Population is the overriding issue concerning sustainability around the world. The more people there are, the more resources are consumed and the more pollution is created. The more people, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the more land that is deforested. The more people, the more fishing pressure on the oceans and the more land paved over and become unproductive.
Some estimates place the sustainable world population at about three billion. Yet we know have seven billion people more or less surviving. Why that contradiction?
First of all, we are consuming resources in a non-renewable way, and placing consumed resources out of range for re-use (recyclables). Second, and this is a critical point to understand, this burgeoning of population has taken place in a very benign period of the Earth's geological history. We have not been suffering disastrous extra-terrestrial events such as meteor collisions or severe solar flares, we have not been experiencing extreme vulcanism, and we are in an interlude between ice ages. This set of conditions, however, WILL NOT LAST. Thirdly, the period of time in which we've had seven billion people is very brief, relatively speaking -- and we're doing incredible damage to our planet in that time period.
The United Nations recently predicted a global population of nine billion by 2050. Thatís almost fifty percent more people than inhabit the planet now. Thatís overly optimistic Ė and itís not going to happen.
Many people have decried Malthusí predictions of population disasters, claiming him to be proven wrong. But he was not wrong; he simply underestimated technology, and did not foresee the petroleum economy.
In order for population to continue to grow, we must have ever-growing energy inputs. We have now squandered the most easily-recoverable petroleum resources, nuclear power is too expensive and dangerous to solve our problems, and we simply canít gain enough new energy from renewable resources to meet the future needs, comparable to present needs, of a mind-boggling population level. Energy is not only required for daily living, for manufacture, for transportation, and agriculture, BUT ALSO for ever-increasing remediation of environmental effects resulting from a growing population. Future energy use is like the pay-day loan cycle: the interest due keeps growing out of proportion to our ability to pay it.
Weíre already farming, worldwide, the vast majority of easily arable lands. Further land used will require greater levels of energy input, irrigation, environmental remediation, and other measures to keep it productive. Each new unit of agricultural production will cost significantly more than the next-preceding unit.
Irrigation? Thereís no surface water left to do it with. Weíve allocated far more water from the Colorado River than the river carries. Globally, groundwater resources have been disastrously depleted. Deep groundwater resources take hundreds or thousands of years to replenish, but we drain them in decades. Water used for irrigation leaves behind mineral salts that eventually poison the soil. This isnít a problem with conventional agriculture because there is enough water for those mineral salts to percolate away. In irrigated areas, the water evaporates and is transpired through plant leaves, and the salts remain at or near the surface. Global climate change will further reduce available precipitation in conventional agricultural zones, heightening the pressure for more irrigation..
Most agriculture around the world today results in a continued net loss of topsoil. Soils around the world are depleted of essential nutrients. All in all, agriculture is headed for a continuing collapse, with no ready remedy. Itís not a future event: itís already happening.
Huge numbers of people rely on oceanic fisheries for food, but those fisheries are collapsing wholesale. Species of fish that were once common foodstocks are now rare in commerce because of their rarity in nature.
Disease looms. Ready travel means that diseases are widely distributed before they are even known. More humans living in greater concentrations in closer quarters, with declining environmental factors, and more stress on both humans and agricultural livestock means more disease development: availability of easy transfer is a key to diseases developing.
An even larger immediate threat of disease is our meat-eating habit, because of how meat is produced, particularly the out-of-control antibiotic use. This antibiotic use develops resistant disease within the animals on factory farms and feedlots, but also is released into waterways, along with resistant bacteria. If we had schemed to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it would have been difficult to come up with a more effective system. Since bacteria exchange packets of genetic information between unrelated species, this becomes a real problem. We now have many bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics, including syphilis, and some of them are now incredibly dangerous. Strains of Escherischia coli (E. coli) that once would only cause mild digestive upset have now developed into potentially lethal agents. We now have the flesh-eating bacteria, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which often responds to NO antibiotics, and has cost a growing number of people their lives or limbs.
Weíve already squandered many resources on levels that are difficult to comprehend. We now extract some metals from raw ore that has a lower concentration of metal in it than is to be found in the average landfill.
Population collapse is not just a future calamity. It is already happening, and has been happening. It will worsen, no matter what we do. Since the global economy is completely based on growth in resource consumption and in population growth, it will suffer catastrophic adjustments in the process. All we can now do is to try to slow the problems as much as possible and make the best of it. The bright side of it is that Athens, Ohio, has the resources and potential to remain a place of stability and sustainability for a long time if we work to make it so.