Wednesday, November 2, 2011

7 Billion and Counting

As we pass the 7-billion mark, there has been renewed criticism of Thomas Malthus and his view that humankind’s future was not necessarily on an upward slope because of the pressures derived from population growth.

Malthus' premises, and certainly his calendar, might have been off, but the fact remains that Earth is running out of vital resources with which to support a much smaller population than the 7-billion now extant. The depletion of fossil fuels and exotics like rare earths, for example, receive a fair amount of press, which they should, since they enable technologically advanced societies to exist.

Fossil fuels are the source of nitrate fertilizer for high-yield crops; the other vital agricultural input, phosphate, is mined, and once used, dissipates as run-off or percolates down into near-surface strata. Neither constituent is recoverable, and there are no substitutes that will support the food needs of those 7 billion for more than a dozen decades or so, much less the projected 9 to 10 billion of 2050.

Of course, water, whether potable or reclaimed, is already in short supply in most of the world, and indeed, its lack in sub-Saharan Africa has diminished what in the best of times has been a hardscrabble existence.

The drive for economic growth is both a boon and bane for humankind. Over the short term, economic growth brings with it prosperity, at least for those who are its beneficiaries. But over the long term, economic growth in tandem with population growth will only exacerbate the depletion of the abovementioned critical resources. Plus, the accumulation of externalities (e.g., greenhouse gases, water pollution) in the environment will see the diminution of the general population’s quality-of-life.

Technological fixes and scientific advancements will only carry us so far, despite the claims of leaders in industry and politics. At the dusk of civilization, an unsustainable population will no doubt be seen as the problem.

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