EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. A Planet under Stress: Ecological Bills Coming Due

Humanity's demands on the earth have multiplied over the last half-century as our numbers have increased and our incomes have risen. World population grew from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.1 billion in 2000. The growth during those 50 years exceeded that during the 4 million years since we emerged as a distinct species.6

Incomes have risen even faster than population. Income per person worldwide nearly tripled from 1950 to 2000. Growth in population and the rise in incomes together expanded global economic output from just under $7 trillion (in 2001 dollars) of goods and services in 1950 to $46 trillion in 2000, a gain of nearly sevenfold.7

Population growth and rising incomes together have tripled world grain demand over the last half-century, pushing it from 640 million tons in 1950 to 1,855 million tons in 2000. To satisfy this swelling demand, farmers have plowed land that was highly erodibleland that was too dry or too steeply sloping to sustain cultivation. Each year billions of tons of topsoil are being blown away in dust storms or washed away in rainstorms, leaving farmers to try to feed some 70 million additional people, but with less topsoil than the year before.8

Demand for water also tripled as agricultural, industrial, and residential uses climbed, outstripping the sustainable supply in many countries. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Rivers are also being drained dry, to the detriment of wildlife and ecosystems.9

Fossil fuel use quadrupled, setting in motion a rise in carbon emissions that is overwhelming nature's capacity to fix carbon dioxide. As a result of this carbon-fixing deficit, atmospheric CO2 concentrations climbed from 316 parts per million (ppm) in 1959, when official measurement began, to 369 ppm in 2000.10

The sector of the economy that seems likely to unravel first is food. Eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, collapsing fisheries, falling water tables, and rising temperatures are converging to make it more difficult to expand food production fast enough to keep up with demand. In 2002, the world grain harvest of 1,807 million tons fell short of world grain consumption by 100 million tons, or 5 percent. This shortfall, the largest on record, marked the third consecutive year of grain deficits, dropping stocks to the lowest level in a generation.11

Now the question is, Can the world's farmers bounce back and expand production enough to fill the 100-million-ton shortfall, provide for the more than 70 million people added each year, and rebuild stocks to a more secure level? In the past, farmers responded to short supplies and higher grain prices by planting more land and using more irrigation water and fertilizer. Now it is doubtful that farmers can fill this gap without further depleting aquifers and jeopardizing future harvests.12

In 1996, at the World Food Summit in Rome, hosted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 185 countries plus the European Community agreed to reduce hunger by half by 2015. Using 1990-92 as a base, governments set the goal of cutting the number of people who were hungry860 million—by roughly 20 million per year. It was an exciting and worthy goal, one that later became one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.13

But in its late 2002 review of food security, the United Nations issued a discouraging report: "This year we must report that progress has virtually ground to a halt. Our latest estimates, based on data from the years 1998-2000, put the number of undernourished people in the world at 840 million...a decrease of barely 2.5 million per year over the eight years since 1990-92."14

Since 1998-2000, world grain production per person has fallen 5 percent, suggesting that the ranks of the hungry are now expanding. As noted earlier, life expectancy is plummeting in sub-Saharan Africa. If the number of hungry people worldwide is also increasing, then two key social indicators are showing widespread deterioration in the human condition.15


Previous Table of Contents Next

6. United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

7. Erik Assadourian, "Economic Growth Inches Up," in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2003 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), p. 44-45.

8. USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, updated 13 May 2003.

9. Water demand from Peter H. Gleick, The World's Water 2000-2001 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000), p. 52.

10. C. D. Keeling, T. P. Whorf, and the Carbon Dioxide Research Group, "Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Record from Mauna Loa," Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, 13 June 2002, at cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/ftp/ndp001/ maunaloa.co2.

11. USDA, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (Washington, DC: 12 May 2003), p. 6.

12. Population added each year from United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

13. World Food Summit from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The World Food Summit Goal and the Millennium Goals, Rome, 28 May-1 June 2001, at www.fao.org/ docrep/meeting/003/Y0688e.htm; FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002 (Rome: 2002), p. 4.

14. FAO, State of Food Insecurity, op. cit. note 13.

15. Grain production per person based on USDA, op. cit. note 8.


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute