Risk and Criticality: Trajectories of Regional Environmental Degradation
In its influential report, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) called for a global risk-assessment programme to buttress and extend the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (WCED, 1987). This chapter reports on an international project centred at Clark University in the US that has explored the causes and consequences of growing environmental risk over a 50-to 70-year period in nine regions distributed throughout the world. The nine regions are Amazonia; the Eastern Sundaland region of Southeast Asia; the Ukambani region of southeastern Kenya; the Nepal Middle Mountains; the Ordos Plateau of China; the Aral Sea; the southern High Plains of the US; the Mexico City region; and the North Sea. The authors begin by considering the notion of criticality and by developing definitions and a classification of environmentally threatened regions. Research teams were assembled for all nine regions and studies were conducted. In this chapter, the authors review the development of concepts and methods used in these studies and the major cross-cutting findings that emerged. They argue that a growing disjuncture exists in the studied regions between the rapid rates of environmental degradation and the slow pace of societal response, threatening environmental impoverishment and loss of options for future generations, as well as the escalating costs of substitution in resource use and risk mitigation efforts.