Politicians, agricultural experts, and scientists are all fretting about how to feed the 9-10 billion humans that will blanket the planet in 2050. And environmentalists are having nightmares about what it will do the earth.
Here’s one strategy that offers a big head-start on the problem:
The global population is expected to grow from about seven billion today to over nine billion by 2050. Producing enough food for this population will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural production and $83 billion per year of investments in developing country agriculture.
Yet, one third of the food produced globally—about 1.3 billion tons of food per year—is never consumed at all. This food is wasted or lost at some step of the supply chain between when it leaves a farm and when a consumer would typically eat it.
The solution to feeding a growing population is not simply to produce more food, but also to save, preserve, or recycle the food already produced. Cutting current food wastage in half, for example, would yield enough food to feed one billion people—half of the additional population expected by 2050.
Cutting back on waste is a general theme which will serve the human species well over the coming century. Cutting back food loss and waste will also fill some bellies and reduce pressure on the planet.
Now, if only I could get my kids to eat that bruised banana.
This is the most shocking, infuriating, and meaningful conclusion I have maybe ever seen:
The new Living Planet Index report from the World Wildlife Fund opens with a jaw-dropping statistic: we’ve killed roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population since 1970.
The WWF data show that the species declines vary by habitat and geographic area. Tropical areas saw greater declines, while temperate regions – like North America – saw lesser drops. Habitat-wise, land and saltwater species saw declines of roughly 39 percent. But freshwater animals – frogs, fish, salamanders and the like – saw a considerably sharper 76 percent drop. Habitat fragmentation and pollution (think algae blooms) were the main killers of freshwater species.
The declines are almost exclusively caused by humans’ ever-increasing footprint on planet earth. “Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological goods and services we use each year,” according to the report. The only reason we’re able to run above max capacity – for now – is that we’re stripping away resources faster than we can replenish them.
This is a model, so I don’t know how much faith to have in the specific percentage. But it is the clear and obvious trend, and its implications for life on the planet, that should slap us in the face, wake us up, and get us thinking about how to entirely re-invent human culture, human lifestyles, and the global economy.
The way in which the ever-expanding human presence on the planet is devastating the natural world and the biodiversity that we should be nurturing (instead of destroying) should be the number one preoccupation of humanity. It should be treated with greater alarm than Ebola, Al Qaeda, ISIL, and the Kardashians.
Put the arcane and petty religious disputes aside. Put the shortsighted and endless warring aside. Put intolerance, self-interest, and callous disregard aside. Put rampant self-gratification aside. And focus on the fact that we can’t think the way we think, and live the way we live. Everything must be questioned. Everything must be changed.
It’s pretty massive. According to National Geographic, only 55% of the world’s crop calories are consumed directly by people. Fully 36% of the world’s crop calories are used for animal feed. And since it takes 100 calories of grain to produce 12 calories of chicken, or 3 calories of beef, that’s not very efficient.
Here’s what it looks like:
With the global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, we have a very simple choice: we can destroy more forests and natural landscapes and put it to the plow or use it for grazing, or we can eat less meat. A lot less meat. And that doesn’t even account for the climate change impact of meat.
I write about this every now and then, because human fertility is falling faster then most demographers expect. Using the CIA Factbook for data, the present total fertility rate for the world is 2.47 births per woman that survives childbearing. Last year it was 2.50, and in 2006 it was 2.90. 2.10 is replacement rate. At the current trend, the world will be at replacement rate in 2022. That’s a lot earlier than most expect, and it makes me suggest that global population will top out at 8.5 Billion in 2030, lower and earlier than most expect.
Why are fertility rates declining faster than expected?
Educating females makes many of them want to have fewer kids, whether the reason is pain, effort, wanting to work outside the home, etc.
Contraception is more widely available.
The marriage rate is declining globally. Willingness to have children is positively correlated with marriage.
Governments provide an illusion of support, commonly believed, that the government can support people in their old age, so people don’t have kids for old age support.
So now you know what sorts of policies can make a difference.
Economists and demographers often bemoan declining populations. Anyone who cares about the future of Earth should applaud.
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.
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):