggest that two types of spatial separation are involved. In the first, exogenous agents control the extraction of resources or surplus from the region, as in the case of international logging in eastern Sundaland and mining in Amazonia, or agricultural production in the Aral Sea region or the Nepal middle mountains. In the other, effluents from production and consumption in one place are physically exported to another. Such is the case in our industrial regions: in Mexico City's dumping of its metropolitan waste into adjacent drainage outside the basin, in the air and marine contaminants from the North Sea region that affect air and water quality elsewhere in Europe, and in the toxic contamination of the Aral Sea region and the desiccation of the sea itself.

Where such "sinks" are overloaded, the resulting costs may be passed on to future generations. The same can be said of extractive "draw-downs," such as the mining of forests and water, with a caveat. Historically, the loss of resources through extractive activities has been countered by adjustments in use (Ausubel and Sladovich 1989), so that the loss per se may not have an obvious impact on the wellbeing of future generations.

Categories of environmental change

Examination of the nine trajectories and associated regional dynamics suggests that eight of the nine cases can be grouped into two major contrasting situations - those involving peripheral or marginal situations and those involving agglomerated environmental stressors.

The peripheral or marginal situations involve rapid environmental (especially land-cover) change accompanying the extraction of resources in relatively sparsely settled regions that are marginal in national political economies. In one common pattern, the needs of the national economy (poverty, debt, balance of trade) drive the exploitation of specific resources within the region. A powerful central government or external power uses or develops the area for its benefit, often with the collusion of local Úlites. Specific means used include resource concessions to external parties, encouragement of in-migration from more densely settled or poverty-prone areas elsewhere in the country, or production targets necessitating intensification. The environmental resource base of the extractive or development activities is often rapidly and severely degraded. Six of our regions eastern Sundaland, the Nepal middle mountains, the Ordos Plateau, the Aral Sea, Ukambani, and Amazonia - typify this situation. A seventh, the Llano Estacado, represents a variant situation: a region that is marginal to the national economy in which it is situated and vulnerable to the world market for cotton on which it has come to depend, but rather than being exploited is subsidized by national agricultural and trade policies.

The situations of agglomerated environmental stressors are typically the inverse of the cases of peripherality and marginality. These regions lie in the economic cores of states, global industrialization, and the world economy. Here environmental degradation is the product of relative success rather than of powerlessness. The environmental threat takes the form of contamination and the overwhelming of sinks by concentrated population, industrialization, and affluence rather than the depletion of local natural resources to support productive systems and extraregional needs. The Basin of Mexico typifies this problem in its mega-city expression, where state policies favouring the expansion of the basin have largely created the trajectory toward criticality. The North Sea example is an international, common-property expression, where successful capitalist economies and the concentration of wealth and affluence threaten to overwhelm common-pool sinks and resources.

These two situations do not, of course, exhaust the spectrum of human-environment relations or trajectories of environmental change and associated regional dynamics. They simply reflect broad but common situations in the nine regions examined here. Variants within these two situations can be detected even in a pool of only nine case-studies, and we are confident that other common situations will emerge if a broader spectrum of cases is examined.

Delay and overshoot

In their seminal work The Limits to Growth and the subsequent Beyond the Limits, Donella Meadows and colleagues (1972,1992) argue that human society has a tendency toward overshoot, in which environmental changes occur rapidly, signals of such changes are late, distorted, or denied, and responses are slow. As a result, environmental degradation overshoots responses, creating the potential for collapse of some kind. We call this pattern - akin to Malthusian themes - one of delay and overshoot.

The nine regional cases provide sufficient evidence for this argument to be disturbing, while adding new perspectives to the interpretation of causation. In all of the nine regions (chosen, to be sure, because they were candidates for endangerment or criticality), societal responses have been delayed and ineffective, often badly so. This is particularly the case with the seven marginal regions, where signals of environmental endangerment have typically been ignored, suppressed, or devalued and environment-society relations have been allowed to continue to deteriorate. The widespread nature of delay and half-hearted, often symbolic or unimplemented, responses provides little basis for optimism that, in the decades to follow the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, existing national policies, programmes, and institutions will prove adequate to the task of meeting mounting environmental change in many regions of the world. To put it another way, most of our regions appear to be in trajectories headed toward endangerment or criticality, with diminishing time for creating effective responses if deteriorating situations are to be stabilized.

It is further evident that societal responses in most of the regions have focused on "downstream" measures, mitigative effects designed to ameliorate damage and cushion the impacts of environmental deterioration on human health and well-being. The reason, as we have noted elsewhere in discussion of hazard management (Kasperson, Kates, and Hohenemser 1985), is that "upstream" intervention unavoidably interferes with the driving forces of change and, by inference, interferes with other desired societal objectives. So, even in the Aral Sea and the Basin of Mexico, where environmental degradation has reached advanced stages or approaches criticality, with human health impacts already apparent, interventions aimed at altering the basic driving forces have yet to be implemented with determination.

The sources of delay

Delays in societal response to hazards and threats of various kinds often stem from inadequacies in the signalling and knowledge base or the high levels of associated uncertainty. Thus, the lengthy emergence of response to global warming and the loss of global biodiversity is connected in no small part to the large uncertainties and long time-spans associated with potential impacts in the former and the scant database for the latter. Hazards research attests to assessment failures as a recurring source of delayed or even maladaptive responses (National Research Council 1983; Royal Society 1983). Indeed, Meadows, Meadows, and Randers (1992) argue that information is the key to the transformation involved in a sustainability revolution.

But not in our cases, apparently. While it is clear that alerting systems and knowledge bases to support well-fashioned societal responses have often been incomplete or even seriously deficient, in none of our cases has this been decisive. Despite the suppression of scientific studies to detail the Aral Sea catastrophe, for example, deliberations at the 1990 International Conference on the Aral Sea revealed a relatively high level of documentation of causes and natural system impacts as well as a well-reasoned programme of needed corrective measures among local officials and independent scientists. A core, albeit incomplete, understanding of the causes and ongoing effects of environmental change is widespread in the nine regions.

Rather, the decisive impediments to effective response typically lie in the domain of political will and political economy. Distant Úlites or consumers who exercise control over driving forces often accept the environmental price exacted by the ongoing exploitation of a peripheral region. A particularly common pattern of impediment is the linkage between state policies aimed at revenue generation in a distant region, implemented and sustained through political corruption involving the local elite. The Aral Sea and the eastern Sundaland are perhaps the most notable cases, but the phenomenon is a generic one found to some degree in many of the regions.

Types of environmental change and societal concern

A key factor in societal response is public awareness of emerging environmental degradation and the ecological and human threats that such degradation poses. Such awareness is obviously essential to resource managers if they are to undertake interventions to alter trajectories of change but also for governments in the allocation of scarce resources among competing objectives and demands.

It has long been noted that public perception of environmental and technological threats is highly variable and often episodic and that extreme events involving extensive media coverage (botulism, nuclear plant accidents, toxic wastes, airplane crashes) stimulate much greater public concern than ubiquitous chronic hazards (smoking, diet, automobile accidents) that are familiar but carry high societal tolls in mortality (Freudenburg 1988; Slovic 1989). Global warming has generated far more public concern and governmental attention than the accumulated toll of widespread water and soil depletion or extensive contamination of the urban environment in the third world (Louis Harris and Associates 1989).

Accordingly, it is not surprising that public awareness has been highly variable among our nine cases. Rapid deforestation appears to have attracted the greatest concern at the international level. Thus, the cutting of tropical forests in Amazonia and Borneo has received extensive media coverage and attention from environmental groups throughout the world despite the fact that the changes do not appear to pose the level of human threat apparent in a number of other regions. Certainly the drama accompanying the destruction of the primary forest and the loss of species, together with the vividness of those changes in television depictions, is an element in the high levels of public concern. Local concern in these areas, meanwhile, has tended to focus more on the economic issues and the pattern of gains and losses associated with resource depletion.

A second source of concern has been environmental degradation leading to demonstrable harm to human health and well-being. Accordingly, although the Aral Sea and Basin of Mexico situations are the most critical of our nine regions, neither generated extensive national and international public concern until the magnitude of the human health threat to the local populace became apparent. Even in 1994 the degree of human impacts was still poorly documented in the Aral Sea and is only now becoming well publicized in the case of Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the serious soil erosion in the Ordos Plateau and the growing vulnerability of agriculturalists in Ukambani and the Nepal middle mountains receive relatively little international attention. It is apparent, as was very evident at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, that global attention to environmental change proceeds along a highly skewed agenda.

Problem construction

The threat associated with environmental degradation must, if it is to elicit societal response, be constructed into a "problem," a mental construct of the threat, its causes and pathways to harmful consequences, and who (if anyone) is to blame for its occurrence. Cultural factors, as Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) and Thompson et al. (1990) have extensively demonstrated, shape pervasively which threats are "selected" as problems and which are relegated to minor concern, and how the problem is culturally constructed. Recent studies have provided further insight into the "mental model" of environmental and technological hazards (e.g. Kasperson and Stallen 1991). These constructions define the terms on which blame is allocated and remedial responses are fashioned.

Two of our cases shed light on problem construction. In eastern Sundaland, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities have made a determination that shifting cultivation is the source of many of those countries' agricultural, economic, and environmental problems. In this view, shifting cultivation causes large areas of land to remain fallow and unproductive, while the basic food crops involved are less reliable (and, of course, provide fewer export earnings for the state) and deliver lower yields than commercial agriculture, ultimately keeping its practitioners in a state of poverty. It also, in this view, eats into primary and late-secondary forest and thus detracts from timber revenues to the state. This problem definition is often erroneous or invalid in particulars, but fits broader state objectives and provides a supporting policy rationale. As such, it is not an independent source of causation (i.e. a driving force or even proximate source of change) but is part of the hazard construction and rationalization in which collective societal responses are lodged.

In Ukambani, colonial officers, drawing in part on the US "Dust Bowl" experience, defined land degradation as a problem of soil erosion and overgrazing in the 1930s. Subsequently, this mutated to the belief that "low agricultural productivity" and "poor cultivation practices" were the culprits. These notions supported the view that agricultural intensification, crop commercialization, and land-tenure reform were the needed corrective measures. This problem construction became important to perceptions of crisis in Ukambani and to the broad-based state programmes of agricultural reform that have occurred. Interestingly, these problem constructions have survived independence in Kenya and continue to underlie state responses to environmental degradation in this region.

The cases suggest that how environmental degradation is socially constructed is an important part of the fabric of societal response, particularly that by the state. It is also apparent that such problem constructions are tightly intertwined with political objectives and the structure of the political economy within these regions.

Capacity to respond

The nine case-studies speak persuasively to the political power of the state, not only as a driving force but also as the major repository of societal response for mitigation. Unfortunately, this inextricable mixture underlines the insight long apparent in social science and policy studies - that government, like industry, is not an effective independent source of intervention to intercept growing environmental degradation in a political economy geared to production objectives. Yet it is clear that the state is the level at which the constellation of resources and capabilities exists for responding to the trajectories of change evident in our nine regions. Correspondingly, the ability of subnational regions to undertake environmental mitigation in the nine regions, with the exceptions of the North Sea and the Basin of Mexico, has been highly limited because the control over driving forces is lodged at scales beyond the region. Societal response, then, is a matter of the possible, and that is often mitigative, ameliorative, or adaptive responses. While these are frequently underestimated in their short-term effectiveness, as we note below, they also have only limited impact on the long-term course of nature-society trajectories.

Many human factors are involved in the societal capacity to respond to growing environmental degradation, including such diverse attributes as scientific and technological resources, wealth, legal and regulatory regimes, degree of national indebtedness, institutional infrastructure, public environmental values, degree of militarism, and democratic development. The Agenda 21 initiatives that seek to implement and further the initiatives adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit emphasize the development of national scientific and institutional capabilities (United Nations 1992). But our cases suggest that, important as these issues are, the capacity to respond rests more centrally on political will and the ability to bring state objectives and environmental protection into greater consonance.

Of course, at some juncture in the trajectory toward environmental criticality, the sheer scale and rate of change of the problem and the growing urgency (and time limitations) for response threaten to eclipse even the state's resources and ability to mobilize needed efforts and capabilities within the time-frame of potential stabilization. This is the situation in the Aral Sea region and, albeit at an earlier stage, the Basin of Mexico.

Common-property regimes

The growing importance of the global economy, the emergence of international legal and institutional regimes for the environment, and increasing concern over human alteration of natural fluxes in the earth's biosphere have focused greater attention on the potential societal responses in common-property regimes (Berkes 1989; McCay and Acheson 1987; Ostrom 1990). The studies of the Nepal middle mountains and the Ukambani region of Kenya suggest the increasing vulnerability of regional populations that may accompany the transformation from traditional common-property arrangements to privatization and commercialization. But only the North Sea case explores the emergence of common-property arrangements to address the misfit between the international scope of many environmental problems in this case the overwhelming of natural sinks by contamination and the political patterning of the globe.

There is much that is encouraging in the North Sea case. After three decades of scientific investigations, the North Sea is now the subject of an emerging governance system for the sea commons, in the form of the International North Sea Conferences. The emerging institutional responses promise to define new management principles and structures for responding to the growing internationalization of environmental challenges. At the same time, the case suggests how important affluence, relative international equality, developed environmental capabilities and values, and political will are likely to be for such governance systems. These are exactly the attributes that are in precious short supply in all of our third world cases and in global environmental tensions more generally.

With these comparative observations about trajectories, driving forces, vulnerability, and societal response, we now turn to some conclusions about the more general questions suggested by this nine-region study.

The larger issues

In this chapter we have noted many of the specific cross-cutting findings and issues relevant to understanding environmental change in various endangered or critical regions of the world. We conclude with several broad implications for global response.

Global environmental change through a regional lens

Discussions of global environmental change abound with long-term world population growth, aggregate loss of global biodiversity, world energy use and non-renewable resources, and international summit conferences and institutions to combat these large-scale changes. Environmental problems take on a different hue at the regional scale. It is not, of course, that the issues and their causes so apparent at the global scale are not present in the world's regions; they are. But the change depicted in the smooth averaged curves that portray global trends is placed in much sharper relief in the world's regions. And the mosaic and processes of change often appear very different from the averaged or even dominant global trends. The regional landscape, economies, and cultures reappear and can provide new insights or challenges to broader assumptions and interpretations.

The picture of environmental change in the nine regions treated in this volume is one in which regions have been selected because they are widely regarded as environmentally threatened to some degree. Thus, they may not indicate the more general nature-society situation prevailing in the diversity of the world's regions. But the trajectories of change in these threatened areas provide a warning, one that supplements those recent discoveries or events such as stratospheric ozone depletion or mounting levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the global scale. In nearly all these regions, trajectories of change are proceeding to greater endangerment, sometimes rapidly so, while societal efforts to stabilize these trajectories and to avert further environmental deterioration are lagging and are generally only ameliorating the damage rather than intercepting the basic human driving forces of change.

This is not to say that disaster is imminent in most of these regions, although we judge the Aral Sea already to be an environmental catastrophe and the Basin of Mexico as rapidly nearing criticality. It is to say that the trajectories of change in most of these regions are rapidly outstripping societal responses, that the future populations who will occupy these regions are being environmentally impoverished by these trends, and that the trajectories suggest growing long-term costs of regional substitution, adaptation, and remedial measures. At some indeterminable point in the future, these trends will also eclipse regional societal capabilities to respond.

A rich tapestry of human causation

At the regional level, the pattern of human causation is richly variegated. Rarely can a single dominant human driving force be discerned that explains the historical emergence of environmental degradation or that captures the complexity of change. Nor do the various grand theories, whether they arise from welfare economics, political economy, neo-Marxist thinking, global dependency models, or development theory; provide satisfying broad interpretations, although all have elements to contribute. So what we term the regional dynamics of change - the interplay among the trends of environmental change, vulnerabilities and fragility, human driving forces, and societal responses - must be examined within their cultural, economic, and ecological contexts. And the most satisfying interpretations invariably recognize the shifting complexes of driving forces and responses over time, tap diverse social science theory, and are firmly grounded in careful empirical work.

Increasing global integration

The mosaic of global change is increasingly the product of the growing linkages between regional productive systems and the global economy, between small states and international financial and development institutions, between local aspirations and the value systems and lifestyles of advanced industrial societies, and between the exporters and importers of technological change. Global markets facilitate increasing agricultural specialization in the Aral Sea region, in the Nepal middle mountains, and in Ukambani in Kenya, while international markets for timber facilitate the cutting of the Amazonian and Borneo forests. But, just as these global market opportunities are a key ingredient in the complex of driving forces and, along with state policies of resource extraction and revenue production, the shapers of regional dependency and vulnerability, they are also the levers for restructuring and the sources of more promising environmental futures.

Accordingly, regional trajectories of change and associated regional dynamics can be understood only in the context of changing extraregional linkages. Simultaneously, changes in the global economy and trade policies, such as GATT, have a major environmental fallout for the world's regions.

Needed focus

These issues raise basic questions about whether emerging international efforts to combat global environmental degradation have the necessary focus to be effective. The interim results reported on in this volume suggest that substantial regional tailoring of initiatives will be required. To this end, the regional structure emerging under the Global Change System for Analysis, Research, and Training (START) programme is promising, for only a strongly regionally based structure of programmes and development efforts is likely to succeed.

Beyond this, several other elements for the required focus in global initiatives, such as START and the World Environmental Facility of the World Bank, may be suggested:

• The problems of systemic global environmental change (e.g. climate change, ozone depletion) so dominant in media attention and public concern in the North and at the 1992 Earth Summit may not be the dominant problems immediately confronting the environmentally endangered regions of the world. Rather, cumulative global environmental change involving land degradation, localized environmental contamination, water depletion, and so on are the ongoing changes that most imperil the people living in these endangered areas and the priority, therefore, for early interventions for international mitigative efforts.

• Frontier areas that are marginal to state economies and polities and/ or that are strongly dependent on the global economy appear particularly vulnerable to environmental change and often powerless to intervene in driving forces whose sources frequently lie outside the affected region. Five of our nine regions fall into this category. These are likely to prove particularly difficult to stabilize as often they either are of low priority in the political units in which they are located or are expendable for other state objectives. In either case, outside intervention, as the cases of Amazonia and Borneo suggest, is likely to be strongly resisted.

• Areas of agglomerated stress, such as mega-cities, bring together in dramatic concentration many of the traditional driving forces of population and economic growth and affluence with the complex of contributing factors in spatial linkage and political economy. Typically, the rates of change are proceeding at an extraordinary pace that challenges capabilities of assessment and societal response. The threats involved include both the ongoing depletion of regional and more distant natural resources to support these vast population agglomerations and the overwhelming of local environmental sinks. While urbanization and industrialization are often subsidized by the state, the appearance of metropols of 20 million or more people, continuing to grow very rapidly and increasingly dependent on imported resources and technological change to combat ongoing environmental degradation, involves a relentless increase in the risk of eventual collapse from unanticipated futures.

Discrepancies in rates of change

As noted above, the regional dynamics of change in the nine regions reveal a recurring disjuncture between the fast rate of environmental change and the slow pace of societal response. Interestingly, the global scale reveals a much more mixed picture where societal responses to such changes as stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, and industrial accidents have often been quite rapid, if less than totally effective. Still, signals of environmental threat have been processed with considerable speed and coping actions undertaken. But the trajectories of change in the nine regions provide considerable confirmation of the argument of overshoot put forth by Donella Meadows and her colleagues (1972, 1992). Only in Amazonia, the North Sea, the Ordos Plateau, parts of Sundaland, and perhaps Ukambani do responses appear to have some potential for stabilization or at least a significant "flattening" in the trajectory toward greater endangerment or criticality. But the dominant situation is one of divergence in the rates of environmental change and societal response, promising increasing environmental impoverishment of future populations and ascending costs of the substitution and mitigative efforts that must eventually occur. And the primary causes for disjuncture lie less in inadequacies in scientific understanding than in socio-political structures, institutions, and processes.

Global capability inequity

The 1992 Earth Summit addressed with determined attention the broad issues associated with capacity-building in developing countries (United Nations 1992). Agenda 21 calls for national assessments of capabilities and for specific initiatives and programmes needed for strengthening such capabilities. Involved are not only scientific and financial resources, but the infrastructure of institutions required to formulate and implement national programmes of sustainable development.

The nine case-studies in this volume underscore the importance of these initiatives. Among the various inequities that cause and structure the global pattern of environmental degradation and associated human harm, two stand out. First is the array of human driving forces in which inequalities in wealth, differential stages of development, patterns of debt, world poverty, and a global economy shape a continuing unequal distribution of environmental impoverishment, endangerment, and criticality. Second is the highly variable capability to anticipate, assess, and respond to this degradation (Agarwal and Narain 1991; South Commission 1990). Early and effective efforts to bring trajectories of economic development and long-term environmental protection into consonance are highly cost-effective as well as protective of generations yet to be born. But such efforts are also an outcome of levels of minimal wellbeing, requisite institutional and scientific capabilities, and political will. The North Sea case, when placed in the context of the eight developing-country regions, suggests that the differential capability to respond to emerging environmental degradation is no less important than the levels of degradation found throughout the South. Such differences are likely to widen rather than narrow and will require major initiatives if differential response is not to exacerbate rather than ameliorate other global inequities.


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