August 25, 2008

Too many people drawing on the Earth's resources

I wrote recently of how Brazil's population growth has fallen to the point that it will shortly stabilize at a level that is sustainable, even if the amount of land required to sustain each person increases to Swiss levels. See:

In a subsequent conversation on the George Monbiot email list, someone commented that such land-use calculations are based on using non-renewable resources such as petrochemicals (for fertilizers and transporting food). We can perhaps add to this the tapping of ancient ground water, so-called fossil aquifers, where the water is not replenished by fresh rainfall. An example is comes from the North China Plain as described here:

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Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some countries, including China, the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in August 2001 revealed that the water table under the North China Plain, which produces over half of that country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling faster than earlier reported. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep fossil aquifer, which is not replenishable.
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Which means the problem of increasing food production to meet the world's growing population has not been solved, it has been deferred.

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, now Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, wrote the book 'The Population Bomb'. He was interviewed recently by Public Radio International, and reminded that forty years ago he wrote that the battle to feed all of humanity is already lost.

He responded: "Forty years ago and perfectly correct. We still have about a billion people who don't get enough food to function properly."

Asked about whether a population that is predicted to grow by 2.5 billion by 2050 can be sustained, he replied:

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First of all, 2.5 billion is 500 million people more than were on the planet when I was born in 1932. So we're adding more than existed when I was born.

Second, the next two and a half billion are going to be a lot more expensive to take care of environmentally than the previous 2.5 billion because people are smart, they farm the best lands first. You know you can't get oil by sticking a pointed stick in the ground in Pennsylvania anymore. You got to drill down a couple of miles. And water has to be transported long distances.

And I think anybody who reads the newspapers and can count, can see that we're in deep trouble just from the numbers of people versus the resources that are available. Ask them in Atlanta, where they're running out of water. Ask them in Southern California, where climate change is helping huge fires to devastate areas. I was just in Brazil, and the Pantanal swamp area was burning and the Cerrado, the savannah areas south of the Amazon, were burning in record bouts. So, you know, you just have to look around to see what's happening.
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He suggested the predicted population of 9.7 billion would overstretch the world's carrying capacity unless we drastically change the way we live:

"Certainly in anything like today's lifestyle. You know if you try to move to a battery—what my colleague calls a battery-chicken type of world, in which everyone has the absolute minimum to keep them alive—it might be possible."

However, we are certainly not moving in this rather bleak direction. A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme, called Global Environmental Outlook, tries to be optimistic and praise some action that has been taken, but overall, it suggests, the indicators are all moving in the wrong direction.

The report suggests that the human population has needed more than one Earth to sustain it for more than twenty years.

The green line on the graph below represents living on the limit of what is available on the Earth. Unfortunately, the real demands of the population are the climbing pink line.

Click on the image to see it larger. The full report can be downloaded from:

As everyone knows, living beyond your means is storing up problems. Here's how the UN report puts it:

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The unsustainability of the way the Earth’s natural resources are being used is increasingly evident.

As a result of the growing competition and demand for global resources, the world’s population has reached a stage where the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available.

An example of ecological overshoot is seen in attempts to increase food production that result in increased levels of environmental degradation, such as deforestation of marginal lands, including wetlands, upper watersheds and protected areas that have been converted to farmlands.

According to the 2005 Footprint of Nations report, humanity’s footprint is 21.9 ha/person, while the Earth’s biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person, with the ultimate result
that there is net environmental degradation and loss.
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Remember, this is with the Earth's current population and current consumption patterns.

Ehrlich suggests the crisis - or rather crises from which we do not recover - may not be far away:

"We're facing a crisis in which the way in which many of us live will not be possible for the vast majority of people—sometime in the relatively near future. Hopefully after I'm dead, but maybe not."

Some people, for example some posters on the Monbiot group, suggest that the best we can do as individuals and local communities, is to prepare for a coming collapse that will result in billions being wiped from the Earth's population.

I see pursuing the Simultaneous Policy approach - and doing whatever else we can to transform our relationship with the world - as being a worthwhile parallel strategy to even this survivalist view.

As Ehrlich concludes:

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What other choice do we have but to try and change so that if we haven't reached the tipping point, we don't reach it, because the tipping point is going to be miserable and an awful lot of people will die and lifestyles will change very, very dramatically, and so we don't want to do that so you know, I can't be incredibly optimistic about what we're going to do.

What we can say is that societies can change very rapidly when the time is ripe. Look for instance how rapidly the Soviet Union disappeared when none of us expected it to. When I was a kid, lynchings were common in the south of the United States. They aren't any more. In other words, things can change very rapidly.

We don't fully understand why but when the time is ripe, they change and I think that your chore and mine is to try to ripen the time.
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It seems to me the time could be not riper. If you haven't signed up in support of the Simultaneous Policy campaign, why not do so right now at:

Take a look at proposals others have put forward for the transformation to a sustainable, cooperative world in the discussion forum and feel free to put forward you own at:

It is a reality of life on this planet that any successful species fills its niche and its population overshoots before falling back to a sustainable level, perhaps with modified behaviour.

We can look on the overuse of the world's resources and the resulting degradation as a sign that we are heading for a very nasty end. Or we could take the view that we are in the amazingly fortunate position of being provided with an overdraft by the Earth which can see us through a short period of living beyond our means. Like any sensible family, instead of burning through the overdraft with no thought for the future, we should be using it as an investment to transform the way we live so no further loan is necessary and we can repay that we have taken.

Certainly not easy. Certainly urgent.

1 comment:

auntiegrav said...

I think the "number of earths" part of the graph is wrong.
If you think in terms of whole numbers, it may be illustrative, but in reality, we are consuming it and it is declining. We have consumed some portion of the stability of the ocean life systems, the atmospheric feedback system, the hydrologic storage, and the soil life that has been destroyed by chemicals and overtillage.
The situation is much worse than anyone wants to believe because seeing the reality leads to hopelessness. We don't need hope or despair: we need to see action taken, either by ourselves or by nature. Nature will decide eventually what is allowed. We just have to figure out what that is and comply or die.