The human race is on a roll.

A lot of people question this. Why? Their reasons vary all over the map, but share a bit of this flavor: in many respects, they don’t see much to like about the present world and our lives. They see too many of us as anxious and driven. They see little or no peace in the world, either for peoples or for individuals. There’s illness and suffering and death. There’s pollution and urban sprawl and blight in the inner cities. There’s poverty and terrorism and outright war.

Of course they (and you as well, perhaps?) have a point. But for the moment, please put these deeper, value-based considerations aside. They’re vital! But please put them aside anyway. We’ll look at these things in more detail when we get to the second big question of the blog: what kind of world do we want? [And we will discover that there are lots of reasons for optimism – both about our present situation and our future prospects.]

Instead, for now, we’re focusing on the first question: what kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? And the answer to this question has its roots in the following reality:

In a short period of time, we humans have:

–         greatly increased our numbers

–         improved our quality of life, in large part by increasing our per capita resource consumption, and

–         accelerated the advance of science and technology, and the pace of social change

Let’s start with that increase in numbers. The figure here graphs human population through thousands of years of our history. Over the past hundred years or so, our numbers have really taken off. Here’s a point where a lot of authors (and particularly a lot of scientists like me) have the urge to put in lots of statistics. But for now, let’s resist that. The curve speaks for itself.

Now let’s look at the second bit – the per capita increase in resource use. We could put in a lot of additional graphs here (maybe we should!). But the shape of these curves would all look similar to the population curve. Take per capita consumption of fresh water. Living in the developed world, you and I maybe use 400 times as much water as our subsistence-level counterpart (nearly 200 gallons per day versus two quarts) does today, or our forbear did 200 years ago.

How can that be? Do we drink 400 times as much? No way. Our basic requirement is something like a couple of quarts of water per person per day. Depends on body weight, level of physical activity, but that’s about it. But we use toilets. We wash dishes. We do laundry, using generous amounts of water for each of these purposes. If we have a lawn, we water it. We eat a lot of meat, and it takes a lot of water to raise livestock. We use a lot of electricity, and it takes a lot of water to generate that power. We drive a car, and it takes a lot of water to manufacture that car.

And speaking of energy, let’s check it out. In Benin, Cameroon, and other countries, people on average use maybe 300-600 kilograms-of-oil-equivalent (kgoe) per year (a pound or so of oil per day). Here in the United States, we use 8000 kgoe per year, maybe 20 times as much. So it’s not just water. If you look at our consumption of power per capita over human history, that graph would look about the same.

How about, say, steel? Over the past 100 years, steel production worldwide has increased from about 30 million tons to about 800 million tons – a factor of 20 or so. Population hasn’t increased by anything like that amount, so the per capita consumption, especially in the developed world, has skyrocketed. Substitute any natural resource: iron, nickel, lead, or copper; coal, or oil, or natural gas; platinum or selenium, or molybdenum; the result is qualitatively similar.

Get the idea? So if we’re trying to look at the footprint of the human race on the Earth’s surface, it’s not just that the population went up by a factor of four over the past hundred years. It’s as if the old-style, pre-industrial population had multiplied by a factor of 50 to 100 over the past century or so.

Remember, not everyone is using resources at such an accelerated rate. Let’s suppose that something like the poorest billion of the world’s population are still living at the old, subsistence levels of resource consumption. Suppose they were to start using resources at the same rate as the wealthiest of us. (News flash – they’d like to! They’re trending that way – fast.). So, even if population per se levels out at say 10 billion, the impact of those ten billion on the world’s resources might be three or four times the consumption of today’s 7 billion people, the way we’re headed.

Even as we’ve grown in numbers, we’ve increased our per capita consumption of natural resources. That’s enough to take in for one day. What about scientific and technological advance, and social change? We’ll cover that in the next post.

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One Response to The human race is on a roll.

  1. Your population graph and examples are compelling. We understand–we’re increasing our consumption of natural resources. I’ve become convinced, though, that you can’t just tell people they have to cut back drastically on resource use. You have to raise consciousness of the activities that are the worst offenders and then encourage and support people in making wise choices on how to cut their consumption without making them so angry that they give up the entire effort.

    The question of the day is: How can we ratchet down our consumption without triggering a pushback response? My idea is that we can do this only by providing information and feedback and allowing people to decide on their own little splurges as compared to acceptable ways to reduce resource consumption.

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