We are the 7 billion

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer   At midnight, Manila time, on October 31st, UN officials welcomed Danica May Camacho of the Philippines as the world’s 7-billionth person, a symbolic baby for the symbolic Halloween “Day of 7 Billion.” The LA Times led that morning with the steep population growth curve, forecast to pass 9 billion in 2045. The BBC emphasized that population growth is not just a problem of the developing world. “The UK population, one of the highest consumers of resources, is also expected to grow,” says the correspondent, adding gloomily that “Population control is controversial, but without it, experts say the future, for all of us, will be worse.” The Washington Post ran a scary story about our population growing…too old. Can we be both too many and few? It depends on your point of view. In the U.S., Europe, Japan and China, women are having fewer children than necessary to keep the population growing. This is a problem for economies organized around growth. Europe and the U.S. are feeling the strain as the children of the post-WWII baby boom enter retirement. But too many young people can also create social strain. Southwest Asia’s baby boomers are under 30, and many are unemployed. The demographic disharmony may contribute to cultural upheaval. The difference in the U.S.’s fertility rate of 1.6 and our growth rate of 3.3 is made up in immigration — a controversial topic to say the least. Populations are relocating, becoming more urban. In 2008, the balance of the world population tipped from rural to city-dwelling. The world has 21 megacities of more than a million people, compared to the three that existed when the dystopian visions of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green and Blade Runner projected public fears of overcrowding on the big screen. Apocalyptic disease and weather have displaced midcentury fears of apocalyptic overpopulation at the movies. But the image of the crowded city remains a staple of overpopulation fears in the public imagination. The efficiencies of apartments, mass transit and shared infrastructure, however, lighten the footprints of urban humans, as well as contain them to a smaller area. Is space the problem? Since the 70s, environmental groups have moved away from talking about population. Asked about the “taboo” at panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Tuesday, Kate Sheppard said she thinks a sensitivity to reproductive rights intervened. Sheppard covers energy, environment and reproductive politics for Mother Jones magazine. The story in the ‘70s had a heavy component of “other people should stop having so many babies,” she said. Now we are talking about resource use and distribution, access...

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Indulging in wasteful eating habits

As many of us once again rouse ourselves from festivities filled with an overabundance of food, it might be sombering to ponder that a recent PLoS ONE study suggests that nearly 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted.  As noted in a recent ScienceNOW article, physiologist Kevin Hall and mathematician Carson Chow, both at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), calculated the energy content of nationwide food waste from the difference between the US food supply and the food consumed by the population.  They used a mathematical model of metabolism relating body weight to amount of food eaten.  The result: in 2003, 1450 calories per capita, or 39 percent of available food was wasted.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the figure at 27 percent, based on interviews with consumers and producers. The authors point out that in addition to the food itself, freshwater used to grow food and fossil fuels used to transport it are also wasted. The ScienceNOW article quotes Greg Keoleian, Co-Director of the Center for Sustainable Systems as saying: If it [food] was more expensive, waste would be reduced.  Waste and overconsumption is the key issue affecting the sustainability of the U.S. food system. Makes me think a good New Year’s resolution might be to be more vigilant about using what’s already in the ‘fridge and pantry before running out to buy more food. Hall, K., Guo, J., Dore, M., & Chow, C. (2009). The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact PLoS ONE, 4 (11) DOI:...

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