About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
UNEP Website GEO Home Page

Veering towards breakdown

Government efforts to tackle environmental and social problems are generally late in coming and ineffective in scope. Furthermore, governments use much of their power to protect the economic interests of national and corporate enterprises to which they are increasingly tied. NGOs and other groups in civil society find themselves focusing more and more on short-term crises, rather than working to influence long-term development patterns.

This trend is epitomized by the collapse of the Antarctic Treaty system, a result of pressure from non-claimant states and non-state actors, coupled with the failure of claimant states to reach agreement on resource exploitation and environmental protection. There is a rush to exploit the region's mineral and marine living assets, including freshwater in the form of ice. This free-for-all does not mean equal access for all groups, as the more powerful states and large corporations still exert dominance. Exploitation of resources by these groups also speeds up in the Arctic. There, the impacts have an important social element as native peoples gain little benefit. Although many people move north to take part in the expanded economic activity, most income flows out of the region.

As the decade proceeds, the effects of the erosion of institutions at the international and national levels become more apparent. If the first decade was a period of muddling through, this is one of stumbling and serious falls. Conflicts in various parts of the world never coalesce to form what might be called a Third World War. They do, however, escalate in particular regions and at particular times to destabilize nations. Of even more concern to some is the sporadic use of chemical, biological and other non-conventional weapons. The sheer numbers of refugees also creates severe problems in neighbouring (mainly noncombatant) states. The ability of international institutions such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to cope with these events has been compromised by reductions in support, leaving them overwhelmed.

These conflicts, along with enduring economic weaknesses and environmental deterioration, affect regions further afield, as migration pressures increase throughout the world. These pressures stem not only from factors within regions forcing migration, but also from tantalizing images broadcast by the media that lure them elsewhere. The response of the receiving countries is mixed, with some more open to new immigrants than others. Over time, however, even the countries and regions with relatively open borders begin clamping down as they focus on problems at home.

Some of these problems spring from recurrent economic malaise. In North America, Europe and parts of Asia and the Pacific, part of the problem is the declining size of workforces. Allowing highly educated and skilled workers from other regions to immigrate eases this shortage somewhat. Unfortunately the deterioration of educational opportunities in many regions has reduced the availability of such workers. From the perspective of their home regions, the departure of even a small number of skilled migrant workers represents a significant loss of indigenous capacity. The repercussions affect economic and political stability, further widening the gap between have and have-not nations.

Environmental changes and events also have widespread effects, in wealthy and poorer regions alike. The impacts of climate change and variability become more apparent. The gradual rise in sea level is punctuated by severe storms that cause heavy damage to coastal (and even some inland) areas. In Europe, North America and the wealthier parts of Asia and the Pacific, the financial losses are staggering, even if there are no dramatic losses of life. Re-financing on a huge scale, not only to recover the losses where possible, but also to prepare for future events, diverts important resources from other parts of the economy.

In other regions, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean, and the poorer parts of Asia and the Pacific, the loss of life is significant and the financial losses seriously damage economies. After the immediate clean-up, there is little funding left to make ravaged areas less vulnerable in the future. Elsewhere, droughts are adding to water stress, already on the increase because of runaway growth in water demand. This shortfall cripples agriculture in many parts of West Asia and Africa, where it directly menaces the very survival of many people and increases regional tensions, and also in North America, where it tips the balance in favour of pursuing risky, large-scale water transfer projects.

Many sectors bear the mark of developments in the areas of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Difficulties in mastering these new technologies are made worse by a drop in public funding for research and development. Finance for these purposes is now concentrated in the hands of private firms that are biased in favour of those applications that will yield the highest profits. Minimal social and environmental safeguards characterize the early phases of biotechnology development.

Significant advances are achieved in medicine, agriculture and environmental clean-up technologies, but detrimental side effects also arise. These include accidental releases, illicit use by terrorist groups, epidemics among human and animal populations and negative impacts on various plant species. Attacks on biotechnology trials by eco-terrorists and pro-nature activists further complicate matters. Ultimately, a clampdown on research and application trials is imposed by governments and key firms involved in these fields.

The net result is a slowdown in advances in those areas with potentially the highest impacts for the broadest section of society, such as the production of food crops. In combination with the deterioration of arable land in many areas, food stocks fall perpetually short in some regions. Cutbacks in foreign assistance have left relief agencies unable to handle many of the resulting crises. In general, conventional forms of development aid decline and poverty rises.

'The global economy remains stratified and fails to embrace the billions who are economically and politically marginalized . traditional livelihoods and communities also erode.'

Little action is taken to alleviate the debt burden of poorer nations. The global economy remains stratified and fails to embrace the billions who are economically and politically marginalized. This split is deepened by institutions of international trade that focus on freeing up markets in developing countries, without also doing so in industrialized regions. The flow of new technology and training from the industrialized countries also declines.

Not only are the poor excluded from the new economy, but also traditional livelihoods and communities erode as global markets penetrate peripheral regions, seeking cheap labour and control of resources. In poorer countries especially, economies increasingly come under the control of transnational corporations. In parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, this takeover is very clearly seen in the commercial exploitation of biological resources with little compensation for the majority of the people in these regions.

The drawdown of fiscal resources of the state treasury in poor countries leads to disintegration of social and civic services. In particular, systems of education, especially higher education, collapse. This deepens the divide between the rich and the poor and exacerbates absolute poverty. Furthermore, as a result of cutbacks in public provision of education, much of the alternative schooling that is available is laden with prejudicial seeds of intolerance and violence.

As conditions worsen in many places the excluded grow increasingly restive. Many seek their fortunes in exploding mega-cities. The pace of urbanization puts extra strain on already overextended infrastructures, leading to more problems with air pollution and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Limited economic opportunities in cities foster the growth of organized crime. In an atmosphere of despair, illegal drugs find ready markets. Many of the poor try to migrate to rich countries and rising numbers of them resort to illegal entry. The stream of people on the move grows into a river of the desperate flowing (both within and across national boundaries) towards the wealthy areas. Affluent groups respond with growing xenophobia and oppressive policing of borders. Social polarization spreads and extremists and terrorist groups find ready recruits.

In this atmosphere of rising social, environmental and economic tension, violence is endemic. Poor countries begin to fragment as civil order collapses and various forms of criminal anarchy fill the vacuum. War and environmental degradation lead to massive movements of refugees in some regions. Environmental changes and overloaded infrastructures also favour another kind of migrant; new and resurgent infectious diseases and the vectors that carry them.