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The global population has tripled since World War II from 2.3 billion to 7.5 billion. The world will add that many more by mid-century. The demographic distribution by age is shifting from pyramidal to columnar. Longer lifespans mean there are fewer young healthy workers to support social programs for health and retirement.
Governments that fail to form sustainable and adaptive policies to address these changes are guaranteeing civil strife, conflicts between economic classes and eventual economic collapse.
Rural to Urban
In 1800, fewer than 3 percent of the global population lived in cities. Today, that number has grown to over 50 percent. For industrialized countries, that number is over 80 percent. By mid century, more than three-quarters of the world population will live in towns and cities. Dozens of megacities will appear in developing countries. City planning will determine if they operate efficiently or in chaos and segregation between the haves and have nots.
The primary reason for this migration is people seeking to better their lives. Industrialization concentrates workers. The rapid urbanization creates both opportunities and difficulties for city planners. Infrastructure is often overwhelmed. Housing cost and availability often leave people stranded in poor conditions.
Migration to cities also creates problems for those who remain in rural areas. A century ago, 80 percent of the U.S lived on the land. Today, farmers and ranchers are just 2 percent of the population, yet they receive less than 17 percent of every dollar spent for food.
Demand for greater and greater yields places increasing costs on the farmer. Urban consumers resist paying higher prices, which makes it more difficult for the farmer to make a dependable living. In good years, farmers may do well. It only takes one or two years of crop failure to threaten foreclosure. Agribusiness monopolies are absorbing small farms. This trend lowers competition. Industrialized farming reduces consumer choices and can reduce nutrition in favor of production efficiency. There is little regulatory oversight to ensure quality.
Urbanization isolates the public consciousness from the natural environment. People lose sight of the value of soil, water, the seasons, food growers and the environment that supports their basic needs.
Population and Water
Only 0.3 percent of Earth’s accessible water is fresh water. The demands on that 0.3 percent have increased five fold since 1900. It will increase another five fold by 2050. Eighty percent of water use is agricultural. It is projected that the growing population and food preferences will need a 75 percent to 100 percent increase in food production by 2050. This will place unprecedented demands on soil and fresh water supplies.
Desalination requires huge amounts of energy for massive scale purification and transportation. How do we pump trillions of gallons of desalinated water to Kansas or other interior farm lands around the world without breaking the bank?
The cost of fresh and potable water will run into the trillions of dollars by mid century. Who gets the water? How is this incorporated into economies that are more concerned about the quarterly report than generational long term public needs?
Can’t we just dig more wells? No — we are using groundwater faster than it is being recharged. Some of the largest aquifers in the U.S. are polluted or running dry. The next agricultural revolution must produce more food with less water.
There is already strong evidence that most civil strife, refugees, and losses in security can be traced back to inadequate supplies of water.
As Ben Franklin once said, “When the well runs dry we learn the worth of water.”
We are making more people, not more land. Arable land is diminishing in area and fertility. Clearing more land removes carbon sinks and increases global warming. We lose more arable land each year to pavement and housing than to erosion. Replacing natural soil replenishment with fertilizers creates serious down stream runoff problems, leading to fishery depletion and marine dead zones.
There are cleaner, greener ways to use the land such as no-till farming. These methods are often opposed by modern agribusiness practices and are unlikely to change quickly for intransigent industrialized economies.
Economics and Population
More people consume more resources. Efficiency and conservation yield the greater return in energy use. Economic policy based upon unregulated growth in consumption must eventually collapse. The clear enemy here is unregulated, free market capitalism. A corporation exists to make a profit, not to benefit humanity. When they make the choice between the quarterly report and public benefit; by law, there is only one choice available to them. Labor, like utility bills, are only considered “overhead expenditures” that should be trimmed to the bare minimum.
The political arguments against this economic policy were championed aggressively by the Bernie Sanders campaign for the U.S. Presidency in 2016. The fact that Donald J. Trump won the presidency dramatically illustrates the public’s poor understanding of economic policy and corporate influence in the democratic process. Trickle down is an oxymoron to “free market capitalism.”
Author’s note to reader: The media has become so partisan and unregulated that it is difficult for the average citizen to obtain objective news and information. Instead, media have focused on specific sectors of the population. People tend to visit those programs that focus on a specific viewpoint. It is therefore even more important that the reader learns how to seek factual and verifiable information.
Oversight, Regulations and Enforcement
Without oversight, you don’t know what is happening. Without laws and regulations, you have no standards. Without enforcement, you have no control. When a nation is blind, lawless and powerless, the special interests take over.
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.