The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.
That’s a lot of people, and we’ll likely hit 10 billion be the end of this century. The important point about population, though, is not the raw number of people sharing the planet. It is what they consume from the planet. And that is where the scale of the challenge the human race faces, as the human population continues to expand its consumerist, material lifestyle, to every nook on earth, is eye-opening.
According to Scientific American “[t]he human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper.” And while the cost of extracting, refining, and mainlining a metric ton of material has gone down, it doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to nibble away at our planet’s dwindling resources and, as long as we continue to consume on the scale we do now, we better start looking for a new planet.
So what is the consumption challenge? SA says:
Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.
88 kilograms of stuff per day translates into 32.12 metric tons a year. That means the average American would have to cut consumption by more than a factor of 5. Now ask yourself whether our culture and our politics offers any prospect of reducing consumption on that scale. Okay, you can stop laughing.
The point here is that we need to 1) become aware of the degree that the scale of the challenge before us completely overwhelms our politics, our economic trajectory, and our definitions of wealth, and the steps we are currently taking, or plan to take; 2) that the only way to make that sort of paradigm shift is to revolutionize the culture and economy which drives that level of consumption; and 3) we will definitely need some technological silver bullets.
Its long past time to think big, and go big. We need to, um, reinvent humanity. So let’s get started.
Course, here’s the most classic take on stuff (note for the sensitive–George Carlin likes to swear):