The global population is booming, and billions more people are demanding the lavish lifestyles of the Western world. Can Earth’s resources cope under the strain?

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[divider]What the future holds[/divider]

In 2013, NASA released a new set of photographs of planet Earth.

The satellite images look beautiful and serene, a powerful show of the enormity of our world.

But they tell a worrying story. The pictures reveal that across the Middle East, ancient freshwater reserves are running out. In the past seven years, and in an already thirsty region, nearly sixty square miles of water has simply disappeared.

The news is a small example of a vast problem. Population and consumption are booming – and Earth is struggling to cope.

Today, the world is experiencing growth as never before. Between 1800 and 1960, the global population mushroomed from less than one billion to three billion; since, it has more than doubled, and by 2050 there will be at least nine billion people on Earth.

Most of these new lives will begin in the world’s poorest regions: countries that already struggle to provide for their citizens. But as population has shot up, so have the living standards of many. In the next 17 years, three billion will join the middle classes, and by 2050 70% of the world will live in urban areas.

As businesses expand, poor economies grow and billions pursue Western lifestyles, more iPads, tower blocks and Big Macs are flooding the planet. In the next thirty years, the number of cars and trucks on the road will double to two billion, and oil consumption will increase by 24%.

[divider]The consequences[/divider]

Good news? For our planet, more is not necessarily merrier.

Earth is already straining under humanity’s waste, and the rubbish mountain is growing: 1.3 billion tonnes of trash is now created each year, but that will grow to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. And as people in India and China start to eat as muchmeat and junk food as the rich West, obesity is creating more than a public health crisis: over consumption adds the equivalent of an extra one billion people to the planet.

The habitat where this food comes from is increasingly under threat. Today, intensive farming is destroying the world’s topsoil – the six to eight inches of fertile ground where 99.7% of the food we eat grows. In China, topsoil is disappearing 57 times faster than it can be naturally replaced. What’s more, water tables are falling in countries where 50% of the world live, and 800 African lakes have dried up in the last decade.

The pressure is already being felt. After dropping by 70% across the 20th Century, food prices have shot up: in both 2008 and 2011, they spiked at an all-time high. And where people face hunger and thirst, instability is not far behind. When grain prices doubled between 2010 and 2011, riots gripped cities from Kyrgyzstan to Kenya, the Arab Spring toppled governments, and wars broke out in Libya, Yemen and Syria. And the effects of the Middle East’s water shortage can already be seen on the ground, as families migrate and nations clash in pursuit of the precious resource.

[divider]For better or worse[/divider]

Some think these problems expose a fundamental crisis. Humanity, they say, is pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet. The quest for more – more consumption and production, more people – is not helping us progress toward a better world: it is paving the way to destruction.

Not so, say optimists. The spread of affluence, they argue, has led to better living standards for billions of people. And although such vast improvements put pressure on resources, science and technology are constantly creating innovative ways to tackle the stress. Growth, they say, is progress.

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