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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Vital Signs Vol 20

TITLE: Vital Signs, Volume 20: The Trends that are Shaping Our Future
AUTHOR: Worldwide Institute
PUBLISHER:  Washington DC: Island Press, 2013, (168 pages).

What are the trends in the future? What are the signs and what makes them so vital that it has to be included in this book? These are questions I ask as I began reading this book.  Since 1992, the Worldwide institute, based in Washington DC has been keeping watch on signs that will affect the future of the earth and the people who live on it. Presenting articles that first appeared at the Worldwatch Institute website, each volume brings together research and findings from a group of dedicated contributors. This edition is the fruit of 23 researchers. In this volume, the focus is on the world's production and consumption trends for energy, food, transportation, and rising demand for earth's resources. Aware that there is a price for progress and development, the Worldwide Institute calls it "vital signs" from a sustainability and a responsible stewardship of earth's resources perspective. 

One thing that is stark is that for every benefit there is a cost. For every meeting of a demand, there is a cry for a greater demand. For every additional investment for energy resources, there is an exponential demand for energy, especially fossil fuels. For every increase in food production, there is also an increase in waste production. For every step of advancement, there is a price in terms of depletion of earth's resources. The link is also complicated by advancement that is closely associated with economic progress for the poorer nations as well as social conditions. With many poorer countries trying to attain the progress of the West, they soon learn that every benefit will have their costs too.

The solution must be both scientific as well as institutional. Science and technical know-how can only do so much. There must be infrastructures in place for implementation and distribution of these knowledge and skills. Five key trends are highlighted in the book.

1) Energy and Transportation Trends

There is a mixture of good and bad news for oil. The good news is, the rate of consumption has gone down. The bad news is, consumption levels are still high. Impact is felt whenever problems occur in the Middle East. The projected trend is for Canada's oil sands production to increase even as the conventional oil producers maintain production at a steady level. Any slowdown in oil consumption is well negated by the increase in coal and gas use. Then there is China whose coal consumption currently ranks at number 1 in the world accounting for 49.4% of the world's consumption. Not only that, China also leads in terms of wind power, with several new power projects installed. Thankfully, progress is also made in funding for non-fossil fuel research and development of renewable energy supplies. This is an area to watch for.

2) Environment and Climate Trends

Development usually comes at a cost, and green house gas emissions and CO2 production are some of them. With regards to China, there is a double whammy. Not only has China overtaken the US in terms of CO2 emissions, she still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to funding for "Carbon Capture and Storage Investment" projects. The CCSI projects are considered important for the environment from an anti-pollution standpoint. Critics argue that such projects also consume lots of of energy which somewhat cancels out the good it is trying to achieve.

3) Food and Agriculture Trends

Used for human consumption, animal feed, as well as biofuels, annual grain production has reached a record high of 2.37 billion tons. These include rice, wheat, and coarse grains. Weather challenges continue to threaten production. Projects are currently being undertaken to protect and to support the farming industry, especially vulnerable farmers. With disease and drought, meat consumption has tapered with a smaller increase. Most popular meat is pork followed by poultry. The United States is still the largest consumer of meat in the world and Asia the largest producer. Statistics also show chicken as the most popular in the US, South Africa. In China, Germany, Vietnam, pork ranks #1. India consumes the most milk while Brazil the most beef. 

Then there is seafood where "aquaculture" tries to fill in the insatiable appetite for various seafood. Both wild and farmed seafood continue to grow, with "aquaculture" currently meeting up to 40% of the world's fish consumption. Research also shows that wild fish stocks are dangerously unsustainable with about 57.4% fisheries fully exploited. With rising fish production comes environmental concerns too, like degradation of marine habitats; antibiotics use; introduction of invasive species; illegal fishing; etc. One bright spark in the report is the positive impact of organic farming, especially in Europe. These initiatives have reduced the need for harmful fertilizers and pesticides. There is also an interesting report on the investing on women farmers who together help produce nearly half of all food production. This is especially for those who are not fully compensated in poor regions. .

4) Global Economy and Resources Trends

There is an alarming wage gap widening as wages fail to keep pace with productivity. Countries in Europe such as Norway, Belgium, and Germany lead the way in fair compensation. Countries at the bottom half include Philippines, Mexico, Hungary, and Brazil. Solid waste production continues to grow. with the OECD countries together producing more than 1.5 million tonnes of waste per day! Losses due to natural catastrophes are also very high. Japan tops the list where the earthquake and tsunami have cost US$2.1 billion. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and drought from the other regions of the world helped create total losses of US$3530 billion of which only $870 billion are insured. Water scarcity is in the radar. One-fifth of the world are living in water scarcity areas. Arab countries have the least water availability while North America has the most.

There is an interesting report that talks about the increase in Internet advertising and marketing. The comment in the report talks not about the Internet displacing directly the traditional avenues like print, TV commercials, billboards, etc. It observes that "consumers grow overexposed to advertising" and prefer more subtle approaches through blogs, social media, and selective product placements.

5) Population and Society Trends

We have all heard about migration. What about "climate change migration" where harsh weather conditions have forced migration around the world. Take Bangladesh for example, where people have grown accustomed to recurring floods. Most people outside have concentrated on sensational headlines such as people being forced to move from low levels to higher plains, but have failed to account for the human resilience of the people to tough it out.  Migration is less possible with lands that are steeped in poverty. Many developing countries continue to seek a better world like the developed West. Eighty-Two percent of the world's populations currently live in the developing world. Many of them are in Asia which also boasts megacities that are crowded, and have a huge appetite for energy, food, and other resources. The biggest megacity is Japan with 37 million people followed by Delhi (22.7m) and Mexico City (20.7m). Los Angeles is the most populated North American city at 13.4m and Istanbul is tops the list for Europe at 11.3m. The poorest regions, represented by slum areas are countries in the Sub-Sahara Africa, South and East Asia.  

If you are interested in trends and numbers, this book has a lot of them not only to whet your appetite, but to get you thinking about the way our world is heading. The usual observations are there. Consumption of resources are rising, while earth ability to sustain these levels are decreasing. The developing world continues to increase in food production and population. So do there consumption, waste, and pollution levels. There are many other things that are left out in the trending report. What about education levels? What about the technological industry? What about medical sciences? What about the pharmaceutical research? What about the state of the political and social trends?

Perhaps, in a future volume, these and others will be covered. Richly informational, this book is not just about numbers and trends. It is about the future of us and our loved ones living in an increasingly globalized world. This alone is reason alone to pick up this book.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Island Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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