Worldwatch Institute

Is Our System of Government Incapable of Meeting the Challenges We Face?

The following is excerpted from The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Possible by the Worldwatch Institute. Copyright 2013 by the Worldwatch Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

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Can We Change the World Just by Changing Our Own Actions?

The following is excerpted from The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Possible by the Worldwatch Institute. Copyright 2013 by the Worldwatch Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

Keep reading... Show less

Dust in the Wind

Coughing her way downriver on a slow boat to Timbuktu, Ginger Garrison is a little out of her element. As Bozo tribesmen pull catfish from the Niger River and boatmen pole their dugout canoes through the midday gloom, the strong winter wind known as the harmattan lifts clouds of fine red dust into the air, and into the eyes and lungs of people throughout the dry North African region known as the Sahel.

The only breathing difficulty Garrison, a marine ecologist, usually has to worry about is emptying her scuba tank too fast in the gin-clear, bathtub-warm waters of Virgin Islands National Park in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Garrison, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher whose work has focused for nearly 20 years on Caribbean coral reefs, has come here to Mali seeking a source of one of the most widespread ecological collapses ever documented.

An ocean away from the Sahel, coral reef ecosystems around the Caribbean are dying, and scientists are beginning to think that dust from Africa is playing a major role in their collapse. Overfishing, sedimentation, and direct damage from boats and divers, among other threats, have combined with pathogens, climate changes, and hurricanes to severely degrade reefs around the region. Diseases and bleaching have decimated once-dominant species like staghorn and elkhorn corals, longspine sea urchins, and sea fans. Few species or sites have recovered, and carpets of algae—flourishing in the aftermath of overfishing and die-offs of sea urchins and other algae-eaters—now dominate many Caribbean reefs.

Yet researchers remain puzzled by the decline of reefs in apparently pristine stretches of the Caribbean, far from the usual suspects behind coral decline. "We really don’t understand why this is happening on a regional level, and it’s happening not only in areas where there are a lot of people, it’s also happening on remote reefs. Why?" asks Garrison.

Ever since Charles Darwin noted "the falling of impalpably fine dust" while crossing the Atlantic during his famous scientific voyage aboard the Beagle, seafarers and researchers have observed African particulates far out to sea. But most studies of atmospheric dust have focused on its potential impacts on the global climate. Only recently have researchers begun exploring the possibility that the hundreds of millions of tons of African topsoil blown by prevailing winds to the Caribbean each year might be having direct, harmful effects on ecosystems and people there.

Dust reaching the opposite shore of the Atlantic is nothing new. Haze from the Sahel occasionally reduces visibility and reddens sunsets from Miami to Caracas, and is the source of up to half the particulates in Miami’s summertime air. Pre-Columbian pottery in the Bahamas is made of windborne deposits of African clay; orchids and other epiphytes growing in the rainforest canopy of the Amazon depend on African dust for a large share of their nutrients.

Joseph Prospero of the University of Miami has tracked dust falling on Barbados, at the far eastern edge of the Caribbean, since 1965. He discovered a sharp increase in dustfall around 1970, coinciding with the onset of prolonged drought in North Africa. The changed African climate, combined with widespread overgrazing of livestock and the spread of destructive, often export-oriented farming practices in the Sahel, were sending vastly greater quantities of exposed soil into the sky. In peak years, winds now drop four times more dust on Barbados than they did before 1970. Satellite photos of the largest dust event ever recorded, in February 2000, show a continuous dust bridge connecting Africa and the Americas.

In the late 1990s, Gene Shinn and other researchers with USGS noted that benchmark events in the prolonged, Caribbean-wide decline of coral reefs—like the arrival of coral black band disease in 1973, mass dieoffs of staghorn and elkhorn corals and sea urchins in 1983, and coral bleaching beginning in 1987—occurred during peak dust years.

Researchers have since found a variety of live bacteria and fungus in dust hitting the Caribbean, defying conventional wisdom among microbiologists that microbes could not survive a five-day trip three miles up in the atmosphere. "Swarms of live locusts made it all the way across alive in 1988 and landed in the Windward Islands," Shinn says. "If one-inch grasshoppers can make it, I imagine almost anything can make it." A 2001 study by USGS researchers found that the number of viable fungus and bacteria in Caribbean air is two to three times higher during dust events than during normal weather conditions.

Although the vast majority of diseases afflicting coral have not been identified (beyond descriptions of the symptoms they cause), scientists have linked dust to at least one specific coral-killing microbe. Garriet Smith and colleagues at the University of South Carolina have identified the pathogen behind the mass die-offs of sea fans, the graceful soft corals of the Caribbean, as Aspergillus sydowii—a soil fungus that does not reproduce in salt water. In the very first sample of airborne dust from the Virgin Islands that Ginger Garrison sent to Smith, he found live Aspergillus sydowii in its pathogenic form, among many other microorganisms. The fungal disease may also enter the sea in local runoff from deforested areas, but dust studies have established African dust storms as its most plausible source on isolated reefs and near small islands with no forests and little runoff.

In addition to carrying living hitchhikers, clouds of African dust bring intense pulses of nutrients like iron and nitrates that may be stimulating harmful algal blooms and the rapid growth of both coral-smothering algae and microbes that cause coral diseases. Microbiologist Hans Paerl of the University of North Carolina calls the dust—composed of aluminum, silicon, iron, phosphates, nitrates, and sulfates—"Geritol for bugs."

The dust is not so healthy for humans, if only because the fine particles irritate the respiratory tract and can lodge themselves deep in lung tissue. Researchers have barely begun looking into the health effects of overseas African dust but already have some provocative findings. For example, they have found pesticides banned for use in the United States mixed in with dust particles too small for human lungs to expel. "When they have locust plagues in Africa, we get chlordane and DDT that we can’t use here anymore, but it comes back to us on the wind," Shinn says.

There may be other unhealthy substances adhering to the particles as well: some studies suggest the dust carries high concentrations of beryllium-7, a radioactive isotope that appears to adhere to dust particles as they travel through the atmosphere. While seeking medical care for her respiratory tract infection in Mali’s capital of Bamako, Ginger Garrison asked around and found that lung problems are terribly common in Mali during the dust season. After the seasonal floods of the Niger River recede and its banks dry, mud—mixed with raw sewage, human and animal waste, and miscellaneous garbage left behind—turns to dust. "Microbes, synthetic organics, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, you name it," Garrison explains. "Then the winds come, and it’s a perfect avenue to take those substances aloft, often north toward Europe or west toward the United States." She also observed the ubiquitous garbage burning and wonders what carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, or heavy metals from garbage burning might also find their way into the atmosphere with dust. She hopes to set up a second monitoring station near Bamako to look for heavy metals and synthetic chemicals like DDT, in addition to the station she set up in late 2000 for monitoring microbe levels in dust.

Africa is not the only source of dust that affects faraway places. Nutrients from the deserts of northwestern China sustain Hawaiian rainforests growing on weathered soils. Chinese haze has long afflicted residents of Japan and Korea, where the yellow dust, laden with pollutants picked up from Chinese cities it passes over, is called "the gate-crasher of Spring." South Korean officials suspect that the dust may have been the source of a recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle along Korea’s west coast. Last Spring, Korea suffered through 20 days of unhealthy haze from abroad, the longest yellow dust spell there in 40 years. Chinese dust even caused hazy sunsets around the western United States for several days in April 2000. The Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean governments have launched a program to revegetate dust-generating lands in China, and researchers from around the Pacific Rim have begun intensive studies of Chinese dust and its impacts.

To date, the dust blowing from Africa—unlike Chinese dust—has attracted little attention as a public health issue. The desertification (severe degradation of arid and semi-arid lands) that exacerbates dust formation also has serious economic and human consequences close to home: one in six people in Mali have become environmental refugees, forced to leave their land as it turns to dust. Despite the massive amount of land claimed by expanding desertification each year, the phenomenon receives only infrequent attention, perhaps because the effects seldom seem to transcend international borders. These new studies of well-traveled dust may turn that impression on its head.

Given all the locally generated pollution in the Caribbean, it’s understandable that African dust is on few people’s radar screens. But reversing the decline of the region’s once flourishing underwater ecosystems may be impossible without investing more effort in stabilizing the wind-whipped lands of northern Africa.

"It’s just another example of how small the Earth is, and how so many things are interconnected: global processes mixed up with how people live their lives," says Garrison. The mounting evidence of damaging fallout thousands of miles from sources of dust may help convince the rest of the world to pay more attention again to the forgotten, dusty corners of planet Earth. "Maybe we’re not quite as isolated as we thought from areas with major health problems," says Garrison. "And maybe we should be more concerned about the welfare of people and the land in these far away places."

This article was originally written for The Worldwatch Institute, Former Worldwatch Institute researcher John C. Ryan is a Fellow of the New America Foundation and author of State of the Northwest 2000.

The War on Terrorism Needs a Marshall Plan

What do you think of this advice from a senior U.S. military officer and statesman about how the people of the United States should deal with a part of the world torn by war, poverty, disease and hunger:

"[I]t is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment ... It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening or even seeing photographs or motion pictures to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment."

The speaker was General George C. Marshall, outlining the Marshall Plan in an address at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. Surveying the wrecked economies of Europe, Marshall noted the "possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned." He said that there could be "no political stability and no assured peace" without economic security, and that U.S. policy was "directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos."

As President Bush and his advisors review the results of the initial bombing campaign, they might also consider the relevance of Marshall's strategy to the moral and political problems America now confronts. Of course, we should find the people responsible for the deaths of Sept. 11 and bring them to justice, and work with other nations to root out other terrorist networks. But we must do so in a way that does not result in the deaths of even more innocent people, deaths that would only deepen the cycle of anger and rage that led to Sept. 11.

What is largely missing from the administration's rhetoric is recognition of the scale of the underlying problems that have to be addressed, regardless of how successful we may be in tracking down the perpetrators of the terrorist assaults. As Marshall's words so plainly suggest, finding the terrorists should be part of a much more ambitious campaign, one in which the rich countries approach the appalling inequities of the world with the same boldness and determination that the United States brought to bear in Europe under the Marshall Plan.

We don't really need to spend another dime on "intelligence" to recognize the conditions that leave whole countries in a state of despair and misery. Some 1.2 billion people worldwide struggle to survive on $1 day or less. Over 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.9 billion have inadequate access to sanitation. About 150 million children are malnourished, and more than 10 million children under 5 will die in 2001 alone. At least 150 million people are unemployed and 900 million are "under-employed," contending with inadequate incomes despite long hours of backbreaking work.

Globalization has raised expectations, even as modern communications make the rising inequality between a rich, powerful and imposing West and the rest of the world visible to all. Poverty and deprivation do not automatically translate into hatred. But people whose hopes have worn thin, whose aspirations have been thwarted and whose discontent is rising, are far more likely to succumb to the siren song of extremism. This is particularly true for the swelling ranks of young people whose prospects for the future are bleak. Some 34 percent of the developing world's population is under 15 years of age.

The United States and the other industrial nations should launch a global "Marshall Plan" to provide everyone on earth with a decent standard of living. We can already hear the cries of people claiming that such a global plan would "cost too much." But let's look at the numbers. The cost of our initial response has soared into the tens of billions of dollars, on top of an already large proposed defense budget of $342.7 billion.

For the sake of comparison, let's assume that the United States will spend an additional $100 billion on military actions in the next 12 months. What could we buy if we matched this $100 billion military expenditure dollar-for-dollar with spending on programs to alleviate human suffering?

A 1998 report by the United Nations Development Programme estimated the annual cost to achieve universal access to a number of basic social services in all developing countries: $9 billion would provide water and sanitation for all; $12 billion would cover reproductive health for all women; $13 billion would give every person on Earth basic health and nutrition; and $6 billion would provide basic education for all.

These sums are substantial, but they are still only a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars we are already spending. And these social and health expenditures pale in comparison with what is being spent on the military by all nations -- some $780 billion each year.

There is a sad irony in watching the Bush administration's strenuous efforts to build an international coalition. There is no such muscular effort underway, in the United States, or in any of the other rich nations, to build a coalition to eradicate hunger, to immunize all children, to provide clean water, to eradicate infectious disease, to provide adequate jobs, to combat illiteracy or to build decent housing.

The cost of failing to advance human security and to eliminate the fertile ground upon which terrorism thrives is already escalating. Since Sept. 11, we know that sophisticated weapons offer little protection against those who are out to seek vengeance, at any cost, for real and perceived wrongs. Unless our priorities change, the threat is certain to keep rising in coming years.

By choosing to mobilize adequate resources to address human suffering around the world, President Bush has a unique opportunity to seize the terrible moment of Sept. 11 and earn a truly exalted place in human history. But first, we must all understand that in the end, weapons alone cannot buy us a lasting peace in a world of extreme inequality, injustice and deprivation for billions of our fellow human beings.

Dick Bell is Vice President for Communications at the Worldwatch Institute (

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute (

The Worldwatch Institute web site is at


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