Seven billion people — not enough water, land or energy.
“People who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world — are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs
After taking 200,000 years to reach one billion in 1804, humankind has multiplied seven-fold in just a little over 200 years — a mini-blink in the eye of history. And we’ve added over half that seven billion in just the last fifty-two years. In a NY Times Op-Ed (10-23-11; see link below), Columbia’s Joel Cohen, PhD, sums it up thusly:
The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.
Can the earth support seven billion now, and the three billion people who are expected to be added by the end of this century? Are the enormous increases in households, cities, material consumption and waste compatible with dignity, health, environmental quality and freedom from poverty?
The short answer to Dr. Cohen’s question is a resounding NO. We’ve got three very serious problems: Water, land and energy. Although he fails to recognize the obvious solution to our water problem, Dr. Cohen does an excellent job of describing our dilemma:
Water. Human demands on the earth have grown enormously, though the atmosphere, the oceans and the continents are no bigger now than they were when humans evolved. Already, more than a billion people live without an adequate, renewable supply of fresh water.
Over the coming half century, as incomes rise, people will try to buy agricultural products that require more water. Cities and industries will demand more than three times as much water in developing countries. Watershed managers will increasingly want to limit water diversion from rivers to maintain flood plains, permit fish to migrate, recycle organic matter and maintain water quality.
Once again, like so many of the world’s brightest and best-educated people, Dr. Cohen doesn’t even consider the shift to a plant-based diet as an option. It’s not even mentioned, even though it requires far less than 10% (per calorie) as much water — compared to the meat and dairy diet that we have learned to crave. We have also managed to convince ourselves that we need to eat all that animal protein.
Arable Land and World Hunger. (from the article) Some 850 million to 925 million people experience food insecurity or chronic undernourishment. In much of Africa and South Asia, more than half the children are stunted (of low height for their age) as a result of chronic hunger. While the world produced 2.3 billion metric tons of cereal grains in 2009-10 — enough calories to sustain 9 to 11 billion people — only 46 percent of the grain went into human mouths. Domestic animals got 34 percent of the crop, and 19 percent went to industrial uses like biofuels, starches and plastics.
Once again, he has an excellent grasp on the issues; particularly as he summed them up in the last sentence above. But he fails to mention that our arable land issue is particularly exacerbated by a deadly combination of three factors:
- We’re losing an area of arable land about the size of South Carolina every year.
- More people are choosing the typical Western diet around the world every year.
- The world population is growing at roughly 200,000 people per day — a city about the size of Grand Rapids, MI.
Dr. Cohen provided the following info about the third point above and, in the second & third paragraphs, he does a magnificent job of summarizing what we need to do; he just fails to tell us how.
“The United Nations Population Division anticipates 8 billion people by 2025, 9 billion by 2043 and 10 billion by 2083. India will have more people than China shortly after 2020, and sub-Saharan Africa will have more people than India before 2040.”
We must increase the probability that every child born will be wanted and well cared for and have decent prospects for a good life. We must conserve more, and more wisely use, the energy, water, land, materials and biological diversity with which we are blessed.
Henceforth we need to measure our growth in prosperity: not by the sheer number of people who inhabit the earth, and not by flawed measurements like G.D.P., but by how well we satisfy basic human needs; by how well we foster dignity, creativity, community and cooperation; by how well we care for our biological and physical environment, our only home.
The Big Picture. While I agree with everything Dr. Cohen says, I feel that he has come up far short in two primary areas:
- He failed to mention how the impending energy crisis will affect all of the above.
- He failed to mention the obvious, most-viable method for minimizing the global horror stories that may be driven by the dilemma he describes so well.
Earlier post on energy crisis: Peak Oil — Food Supply — Global Economy. All connected?
He is not the first to fail to mention these two critical points — and he won’t be the last. That’s because some 95% of ALL people in the Western world truly believe that we actually “need” to eat animal protein in order to be healthy.
That 95% also includes most of our medical doctors, dietitians, nutritional scientists and Nobel Prize winners. This widespread misconception is the result of many decades of brainwashing by the meat and dairy people — so much so that we now think of the word protein as a generic term for meat. Guess what you get if you search Google for “images” of protein? As for the “meat and dairy” industry folks, I have no doubt that most of them also truly believe that we “need” to eat animal protein.
Sadly, this misconception is the single biggest impediment to the more rapid adoption of the health promoting, earth-saving, whole foods, plant-based diet.
The truth is that what we are eating today is completely unsustainable for many reasons, and the return to the natural plant-based diet for our species is inevitable. The only question is “How quickly will we get it done?” Will we do it quickly enough to prevent the widespread famine, riots, chaos, wars and billions of unnecessary deaths that will occur if we wait too long?
Crazy enough to change the world? So why do I keep harping on this same simple truth about the world’s misconception about protein? Maybe I am crazy to think that if we can just convince the world’s brightest of this simple truth about protein that we can save billions of lives and perhaps even life on this planet as we know it.
As I stated at the beginning of our book, I am convinced there has never been anything more important in the history of the world. While watching Walter Isaacson (on 60-Minutes) talk about his new Steve Jobs biography, I picked up my new favorite quote — from an old Apple Computer commercial written at least in part by Steve himself. After showing images of the likes of Martin Luther King, Ted Turner, Alfred Hitchcock and others, the voice takes over…
“Some may call them the crazy ones — we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world — are the ones who do.”
Once the world’s brightest and most powerful leaders understand that not only do we not “need” animal protein, but that it is in fact killing us and destroying our planet, it won’t take them long to figure out what to do next. Understanding the truth about protein coupled with knowledge of the following three factoids will serve to rapidly accelerate the widespread adoption of a plant-based diet throughout the Western world: On a per calorie basis (compared to plant-based), our rich Western diet requires:
- Twenty times more land
- Twenty times more water
- Twenty times more energy
With those facts in mind, the cumulative implications of walking (or running) away from a meat-based diet are staggering. And when they’re burning trees in the Amazon — to feed pigs in China, you know something is terribly wrong.
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—J. Morris Hicks…blogging daily at HealthyEatingHealthyWorld.com
Joel Cohen’s Seven Billion Op-Ed in the 10-23-11 NYTimes.com. Joel E. Cohen, a mathematical biologist and the head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and Columbia University, is the author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support?
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