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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2003 : Timelines


Vital Consequences
A critical look at the global indicators
that will shape our future.

Failure to meet the needs of the world’s poorest citizens threatens long-term global stability, reports Vital Signs 2003, the latest publication from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization. The report points to the more than 13 million children who have lost a parent due to AIDS, the 14.4 million people who die each year from infectious disease, and the 12 million international refugees in the beginning of 2002 as clear indicators of a world where human suffering is rampant. While the global economy has grown sevenfold since 1950, the disparity in per capita income between the 20 richest and 20 poorest nations more than doubled between 1960 and 1995.

“The world’s failure to reduce poverty levels is now contributing to global instability in the form of terrorism, war and contagious disease,” says Vital Signs project director Michael Renner. “An unstable world not only perpetuates poverty, but will ultimately threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy.“

Vital Signs 2003—produced in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)—also warns that environmental degradation is exacerbating poverty and further contributing to global instability.

Weather-related disasters brought on by land clearing, deforestation and climate change are most catastrophic for the world’s poorest citizens. In 2002, rains in Kenya displaced more than 150,000 people, while more than 800,000 Chinese were affected by the most severe drought in over a century. Over the past two decades, floods and other weather-related disasters were among factors prompting some 10 million people to migrate from Bangladesh to India. At least seven small island nations face the prospect of a sizable share of their populations being displaced by sea level rise due to global warming in the coming decades.

“It is almost impossible to ensure lasting peace and stability when massive inequalities exist and the natural systems that support us remain under threat,” says UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer. “Little will ever be achieved in terms of conservation of the environment and natural resources if billions of people have no hope, no chance to care.”

For the past 12 years, Vital Signs has tracked a wide array of economic, environmental and social trends, using thousands of different data sources, in order to gauge the health of human societies and the natural world. Among the indicators of growing pressures on the world’s poor cited in this year’s report:

• Infectious diseases kill twice as many people worldwide as cancer each year. Those dying of infectious illnesses are often either in the early or prime years of life, unraveling the economic and social fabric of societies. (The dramatic emergence of SARS in recent months now threatens the health not only of Asian economies, but also of the global airline industry.)

• Roughly one-quarter of the world’s 50 wars and armed conflicts of recent years have involved a struggle for control of natural resources. Virtually all of these conflicts have occurred in poor countries where a particular ethnic group or economic elite has gained control of resources at the expense of the poor majority.

• Harvesting of illegal drug crops—principally cannabis, coca and opium poppies—has increased dramatically since the 1980s, leading to rising addiction rates in industrial nations and a growing black market that undermines development in many poor nations.

• In addition to the 12 million “official” refugees worldwide, there are another 50 million environmental refugees—driven from their homes by dam building, drought, flooding, etc.—and other internally displaced persons not included in official UN statistics.

• Corruption—the misuse of public power for private benefit—is costing some of the world’s poorest countries billions of dollars each year and undermining efforts to promote economic development.

Vital Signs 2003 provides further evidence of the importance of the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by 191 nations in 2000. Among other targets, these goals call for halving the share of the world’s people living in extreme poverty by 2015, as well as the share suffering from hunger and lacking access to clean drinking water; reducing infant mortality rates by two-thirds; and ensuring that all children are enrolled in primary school.

Governments reaffirmed the Millennium Development Goals at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and agreed to several other important targets, including restoring fisheries, stabilizing biological diversity and meeting the sanitation needs of half a billion people.

In this year’s edition, the following trends stand out as holding promise for progress:

• HIV/AIDS treatment: While only four percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in low- and middle-income countries are receiving treatment, some progress has been made in making access to treatment more equitable. In 2002, Botswana became the first African nation to adopt a policy of universal access to treatment, while other nations like Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Panama are providing free or subsidized treatment.

• Communications: The gap between the information haves and have-nots is still huge but shrinking, thanks largely to new mobile phones, whose towers are cheaper to build than conventional, fixed-line systems. In Africa, mobile phones now outnumber fixed lines by a higher ratio than on any other continent.

• Clean energy: New industries are beginning to provide pollution-free electricity and good jobs. Global wind power use has tripled since 1998 and is the now the world’s fastest-growing power source. As new policies are adopted, rapid growth is projected in China and India over the next few years.

In light of the many findings in Vital Signs 2003, Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin expressed deep concern that a faltering global economy and the vast effort now required to restore peace in the Middle East will divert the resources needed to address the causes and consequences of poverty in scores of developing nations. “The human tragedies behind the statistics in Vital Signs 2003 are compelling reminders that social and environmental progress are not luxuries that can be set aside when the world is experiencing economic and political problems,” says Flavin. “Suffering that is allowed to fester today will lead to adverse and unpredictable consequences for many tomorrows to come.“

For more information or to order a copy of Vital Signs 2003, visit

Vital Facts

Selected facts and global indicators from Vital Signs 2003


  • In 1960, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the 20
    richest countries was 18 times that of the 20 poorest countries.
    By 1995, the gap between the richest and poorest nations had more than doubled to 37 times.
  • Of all high-income nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, with over 30 percent of income in the hands of the richest 10 percent and only 1.8 percent going to the poorest 10 percent.
  • In 2001 the average annual pay of U.S. CEOs topped $11 million— some 350 times as much as the average U.S. factory worker (who earned, on average, $31,260).


  • The average person in a developing country selling into world
    markets confronts barriers that are roughly twice as high as those faced by counterparts in industrial nations.
  • Farm subsidies of more than $300 billion per year allow food crops exported by farmers in industrial countries to be sold at prices 20 to 50 percent below the cost of production, undermining farmers in developing nations.
  • In Mexico, Peru and Colombia, farmers are turning to drug crops like opium, coca or cannabis because their food crops cannot
    compete with cheaper, mass-produced imports.
  • Advertising spending in the United States totaled $235 billion in 2002, more than half of the world’s total advertising market.


  • With less than five percent of world population, the United States uses 26 percent of global oil, 25 percent of the world’s coal, and 27 percent of the world’s natural gas. It is the single-largest source of carbon from fossil fuels—emitting 24 percent of the world’s total.
  • U.S. automobiles (more than 128 million or one-quarter of the world’s cars) emit roughly as much carbon as the entire Japanese economy, the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter.
  • Natural gas has become the fastest growing of all fossil fuels, rep resenting nearly 24 percent of the world’s energy consumption. But annual growth rates of two percent in this sector pale in
    comparison to alternative sources such as wind.


  • The year 2002 was the second hottest since record-keeping
    began in the 1880s. The global average temperature climbed
    to 14.52°C.
  • Of roughly 700 natural disasters in 2002, 593 were weather-related events. Worldwide, the number of big weather catastrophes has quadrupled since the 1960s.
  • Poor nations are the most vulnerable to climate change.
    Erratic weather patterns are the primary cause of famine for
    about 18 million Africans. Over the past two decades, floods and other weather-related disasters were among factors prompting some 10 million people to migrate from Bangladesh to India. In 2002, rains in Kenya displaced more than 150,000, while more than 800,000 Chinese were affected by the most severe drought in over a century.


  • The most rapidly expanding energy source is wind power with an average growth rate of 33 percent between 1998 and 2002. Wind capacity is projected to increase 15-fold over the next 20 years.
  • Europe has nearly 73 percent of global wind capacity, more than half of which is in Germany. In 2002, Denmark, a nation of five
    million, installed more wind capacity than all of the United States (population over 290 million) installed that year.


  • Despite a slowdown in world population growth, the 49 poorest countries in the world still have populations that are increasing at an average of 2.4 percent a year—nearly 10 times the annual growth in industrial nations.
  • Infant mortality in low-income countries is 13 times greater than in high-income countries. In the 49 least-developed countries in the world, women face a lifetime risk of death from pregnancy or childbirth that is more than 150 times greater than that for women in industrial nations.
  • Lack of clean water or sanitation kills 1.7 million people each year— 90 percent of them children.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70 percent of the world’s HIV
    positive people. Only four percent of people living with AIDS in low- and middle- income nations are receiving AIDS treatment.
  • Europeans and Americans constitute just 28 percent of the world population, but account for 42 percent of deaths from
    cardiovascular diseases and cancers—diseases of affluence.
  • Eighty-two percent of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers now live in developing countries.


  • Resource-related conflicts of the late 1990s killed more than five million people and displaced 17 to 21 million.
  • World military expenditures in 2001 were conservatively estimated at $839 billion—almost $100 million every hour or $2.3 billion
    each day.
  • The United States is now the world’s sole military colossus, accounting for 36 percent of all military spending. Nations
    deemed to be “rogue states” by the U.S. account for less than three percent of global spending.
  • Nations with the highest per-capita military spending are
    located in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states accounted for two-thirds of the $190 billion worth of weapons imported by Middle Eastern nations from 1990 to 2001.
  • In Eritrea, Burundi and Pakistan, military spending equals or
    surpasses combined public expenditures for health and


  • In 1992, only one in 237 people worldwide used a mobile phone
    and one in 778 used the Internet; by 2002, the numbers had soared to one in five and one in 10, respectively.
  • Building cell phone towers is cheaper than stringing traditional wires. As a result, mobile service has dramatically increased phone access in Africa. In 1999, Uganda became the first African nation to have more mobile than fixed-line customers. Some 30 other African nations have since followed.
  • Semiconductors, the brains behind modern electronics, benefit the environment in many ways; for example, by allowing people to telecommute and save a pollution-generating trip to the office.
    Yet producing a two-gram memory chip requires 630 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals—more than a kilogram
    (or two pounds) worth.
  • Toxic e-waste facilities have recently been uncovered in China
    and India. The U.S. exports 50 to 80 percent of its e-waste for

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