Population Matters

Living on the Edge

January 19th, 2011

In reading Lester Brown’s  new book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, I am reminded of how the late Congressman Mo Udall once described a small town in Arizona.  He said, “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”

As he has done for years, Lester Brown presents a powerful and disturbing vision of where we are headed.   He warns that a looming food crisis—driven by climate change, population growth, rising meat consumption, water shortages and other factors– could prove the undoing of human civilization, and while we’re not there yet, you don’t have to look hard to see it coming.  

Brown, who heads up the Earth Policy Institute, sent his book to the publishers in October of 2010.   In that short period of time we have come a lot closer to the kind of devastating food crisis that Brown envisions in his book.  Since October of 2010:

  • Devastating floods have broken out in Australia, Brazil and Sri Lanka.
  • High temperatures and drought have severely damaged crops in many parts of South America.
  • Food prices have soared to a new record high according to a commodity food index published by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization, and the FAO has warned that another major food crisis could be on the horizon.
  • After the FAO’s announcement, the US Department of Agriculture revised its crop forecasts downward, sending wheat and corn prices still higher.
  • Major food riots have broken out Algeria and Tunisia and are now breaking out in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
  • In an effort to stave off a domestic food crisis, China has ramped up its purchases of soybeans and other food commodities.
  • Oil has surged to more than $90 a barrel, raising the costs of producing and transporting food.
  • Soaring demand for cotton and biofuels has displaced more food production.
  • Security analysts have warned that higher food prices could be very destabilizing for poor countries that are heavily dependent on food imports for survival.

No one is suggesting yet that the current food crisis will be the end of civilization as we know it.  It’s certainly not the end of the world.  But if you look really closely at the areas that have been devastated by floods and drought in the past year, and take a closer look at countries, like Tunisia, that have been thrown into political turmoil by higher food prices, you can almost see it.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination.

Fortunately for us, the end of civilization is not inevitable.  As Lester Brown has been pointing out for years, there’s much that we can do to avert global catastrophe:  reforestation, water conservation, reducing our consumption of fossil fuels through higher taxes, keeping girls in school longer, and providing family planning and reproductive health services to the women who want them.  And the price tag is not enormous.  All we need, according to Brown, is an investment of about $200 billion a year.  In a world of trillon dollar bailouts that’s small change.

The problem, the one that Lester Brown has been struggling with for years, is that not enough people are listening and even fewer are willing to do what’s needed. 

In the meantime, we are all living on the edge, but none more so than the world’s urban poor who go hungry when the prices of basic staples–like corn, wheat, sugar and cooking oils–rise beyond their meager means.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

One Response to “Living on the Edge”

  1. Fredrik Bruno Says:

    Looking at the curves predicting future oil and coal consumption etc etc from IEA and other sources, it is difficult to believe that humanity will stop the world. Today 80-90% of worlds energy/electricity is coming from fossil fuels with som 6-8% each from nuclear and hydro. Biofuel is a tiny share, windpower and similar are even tinier. Who could believe that the worlds carbon dioxide content will not proceed rising with 2 ppm a year. World population is also rising and will reach some 10 billions within my lifetime.

    This is not the end of the world, but I believe we have to get accustomed to the thought that we have to go back to the caves and make a living on bananas.We are not planning for the future, we believe we can concentrate our efforts on saving carbon emmissions, where we have to concentrate on adapting to the new warmer world and find solutions for water supply and agriculture (etc.) in the new climate. I don’t believe anything opposite to this is realistic. Today we are concentrating on a ban on CO2, I think we have to reform our infrastructure before the train has left and left us behind.

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