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Gradually Equalizing World Incomes

It is laudable that traditional environmental foes in the United States are finally choosing to cooperate, according to the front-page article ``Traditional Foes Take New Tack On Growth,'' Jan. 12.

However, the challenge of the spotted owl is far more profound than we seem prepared to recognize - especially if we take a global (rather than national) perspective on environmental problems, as we increasingly must do.

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As societies become politically and economically open and free, they can be expected to strive for the standard of living of the US, which Japan and Western Europe have aspired to and achieved in the last 50 years.

Unfortunately, even a simple equalizing of global personal incomes and consumption would be accompanied by a geometric increase in environmental degradation.

Currently, about 10 percent of the world's population absorbs roughly 50 percent of its resources. If present ``have not'' countries were to simply attain the same standard of living as we now enjoy, the increase of global resource consumption would be extreme, even assuming no growth in world population or in our level of wealth.

More realistically, if world population is held to a modest 2 percent increase per year for the next century, and if the Western economies grow at an equally moderate 3 percent during the same period, world income parity would be approached at a much higher level of global resource use, at something like 90 times the 1994 level.

We are in for inevitable changes in the way we live and view our world. The challenge of environmental survival seems so great that it is likely that the 1990s will be considered, in a hundred years, as different as we now perceive the feudal societies of the 14th and 15th centuries to have been. Kenneth Agle, Menlo Park, Calif.

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