As Climate Extremes Worsen, More Mouths to Feed

November 15, 2022

Above, CBS report on climate exacerbated famine in Somalia.

Peter Gleick on this week’s global population Milestone – 8 Billion:

According to the UN, the world’s population of humans reached eight billion today. When America was founded, the world’s population was under 800 million. In 1900, it was only 1.6 billion. When I was born, the world’s population was under three billion. And it’s still growing by 50 or 60 million more people every year, likely to reach or exceed 10 billion in the coming decades. 

As populations have risen, there have been some remarkable advances in human well-being. Average income has risen, and average life expectancy is decades longer than a century ago. The fraction of people living in extreme poverty has fallen and global economic activity has soared. But these gains hide continued devastating poverty, widespread hunger, and growing
disparities between the mega-rich and the very poor. Equally important, the traditional measures of well-being fail to capture the growing and massive environmental threats that now face us, including widespread species extinction, growing competition for natural resources such as fresh water and minerals, and increasingly severe climate changes. In a real sense, those of us in the
wealthier countries of the world have grown rich by plundering the natural capital of a finite world. 

The number of people on the planet, along with how much of everything we consume, and how the things we consume are made, lies at the heart of almost every environmental, political, and social challenge. Scientists have taken to calling our current era the “Anthropocene,” an epoch when humans have begun having a clear and significant impact on Earth’s oceans, water, atmosphere, and soils. We’re strip mining the seas and the land of fish, animals, birds, and insects. We’re leaving behind a geological layer of plastic and waste that future archeologists and geologists will be able to use to date this period in time. And we’re changing our very climate. We’re also falling behind in the struggle to meet current demands for food, water, energy, and
minerals. After declining for several decades, global hunger is again on the rise, and the UN estimates that 800 million people go to bed hungry every day.[1] Two billion people – one in four – lack safe drinking water at home.[2] And as human populations have exploded, scientists estimates that world wildlife populations have plummeted, dropping nearly 70 percent between 1970 and 2018.[3] 

British economist Sir Partha Dasgupta and his colleagues describe the modern era as a time when “the biosphere’s goods and services – humanity’s ‘ecological footprint’ – vastly exceeds its ability to supply it on a sustainable basis.”[4] Inpart this is due to the sheer number of people; but it is also the result of the massive imbalance in the style and level of consumption between the rich and the poor. 

One remarkable day in the future, perhaps in this century, the population of the planet will be smaller than the day before, marking a watershed in human history. Population growth is slowing in part through improvements in standards of living, expanded educational and employment opportunities for girls and women, better access to contraception, and the empowerment of
women to have children by choice. Ultimately, we will have to figure out how to manage the challenges of a declining and aging population, rather than an endlessly rising one. Those challenges include a growing demand for health services and care for the elderly, a shrinking tax base and work force, and expanding cities. But these problems are manageable: in countries already experiencing a demographic transition, there has been no shortage of workers, rather there has been sustained economic activity and less unemployment. Where health costs are rising, it’s due to expanded and improved services and predatory practices by insurance and drug companies rather than a rise in the proportion of older citizens.


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