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Staring Down the Barrel of Unsustainability

July 30, 2014

Is humanity on a sustainable path? Are we on the verge of being unsustainable? And, if so, how will we know when we get there?

Sorry. We are already there. We are drawing down global resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, at an alarming rate. Nature cannot keep up with us. Water tables are falling. Lakes and rivers in many areas are shrinking. Tropical forests in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world are disappearing. All around the world top soil is eroding. Arable land is being rendered infertile. Deserts are expanding. Ocean fisheries are being depleted. Everywhere we are drawing down our limited inheritance of metals and minerals. We are even altering the composition of our atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans. Many glaciers will be effectively gone by the end of the century. The Arctic ice is melting, and it's not just the polar bears that are at risk; scientists warn that humans are triggering the Sixth Mass Extinction of plant and animal species.

We cannot go on like this forever. We are jeopardizing people, posterity, and all the creatures that make this planet their home. Sooner or later, if we persist on our current trajectory, there will be a day of reckoning. But when?

When it is too late. That's when. But don't worry; it won't all happen at once. If you are among the lucky, and that's most of us, there will be plenty of time for regret and repentance before it affects you in any major way. But a growing number of people in the world are already staring down the barrel of unsustainability, and we ignore their peril at our own.

For farmers today in California's Central Valley their day of water reckoning is coming a lot faster than anyone predicted. It isn't here yet, but unless California's drought is broken soon, the results could be catastrophic. So far, farmers in the region are maintaining crop yields by pumping up water from underground aquifers to make up their water deficits. According to a recent report by University California Davis, the net income from agriculture in California is expected to decline by only three percent this year, but if the drought continues for another year or two, many of the wells will go dry, forcing farmers to fallow their land. The lead author of the UC Davis study described the water depletion scenario as "a slow moving train wreck." Water prices in California are already soaring, and, if the drought persists, the price of farmland will plummet, putting farmers into an untenable financial bind.

California farmers are not alone in their plight. Many farmers in north Texas are already facing financial ruin as the drought in that region goes into its third year and wells are starting to go dry. Experts believe that farmers in the central plains regions of the U.S. have drained from the Ogallala aquifer a volume of groundwater equal to about two-thirds of the water contained in Lake Erie. So how worrisome is that? Well, the Ogallala aquifer supplies about quarter of all the water used for irrigation in the U.S.

But it's not just farmers in the U.S. that are confronting water limitations. Prolonged drought in Syria has displaced 1.5 million people and made a significant contribution to the political unrest that has led to a bloody civil war. Saudi Arabia was largely self-sufficient in wheat for two decades, but the over-pumping of underground aquifers is bringing its wheat production to an abrupt halt. In India, where the Green Revolution started four decades ago thanks in no small part to irrigation, water levels are dropping precipitously and may be contributing to a virtual epidemic of farmer suicides. China's Green Revolution is also in peril as the water table under the North China Plain is falling fast, and the country's demand for water is quickly overtaking available supplies, particularly in the Beijing area.

But it's not just farmers that are staring down the barrel of unsustainability. In many areas of the world the fishing industry is floundering as ocean fisheries have collapsed from overfishing. Fifteen years ago a moratorium was imposed on the fishing of Atlantic Cod off the waters of eastern Canada, but the fish stocks have yet to be replenished. A decade ago, scientists stunned the world by reporting that the world's populations of large fish had fallen by 90 percent since 2050. Now, the world's shark population is down by 80 percent. Simply put, it's not a good time to be a commercial fisherman; nor is it a good time to be poor and reliant upon fish for your protein. An estimated 400 million people in Africa and Southeast Asia are dependent on fishing for their dietary needs.

Entire nations are staring down the barrel of unsustainability. Demographers project that the population of Niger, by some measures the most malnourished country in the world, will quadruple over the next 40 years. Will Niger be able to feed itself four decades from now, when it cannot feed itself today?

Even relatively more prosperous countries like Egypt are starting to look pretty unsustainable. Today, with a population of 85 million, Egypt has to import nearly half of its food, but in 35 years Egypt's population is projected to exceed 125 million. Unless food production increases, by 2050 it will have to import enough food to feed over 80 million people. If Egypt was an oil-rich country like some of its neighbors, that might buy a few decades of relief, but four years ago Egypt became a net oil importer, and today it struggles to pay its fuel bills. And while the Egyptian government entertains fanciful ideas about making their western desert bloom, warming temperatures, increasing salinization of the Nile Delta, and the growing upstream demand for Nile river water, will make it hard just to maintain current levels of food production for the next 35 years. Who, then, will feed Egypt? No one knows.

Yemen has been described as a "hydrological disaster," as grain production there has fallen by half and experts warn that the capital city of Sanaa could run out of water in a decade or less. Pakistan, Iraq and Iran are also on the frontlines of water scarcity; their escalating demand for water is contributing to groundwater depletion and declining crop production.

Despite all these warning signs, it is tempting to think of unsustainability as somebody else's problem. Shortages of food and water are local problems... right? Wrong. In a global economy unsustainability, wherever it occurs, is everyone's problem sooner or later. A severe drought in Australia in 2007 triggered a worldwide surge in grain prices, which led in turn to protests and rioting in more than two dozen countries. A second spike in world food prices in 2011, triggered in large part by a severe drought in Russia, helped to launch the Arab Spring.

When the prices of rice, flour and corn meal doubled as they did in the 2007-08 food crisis, consumers in the United States hardly noticed, but for the world's urban poor living on $1 or $2 a day price increases of that magnitude were personally devastating. People living in severe poverty have no savings accounts. Even in good times, the urban poor in developing countries can spend 50-70 percent of their household budgets on food. Another global food crisis will have tens of millions of poor city dwellers staring down the barrel of unsustainability.

And it's not just human who suffer from the consequences of our unsustainability. The populations of rhinos, lions, tigers, elephants and other large mammals are shrinking rapidly as the result of poaching and, more importantly, loss of habitat. Several species have already gone extinct, and others are on the rapid path to extinction in the wild. All too soon, the only place to see these animals will be in a zoo.

Living in an unsustainable environment or world can be brutal. If you want to know what it is like to live unsustainably, there are plenty of places now to witness the ultimate hardship and the consequences. And if you do observe, look long and hard, because all of us could be staring down the barrel of unsustainability at some point...unless, of course, we change course.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on July 30, 2014 on The Huffington Post

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