For the first time in the history of our planet we are experiencing a human population explosion. For countless generations the global population remained below half a billion, then a sudden escalation occurred in the 1800s. The increase was so fast that within a single human lifespan we added four billion people. We now have 6.4 billion people living on our planet, and the number is still increasing. In the next few decades we expect to add about three billion.
This sudden and excessive increase in global population is the driving force behind a series of critical global trends that are expected to culminate, possibly with devastating results, during this century. How are we going to survive on an overcrowded planet?
For the first time in human history we are facing an unprecedented range of environmental problems. We are running out of land and water resources. We are in the process of changing global climate. We have the power to destroy global life-supporting systems. We are experiencing a massive, human-induced extinction of species. We are facing a global energy crisis. We have to deal with, not just local, but global social, political, and environmental problems. We have a huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We have a paradoxical situation that with our fast progress in science and technology, we can achieve almost anything but may not be around long enough to make use of our intellectual potential.
When the Titanic was going down, the rich had a better chance to survive than the poor. Some of the rich were loaded on lifeboats and were eventually saved. Many of them, however, shared their fate with the poor. They had to swallow the same icy water and perish.
We are again on a sinking ship, but the situation is now different. There are no lifeboats, no rescuing ships, and no friendly land waiting to receive us. We have nowhere to go, and it is in our common interest to work for a stable and safe future.
We might be living in different compartments, but no country can consider itself isolated from, or immune to, critical global changes. We share the same planet, and the state of its environment affects us all. Take the example of climate change: the non-compliance of one country affects the whole global community. Political and social problems in remote countries translate into immigration pressures, and we know how much controversy they create in Australia. Infectious diseases can now be carried easily between countries.
Regardless of our religion, political conviction, gender, race, or nationality, we share the same planet and should be concerned about its future. It is our duty to care for and ensure a sustainable future for our children. What will be their inheritance? Will we leave them insoluble problems? Will they be able to survive?
At present, only about 12 per cent of the global population lives in rich countries and no more than 20 per cent in all industrialised countries. However, the consumption of industrialised countries is so high that at current levels our planet can support only around two billion people. Consequently, we have no room for over four billion remaining people, and we would need two more planets the size of the Earth to accommodate them. This situation will worsen by the middle of the century, when we will have a projected surplus of seven billion people.
Fortunately, the consumption of developing countries is still small. Even so, since the 1970s, global consumption has been higher than the global ecological capacity, which means that we live on borrowed time. Our existence is unsustainable because it is supported by an increasing ecological deficit. Our lifestyles depend on the over-exploitation of natural resources and the liquidation of our global assets.
The arable land area per person is steadily decreasing, not just because global population is increasing but also because we are losing valuable land through mismanagement. The use of synthetic fertilisers and other agricultural chemicals is on the rise, causing serious environmental damage by polluting the atmosphere, land, and water. These products also have harmful effects on human health. How can we reduce their use and still produce the food we need?
We are facing a critical shortage of fresh water. Already around 2.4 billion people – twice the population of industrialised countries – suffer severe water stress. By 2030, that number will increase to between 3.2 and 4.5 billion. The projected increase depends on the options we are prepared to adopt to manage our natural resources.
The concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is projected to continue to increase. In the last century, the average increase in the earth’s surface temperature was 0.6 °C. The projected increase this century is between 1.4 and 5.8 °C. However, recent but still unconfirmed model calculations indicate that the increase might be as high as 11 °C. Climate change, which is already too rapid and harmful, is expected to have even more damaging effects on the environment, the global economy, and human health. The costs of weather-related economic losses alone are likely to cause global bankruptcy during the current century. There is also a possibility of a sudden climate change with even more disastrous and lasting outcomes than those associated with current gradual changes.
Energy consumption is increasing worldwide. Our reliance on fossil fuels will remain high at least until 2020, although we are likely to reach a peak in the global production of crude oil well before then. This will lead to a gradual decrease in production even as demand continues to increase. We can expect negative effects on many sectors of the economy, both global and local. Transport depends almost entirely on the supply of crude oil, so unless we act quickly to solve this problem we may soon experience crippling effects in this area.
With massive inequalities in income, the division of the planet’s resources is starkly inequitable. Currently, over 800 million people live with hunger, and over one billion people live in abject poverty (as defined by having an income of less than US$1 a day). The number of people living in industrialised countries will remain nearly constant at around 1.2 billion, but the number of people living in developing countries is projected to escalate from the current 5.2 billion to around eight billion by the middle of the current century.
Global conflicts and violent confrontations are increasing. We have declared a war on terror, but are forced to live with the apparently increased risk of brutal acts of terrorism. We have more weapons of mass destruction than we need to destroy civilisation. While these weapons pose only a potential danger, our less publicised conventional weapons kill millions of people around the world.
This is our planet, the only home we have, and we are not doing nearly enough to care for it. Admittedly the future does not look encouraging, but we might still have a chance to change it.
Before we can start solving problems, however, we must first admit that they exist. We must try to understand the current critical global trends, and to seek areas for positive change.
We can choose either to do little or nothing – thereby allowing the critical trends to continue to their potentially disastrous conclusions – or we can try to change them. If we are clever, we might change crisis into opportunity. Our opportunity prompted by necessity is twofold: we have an opportunity to learn to live with nature and with each other. Both are equally important and both are necessary if we expect to survive. If we do not use this opportunity to learn and to change direction the critical global trends are likely to become terminal. We can have a sustainable future if we want it but we have to be willing to work for it.
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