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The Life-Support Systems of Life Itself : STATE OF THE WORLD 1988 : A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society : by Lester R. Brown et al (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 237 pp.)

April 24, 1988|Connie Koenenn | Koenenn is a Times staff writer

A"sustainable" society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.

At present, our society is not sustainable. We are borrowing from the future in a runaway binge of chopping, burning, draining and poisoning, leaving a wake of leaking landfills, oozing lagoons, sludges, slags and waste plastic.

No one monitors this ecological rampage more rigorously than Lester Brown's Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, which likes to describe its research as "giving the earth an annual physical examination, checking its vital signs."

The vital signs, in this fifth report from Brown and his staff, are not encouraging. The patient is sinking steadily, say Worldwatch researchers who compile information on ecology, population, agriculture, transportation and other key areas for this ongoing global pulse-taking.

In the opening paragraphs, Brown summarizes the planet's deteriorating condition--shrinking forests, expanding deserts and eroding soils--and assures citizens that there are measures we can take to counteract these trends if we act fast. But we must act fast. "Time is short, since the deterioration of such life-support systems seems to be accelerating."

This bad news/good news/bad news drumbeat, utilized throughout the book, sounds a cumulative alarm, heightened for the reader by the impingement of contemporary events. New scientific measurings of a thinning ozone layer caused by the manufactured chemical chlorofluorocarbons, and of rising global temperatures, possibly signifying the Greenhouse Effect caused by carbon dioxide and other industrial gasses, are making Page 1 news these days. Both are potentially disastrous. The Worldwatch Institute is not crying "wolf."

Like its predecessors, the fifth report is written in straightforward, textual fashion--the language is cool and objective. The 10 chapters are loaded with information, clearly outlined, heavily documented with charts and tables and laced with attention-getting boxed summary statements:

--"As much energy leaks through American windows every year as flows through the Alaska pipeline."

--"For the majority of women in many developing countries, contraceptive methods remain unavailable, inaccessible, or inappropriate."

--"More than one-fifth of Europe's forests are now damaged."

--"The Third World spends more than four times as much on weaponry and upkeep of military forces as it does on health care."

--"The Reagan vision of a perfect defense (SDI) is an illusion." Three chapters deal with a central cause of many of the Earth's health problems--the energy paths that power our economies while damaging thehealth of lakes, forests and human beings, not to mention altering the climate by adding 5.4 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year. (That's more than a ton for each person on the planet.)

The question that comes up repeatedly for energy policy-makers, says the report, is this: If not coal, and if not nuclear, then what?

There are alternatives, which Worldwatch describes as "simple but potentially revolutionary." The report prescribes greatly improved energy efficiency in the short run, complemented by renewable energy in the long run.

This is not impossible. The study documents examples of success over a 12-year period, ranging from 6% efficiency increase in Australia and Canada and 23% in the United States to Japan's 31%. Interestingly, some vast improvements have been made without radical policy change, simply utilizing a "backlog of efficient technologies" in designing power plants and steel mills, office buildings, autos and home appliances.

On a longer range, the authors outline progress in shifting to renewable energy, noting with hope that "wind, sunlight, flowing water, plants and forests are examples of seemingly perpetual energy sources."

Subsequent chapters deal with the growing problems, and possible solutions, of a massive shrinking of the Earth's forests, a large-scale extinction of plant and animal life, the excessive use of pesticides in agriculture, and global population growth. The crises may seem overwhelming, but there are models for recovery, and the book's final chapter outlines steps that can be taken to redirect the world into a sustainable development path. It will take a massive reordering of priorities, large-scale policy adjustments and a quantum leap in international cooperation on the scale of post-World War II's Marshall Plan.

"If our future is to be environmentally and economically sustainable, many adjustments will have to be made," concludes the report. "It will not be enough that we care. We must also act."

Without being preachy, "State of the World" is simultaneously an indictment of global stewardship and an exhortation for reform.

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