“Finish your food — there are starving kids in Africa.” I know I’ve been told this numerous times. I also know that more often than not, I’ve retorted, “Yeah, well it’s not like I can send it to them anyway.” And, I’m sure many of you have also. But cliché reprimands aside, the unequal distribution of Earth’s scarce resources is becoming an increasingly serious issue — an issue that will be even more pressing in the upcoming years based on the recently released United Nations statistics regarding population growth.
According to a recent U.N. population report, the world population will hit 7 billion on Monday. In 1998, there were 6 billion people in the world, meaning that this last billion was added in just 12 years. What’s more, by the end of the century the population is expected to cross 10 billion. Needless to say, this is a lot of people being added at a fast pace.
With so many people, sustainability is an obvious problem. The question becomes: Does the Earth have enough resources to provide for such a rapidly growing population? As an Oct. 23 Guardian article puts it, “Every additional person needs food, water and energy, and produces more waste and pollution.” Moreover, in a world dependent on industrialization, our ability to manufacture and produce adequate amounts of food is directly related to our access to fossil fuels — a resource we all know is quickly depleting.
However, there is good news. In an Oct. 23 New York Times op-ed, mathematical biologist Joel Cohen reassures that we will indeed be fine in the short term. The Earth is capable of feeding, housing and providing for many more than 7 billion people, at least in the foreseeable future. This is largely thanks to advances in technology, which allow us to make more with less. But that isn’t to say there aren’t significant long-term problems associated with large population growth, namely in regard to management and distribution of the Earth’s resources.
The main problem is that although there are enough resources — food, water, a place to live — to support every individual on the planet, most of these resources aren’t used to provide basic necessities. Cohen reports that each year the Earth produces enough grain to support upwards of 9 to 11 billion individuals. And, yet, almost 1 billion people still go hungry. This is because only 46 percent of the grain produced is used to feed people — the rest goes to feeding livestock. At the rate the world population is growing, this mismanagement of resources will make it more and more difficult to provide for everyone.
Another issue is that resources are disproportionately concentrated in relation to population. It is no secret that access to resources is highly concentrated in the West. Underdeveloped countries, on the other hand, tend to have extremely dense populations and little to no access to resources. Cohen reiterates that in the future, water shortages will be prominent in Northern Africa, India and China. Coincidentally, these regions are also undergoing the fastest population growth. Eventually, this trend presents a situation where the areas with the most people to take care of will be forced to do so with the least resources. Needless to say, this poses future geopolitical and national security threats.
But, again, what does this have to do with us in the West? We have the resources. We’re not surviving on $2 a day or going hungry. So, why should we worry? Well, if ever there was a case for sustainability — for conserving resources, for reducing wasteful consumption, for recycling — it is now. And, if ever there was a place where wasteful consumption needed to be reigned in, it is here. Regardless of whether or not you believe in climate change, there has never been a larger need for environmentally friendly initiatives — if for no other reason than the fact that the demand for resources will continue to increase, while Earth’s limited supply inevitably runs out.
There are enough resources out there to provide for everyone — all 7 billion of us — as long as they are used efficiently. It’s not necessarily that there are starving kids in Africa that would like to eat your half-eaten dinner; it’s that what went into feeding you, could also have been used to feed them. Go green, not because it’s trendy or because global warming will wipe out Los Angeles if you don’t (though that might very well happen), but because it’s the only way to sustain humanity in light of how fast it is growing.
Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.