Printer Friendly

Human populations and natural resource demands.

Over the next century the world's natural systems will be subject to almost unimaginable stresses. Close monitoring and an unprecedented proactive approach will be necessary to maintain water and air quality--perhaps even atmospheric composition--and to ensure the long-term viability of certain wildlife, fish, plant, and other populations.

But the 21st century will pose another equally formidable challenge: providing food, fuel, shelter, and clothing for expanding human populations. The earth's current population level of 5.4 billion will likely double within the next seventy to one hundred years. This growth certainly will exacerbate environmental pressures that lead to atmospheric pollution, acid deposition, ground water depletion, tropical deforestation, stress on agricultural systems, and a host of other problems. Our expanding populations will require a combination of new resource development strategies, technological advancement, and capital investment. Economic and distribution systems will need to be improved as well.

If society fails to adequately protect natural systems, a general degradation of environmental quality will likely result, with widespread modification of natural ecosystems, and marked changes in plant and animal populations. These same disastrous results are likely if society fails to meet the basic needs of human populations. Individuals may be driven willy-nilly to try extracting food, fuel, and shelter from their burdened environment. Thus, human needs must be addressed as part of any significant effort to protect the environment.

Growing Populations

Human birth and death rates today are far out of balance. Worldwide, for every 1,000 people there are twenty-eight births but only ten deaths. This ratio translates to a global population increase of approximately 90.1 million annually.(5) Birth rates are declining, both in absolute terms and in relation to the death rate, but even so, an unprecedented rise in world population looms ahead. It has taken all of recorded human history to reach the world's current 5.4 billion population. Yet this figure will likely double within the next seventy to one hundred years.(7)

Most future increases in human populations will occur in the world's lower income regions: Africa, Asia (except Japan), and Latin America. World populations are likely to stabilize at some point in the next century or two, but at what point? We have some choice in the matter.

Family Planning

The United Nations recently estimated that an investment of $10.5 billion each year for ten years would make family planning services and information available worldwide. If this level of support were to begin immediately, world population could be stabilized at an estimated 9.3 billion by the year 2095. Greater investment in family planning could stabilize human population sooner and at a lower level--7.8 billion by 2050.(2)

If these projections are accurate, they represent very good news indeed, since control of global human populations--and thus, control of the main source of environmental stress--is well within reach. Without concerted efforts to curb growth, however, human populations will grow to much higher levels. Assuming only modest increases in financing of family planning efforts over the next several decades (the most likely scenario upon which the U.N. medium population projection is based), world population will grow to about 11.6 billion before stabilizing.(7) With no increases in family planning efforts, world population could rise to 14 billion--almost three times the current level!

The U.N.'s best case scenario depends on an investment of $10.5 billion per year. That's a relatively small number, only about 1 percent of the world's annual military expenditures.(2) Therefore, one might assume that action to limit future population increases is already well underway. One might even assume that the most influential and economically well-off nations--including those most vocal about environmental issues, such as the United States--would be leading the family planning effort, financially and otherwise. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Family planning services in lower income countries were funded to the tune of $4.5 billion in 1990. Of that amount, $3.5 billion came from the countries themselves; member nations of the U.N.'s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development contributed only $0.7 billion. This level of funding served about 381 million couples (51 percent), whereas U.N. estimates suggest that 567 million couples should be using contraceptives by the end of this century just to stabilize world population at the 11.6 billion level.(3)

Surprisingly, despite increasing United States concern about the environment, world population growth has received little attention. Perhaps this is the case because those who rely on fund raising (politicians, citizen action groups) are well aware that family planning is a taboo subject in some parts of United States society. Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate for his work on the green revolution, recently commented on this situation, saying that unless the United States populace and political leaders can separate the abortion issue from population control issues, the consequences will be disastrous.(8) His remarks suggest some tactical problems currently facing this country's advocates of population control; they also underscore the importance of United States leadership, both financially and by example, to the success of global family planning efforts.

The Catastrophic Party

Careful planning could minimize the environmental stresses of increasing human populations. Conversely, a reactive approach is likely to maximize environmental impacts.

Consider the following hypothetical example. Suppose your teenage son has invited, unbeknownst to you, all 200 members of his high school class to a party at your home. Assuming you can't cancel the invitations, what's to be done? At least two alternatives suggest themselves. 1) Plan elaborately. Consider food and drink requirements; available space for dancing, conversation, recreation; shelter in case of rain; protection of sensitive flowers, shrubs, and lawn areas; means of handling uninvited guests; collecting and disposing of trash; and so on. 2) Hope for a poor turnout and try to deal with problems as they arise. If you run out of food, maybe no one will notice, or the neighbors will donate. If you haven't roped off a dance floor and kids trample your prize begonias, you can chase them out, or wring your hands. If trash piles up everywhere, you can run around nagging, or live with it.

Hosting a large gathering without advance planning may seem irrational. But it approximates how society in general--and this country in particular--is dealing with global population trends and related issues. With few exceptions, society is taking no significant steps to limit the size of the party. Nor is it thinking realistically about how to provide for those who do show up. These oversights may spell catastrophe for both the flowers and the people.

The Private Sector's Role in Planning

For the most part, societal planning in this country has been a piecemeal effort, reactive rather than proactive, and focused on short-term results. Until recently, most planning has been a response to specific proposals from business and industrial interests, which are driven by the profit motive. These private market-oriented concerns propose development (new or expanded manufacturing capacity, increased raw material gathering or harvesting, new housing tracts, etc.) based on how they perceive demand. They are rewarded according to how well they anticipate and satisfy human wants and needs.

Considerable profit-based incentive exists within this sector to reduce raw material consumption through improvements in product design or manufacturing efficiency. Over a period of many decades, this incentive has led to steady, significant reductions in raw material use per unit of output.

By contrast, there has been little incentive for this sector to address environmental matters. Like anyone else, business and industry leaders benefit from a healthy global environment. But their attention to environmental matters is colored by intense competitive pressures, and their actions are motivated by impact on profits, concerns over public relations, and their perceived ability to continue to operate over the long term. Given this atmosphere, no real incentive exists for business and industry leaders to help reduce or limit per capita consumption. Nor is there much stimulus to promote lower population growth.

Government's Planning Role

The U.S. government's role with respect to development has consisted primarily of establishing rules and guidelines. Government units also commonly review proposals--usually initiated by business and industry interests--as part of approval processes. Until recently, assuming that citizen requirements (for food, shelter, employment, etc.) and local environmental concerns were addressed, the government most often reacted favorably to development proposals.

However, disputes over land use escalated as the nation became increasingly populous, and government more and more turned to the courts for dispute resolution. Today, development activities are heavily influenced by litigation--both in response to proposals from for-profit concerns, and as part of proactive campaigns by environmentalists and others to further limit domestic development.

The planning that government carries out typically focuses on short range and local issues in small geographical areas. Global population growth and family planning are only rarely considered by local, state, or federal governmental units, partially because increasing population is viewed as somebody else's problem, and partially because planners fear disapproval by religious and other groups.

The Activists' Role In Planning

Citizens who identify themselves as environmental activists also respond to private sector development proposals. Based on environmental concerns, this group's response to development proposals is typically negative. This group may be uninterested or even cynical about market demands and other economic factors, and may focus on one or more isolated issue while discounting growing human needs brought about by global population growth.

Because activists' thinking is less constrained by profit considerations, they are most inclined to advocate resource-saving strategies such as reduction of per capita consumption, dampening of future demand, or recycling. Of all three major groups, this one is most likely to assume a leadership role in promoting worldwide family planning. Even so, few in this group have risked a strong stance on population growth, perhaps again for political reasons: i.e., fear that dues-paying members may oppose population control measures.

A Combination of the Three?

Thus, each major participant in the United States environmental planning and action process offers its own specific expertise, and its own limitations. Yet the combined critical thinking and active involvement of all three will be required to fashion truly effective approaches to global environmental problems. Ideally, a globally-oriented government leadership that is well-versed in both economics and environmental issues would assume the middle ground. Such a government would seek balanced approaches to environmental problems, and would work with governments around the globe to ensure that the most environmentally responsible enterprises did not operate under a financial disadvantage.

How many Americans, though, perceive domestic or federal governmental units of recent decades as either balanced or proactive in their approach to environmental problems? Arguably few. Witness the steadily escalating, acrimonious, and over-simplified debate between business and industry interests, and environmental activists. Blazing headlines, one-liners, selective use of facts, and calculated exaggeration substitute for real analysis and discussion. Though far and away the number one cause of environmental problems, population growth receives little attention in this exchange. Meanwhile, in the midst of the environmental "wars," valuable time is being wasted--time that could be used in moving toward workable solutions.

Concerted attention to environmental ills is likely only after basic human needs are satisfied.(4, 10) So it is essential that any plan for dealing with environmental matters seriously consider the requirements of people. Environmental planning also must rely heavily on the business and industry sectors, for they are most adept at anticipating human needs and providing competitively priced goods and services.

Whether the planet's environmental resources can be stretched to satisfy future human desires as well as human needs is debatable. Expectations for material goods may have to be lowered so as to provide the basics for everyone. At the very least, recent United States models of consumption are probably an unrealistic goal for the future. Resolution of this particular issue will require considerable attention by societal leaders in the non-profit sector.

A Case In Point: Planning for Industrial Raw Materials

What will be required to meet the next century's (and beyond) need for raw materials? Several factors--such as declining materials intensity in developed economies and among aging populations --suggest flat or declining demand for industrial raw materials in the future. But a number of developments point instead to marked increases.

Within the next seventy to one hundred years, a 60 percent increase in the global population is a virtual certainty; a 100 percent increase is likely. Thus, the future will certainly bring increased environmental stress to a world that already faces significant environmental problems. In addition, providing basic goods and services for this increased human population will be a herculean task.

A fair percentage of the world's current population already lacks one or more of the basics--enough food, adequate shelter, proper clothing, sufficient energy. Another large chunk (Eastern Europe, for instance) has the basics mostly covered, but clamors for access to a wider array of durable and non-durable goods. These factors portend increased demand for all kinds of resources. Add large increases in human populations, and demand for industrial raw materials will soar to unimagined levels.

The United States and Raw Materials Supply

The United States is not well positioned for this future. Its economy is currently based on consuming vast quantities of industrial raw materials. And these materials are largely imported. As Table 1 shows, the United States is a net importer of most raw materials used to sustain the economy, and often by a substantial margin. Portland cement, the vast majority of metals, petroleum, wood and wood pulp all appear on the net import list. Note that developing nations, projected to have the next century's largest population increases, are frequently the primary suppliers.

Why is the United States a net importer of industrial raw materials? In the case of petroleum, bauxite, and a few other metals, domestic quantities are insufficient. For portland cement and many metals in common use, importing is less expensive than domestic mining and processing. Extensive ores do lie within United States boundaries, but many deposits are of low quality, so energy and other input costs would be high.

For other industrial raw materials, the reasons are less straightforward. The United States has abundant supplies of wood within its territorial borders, yet environmental concerns drive this material to the net import side. Domestic forests from which wood is harvested have a net growth rate nationally far in excess of harvest. They occupy a total area which, though only two-thirds the size of presettlement forest lands, is now relatively stable. Clearly, these forests could support a greater level of sustained yield harvesting than now exists. But harvests are restricted based on a number of considerations: aesthetics, wilderness and non-wilderness recreation, and biological diversity.

Given United States dependence on imported resources, and dramatically increasing worldwide demand, it may be time to reconsider our sourcing patterns for raw materials. Can we continue to consume largely imported raw materials at or near the present rate without risking supply disruptions? Will the negative impact of vast raw material imports on the United States balance of payments be acceptable? What are the ethics of placing large land tracts in reserve status for esthetic purposes, if it means resources that might otherwise flow from these lands must come from other nations? Is it morally acceptable to transfer environmental impacts of raw materials gathering and processing to regions outside our borders so as to avoid environmental impacts here at home? We must carefully consider such questions as we move into the 21st century.

Can Current Consumption Levels Decline?

Some argue that United States consumption levels are not sustainable long term. According to this argument, if we abandon the current United States consumption model, we won't need increased quantities of industrial raw materials in the future. Indeed, United States consumption levels are high: America accounts for roughly 5.2 percent of total global population, yet consumes an estimated 27 percent of the world's energy resources and a similar percentage of industrial raw materials.(11)

With that consumption level, Americans enjoy an almost unparalleled standard of living--one which great numbers strive to emulate. Certainly when building new markets for its goods in developing economies, private enterprise tends to promote an American-style standard of living. Yet if the world's current inhabitants were supplied with an American lifestyle, raw material demand and energy use too would increase twenty-fold. Where the likely doubling of world populations is factored in, widespread attainment of anything approaching United States standards becomes even less imaginable. Thus, it may be necessary to rethink the marketing of western lifestyles and all that goes with them.

Business and industry have little incentive to blunt future demand. So leadership in this regard will have to come from non-profit sectors--academic, government, environmental groups, private citizens.

Except through increased efficiency and/or recycling, Americans (or others in advanced western countries) are unlikely to voluntarily reduce their consumption by any significant degree. However, two factors may signal that an involuntary reduction of United States per capita consumption levels is already underway: 1) Widely published reports detailing the loss of jobs to foreign competitors; and 2) indications that the present generation of Americans may be the first to experience lower standards of living than their parents.

But even if United States per capita consumption does decline and developing economies don't emulate our standard, it is extremely unlikely that worldwide industrial raw material consumption will decline from present levels. Even without population increases, a decrease in United States raw material consumption of, say 25 percent, would be nullified if other peoples of the world increased consumption by only 6-7 percent. In other words, because of the number base for each group, large percentage savings on our part can be negated by small percentage increases elsewhere.

The short and long-term gains likely from recycling aren't big enough to change this basic scenario. In the future, the world will require greater--not lesser--quantities of industrial raw materials. Moreover, because wood is an important raw material in North America and worldwide, the future will bring increased demand for it as well.

What Is To Be Done?

The world is a complex place, beset by daunting, interrelated environmental and economic problems. It is terribly tempting to simplify the issues, to focus on one or two specific desired outcomes and ignore or discount whatever detracts from that focus. Such simplified thinking is everywhere in evidence today, and on all sides of environmental issues. And we can't afford it.

Global environmental pressures are many and real. We do face compromised water quality, atmospheric problems, threatened species, untenable consumption levels, population growth. Our challenge will be providing for human needs while protecting the environment. We won't find answers by pretending the pressures don't exist.

We'll need common sense; realistic, global, and innovative thinking; and an unprecedented level of cooperation between leaders from all segments of society. Business and industry sectors and environmental organizations, in particular, must learn how to work together. Realistically, progress will require compromises with respect to the environment and with respect to the economy.

Literature Cited

(1) American Petroleum Institute. 1991. Personal contact with API, Statistics Division.

(2) Anonymous. 1992. The Economics of Stabilizing World Population. ZPG Reporter 24(1):8.

(3) IUCN/UNEP/WWF. 1991. Caring For The Earth. A Strategy For Sustainable Living. Gland, Switzerland, p. 50.

(4) --- 1991 pp. 18-22.

(5) Libby, L.W. and Clouser, R.L. 1990. Population And Global Economic Patterns. In: Sampson, R.N. and Hair, D. (eds). Natural Resources For The 21st Century. American Forestry Association. Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 7-29.

(6) Morgan, John, D. 1991. Mineral Materials For The Future. National Stewardship Conference, Duluth, Minnesota (October).

(7) Sadik, N. 1991. World Population Update. News Release (May), United Nations Population Fund (London).

(8) Schmickle, S. 1991. Hungry For A New Miracle. Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 8 (Sunday).

(9) U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1990. Statistical Abstract of The United States: 1990 (110th ed.) Washington, DC. [Data for Portland Cement from Table No. 1230, with data for wood, wood products, and wood pulp products from Table No. 1176. Data for all other materials from Table No. 1218.]

(10) World Commission On Environment And Development. 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 43-65.

(11) World Resources Institute. 1990. World Resources--1990-91. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, p. 142 (Table 9.1). [Provides estimate for relative energy consumption].
COPYRIGHT 1992 University of Montana
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:global problems foreseen in 21st century
Author:Bowyer, Jim L.
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Previous Article:How Monatanans view their economy.
Next Article:Alberta perspectives.

Related Articles
Time for a new environmentalism.
Natural resources for the 21st century.
Nurturing an environmental and social ethic.
The human numbers crunch: the next half century promises unprecedented challenges.
Contents under pressure.
Housing a growing population in the 21st century: where will the raw materials come from?
The Gold Crush.
World population, agriculture, and malnutrition.
Six billion and counting: it took all of recorded history until 1804 for world population to reach one billion; it took another 123 years to reach...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters