Thousands of kilometers away, 800 to 1,000 liters of water are consumed per person per day. Las Vegas was built out of the desert. Millions of people live there. Thousands more arrive every month. The inhabitants of Las Vegas are among the biggest consumers of water in the world. Palm Springs is another desert city with tropical vegetation and lush golf courses. How long can this mirage continue to prosper? The Earth cannot keep up. The Colorado River which brings water to these cities, is one of those rivers that no longer reaches the sea. Even more alarmingly, its flow is diminishing at source. Water levels in the catchment lakes along its course are plummeting. Lake Powell took 17 years to reach high-peak mark. Its level is now half of that. Water shortages could affect nearly two billion people before 2025. Yet water is still abundant in unspoiled regions of the planet, the wetlands.
These wetlands are crucial to all life on Earth. They represent six percent of the planet. Marshes are sponges that regulate the flow of water. They absorb it in the wet season and release it in the dry season. The water runs off the mountain peaks, carrying with it the seeds of the regions it flows through. This process gives birth to unique landscapes, where the diversity of species is unequaled in its richness. Under the calm water lies a veritable factory where this ultimately linked richness and diversity patiently filters the water and digests all the pollution. Marshes are indispensable environments for the regeneration and purification of water. These wetlands were always seen as unhealthy expanses, unfit for human habitation. In our race to conquer more land, we have reclaimed them as pasture for our livestock, or as land for agriculture or building. In the last century, half of the world’s marshes were drained. We know neither their richness nor their role.
All living matter is linked. Water, air, soil, trees. The world’s magic is right in front of our eyes. Trees breathe groundwater into the atmosphere as light mist. They form a canopy that alleviates the impact of heavy rains and protects the soil from erosion. The forests provide the humidity that is necessary for life. They are the mother and father of rain. The forests store carbon. They contain more than all the Earth’s atmosphere. They are the cornerstone of the climatic balance on which we all depend. Trees provide a habitat for three-quarters of the planet’s biodiversity-that is to say, of all life on Earth. Every year, we discover new species we had no idea existed-insects, birds, mammals. These forests provide the remedies that cure us. The substances secreted by these plants can be recognized by our bodies. Our cells talk the same language. We are of the same family.
Mangroves are forests that step out onto the sea. Like coral reefs, they are a nursery for the oceans. Their roots entwine and form a shelter for the fish and mollusks that come to breed. Mangroves protect the coasts from hurricanes, tidal waves and erosion by the sea. Whole peoples depend on them. Yet they were reduced by half during the 20th century. One of the reasons for the ongoing disaster is these shrimp farms installed on the mangroves’ rich waters. Ventilators aerate pools full of antibiotics to prevent the asphyxiation of the shrimps, not that of the mangroves.
Since the 1960s, deforestation has constantly gathered pace. Every year, 13 million hectares of tropical forest an area the size of Illinois disappear in smoke and as lumber. The world’s largest rain forest, the Amazon, has already been reduced by 20%. The forest gives way to cattle ranches or soybean farms. Ninety-five percent of these soybeans are used to feed livestock and poultry in Europe and Asia. And so, a forest is turned into meat. When they burn, forests and their soils release huge quantities of carbon, accounted for 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted across the globe. Deforestation is one of the principal causes of global warming. Thousands of species disappear forever. With them, one of the links in a long chain of evolution snaps. The intelligence of the living matter from which they came is lost forever.
Barely 20 years ago, Borneo, the fourth-largest island in the world, was covered by a vast primary forest. At the current rate of deforestation, it will have totally disappeared within 10 years. Living matter bonds water, air, earth and the sun. In Borneo, this bond has been broken in what was one of the Earth’s greatest reservoirs of biodiversity. This catastrophe was provoked by the decision to produce palm oil, the most consumed oil in the world, on Borneo. Palm oil not only caters to our growing demand for food, but also cosmetics, detergents, and, increasingly, alternative fuels. The forest diversity was replaced by a single species-the oil palm. Monoculture is easy, productive and rapid. For local people, it provides employment. It is an agricultural industry.
Another example of massive deforestation is the eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is used to make paper pulp. Plantations are growing, as demand for paper has increased fivefold in 50 years. Monocultures of trees are gaining ground all over the world. But a monoculture is not a forest. By definition, there is little diversity. One forest does not replace another forest. At the foot of these eucalyptus trees, nothing grows because their leaves form a bed that is toxic for most other plants. They grow quickly, but exhaust water reserves.
Soybeans, palm oil, eucalyptus trees-deforestation destroys the essential to produce the superfluous. But elsewhere, deforestation is a last resort to survive. Over two billion people-almost a third of the world’s population-still depend on charcoal.
In Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, charcoal is one of the population’s main consumables. Once the pearl of the Caribbean, Haiti can no longer feed its population without foreign aid. On the hills of Haiti, only two percent of the forests are left. Stripped bare, the soil no longer absorbs the rainwater. With no vegetation and no roots to reinforce them, nothing holds the soils back. The rainwater washes them down the hillsides as far as the sea.Erosion impoverishes the quality of the soils, reducing their suitability for agriculture. In some parts of Madagascar, the erosion is spectacular. Whole hillsides bear deep gashes hundreds of meters wide. Thin and fragile, soil is made by living matter. With erosion, the fine layer of humus, which took thousands of years to form, disappears.
Here’s one theory of the story of the Rapa Nui, the inhabitants of the Easter Island, that could perhaps give us a pause for thought. Living on the most isolated island in the world, the Rapa Nui exploited their resources until there was nothing left. Their civilization did not survive. On these lands stood the highest palm trees in the world. They have disappeared. The Rapa Nui chopped them all down for lumber. They then have to face widespread soil erosion. The Rapa Nui could no longer go fishing. There were no trees to build canoes. And yet the Rapa Nui formed one of the most brilliant civilizations in the Pacific. Innovative farmers, sculptors, exceptional navigators, they were caught in the vise of overpopulation and dwindling resources. They experienced social unrest, revolts and famine. Many did not survive the cataclysm. The real mystery of the Easter Island is not how its strange statues got there. We know now. It’s why the Rapa Nui didn’t react in time. It’s only one of a number of theories, but it has particular relevance to us today.
Since 1950, the world’s population has almost tripled. And since 1950, we have more fundamentally altered our island, the Earth, than in all of our 200,000 year history. Nigeria is the biggest oil exporter in Africa, and yet 70% of the population lives under the poverty line. The wealth is there, but the country’s inhabitants don’t have access to it. The same is true all over the globe. Half the world’s poor live in resource-rich countries.
Our mode of development has not fulfilled its promises. In 50 years, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider than ever. Today, half of the world’s wealth is in the hands of the richest two percent of the population. Can such disparity be maintained? They’re the cause of population movements whose scale we have yet to fully realize. The city of Lagos had a population of 700,000 in 1960. That will rise to 16 million by 2025. Lagos is one of the fastest-growing megalopolises in the world. The new arrivals are mostly farmers forced off the land for economic or demographic reasons or because of the diminishing resources. This is a radically new type of urban growth driven by the urge to survive rather than to prosper. Every week, over a million people swell the populations of the world’s cities.
One human being in six now lives in a precarious, unhealthy, overpopulated environment, without access to daily necessities, such as water, sanitation or electricity. Hunger is spreading once more. It affects nearly one billion people.
All over the planet, the poorest scrabble to survive on scraps, while wecontinue to dig for resources that we can no longer live without. We look farther and farther afield, in previously unspoiled territory and in regions that are increasingly difficult to exploit. We’re not changing our model. Oil might run out? We can still extract oil from the tar sands of Canada. The biggest trucks in the world move thousands of tons of sand. The process of heating and separating bitumen from the sand requires millions of cubic meters of water. Colossal amounts of energy are needed. The pollution is catastrophic. The most urgent priority, apparently, is to pick every pocket of sunlight. Our oil tankers are getting bigger and bigger. Our energy requirements are constantly increasing. We try to power growth like a bottomless oven that demands more and more fuel.
It’s all about carbon. In a few decades, the carbon that made our atmosphere a furnace, and that nature captured over millions of years, allowing life to develop, will have largely been pumped back out. The atmosphere is heating up. It would have been inconceivable for a boat to be here just a few years ago. Transport, industry, deforestation, agriculture. Our activities release gigantic quantities of carbon dioxide. Without realizing it, molecule by molecule, we have upset the Earth’s climatic balance. All eyes are on the poles, where the effects of global warming are most visible. It’s happening fast-very fast. The Northwest Passage that connects America, Europe and Asia via the pole is opening up. The Arctic ice cap is melting. Under the effect of global warming, the ice cap has lost 40% of its thickness in 40 years. Its surface area in the summer shrinks year by year. It could disappear before 2030. Some predictions suggest 2015. Soon these waters will be free of ice several summer months a year. The sunbeams that the ice sheet previously reflected back now penetrate the dark water heating up. The warming process gathers pace. This ice contains the records of our planet. The concentration of carbon dioxide hasn’t been so high for several hundred thousand years. Humanity has never lived in an atmosphere like this. Is excessive exploitation of our resources threatening the lives of every species? Climate change accentuates the threat. By 2050, a quarter of the Earth’s species could be threatened with extinction. In these polar regions, the balance of nature has already been disrupted.
Off the coast of Greenland, there are more and more icebergs. Around the North Pole, the ice cap has lost 30% of its surface area in 30 years. But as Greenland rapidly becomes warmer, the freshwater of a whole continent flows into the salt water of the oceans. Greenland’s ice contains 20% of the freshwater of the whole planet. If it melts, sea levels will rise by nearly seven meters.
But there is no industry here. Greenland’s ice sheet suffers from greenhouse gases emitted elsewhere on Earth. Our ecosystem doesn’t have borders. Wherever we are, our actions have repercussions on the whole Earth. The atmosphere of our planet is an indivisible whole. It is an asset we share. On Greenland’s surface, lakes are appearing on the landscape. The ice cap has begun to melt at a speed that even the most pessimistic scientists did not envision 10 years ago. More and more of these glacier-fed rivers are emerging together and burrowing through the surface. It was thought the water would freeze in the depths of the ice. On the contrary, it flows under the ice, carrying the ice sheet into the sea, where it breaks into icebergs. As the freshwater of Greenland’s ice sheet gradually seeps into the salt water of the oceans, low-lying lands around the globe are threatened.
Sea levels are rising. Water expanding as it gets warmer caused, in the 20th century alone, a rise of 20 centimeters. Everything becomes unstable. Coral reefs, for example, are extremely sensitive to the slightest change in water temperature. Thirty percent have disappeared. They are an essential link in the chain of species. In the atmosphere, the major wind streams are changing direction. Rain cycles are altered. The geography of climate is modified. The inhabitants of low-lying islands here in the Maldives, for example, are on the front line. They are increasingly concerned. Some are already looking for new, more hospitable lands. If sea levels continue to rise faster and faster, what would major cities like Tokyo, the world’s most populous city, do? Every year scientists’ predictions become more and more alarming. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives on coastal plains. Eleven of the 15 biggest cities stand on a coastline or river estuary. As the seas rise, salt will invade the water table, depriving inhabitants of drinking water. Migratory phenomena are inevitable. The only uncertainty concerns their scale.
In Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is unrecognizable. Eighty percent of its glaciers have disappeared. In summer, the rivers no longer flow. Local peoples are affected by the lack of water. Even on the world’s highest peaks, in the heart of the Himalayas, eternal snows and glaciers are receding. Yet these glaciers play an essential role in the water cycle. They trap the water from the monsoons as ice and release it in the summer when the snow melts. The glaciers of the Himalayas are the source of all the great Asian rivers-the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze Kiang. Two billion people depend on them for drinking water and to irrigate their crops as in Bangladesh. On the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, Bangladesh is directly affected by the phenomena occurring in the Himalayas and at sea level. This is one of the most populous and poorest countries in the world. It is already hit by global warming. The combined impact of increasingly dramatic floods and hurricanes could make a third of its landmass disappear.