The Environment Since 1970
by Jesse H. Ausubel, David G. Victor, and Iddo K. Wernik
In the minds of many, 1970 marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement, symbolized by the first
observance of "Earth Day" in the spring of that year. In the ensuing quarter century we have built personal computers and
engineered genes. We have ended the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and apartheid in South Africa. And we have felt deepening
environmental concern, punctuated by drought in the Sahel, accidents in Bhopal and Chernobyl, and spilt oil in France,
Ireland, and Alaska.
It would seem a good time to take stock of what has happened in these twenty-five years insofar as the environment is
concerned. This review considers environmental change in three ways. The first assesses the underlying forces of economic
and population growth. The second includes indicators of the environment itself. The third examines changes in management
and institutions. In all cases, we seek quantifiable, objective measures while recognizing that not all important changes are or
can be measured. We deal mainly with averages over large areas and the twenty-five year period under consideration.
Averages by definition sum fluctuations and mix the bad and sad with the good and happy. We observe what people have
done rather than what they say. We recognize the great interest in changes in moods and attitudes with respect to the
environment. These may generate and amplify the actions on which we report. However, we limit ourselves here to a factual
survey of phenomena that can be recognized and counted in a relatively impartial way.
The data on which we rely are mostly collected by national governments. They are compiled periodically in reports of the
U.S. government, United Nations organizations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the
World Resources Institute, and other groups. The most important of the sources are identified at the end of the article.
Underlying Forces of Environmental Change
In 1970 the population of the Earth was estimated at 3.7 billion. In 1995 it is believed to have reached 5.7 billion, with more
than 90 percent of the growth in developing countries. Population growth slowed in the last two and a half decades, but only
to a rate that leads demographers to hope that global population may eventually stabilize between double and triple current
levels. While in 1970 about 65 percent of the world's population remained rural, by 1995 that fraction had dropped to 55
percent, with the ever-growing remainder concentrated in towns and cities. Urbanization has been fastest in developing
countries, where cities grew by almost one billion people. The continuing heavy toll from "natural" disasters is strongly
associated with large and growing populations in risk-prone areas, such as flood plains and low-lying coastal regions. The
frequency of natural hazards, such as earthquakes and severe storms, has not changed, nor has their apparent take of human