Saving the Earth: the Challenges We Face

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For starters, let's be clear about what we mean by "saving the earth." The globe doesn't need to be saved by us, and we couldn't kill it if we tried. What we do need to save--and what we have done a fair job of bollixing up so far--is the earth as we like it, with its climate, air, water and biomass all in that destructible balance that best supports life as we have come to know it. Muck that up, and the planet will simply shake us off, as it's shaken off countless species before us. In the end, then, it's us we're trying to save--and while the job is doable, it won't be easy.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was the last time world leaders assembled to look at how to heal the ailing environment. Now, 10 years later, Presidents and Prime Ministers are convening at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next week to reassess the planet's condition and talk about where to go from here. In many ways, things haven't changed: the air is just as grimy in many places, the oceans just as stressed, and most treaties designed to do something about it lie in incomplete states of ratification or implementation. Yet we're oddly smarter than we were in Rio. If years of environmental false starts have taught us anything, it's that it's time to quit seeing the job of cleaning up the world as a zero-sum game between industrial progress on the one hand and a healthy planet on the other. The fact is, it's development--well-planned, well-executed sustainable development--that may be what saves our bacon before it's too late.

As the summiteers gather in Johannesburg, TIME is looking ahead to what the unfolding century--a green century--could be like. In this special report, we will examine several avenues to a healthier future, including green industry, green architecture, green energy, green transportation and even a greener approach to wilderness preservation. All of them have been explored before, but never so urgently as now. What gives such endeavors their new credibility is the hope and notion of sustainable development, a concept that can be hard to implement but wonderfully simple to understand.

With 6.1 billion people relying on the resources of the same small planet, we're coming to realize that we're drawing from a finite account. The amount of crops, animals and other biomatter we extract from the earth each year exceeds what the planet can replace by an estimated 20%, meaning it takes 14.4 months to replenish what we use in 12--deficit spending of the worst kind. Sustainable development works to reverse that, to expand the resource base and adjust how we use it so we're living off biological interest without ever touching principal. "The old environmental movement had a reputation of elitism," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). "The key now is to put people first and the environment second, but also to remember that when you exhaust resources, you destroy people." With that in mind, the summiteers will wrestle with a host of difficult issues that affect both people and the environment. Among them:

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