(April 2001) April 22 marked the first “Earth Day” of the 21st century, prompting people worldwide to ponder the planet’s future. Most of them probably focused on such key issues as global warming, dwindling forests, freshwater shortages, and rapid population growth. But they should also have taken a moment to consider another trend: the explosion of environmental information since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Protesting in the Dark

While the estimated 20 million Americans who turned out for the first Earth Day were bursting with enthusiasm for green causes, they were woefully short on environmental information. To help rectify this imbalance, Earth Day organizers in 1970 sponsored “teach-ins” to educate audiences about the environment.

On many issues, unfortunately, even the so-called experts of the time were in the dark. Denis Hayes — who was handpicked by then-U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson to serve as national coordinator of the first Earth Day — lamented, “It was so different back then; what little environmental information and data existed was spread across a host of federal agencies.”

That was soon to change. Shortly after the first Earth Day, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cobbling it together from 44 organizations scattered across nine federal departments, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The President’s Council on Environmental Quality began publishing annual reports on U.S. environmental conditions. In 1972, the UN created its Environment Programme. These organizations, along with a growing number of private environmental groups, generated a burst of green data in the 1970s.

The Information Revolution Goes Green

Fast forward to 2001, and a second explosion of environmental data and information is underway. The UN Conventions resulting from the 1992 Earth Summit have increased demand for reliable data on issues ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to desertification and biodiversity. New technologies, from high resolution satellites to more powerful computers, are helping to meet that demand. And the Internet disseminates new data faster and more widely than ever before.

The EPA has embraced the information age, establishing a new Office of Environmental Information (OEI) in 1999. Among various initiatives, the office is consolidating disparate databases and making them more accessible to the public. For example, the web-based “Window To My Environment” allows users to create maps of U.S. towns or zip codes showing locations of EPA- and state-regulated pollution sites as well as estimates of local population totals and densities. A prototype version is currently available online, including links that allow users to access data on such issues as air pollution, water quality, and hazardous waste. “You can access a lot of different data sets in a way that relates them to each other,” said Elaine Stanley, director of OEI’s office of information analysis and access.

While EPA’s mapping prowess continues to improve, it remains difficult to create population-environment maps for less developed countries, particularly since census districts rarely match up with ecological regions. But there are signs of progress: Ecuador, Panama, Kenya, and Uganda are all developing more detailed population databases that will make such mapping easier. In addition, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) provides global population estimates for geographically referenced grids. Researchers can thus estimate population densities for river basins, tropical forests, and other areas of environmental interest.

New Benchmarks

Global efforts to assess ecosystem health are becoming more sophisticated as well. Using high resolution satellite imagery, the U.S. Geological Survey has developed a global land cover database. This tool marks “a major improvement in the past few years,” according to Dan Tunstall, director of the information program at the World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI recently used this database to assess the ability of ecosystems to provide human communities with critical goods and services, such as supplying water and hosting biodiversity. The results, published in World Resources 2000–2001, have laid the groundwork for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This four-year project is expected to produce about two-dozen indicators for measuring ecosystem health.

In addition to these efforts, researchers from Yale and Columbia universities have developed an environmental sustainability index (ESI) in hopes of making sustainable development goals quantifiable (see table). The index, recently unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, assigns countries a score from 0 to 100 (higher scores indicate greater environmental sustainability). The score is based on 67 variables, including such demographic indicators as the number of births per woman and the under age 5 mortality rate. The weighting of the variables may be altered to reflect different emphases and produce alternative rankings. Although the ESI has attracted much criticism, particularly concerning the lack of quality data from Russia and other countries, its creators have argued that the index’s existence will spur efforts to remedy the deficiencies.

Environmental Sustainability Index 2001: Selected Countries

Country (rank)     ESI Score (100-point scale)    
Finland (1)     80.5    
Canada (3)     78.1    
United States (11)     66.1    
Germany (15)     64.2    
Japan (22)     60.6    
Brazil (28)     57.4    
Russian Federation (33)     56.2    
Italy (37)     54.3    
Botswana (40)     53.6    
Egypt (67)     46.5    
Turkey (70)     46.3    
Senegal (87)     42.5    
India (93)     40.9    
South Korea (95)     40.3    
China (108)     37.6    
Nigeria (117)     31.8    
Haiti (122)     24.7    

Source: World Economic Forum Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force, Environmental Sustainability Index 2001, accessed at www.ciesin.org/indicators/ESI/downloads.html#report, on March 14, 2001.

Despite the flurry of advances in measuring and communicating environmental change, numerous challenges remain. Measuring the impact of the world’s human population on natural systems, for example, remains difficult despite recent advances. At the same time, scientists need to devise user-friendly ways to describe the complex yet crucial services that nature provides human communities, from purifying water to replenishing soil nutrients. “We need to come up with better ways of measuring ecosystem services to turn these technical terms into policy-relevant indicators,” said WRI’s Tunstall. “Our work is just beginning.” 

Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is an associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.

For More Information

To try out a prototype of OEI’s “Window to My Environment” covering the Mid-Atlantic region, visit the EPA website at: www.epa.gov.

Visit the CIESIN website to learn more about gridded population data: www.gateway.ciesin.org or the ESI website: www.ciesin.columbia.edu.

For statistical tables on U.S. environmental conditions, visit the Council on Environmental Quality’s website at: ceq.eh.doe.gov.

The World Resources Institute makes portions of World Resources 2000–2001 available online at: www.wri.org.