The United Nations General Assembly has instructed the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme to keep the world environmental situation under review. In 1982, 10 years after the UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm, the first comprehensive report on the state of the global environment is being published. The present paper, by the Editors of that Report, summarizes its main findings. It first reviews changes in the sectors of The Biosphere (while recognizing that the interlinkages between them have been stressed increasingly during the past decade), before turning to the human components of the total Man—environment system.
In the atmosphere, rising carbon dioxide concentrations, acidification of rain and snow in or by industrial regions, and stratospheric ozone depletion, remain the chief concerns, although the last has not yet been demonstrated instrumentally. In the oceans, pollution (including oil) has not been shown to have more than a local impact on ecosystems, and overall fishery yields have continued to rise slowly and erratically despite some overexploitation. The world's freshwater resources are better known than in 1970, and pollution control and the prevention of problems in irrigated agriculture have advanced; but the targets of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade appear less attainable as time passes. Mineral production rose without a concomitant increase in environmental damage. Changes in terrestrial life—especially loss of tropical forests—were the subject of widely varying estimates. Food production rose, but fell short of needs in many areas, while desertification, waterlogging, salinization, pest-resistance, post-harvest crop-losses, and the side-effects of agricultural chemicals, remained serious problems.
The dominance of the human element in the Manenvironment system was increasingly recognized during the decade. Human population growth slowed somewhat, except in Africa, although the world total passed 4,400 millions in 1980. The cities of the developing world expanded rapidly, outstripping public services and threatening new problems. In the Third World, infectious and parasitic diseases remained major killers, whereas hypertension, coronary heart disease, and cancers—some due to self-inflicted influence—dominated the statistics in developed nations: environmental factors remained important in both. The 1970s showed that industrial growth could occur without environmental damage or unacceptable cost. The energy crisis of 1974 had a serious impact on developing countries with strategies based on cheap oil, and firewood shortages led to severe environmental problems there also: in contrast, many developed countries were able to adjust their energy plans with only moderate difficulty.
Transport and international tourism grew dramatically during the decade, consuming energy and land, and inspiring countermeasures to curb pollution, increase safety, and avoid social and environmental disturbances in areas that were frequented by many visitors. Environmental education schemes expanded—especially in developed countries, where the coverage of environmental issues in popular media grew dramatically between 1960 and 1970, falling back subsequently. The environmental impact of past wars and increasing military preparations caused concern, and the arms race continued to absorb resources that developing countries could ill afford.
Reviewing the decade, four dominant trends can be recognized. First, scientific and popular interest in environmental protection have come together to form a new kind of conservation movement. Second, there has been a data explosion in the environmental field, but much of the information is of limited value in assessing trends or as a foundation for decisions and actions. Third, new understanding of the structure and functioning of environmental systems offers a prospect of more reliable planning. Fourth and finally, it has become apparent that the lack of social organization, education, training, and political will, are commonly the limiting factors in environmental improvement, rather than a shortage of scientific knowledge.