All the weight of the world

"CARRYING capacity" is likely to be the Catchphrase of the Year. The term is liberally sprinkled throughout State of the World Report 1994, like some sort of mantra. To illustrate "a breach of carrying capacity", the report cites the reintroduction in 1944 of 29 reindeer to St Matthew Island in the Bering Sea.

The reindeer herd expanded to 6,000 in 19 years. But then the population crashed headlong, leaving fewer than 50 survivors. A biologist who researched this bizarre phenomenon concluded that the herd had overgrazed the island's lichens, its main source of winter forage; the over-the-top feeding created a climate of extreme and desperate competition for limited supplies during a particularly severe winter. A rather inappropriate illustration of an ill-conceived term.

Surely the earth's "carrying capacity" is not simply: the largest number of any given species that a habitat can support indefinitely under given circumstances. The politics of resource use is far too complicated to lend itself to such simplifications: uneven distribution, wastage and overconsumption have to be taken into account.

The real issue today is not just that water is rising above the plimsoll line because the "carrying capacity" of the ship has been exceeded. The real issue is that some people have had to pay a heavy price for lopsided development and the overconsumption indulged in by their peers.

This edition of the State..., like previous ones, is a compilation of 10 essays, addressing the problems of forest economy, ocean systems, power, transport and disarmament. The report attempts to document the world's "progress" towards a sustainable society. Perhaps the enormity of the task itself calls for forced optimism and ambiguity, both of which characterise the report.

In her report on the World Bank (WB), for instance, Hilary French wavers between defending the Bank's policy and pointing out basic flaws in its functioning. She starts by stating that the World Bank has "acted as an agent of environmental destruction rather than as an instrument to combat it". In the other breath, she commends the Bank for committing (in 1993) nearly $2 billion to 23 projects specifically designed to improve the quality of the environment.

Moreover, since 1989, the Bank has had an environmental screening process whereby projects are subject to different levels of scrutiny depending on their expected impact. It has also completed environmental action plans for 22 out of 70 International Development Agency-eligible countries, and has begun to specifically address environmental issues in many adjustment loans.

French admits that, in spite of all this apparent concern, the Bank has continued to fund damaging projects. Efforts to orient World Bank lending more explicitly towards poverty alleviation have a long history. Beginning 1968, the then WB president, Robert McNamara, had used "basic human needs" as a watchword to increase lending dramatically to poverty sectors.

But what French ignores is the "worrisome" decline of investment in the agricultural sector. She ends on an uncertain note, pointing out that the Bank, with its "well-deserved reputation for technical competence", may actually have made mistakes; leniency lies, however, in the fact that "reorienting economic activity towards sustainable development is a daunting task everywhere". But what of the fact that, of any development agency, the WB has the largest and most capable group of development economists and related professionals anywhere in the world, with the best access to data and information?

Myopic perception
State of the World has often been accused of a severely myopic perception of Third World problems. This is much in evidence in the report by John Young, which implies, of all things, that computers are a prerequisite for sustainable development in the Third World. After waxing eloquent on the many functions and applications of computers, Young claims that they have "just begun to fulfill their destined purpose as organisers in an age of information glut". After surmounting the problems of the lack of computer-literate office workers, service technicians and spare parts, the developing countries, claims Young, can use computers for the fight against two great interconnected problems of Third World development -- poverty and environmental degradation. But without computers, the "residents of developing countries risk becoming even more marginalised within the rapidly evolving world economy".

The Worldwatch Institute claims that State of the World plays a vital role in shaping environmental thinking and policy. The report would do well to show more sensitivity, and to narrow down to specifics rather than repeating generalities issue after issue.