Dealing with Population Growth and Issues of Sustainability

Here’s a very solid and accessible article on population growth and sustainability from the World Future Society, though I’m not sure it provides any “new news.”   

Yes, we’re consuming resources at an unsustainable rate, and that rate will only increase for the foreseeable future.  Right now, we’d need an Earth about 1.6 times the size of our own to provide the resources that our population consumes annually.  And as each year passes, the number becomes larger. 

Put another way, there was a moment during a day this past September at which humankind had consumed all the resources that would be naturally renewed in the entire year of 2012.  Soon, that moment will be in August; a decade or so later, July.

So what to do?

Each of the cleantech business plans featured here represents my main answers. They’re here precisely because I believe they contain some level of breakthrough technology that, if implemented, will move the needle associated with humankind’s potential to sustain itself. 

Let’s take an example: the cutting-edge concept of aeroponics.  If I were speaking to a group here, instead of writing, I’d ask for a show of hands.  How many of you believe that our current approach to agriculture, with its ever-increasing quantity and potency of chemical fertilizers and poisons, can sustainably support a population of seven billion, on a direct climb to 10 billion?  I wouldn’t embarrass the few who had raised their hands, but I would present a few facts that show how completely unsupportable this notion is.  I would ask if anyone knows the average distance that the food in our grocery stores traveled by diesel truck to get there.  I would congratulate those who know the answer (1200 miles).  I would ask if that model sounds sustainable.  I’m confident that, within a few minutes, I’d have a large percentage of the audience converted to the concepts of aeroponics, bioaeroponics, and aquaponics.  

Of the other “big ideas” that I support in terms of sustainability, the most important are probably those that drive education.  The most frightening challenges we face in dealing with our skyrocketing world population are rooted in ignorance.  Uneducated people tend to have more children and fail to educate them, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and runaway population growth.  That’s why I think the business plans that will develop rural off-grid/ microgrid electrification, e.g., microwind and mid-sized wind, are so important; they will foster education in regions of the world in which it’s currently extremely rare.  

Others address climate change, like this unique approach to carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.

Again, each of these cleantech business opportunities is there for a reason.  If you know anyone who could potentially play a role as a partner or investor, please let me know.






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7 comments on “Dealing with Population Growth and Issues of Sustainability
  1. arlene says:

    Its unclear to me that feeding people is the center of the discussion. A little game I play is what can one do with indefinitely large quantities of energy? Call it Federation of Planets scenario.

    For starters, you can make as much potable water as you choose and you can scrub the air clean – including the co2. The earth is a big place in terms of volume, so one would tend to run out of surface area long before one ran out of minerals and other fundamental building blocks. So, right there we can probably grow ridiculous quantities of food. We won’t likely get all gourmet about it, but no one would have the pressure of starvation.

    Stepping back at this point – what does it get us? Well fed, but likely pretty bored and likely fairly unhappy for a variety of reasons that has nothing to do with fundamentals like staying alive. We already have little need for the people currently alive, and so continuing to make more people who are fed and clothed is somewhat perpendicular to the basic human dilemma of our point and place in the universe. I don’t mean the above in a mean spirited way. I’m commenting on the fact that technology requires ever fewer of us year over year to deliver the goods and services required by all. Every year that goes by, an increasing number of us become unnecessary to the successful forward motion of the entire human species. An interesting problem, since our social system is built upon the notion of remuneration for effort given. What is the remuneration for being unneeded?

    In a very roundabout way, where I’m going with this is that world population pressure can cap out in quite a number of previously discussed ways such as disease, famine, military adventurism exacerbated by other conditions, weather, etc. It can also cap out in more subtle ways. I doubt that I’ve even begun to explore the full range of these less obvious possibilities.

  2. Rev. Phil Manke says:

    The problem and the answer is the same.

    • Craig Shields says:

      Perhaps you can clarify.

      Besides, the subject and the verb doesn’t agree. :) Just kidding. Just trying to make a point to my daughter Valerie, who reads all this stuff, and is working to move up in her SATs, where this is taken with the utmost importance.

  3. peter leach says:

    In a similar vein to Arlene’s comment, I have concerns that solutions for increased food/resource productivity, in the end, become self defeating. Without a parallel plan for equitably limiting population growth, we simply defer the inevitable uncontrolled (uncontrollable)population crashes. In fact, they may exacerbate future population re-adjustments by increased dependance on technofixes and global interdependency.
    Aeroponics/aquaponics etc certainly have a role to play but must not be allowed to get politicians and religious leaders off the hook in dealing with the fundamental issue of an overcrowded planet. Perhaps that is the problem/solution to which Rev Manke enigmatically refers?

  4. Chris Daum says:

    The main issue, as I see it, is the education and empowerment of women. Educated women have fewer, healthier children and are able to contribute more to their community than just being breeders. Unfortunately, many of the poorest countries with high birth rates have cultures/religions that are against such empowerment. How are they to be convinced of their self-interest gained by educating their girls and women?

  5. garth says:

    You’ve breached a subject that has no single answer; there are so many “black swans” or “singular events” that can change the world’s dynamic picture that to settle on one course would be foolhardy. Genetic modifying of our basic foods may or may not have down stream effects but for the moment it works; improved farming methods, including aquatic farming is proving a boon to the world’s desire for fish but what problems is it creating environmentally that are unknown at this time?
    There is also the profound possibility of some kind of pandemic that reduces the world population in a short time frame, or the increase in the violence of storms may become more deadly than ever thought. Of course there is always war and the middle east seems to strive for that possible event.
    I guess the point is we do what we can to help our neighbors and families and hope the rest of the world does the same. Let science continue working on a “better way” but let’s be cautious on what we accept as good and wholesome. In most cases a good example is copied and promoted and does reach the far corners of the earth considering our communications today. So let’s set a good example and hope others buy in.

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