• SHARE

This is the first installment in a yearlong series on the blueprints of Japanese society in the 21st century.

Staff writer Japan’s beaches may be little more than a memory when the end of the 21st century rolls around. Conservative estimates predict it will be sayonara for about half of them, while worst-case scenarios leave the country nearly beachless. A study sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature predicts global warming will jack up sea levels anywhere from 20 to 124 cm before the end of the century. A 1-meter rise would submerge a significant chunk of eastern downtown Tokyo and western Chiba Prefecture, according to Environment Agency estimates. But lost beaches and inundated coastal cities are only two of the anticipated effects of but one environmental malaise. Many others will vie for attention. Issues like climate change have blurred the distinction between national and international environmental woes. The nature of environmental problems has changed: They are now global. “In the 20th century, environmental problems affected people’s health directly and were usually local in nature. Once you found the cause and stopped it, things would return to normal,” said Jiro Kondo, head of the Environment Agency’s Central Environment Council. Sadly, things are no longer so simple. Now, solutions to what appear to be domestic issues lie in international cooperation. 21st century issues Little is certain about environmental problems in the next century, but indisputably they promise to bring challenge and change. Global environmental woes will worsen before they improve, experts agree. They will also cause major social changes. “In the first half of the century, from say 2010 on, I think things will get very severe,” said Saburo Kato, head of the Research Institute for Environment and Society. Kato, who worked for the Environment Agency before starting his research institute, predicts environmental problems will persist until population pressures ease. He predicts problems will come to a head sometime after 2030, when the world population hits around 8 billion, what he estimates to be Earth’s maximum capacity. But which will be the key issues? “Without a doubt, the most important problem in the next century, both for Japan and for the world, will be global warming.” This is the firm belief of Akio Morishima, head of the Institute for Global Environmental Studies at Sophia University and a member of a number of environment-related government advisory committees. Morishima is not alone. More than half of 200 environmental experts recently surveyed as part of a United Nations Environment Program to assess the environment at the end of the millennium put global warming at the top of the list of emerging concerns. But like global warming in the last century, a number of unforeseen problems may lurk below the surface. The 20th century was full of environmental surprises, as unprecedented problems — ozone depletion, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and biodiversity loss — shot onto the radar screen. It would be surprising if the 21st century is any less surprising, Morishima said. He points to biotechnology as a prime candidate to manifest itself as the environmental scourge of the century. The promises of biotechnology are reminiscent of promises of pesticides nearly half a century ago, he said. “When we discovered that some chemicals killed insects, everyone thought this would be a great benefit. But in reality, after pesticides came into widespread use we learned that some are carcinogenic and have other negative effects.” Morishima warned that biotechnology could be a Pandora’s box. For instance, we could later find out that genes introduced into plants to kill or repel insects also affect humans, he said. In recent years, endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been found to affect successive generations. Morishima predicted the same thing could happen with biotechnology and gene manipulation. Biotechnology could also cause environmental dilemmas on another front by proving too successful. Manipulated plants and animals could prove so superior that they ravage biodiversity, decimating traditional species, he said. The most recent and exhaustive UNEP report on the environment, Global Environment Outlook 2000, offers a similar caveat: “The key environmental issues in the 21st century may result from unforeseen events and scientific discoveries, sudden, unexpected transformations of old issues, and well-known issues that currently do not receive enough policy attention.” Change and challenge Expected or unexpected, environmental problems promise to alter society. Society will modify itself to adjust to environmental changes, or environmental problems will force change on it. The nation’s nascent antidam movement is an area of more predictable change. In the latter half of the 20th century, citizens began to question the government’s penchant for building dams. More recently, dam opponents have latched on to the changes visible in the United States, including declarations that the days of dams are over and calls for their dismantling. This will no doubt be carried over into this century. In fact, the first serious domestic litmus test is just around the corner. A plebiscite — the first on a dam — is slated in Tokushima on Jan. 23 to gauge the opinions of city residents on the proposed Yoshino River dam. This could prove a pivotal moment for dam opposition groups — infusing them with enthusiasm or sapping them of momentum. The dam is the structural twin of the Nagara River dam in Mie Prefecture, completed in 1995, that galvanized a national opposition movement. Disparate citizens’ groups created information exchanges, and a loose national network coalesced. The Nagara River dam epitomized Japan’s outdated river-management policies, say critics, such as Yasuo Endo of Suigenren, a national dam opposition group. Construction Ministry officials concede that the environment is important but maintain that dams are a crucial means of ensuring the safety of riverside residents. “Traditionally, river management has hinged only on flood control and water usage. But with the revision of the River Law two years ago, environmental preservation has become a consideration as well,” said Toshiyuki Adachi of the ministry’s River Environment Division. The government and citizens will have to form a partnership to manage rivers, he said, adding that 20 or 30 years hence, technological advancements could make environmental preservation and dam construction more compatible. “The Construction Ministry has changed a little, but at its core, it is still the same,” said Teruyuki Shimazu, also of Suigenren, noting river management really needs to be rethought based on the idea of nature and the environment. Sustainable civilization But singular problems aside, many visionaries say it is a matter of civilization. And escaping from the civilization that gave rise to the cycle of mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal — courtesy of the Industrial Revolution — will be crucial for Japan to realize a sustainable society, Kato said. As environmental problems bring changes in behavior and awareness, citizens, the government and industry will all have to change if civilization is to rise to the challenge, predicts Harumi Suda, head of Shimin Undo National Center and in charge of Earth Day 2000 events. “More than 80 percent of citizens are interested in global environmental issues,” Suda said, citing a recent government poll. It is not apathy that precludes environmental action on an individual level, but lack of leadership and incentives, he said. “But people don’t know how to act,” he said. “So this interest doesn’t translate into behavior in their everyday lives. The No. 1 problem in the future is how to encourage (environmentally friendly) behavior among people.” To encourage this shift in behavior, governance will have to reinvent itself. Internationally, the last quarter of the 20th century saw the creation of the UNEP and a number of multilateral agreements to stem environmental problems. Japan has signed on to many of them.Nationally, Japan’s environment watchdog, the Environment Agency, is about to come into its own as it is upgraded to ministry status in 2001. Though it will still be small — with a staff of just over 1,100 — compared with other ministries, the new status should ultimately help it hold its own better vis-a-vis other arms of government. In addition, the ruling parties and related ministries are working in parallel on a bill to encourage a more sustainable society. Likewise, green taxes — taxes to push citizens and industry to conduct themselves in environmentally sound ways — are just starting to make it on to the agenda of policymakers, said Kyoto University economics Professor Takamitsu Sawa. It will be crucial for the government to change the way it entices environmentally sound behavior, relying more on the proverbial carrot and less on the stick, he said. Market mechanisms and economic incentives — subsidies as well as tax breaks — will be critical tools, Sawa said. And changes in government policy and consumer behavior cannot help but alter industry and corporate behavior, he said. Many of the most famous companies are already on the move. One experiment is being carried out under the catch phrase “zero emissions.” Ebara Seisaku Co. is pushing the envelope of sustainability as it finalizes plans to build an Eco-Industrial Park in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. The first-of-its-kind business park is designed to house around 1,500 people and cut waste by 96 percent, energy consumption by around 40 percent, water usage by 28 percent and carbon dioxin emissions by nearly a third. But this experiment is far from cheap, costing around a third more than if it were built in the conventional manner. And there is no guarantee it will prove viable. “We are looking at it as a future business, as an investment,” said the head of the project’s planning team. Company officials say that if the experiment flies, they would ultimately like to set up similar projects in other parts of Asia. “We (certainly) aren’t going to make any money now … but we have to try to see what we can do or we will never know what is possible.” Hazarding a guess In an era as dynamic as today, predicting tomorrow, let alone the next century, is an uncertain endeavor at best. But experts hazard a few more guesses. Morishima of Sophia University believes that chemical pollution — ostensibly similar to dioxin pollution in breast milk — could hit close to home, shattering the conventional way of viewing environmental problems as something apart from people. “Environmental problems and the environment will no longer be these external things. They will directly concern people and their well-being.” The result, he hopes, will alter people’s view of their place in the world and encourage them to take a more holistic approach. Kato of the Research Institute for Environment and Society meanwhile predicts a half-century or more of strife — groping with environmental problems and population growth — followed by society coming to grips with what is needed. Then, he said, they will realize that the persistence of civilization is a question of sustainability, not productivity and profitability. He also predicts that people will look back with wonder on the way their ancestors treated the Earth and rue their mistakes. “I think the first half of the 21st century will be pretty rough going. But the second half, 100 years or so from now … should be much better.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW