Thursday, May 15, 2014
Global Population & Global Resources Rapidly Moving in Opposing Directions
The growth of the global population over the last century is nothing short of extraordinary. But humanity's exponential growth is going to pose some great challenges and difficulties for us in the decades ahead.
The world population was an estimated 1.564 billion 1900. However, as of July 2013, the world population had reached an estimated 7.152 billion, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Quite remarkably, the global population quadrupled in the 20th Century.
Population growth in the West became more rapid after the introduction of compulsory vaccinations, and improvements in medicine and sanitation.
However, global population growth was largely driven by greatly increased by food production (which, in turn, was driven by fossil fuels in the form of natural gas-derived fertilizers, oil-derived pesticides, and hydrocarbon-fueled irrigation) that allowed this massive expansion.
As the following chart shows, the global population was relatively stable for many centuries, but then skyrocketed upon the discovery of crude oil.
Absent adequate crude oil and oil-based fertilizers, this population boom cannot continue. Furthermore, billions of additional humans will use vastly greater quantities of resources, many of which are non-renewable and therefore unsustainable.
The UN projects steadily declining population growth in the near future. However, the global population is still expected to reach somewhere between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050.
Yet, some analysts question the sustainability of further world population growth, highlighting the growing pressures on the environment, global food supplies, and energy resources.
For example, the UK government's chief scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington, warns that the world will require 50% more energy, food and water by 2030. And, according to a 2009 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed what is projected to be as many as 3.8 billion additional people.
However, higher oil prices, the loss of arable land, and the effects of climate change will inevitably drive grain and food prices much higher, perhaps beyond the reach of billions of the world's poorest inhabitants.
Around the world, fish stocks are being depleted due to overfishing. This is quite problematic since so many people are reliant on our oceans for food. Presently, about 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers (64 miles) of the coast, and they eat a lot of seafood.
However, the global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
As a result, says WWF, 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Additionally, most of the top ten marine fisheries, accounting for about 30% of all capture fisheries production, are fully exploited or overexploited.
Unless the current situation improves, says WWF, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048.
That's really bad timing for humanity since the global population is projected to peak as high as 10.9 billion people by mid-century. Apparently, we'll have to scratch seafood off future menus. That will make feeding all those additional billions of humans really challenging, if not impossible.
We'll also have to reevaluate our farming practices and start doing things in a far more efficient and sustainable manner to avoid mass starvation. The main issue going forward will be water. Around the globe, as the population has soared, our consumption of water has grown exponentially.
As a result, our water aquifers are emptying at an alarming rate. For example, the Ogallala Aquifier, which covers 30 percent of the United States' irrigation needs, could be mostly depleted by 2060 if current trends continue.
One of the world's leading resource analysts, Lester Brown, has warned that 18 countries — together containing half the world's people — are now overpumping their underground water tables to the point where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year. This is what's known as "peak water."
Clearly, the way we presently use fresh water is unsustainable. The realities of global population growth and water supplies are now colliding.
Case in point: Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food.
It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. However, growing one pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons.
While the Earth has 57 million square miles of land (36.48 billion acres), there are just 12 million square miles (7.68 billion acres) of arable land (agricultural land). This amounts to just 21 percent of all the land on earth, a number that should raise some serious concerns in everyone.
Yet, due to erosion, that number is dwindling. In fact, arable land is being lost at the alarming rate of over 38,610 square miles (24.7 million acres) per year.
This is indicative of a populace that is using ever more precious resources — and in some cases non-renewable resources — at an ever expanding rate in order to meet the needs of a burgeoning global population.
Humans now need the equivalent of 1.5 planets to sustain us, and by the 2030s it will have risen to two planets. The problem, of course, is that we have only one planet.
Again, according to that previously referenced 2009 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed what is projected to be an extra 2-3 billion people.
Quite alarmingly, a leading Australian scientist says the world will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in the thousands of years since civilization began. That's a daunting prospect.
How could this ever be accomplished? Such a goal sounds absolutely fantastical.
In this century, we will finally bump up against the limits of resource extraction. Going forward, the life we have always taken for granted will ultimately be limited by resource constraints.
Sadly, our entire way of life is plainly unsustainable. Humans are now depleting all the natural resources the Earth can provide for the year in less than three-quarters of a year, according to the Global Footprint Network.
In 2013, humanity used as much of nature as the Earth can regenerate in a year in less than nine months.
As Herb Stein's Law states with such elegant simplicity, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."
'Earth overshoot day' is the point in the year that humans have exhausted supplies such land, trees and fish, and outstripped the planet's annual capacity to absorb waste products including carbon dioxide.
This is calculated by comparing the demands made by humans on global resources — our 'ecological footprint' — with the planet's ability to replenish resources and absorb waste.
Earth overshoot day fell a couple of days earlier in 2013 than it did in 2012. It was part of a troubling and ongoing pattern — one that is plainly unsustainable.
The Global Footprint Network said that in 1961, humanity only used around two-thirds of the available natural resources on Earth, but by the 1970s increased carbon emissions and consumption began to outstrip what the planet could provide.
The report reiterated what other researchers and scientists had said before: humans now need the equivalent of 1.5 planets to sustain us, and by mid century it will have risen to two planets.
So what does this mean for humanity? Well, the prospects are frightening.
According to a new joint-university study, utilizing NASA research, society could collapse in just a few decades.
The report lists five risk factors for societal collapse: population, climate, water, agriculture and energy. The convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a 'perfect storm' during the lifetimes of many of us presently living.
The study says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity" and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]."
The latter is a topic that I won't even get into here and now, but I have previously covered inequality and the vanishing American middle class many times.
While some are surely inclined to believe that technology will ultimately save us, the report dismisses that notion.
"Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use."
These are scary prospects. Consequently, they are difficult topics for many of us to discuss, much less accept. But simply ignoring them will not make them go away. Massive, historic, and unprecedented changes are already underway.
We must adapt, and we must do so quickly. The global population and our global resources are rapidly moving in opposing directions. This will result in desperate and unforgiving outcomes for billions of people around the world.
The path we are on is inherently unsustainable. The world must immediately focus its efforts on conservation and efficiency, with a particular emphasis on renewability. And, of course, there's the whole matter of birth control.
The time is now. This won't wait.