The gross misconception that too many of us have, with regard to population and resources, is that we will run out. What we fail to realize is that this assumes a future population will do things the same way that we do today.
We are projecting—without a second thought—that human beings will continueto conduct “business as usual” without the kind of evolutionary behavioral adjustments that a larger population necessitates, and from which we would alsobenefit immensely, now.
I’m referring to things that will stop us from treating the planet as though it is an infinitely disfigurable asset.
To fix the problem of adverse human impact, we would need to stop:
- clear-cutting the planet’s remaining forests (33% are gone already)
- emptying the oceans of fish (we cull 1–2.7 trillion of them each year)
- sucking the last drop of fossil fuel from the ground… (which accounts for 75% of carbon emissions)
- …as well as water from aquifers (that take 20,000 years to recharge; that’s 800 generations to create, and just 1 to destroy)
- stripping the soil of its nutrients with unsustainable farming practices (just 60 years of farming left unless we change!)
- growing plastic gyres until we can walk across the Pacific (plastic will outnumber fish by 2050)
- breeding cattle to fill on every square inch of dry land on which we don’tgrow the corn to feed them… (consuming 80% of global agricultural land)
- …and spreading out far and wide to live, in the name of land ownership—thus choosing automobiles and homogeneity over elevators and diversity (at 4x the carbon footprint of cities)
In other words, we assume that the 150-year experiment we’ve conducted—super-charging extraction and consumption in the name of cheap economics—will continue apace, until there’s nothing left.
Capitalism: 1. Planet: 0.
What a load of heartbreaking, pessimistic bullsh*t.
The fact is that the planet could easily host 80 billion humans and be far better off for it. Yeah, eighty. I’ll explain in a minute. Of course, that’ll never happen, because as Hans Rosling showed the United Nations (and as explained in his book Factfulness), as soon as a human population stabilizes—that is, as soon as newborns stop dying, children mostly live beyond the five-year “danger” milestone, bellies are filled, bodies are warm, humans are healthy and productive, and communities thrive, women stop having so many babies, naturally. The wealthy (as defined by the qualifications just listed) settle into a mode whereby about as many children are born as is needed to replace their adult parents—no more.
Regardless, the crime here is that we don’t think ourselves capable of changing our behaviors—behaviors that could fuel a tenfold increase in our population, without a planetary blink.
Let’s take a look at each of these systems, one by one.
Just 3% of the world’s land mass houses 58% of its population, at work and at play. In the United States, it’s far denser, still. There, 3.6% of the land holds 80% of its population (see the graphic, above).
At current global densities, 5.2% of the global land surface could house 100% of us, today. At U.S. densities, that number lowers to just 4.5% of land for human habitation.
To paint a ridiculous image, the United States could house the entire global population today, in Atlanta-, LA- or NYC-level density, leaving every square inchof the rest of the planet untouched.
I’m not suggesting that.
I am saying that we are grossly under-dense. NYC, my home for 35 years now, is about the most exciting place on Earth. Clearly, a whack of other people agree: the 8.4 million of us who live here, and the 66 million others who visit us on a non-COVID year. Don’t like NYC? How about Los Angeles? Single family homes, sun and warmth to die for, palm trees in the front yard, pools in the back… No? How about London? Paris? Rome? All of them drip with charm and history. Hong Kong? Impossibly dense, I know, but did you know that fully 76% of the island is pristinely unbuilt, with gorgeous hiking trails through lush mountains, and beaches nestled in perfect coves, a short 10-minute drive from the concrete jungle? I should know. I used to live there, too. What a mix: unbridled nature next door to dizzying density.
The point is, cities take many forms, and urbanization is still growing quickly (there’s a requisite asterisk due to COVID). The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68%—over two thirds of humans—will live in cities.
This is great news, because cities are unbelievably sustainable—four times more sustainable than suburbs. And as we’ve seen, their physical and environmental footprint are tiny, relative to other environments.
Continued urbanization would allow us to bank 4% of the land disfigured by suburban sprawl.
Bonus? the World Bank estimates that 80% of global GDP is produced in urban environments. Thus, urbanization isn’t only good for the planet; it’s good for business.
Let’s tackle the big one. With our current farming practices, we have committed the greatest “ecocide” of all. Ecocide, presented as a draft law just this year, is the first term since genocide proposed to warrant the full weight of international prosecution, due to the ability of current farming practices to fuel mass deaths.
How we grow food to feed the world’s people is in great need of a rethink. As I wrote in Rebalancing the Earth is Dead Simple:
- Agriculture uses 92% of the world’s available freshwater
- One-third of that goes to livestock, one half of which is for cattle alone
- It takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow one steak (by far the most of any food)
- Cattle consume 1,600 times more water than we drink
- Cattle are responsible for 70% of deforestation in the Amazon
- Deforestation produces 25% of all greenhouse gases, globally
The graphic above shows the amount of American land assigned to raising food animals and the crops that feed them. In all, 41% of it—tenfold the land used by human inhabitants—is devoted to livestock, nearly all of which (over 95%) is for cattle.
In Rebalancing the Earth is Dead Simple (I’m going to refer to it two more times here), I voiced a view that an increasing number of experts share: that if we were to stop eating cows alone, without making any other change to our diets, our cities or our lives, fully one-third of greenhouse gases and environmental degradation would disappear.
Numerically, consider the following:
- Beef requires ten times the land and produces ten times the emissions as an equivalent nutritional unit of poultry (chicken, turkey, duck…)
- That same beef requires twenty times the land and produces twenty times the emissions as an equivalent nutritional unit of beans—a key vegetable source of protein, which includes soy
So, for example, if we were to replace all beef with poultry in the United States, people would enjoy the same quantity and category (animal) of protein as they do today, while causing one tenth of the environmental damage.
In doing so, we would also free up 37% of the nation’s land mass for other uses, such as reforestation, as I suggested in that same article. Planting trees would in fact reverse the effects of climate change more than any other factor, because trees sequester carbon, while additionally stabilizing the biosphere for all elements of the natural ecosystem: plants, wild foods, soil, weather systems, and the animal kingdom.
As reported in National Geographic:
“The landmark EAT-Lancet Commission report released last fall involving 37 scientists from 16 countries concluded that a radical transformation of the global food system was needed because it threatens climate stability and is the single largest driver of environmental degradation.”
On the plus side, there’s an easy fix: reduce beef consumption and eat other animals, preferably poultry and fish; or, better yet, reduce animal protein consumption, and eat more plant-based proteins. In either case, both humans and nature will benefit enormously.
On the minus side, most people find it hard to change their diet, even if they know intellectually that their choices are literally killing the planet and themselves in the process.
Killing? By eating burgers and steaks? Pure hyperbole! Tree hugger!
Not at all. The NCBI — one of the planet’s most respected scientific research bodies—states bluntly:
“The long-term consumption of increasing amounts of red meat and particularly of processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, in both men and women. The association persists after inclusion of known confounding factors.”
The Journal of Internal Medicine — another globally respected body for fact-based research — published the specific impacts of red meat consumption on various modern diseases, based on a compilation of broad-based, peer-reviewed research and meta-analyses. Consider a few of their findings:
- Unprocessed meat, like burgers and steaks: 100g (just one third of the average daily US intake) increases risk of: stroke: 11%; breast cancer: 11%; cardiovascular mortality: 15%; colorectal cancer: 17%; and prostate cancer 19%.
- Processed meat, like hot dogs, cold cuts and bacon: 50g (just one fifth of the average daily US intake) increases risk of: stroke: 13%; breast cancer: 11%; cardiovascular mortality: 24%; colorectal cancer: 18%; prostate cancer: 4%; pancreatic cancer: 19%; and diabetes 32%.
We eat way, way more than those quantities, on average.
Based on the statistics shared above, if we stopped eating beef alone, we could save one sixth of the world’s water supplies, most of the remaining forests (while replanting others on the land we reclaim), and eliminate one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, we’d be far healthier for it, given that cancer is now the world’s second biggest killer in meat-heavy countries, and one third of all cancers are due to dietary causes.
Truth: 1. Hyperbole: 0.
Think of it this way. Even if we cut our beef consumption by some amount—with say, Meatless Mondays, Tofu Tuesdays or Wing-and-Thigh Wednesdays—we could make a massive dent in environmental destruction. Our weapons are our dollars. So: consider replacing beef even just one or two days a week. My own meat-loving family did just that as part of a New Year’s resolution. We reduced red meat intake to one day/week at my urging, while substituting fish, poultry and even a weekly vegan dinner for the rest. Frankly, nobody noticed, apart from the fact that our diet just became more varied.
But wait. There’s more!
We grow non-animal crops on another 20% of the U.S. land mass, as shown in the graphic above. From apples to zucchinis, and every other plant-based food in between, we farm in ways similar to how our ancestors did it ten thousand years ago: we till, plant and harvest the land, fighting Nature every step of the way.
There are important differences, too.
We have bio-engineered the hell out of our foods to coax maximum yield and sweetness—nearly always at the expense of their nutrition (read the following article for an eye-opening overview).
Monsanto, who now controls one third of the world’s plant seeds, has engineered them to be “terminators”; meaning, they can no longer reproduce by themselves. They’re “one and done”, so that Monsanto can charge farmers every single year for more of the same. They have neutered Nature, so that it needs us, in the name of quarterly returns.
Think of it as eugenics for plants.
Monsanto draws on a century of expertise as the makers of super-toxins Agent Orange and DDT, to bio-engineer their seeds to be poison-tolerant. Why? Because that way, farmers can (and most do) literally drown fields in lakes of glyphosate—a known carcinogen—so that nothing apart from the mono-crop survives.
As I wrote back in 2015, in Soil Health and Food—A Tipping Point:
“In addition to removing plant and animal material from a monoculture, Roundup (the trade name for its main ingredient, glyphosate) has been shown in human studies — detailed here — to increase rates and/or severity of ADHD, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, autism, brain cancer, breast cancer, celiac disease, gluten intolerance, chronic kidney disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, colitis, hyperthyroidism, IBS (leaky gut), liver disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, reproductive problems, and respiratory illnesses. Bonus? Over 75% of air and rainfall in the Mississippi Delta contains glyphosate.”
Ever wonder why the rates of ADHD have tripled in recent years? Read this.
Ok, wait. What does any of this have to do with a piece about overpopulation?
Remember: we use Roundup because we don’t like competing with Nature’s other creatures for food we grow to sell to humans. They don’t use PayPal.
Enter modern farming.
Modern farming occurs in controlled environments indoors, where food can grow 365 days a year, irrespective of the ambient state of temperature, humidity, water and sunlight conditions outdoors, at astonishing savings of land and resources, and with equally astonishing yields.
Consider the following, as I wrote in Rebalancing the Earth is Dead Simple (final reference; promise):
“Vertical farms — aka modern greenhouses that use one of the three “ponics” — produce up to three hundred and forty times the yield of a conventional farm. To wit: an SF-area startup named Plenty uses AI-fueled lighting, watering, and temperature to produce 720 acres’ worth of fruit and vegetables in just 2 acres.
it’s only beginning.
Together, modern farming techniques [hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics] can save 90-plus% of the water we use, on less than 1% of the land.”
Of course, we could double the land used by vertical farms to double the current output of global produce, and still save 98% of the land that we currently use for those purposes, conventionally.
And so, with regard to agriculture, we could grow as much—if not more—as we do today on one tiny fraction of the land we currently use for it, without the deleterious impacts of deforestation, soil health depletion, and Roundup-laden waters (hello, 8,000-square-mile “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico!; hello, cancer!).
We could bank nearly all 20% of the land we currently devote to growing our truly healthy foods.
What goes for the United States goes for everyone. I’ve illustrated that nation because it does an excellent job of tabulating facts and data. The rest of the world lives, raises livestock and farms similarly, with some nations doing a better job than others.
And so, using the general principles outlined above, if we were to “land bank” everything we have just saved by urbanizing, reducing or eliminating beef consumption, and modernizing agricultural farming—all of them improving not only our planet’s environmental health and the health of our bodies, but in the process, also improving food security, by allowing it to grow everywhere, rather than only where conditions favor it (hello, urban vertical farms!)—then conservatively, we could recapture 19% of our land from agriculture; 37% of if from livestock; and 4% of it from the suburbs.
In all, we could regain roughly 50% of the nation’s—and similarly, the planet’s—land masses, while supercharging food production, food security, the production of planetary oxygen, the re-sequestering of greenhouse gases, and simultaneously improving the overall health of the Earth’s biome.
This concept is called “re-wilding”, which essentially refers to “stepping back to let nature manage itself.” Have you heard of what happened in Yellowstone National Park, when rangers reintroduced just 41 wolves in 1995 after they had hunted them to extinction in an earlier era? The entire ecosystem of the park stabilized and repaired itself, including—incredibly—rivers that suddenly flowed once again, and Aspen forests that re-grew, along with everything that benefits from these life-givers, because of the impact one animal species had over all the rest.
As I’ve said, nature is impossibly complex, and works as an entire ecosystem. Remove one part, and the house of cards falls.
Re-wilding is essentially the “undoing” of damage we’ve done to the planet—damage that has placed humans in an existential quandary, with regard to how we are going to house, feed and provide for not only the nearly eight billion humans alive today, but a potentially larger population of people to come, whether or not Rosling’s predictions are accurate.
The tools to make far, far better use of the planet are known, and readily available to us. Even if we did just half of what I’ve suggested with these thoughts, we could extend the life of planet and people dramatically, making both healthier in the process.
We have the means. What we lack—so far—is the will.
Time to evolve.