The first time a mother holds her newborn child in her arms is a moment like no other. The love, tenderness, joy and relief are overpowering. The rest of the world is forgotten while she gazes on the tiny new life she has been nourishing in her own body. It is almost as if they were the only two people on earth. Every birth is a miracle every single time. And yet it is a miracle that happens hundreds of thousands of times each day.
Earth’s current population is estimated to be 6.8 billion and projected to surpass 7 billion in late 2011 and 9 billion by 2050 according to the 2008 revision of the United Nation’s World Population Prospects. Is it time yet to be concerned about human population growth? How many humans can the planet sustain before quality of life, and life itself, is threatened?
Thomas Robert Malthus, a British scholar and clergyman, might have been surprised that humans have made it this far. In hindsight, he seems to have been worried prematurely when he published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, when the world’s population had not yet crested one billion. While other philosophers of the time were writing optimistically about humanity’s path to Utopia through science and reason, Malthus saw a fundamental problem—the supply of food and water cannot increase at the same pace as the number of humans relying on it. He warned that a perfect society would be impossible as long as there remained an “inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth.” He saw a world where more children were born than could be fed or employed, with poverty, starvation, illness and misery being the result for the vast majority.
Over two hundred years, and almost 6 billion humans later, many of Malthus’s fears have been proven unfounded by agricultural advances that have resulted in more arable land, higher yielding plant and animal breeds, crop–protecting pesticides, sky–rocketing efficiency through machines, improved irrigation and watering practices, and farmers who have learned from generations who have plowed the fields before them. In fact, during this time food production increases have outpaced human population expansion. So was Malthus wrong? Will human ingenuity always be able to stay ahead of the population curve?
Human beings have eked out a home in almost every corner of the globe, from equatorial rainforest to African desert, mountaintop to coastal lowland. Human civilization has always tended to grow and flourish, however, in proximity to one of earth’s most priceless resources—water. In the United States and other developed countries, water is taken for granted so much as to be an afterthought. Think of how much water is used in a commonplace morning routine that includes flushing the toilet, showering, brushing teeth and shaving. Add in other household appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, and a single person can use between 150 and 200 gallons of water each day.
Although it is the “blue planet”, earth does have a limited supply of fresh water in rivers, lakes, aquifers and the atmosphere. An estimated 70–75% of the earth’s surface is covered with water; however, approximately 97% of that water is in the oceans, and only 1% is fresh water that is accessible for human use.
The World Health Organization estimates that currently 884 million people do not have access to enough safe drinking water, and, as is often the case in crises of resources, the world’s poorest countries are those suffering the most. However, in recent years much of the United States has had to face the prospect of water shortage as well.
The California Department of Water Resources foresees a shortage of water in California to equal the amount that is currently consumed in the region by as early as 2020. To some 2020 may still seem like a date out of a science fiction novel, but that is a mere ten years from now! Urban areas of the southwest are already facing seasonal water shortages, and as their populations continue to grow, El Paso, San Antonio and Albuquerque could deplete their water supply entirely in the next ten to twenty years. Droughts have come and gone in California and Texas before, but in recent years the Great Lakes, Florida and even the lush Pacific Northwest have all felt the strain of an inadequate water supply.
In the modern global economy, water equals food. Where there is a high demand for food, there will be a high demand for water to produce it. For every ton of grain grown, one thousand tons of water are needed. The most densely populated countries, China and India, are rapidly using up their water reserves, while still failing to produce enough food for their inhabitants. The shortage is made up in imported food, which is essentially imported water. As water becomes more scarce and more valuable, food prices must be driven up as well.
Recent economic advances in developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have led more people to move to the cities to profit from the increased prosperity. Urban water demands are met in these areas, which are already pushing the limits of their water supplies, by diverting water that would otherwise be used for irrigation and agriculture. Lester Brown, in “Water Scarcity Crossing National Borders,” wrote: “Overall, the water required to produce the grain and other farm products imported into the Middle East and North Africa last year equaled the annual flow of the Nile River at Aswan. In effect, the region’s water deficit can be thought of as another Nile flowing into the region in the form of imported grain. It is often said that future wars in the Middle East will more likely be fought over water than oil, but the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets.”
In addition to water, the earth itself is being depleted. The word dirt carries a negative connotation, but where would humanity be without the richness of the planet’s top layer? An alarming 40% of the world’s food–producing land has been severely degraded by poor farming practices, overgrazing of livestock, irresponsible irrigation and industrial pollution—not to mention the urban sprawl which covers ever–increasing tracts of soil with asphalt and concrete.
The Green Revolution—appropriately named, since it revolutionized agriculture around the world—more than tripled grain production worldwide between 1950 and 1984. This movement literally fed the population growth of those decades. However, the techniques that brought about such abundance cannot keep up with all the hungry mouths to feed. The Green Revolution has maximized its food production potential, and, through the persistent use of pesticides which contaminate the soil over time, is now contributing to the decline of land that can be used for farming.
Where once the world had a surplus of grain stored up, now the supply is so close to the demand that “any unforeseen flood or crisis can make prices rise very quickly,” according to Ali Gurkan, the head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Increased food prices hit hardest in the poorest parts of the world, which also happen to be where population growth rates continue to be the highest. How can a growing population be fed from decreasing farmland and shrinking water sources?
All of the population, food and water projections that the scientists can come up with are based on trends. The population explosion and resulting food and water shortages are seen as coming to a head around 2050 when the population is expected to reach 9 billion. But projections are just educated guesses. Perhaps science will again find a way to increase food production and water conservation and postpone any real crisis. Then again, it may be that weather, human fertility and death rates, and agricultural trends may bring about a real crisis much sooner. If those who spend their lives studying these things can do nothing but predict and project, how can anyone know for sure what is coming?
As long as bread is on the supermarket shelves and water flows freely from faucets, it may be easy to be lulled into a belief that everything will continue on as it has always been. Human creativity has answered many of the challenges which kept population growth in check, and the result has been a steady, and sometimes explosive, expansion of the number of earth’s inhabitants. The fact remains, however, that the life–sustaining resources of the planet are not infinite in supply, while the human ability and desire to procreate does seem to be limitless. Something has to give. A human population of 6.8 billion people—increasing by hundreds of thousands each day—all clamoring for sustenance from the same dwindling pool of resources must lead to shortages and conflicts eventually. It is not a question of if, but when.
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