Previous | Next

Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 3–12 

Assessing World Resources

Leonard B. Siemens

“And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

“And the Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

The original assessment of world resources was highly positive; they were “very good.” The original mandate for the crowning glory of creation was to keep the created resources in that condition. The assumption behind this essay is that creation has not been well kept and is no longer “very good.” Worse than that, something has gone very wrong in the Garden. Headlines scream at us: “The World Is at Risk,” “Our Future Is Threatened.” The gardeners have failed.

An update on human stewardship of land, water, and air shows that. . .

My discussion is limited to the few basic resources most immediately associated with the life and well-being of the human family on this earth: land, water, and air. All three elements have been violated and abused. Their life-sustaining capacity continues to be gravely compromised, which is especially troubling in the light of the additional 97 million persons that each year depend on these resources for sheer survival, not to mention the “abundant” life intended for all members of God’s family. {4}

The Brundtland Report of 1987 refers to a UN projection that our human world of 5 billion must make room for another human world of 5 billion in the not-so-distant future. At current rates of growth, our world’s population doubles every 38 years. The doubling from 2.5 billion to 5 billion occurred between 1950 and 1985. Reaching 10 billion within a few decades is not only theory. It is reality. The Report also states that 90 percent of future increases will occur in the poorest countries and 90 percent of that growth in bursting cities. 1

The population pressures on life-sustaining resources are infinitely greater in the developing continents of the world than in Europe or North America. That, in turn, means that the continued health, productivity and sustainability of land, forests, water, and air in the poorer countries of the world are of the most urgent concern and importance to us and to the people of those regions.


Land is not without deep spiritual significance. Elmer Martens has noted that “land that is fertile and productive is symbolic of both the physical and spiritual well-being of God’s people.” It is “the fourth most frequent noun or substantive in the Old Testament; it occurs 2,504 times.” 2 Land is much more than the sum of its parts.

Of the earth’s 32 billion acres of land, less than 4 billion are in cropland, about 8 billion are grassland and pasture, and 10 billion are in forest and woodland. On the average there is presently about three-quarters of an acre of cropland for every person. But averages are deceiving. The average cropland per person in North and Central America is about one and a half acres, but in Asia it is about one-third of an acre per person and decreasing. 3

However, for a variety of reasons, there is a worldwide decline in the productivity of both crop and pasture land brought about by a process called “desertification.” This process occurs when soil gives way to unsustainable human or animal population pressures from overuse, lack of care, or unwise treatment. Lester Brown, in State of the World, 1989, writes that “each year, irreversible desertification claims an estimated 6 million hectares (15 million acres) worldwide—a land area nearly twice the size of Belgium lost beyond practical hope of reclamation. An additional 20 million hectares (50 million acres) annually become so impoverished that they are unprofitable to farm or graze. . . . The majority of people affected are poor farmers and pastoralists living at society’s margins and lacking a political voice.” 4 The obvious consequences of desertification are worsened droughts and floods, famine, declining living {5} standards, and swelling numbers of environmental refugees.

The four principal causes of land degradation are over-grazing on rangelands, over-cultivation of croplands, waterlogging and salinization of irrigated lands, and deforestation. Although all of these processes are to a greater or lesser extent taking place on all continents, the most startling accounts of crop and grazing land devastation are reported from the poorest developing regions of the world.

State of the World, 1989 summarized the state of the world’s land-based resources with the following observations:

Without conservation measures the total land area of rainfed cropland in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America will shrink by 1.3 billion acres over the long term because of soil erosion and degradation, according to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study. This amount represents the largest portion of these countries’ combined existing cropland.

Poorly designed and implemented irrigation systems have caused waterlogging, salinization, and alkalization of soils. Estimates indicate that some 25 million acres of irrigated land are being abandoned each year.

Growing populations and decreasing availability of arable land lead poor farmers in developing countries to seek new land in forests to grow more food. Only 2.25 billion acres of the nearly four billion acres of mature tropical forests that once existed, still exist. Each year, according to estimates made in 1970, up to 25 million acres of forest and woodland are eliminated and at least another 25 million acres are grossly disrupted. A related environmental tragedy is that rain forests contain between 50 and 90 percent of the earth’s five to thirty million species and the destruction of rainforests is followed by the destruction of plant and animal species. Biologists estimate that without appropriate management measures over the longer term, from one-quarter to one-half of species existing today could be lost. 5

The process of desertification affects almost every region of the globe, but it is most destructive in the drylands of Africa, Asia, and South America. Africa’s Sudano-Sahelian zones suffer the most. Land permanently degraded to desert-like conditions continues to grow at an annual rate of 15 million acres. And each year 50 million additional acres provide no economic return because of the spread of desertification. In 1984 the world’s drylands supported some 850 million people, of whom 230 million were on lands affected by desertification. {6} 6

Since the publication of the Brundtland Report, worldwide awareness of environmental imperatives has heightened, with the result that governments, industry, and educational institutions at all levels have become keenly aware of environmental degradation. Many agencies have launched impressive programs of “sustainable development” in such resource areas as fisheries, agriculture, and forestry.


“And God said, let the water under the sky be gathered to one place. And the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:9-10).

Water, like land, sustains human, animal, and plant life on Earth. Without adequate, uncontaminated fresh water, life is not possible.

World Resources 1992-93 introduces its section on “Global Trends: Freshwater Resources” as follows: “Water is the most abundant resource on Earth, covering about 71 percent of the planet’s surface. The total volume of water on the planet is immense about 1.41 billion cubic kilometres. Spread evenly over the Earth’s surface, it would form a layer nearly 3,000 meters deep. . . . Only about 3 percent is freshwater, but nearly all of that amount (87 percent) is locked in ice caps or glaciers, in the atmosphere or soil, or deep underground. In fact, if the world’s total water supply were only 100 litres, the useable supply would be only 0.003 litre, or one-half teaspoon.” 7

Humankind’s primary supply of freshwater is in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. The main source of freshwater is precipitation, which varies greatly from region to region. Average annual per capita water use ranges from 1,692 cubic meters in North and Central America, to 244 in Africa. Of total freshwater drawn and used annually, 69% is used for agriculture, 23% for industry and 8% for domestic purposes.

In recent decades water use has increased 4 to 8 percent, with most of the increase occurring in the developing world. Total water use has been stabilizing in the industrialized countries, where the rate of increase is expected to decline to 2 to 3 percent annually during the 1990’s. In the future, industrial and domestic withdrawals are expected to increase more rapidly than agricultural withdrawals, but usage in each of these areas is coming under increasing population and environmental pressure.

World Resources 1992-93, the definitive guide to the global environment, opens its chapter on freshwater with the words: “Freshwater resources are under severe and increasing environmental stress.” 8 These stresses result from the uneven and unreliable distribution of the world’s freshwater supply, the increasing pollution in freshwater river basins (the {7} source of domestic water for most urban settlements), and the political and economic challenges that fresh water represents.

Stresses resulting from uneven and unreliable distribution are most apparent in most of Africa and the Middle East. In these regions, water scarcity contributes to the impoverishment of many countries, threatening their ability to keep pace with population growth. Another area of serious water shortage is the North China Plain, a semi-arid region of about 200 million people which includes such major cities as Beijing. Consumption by industry, agriculture, and increasing population is outstripping supplies. If present trends continue, the North China Plain will have less water than needed by the end of the century. Water shortages have also reached serious proportions in the southwestern United States, especially in drought-stricken California, resulting in serious ecological and economic consequences.

At least 80 arid and semi-arid countries with about 40 percent of the world’s population have serious periodic droughts. Conversely, flooding is a major and growing problem in some regions. Bangladesh historically suffered major floods every 50 years, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s the average interval between floods was only four years. Part of the problem originates in the Himalayan watershed, where rapid population growth, deforestation, and unsustainable farming on steep slopes have greatly reduced the capacity of the land to absorb water.

Water pollution in heavily populated regions poses a global threat no less serious than the shortage of fresh water supply. Population centers on all continents tend to be found in river basins--the land area drained by a river and its tributaries. The rivers bring in the needed water and carry out the human and industrial wastes. Pollution in freshwater is one of three major types: excess nutrients from sewage and soil erosion which cause algae blooms that eventually deplete the oxygen content of the water; pathogens from sewage that spread disease; and heavy metals and synthetic organic compounds from industry, mining, and agriculture.

Developed industrial countries keep their domestic water quality under reasonably good control. Most of their effluent is treated before being discharged into rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. However, this is not the case in the exploding urban centers of developing countries. World Resources 1992-93 documents that the percent of sewage treated is “almost zero” in most regions of Asia and Africa on which data are available. For instance, in 1983, of India’s 3,119 towns and cities, only 209 had partial and only 8 had full sewage and sewage treatment facilities. One hundred and fourteen cities, each with 50,000 or more inhabitants, dump untreated sewage into the Ganges River every day. Overall, it is estimated that 95 percent of urban sewage in developing countries is discharged into {8} surface waters without treatment. It is not surprising that a growing number of urban poor, especially children, suffer from a high incidence of such endemic and often fatal diseases as diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid. With rising urban populations and increasing competition for declining resources in these poor countries, the prospects for future improvement are not promising. 9

The third water-related stress area is economic and political tensions between nations. The water issue in the Middle East is particularly difficult because so many countries share common water sources. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan are facing a combined water deficit of at least 300 million cubic metres per year. Similar situations exist in other arid and semi-arid regions of the world. As populations increase and aspirations for an ever higher standard of living continue to rise, competition within and among countries for adequate, safe water supplies will heighten. Peaceful resolutions of these conflicts are far from assured.


Although not mentioned in Genesis, air, too, was created pure and wholesome and was part of all creation declared “good” on the sixth day. But like land, trees and water, the air that sustains all plant and animal life as well as the human family has not escaped the neglect and heavy hand of God’s gardeners, and that to their own increasing peril. Lester Brown and associates, in State of the World, 1990, devote a chapter to “Clearing the Air,” from which I draw the following material.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in 1987, 2.7 billion pounds of hazardous pollutants were released into the atmosphere by industries including 235 million pounds of carcinogenic chemicals, known to cause at least 2,000 cancer-related deaths a year. The number and effects of the chemicals involved are myriad, but sulphur dioxide (S02) is singled out as particularly troublesome because of its high proportion of overall pollutants and its relationship to high incidence of respiratory diseases such as coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. The United Nations World Health Organization concluded that nearly 625 million people around the world are exposed to unhealthy levels of sulphur dioxide and more than a billion—one in five people in the world to excessive levels of suspended particulates. Fortunately, spurred on by strong public pressure and with the aid of pollution control equipment, many industrial countries have made major strides in reducing emissions of these harmful pollutants. Nonetheless, Thomas Crocker of the University of Wyoming estimates that air pollution costs the United States as much as $40 billion annually {9} in health care and lost productivity.

But while in more developed countries air pollution resulting from industry and automobiles may be coming under gradual control, that is far from the case in most developing countries, where continued, rapid urbanization and industrialization are compounding the rate of toxic emissions into the atmosphere. The most extreme example is Mexico City, where 7 out of 10 newborns were found to have lead levels in their blood in excess of World Health Organization standards.

Air pollution affects human health, But it is an equally grave threat to the natural environment. Acid rain, which results from sulphur dioxide emissions from industrial smoke stacks combining with atmospheric moisture to form sulphuric acid, has “strongly acidified” over 14,000 lakes in Canada and tens of thousands in northern Europe. Brown describes the effects of acid rain as resulting in “fishless lakes and streams, dying forests and faceless ancient sculptures.” Eastern Canadian and Scandinavian lakes and forests have been devastated by acid rain, but modest measures are now under way to reduce the fallout. 10

A further hazard is the thinning of the ozone layer. In a feature article, “Ozone Alert,” in the May/June, 1992 issue of Canadian Geographic, Michael Clugston writes that “without the ozone layer in the stratosphere most of life on earth would receive a lethal dose of radiation in one hour. We know that the ozone layer will almost certainly continue to be thinned for at least the next century by man-made chemicals, notably CFC’s. High levels of ultraviolet light that result from a thinned ozone layer may weaken the body’s ability to resist such diseases as cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, and blindness. Strong ultraviolet doses could shrink the world’s food supply by decreasing crop yields and disrupting the ocean food chain.” 11

Ozone alarm bells rang in Canada during the winter of 1992 when a United States satellite confirmed an unusually large arctic polar vortex where ozone-destroying chemicals concentrate. This new and surprising finding posed a serious threat to the north-eastern regions of Canada and the United States, the areas most immediately affected. The possible implications for the safety and health of Canadians was such that Environmental Canada began reporting ozone hazard levels (Ozone Watch) as a part of its daily weather forecasting information. During recent years, national and international conferences on ozone depletion have resulted in a wide range of measures being taken by government, industry, and other groups to reduce ozone depletion and to guard against the consequences of increasing levels of ultraviolet light.

One further air pollutant, which some experts rate as the most important, is carbon dioxide (C02). The estimated five billion tons of C02 {10} emitted into the atmosphere every year are the major cause of what has come to be known as the “greenhouse effect.” The largest portion of C02 comes from energy-hungry, industrialized countries such as Canada and the United States. The result of excessive emissions of C02 into the atmosphere is a gradual rise in world temperatures.

David G. Hallman reports that since the beginning of this century the Earth’s average temperatures have risen between 0.3 and 1.1 degrees Celsius as a direct result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If these increases in temperature are allowed to continue for several decades, the consequences, Hallman warns, could include the melting of the polar ice caps, the flooding of coastal regions and the transformation of vast areas of agricultural land into deserts, including the prairies of the United States and Canada. Catastrophic storms would increase in frequency and intensity (116).

These are only the most publicized of the increasing number of man induced assaults on the atmosphere that surrounds us and the air that sustains all forms of life referred to in the Creation account.


We need to conclude from these sketchy and inadequate accounts that our land, water, and air, once assessed as "good" by the God of Creation, have lost a significant measure of their goodness. The gardeners--the stewards of these resources--have failed. We have been the gardeners during the last few decades, during which time the greatest damage has been done.

To a large extent it has been the technology of the twentieth century, our striving for a never-ending increase in living standard, and an annual world population rise now approaching one hundred million that have so stressed and threatened those basic resources on which our continued existence directly depends. Hence we have failed ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. And we have failed our God.

The debate among those who care deeply about our physical world is whether present trends in environmental degradation can still be halted and reversed or whether the battle has already been lost. Most would agree, I believe, that if there were the political will among world leaders, much of the damage cited in this article could be arrested and that a measure of environmental healing and restoration could follow.

The publicized Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro (June, 1992) was attended by 179 national governments, 100 heads of state, and 20,000 delegates. The purpose of the Summit was to set forth starkly the issues {11} and mobilize the political will of nations to pay the price required to restore the health of our ailing Earth. Summit organizers estimated that $120 billion might be needed annually to help pay for the Summit’s goals. While $120 billion sounds costly, it is only a fraction of the $1,000 billion that nations currently spend each year on their combined military establishments. Clearly, with the end of the Communist threat and the Cold War, there would surely be the means if there were the will.

What is so disconcerting about the ongoing, systematic assault on planet Earth that God created to his great delight, and which his Son, Jesus sustains over time (Col. 1:16-17), is that the Christian family, especially the evangelical community, has demonstrated so little interest in and concern about the ongoing “goodness” of God’s created works.

This issue of Direction is a welcome contrary indication. But much more than a few articles will be required to drive home to our churches and our families the reality that we are in fact dealing with a matter close to the heart of God, who claims his created masterpiece as his very own: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psa. 24:1); “. . . the earth is the Lord’s” (Exod. 9:29).

Christians are in need of a sound theology of environmental stewardship. What kind of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours does Scripture teach as normative for the Church and for believers, concerning the created works of God? One looks forward to the day when our theology will stress that the abuse of our national resources is an affront against our God; when the Christian community will see itself as an advocate and a guardian of the life-sustaining resources gifted to us by our Creator; and when the God of the Ages will once again behold his six days of creative genius and delight in it, and declare it to be “good.”


  1. The World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, 1987. Often referred to as “The Brundtland Report.”
  2. Elmer Martens. God’s Design. A Focus on Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1981, 97.
  3. The World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1990-91: A Guide to the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, 1990, 268.
  4. State of the World 1990. W.W. Norton and Co., 1990, 21.
  5. State of the World 1989. W.W. Norton and Co., 1989, 151. {12}
  6. State of the World, 127.
  7. World Resources, 1992-93: A Guide to the Global Environment. World Resources Institute, Oxford University Press, 1992, 160.
  8. World Resources, 1992-93, 159.
  9. World Resources, 1992-93, 161-163.
  10. State of the World 1990, 98-106.
  11. Michael Clugston, “Ozone Alert,” Canadian Geographic. May/June, 1992, 78-82.
  12. David G. Hallman, Caring for Creation. Wood Lake Books, 1989, 116.
Dr. Leonard B. Siemens retired as Associate Dean, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Manitoba in 1989. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Khon Kalen University, Thailand in 1989 and by the University of Zambia in 1992.

Previous | Next