The human race, seven billion strong…and behind the curve

Monday’s Washington Post featured an article by Juliet Eilperin, entitled “Population growth taxing planet’s resources.” Her message? The world’s population has just now hit the seven billion mark. What a milestone! What a success story! We ought to be celebrating.

Do you hear music? See dancing in the streets? Neither do I. True enough, those streets are crowded, even mobbed. There’s a lot of noise out there. But the throngs look unhappy. They’re rioting, not doing the rhumba.

What’s wrong?

Maybe, as Ms. Eilperin suggests, it’s that the human race is consuming food and water at an unsustainable rate. Why? Not just because of this increase in our numbers, but because we’ve developed some bad habits along the way. High on the list? We’re (very inefficiently) converting fish – nutritious food in and of itself – into a feedstock for less wholesome dietary choices, like pork. We’re also despoiling irreplaceable fossil-water supplies in those underground aquifers even as we suck them dry to grow crops. And we’re not doing this everywhere, locally. Instead, the richer nations of the world – the Chinese, Saudi Arabia, et al., are on a worldwide shopping spree, securing food supplies for their populations not just for the present but for the future – not locally, but in distant lands.

Truth be told, the United States and Europe have done a bit of this as well.

All this has a doubly-pernicious effect. It beggars those already poor. And it blinds the rich to any firsthand awareness of the implications of their/our actions. Here in the United States for example, we find supermarkets overflowing with a richly varied, tasty, diet. Prices rise and fall – but are never a big-ticket item. What’s not to like? But abroad, eating is a much chancier enterprise, with respect to both the quantity and quality of what is left over after the richer nations have picked through it. And the price swings are huge relative to those few-dollar-a-day incomes.

And we – all of us – are definitely behind the curve. The world’s poor daily find themselves struggling to survive. For many, it’s getting tougher year on year. As for the rest of us, we may be closer every day to joining them. Agriculturists doing their sums – looking at the remaining supply of arable land that hasn’t yet fallen to the plow, looking at the technologies for increasing yields per acre that remain in the pipeline, and seeing the continued growth of that population [we’re on schedule to add two Chinas by the year 2050] – see global shortages ahead.

We’re behind the curve in other ways. Here are two.

First, those poor who are most vulnerable include a billion who have been malnourished through most of their lives, including the critical early years, when those caloric shortages translate directly into loss of physical and mental function that becomes lifelong. So it’s not just that we have hit the seven billion mark. We don’t have seven billion problem solvers. But we will have billions of people with enough energy to take their discontent to the streets and express their fear and anger. Take the Tea Party and the Occupy movements and scale them up. Think Greece. Think those Chilean students. Think the Arab spring. Restiveness is everywhere. Don’t think it’s them and you; it’s us. And with respect to this challenge, our biggest problem is quite frankly spiritual. We have to begin with the idea we’re all in it together, no one left behind…

Second, we’re not investing in innovation. Do you seriously believe that we’ll be able to solve tomorrow’s problems using yesterday’s tools? You don’t? Neither do I.  Innovation is not the way out; there is no way out. But innovation buys time. Innovation buys breathing room. Innovation reduces social pressures to the point where we can collaborate instead of compete.

And the science and technology most sorely needed? Tools to observe and understand the Earth and its atmosphere and oceans – the lands and seas and all the living creatures. The understanding of the social sciences and the policy analysis needed to help us harness what we know about the natural world for our lasting benefit. The services and decision support we need to decide and act effectively and advantageously.

Oh, and by the way? Innovation? Effective societal action?

All the technology and head knowledge in the world won’t help when so many remain unemployed or under-employed, when the jobless rate for young people is at double digits the world round. It’s why the Europeans have to loosen their pursestrings and bail out the Greeks. And it’s why here at home we have to delay fiscal stability a few years in favor of putting people back to work.

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