From Adam and Eve to 7 Billion: The World’s Growth Problem

Earlier this year, floods in central Europe killed at least 23 people and cost billions of pounds in losses, making it the costliest natural disaster of the year thus far. This followed Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which wreaked havoc on the wellbeing of New York and cost $80billion in damages. Before that began the persistent drought in Texas, which continues to affect the state’s environmental wellness to this day, impacting everything from its legislative priorities to its agricultural industry to the State’s expansive tree canopy. These are not isolated events but a pattern that shows the outcome of a disastrous environmental cocktail; extreme weather trends mixed with a rapidly growing urban population.


According to the United Nations (UN), over the next 50 years the world population will increase from seven billion to a whopping nine billion, and three in five of us will be living in an urban area. Seeing as Western infrastructure is already under immense pressure, this predicted population will see society crumble to the ground. This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a comprehensive assessment of the US’s infrastructure — its roads, bridges, dams, levees and water pipelines – giving America an average grade of D+. You may think it’s possible to build our way out of the challenges surrounding rapid population growth and urbanisation; but it simply isn’t cost-effective. In America alone, the ASCE estimates an investment of $3.6 trillion would be need by 2020 in order to update existing infrastructure, and that’s not accounting for the new infrastructure needed to support growing cities – what can be done?


Luckily, we can turn to Mother Nature, says The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Tercek, author of Nature’s Fortune, and Laura J. Huffman, who leads the Conservancy’s Urban Strategies programme. Tercek and Huffman explain, ‘Natural systems—things like healthy trees and intact coastal wetlands—have the capacity to reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain water supplies, and protect us from storms and hurricanes. They are tangible assets that contribute to our economy, so we must invest in them wisely to secure our shared future. And we need to invest on a scale that makes a difference. We cannot combat problems like extreme weather, ageing infrastructure and population growth with small thinking. Science and experience have shown us that protecting small, fragmented parcels of land or portions of rivers will not move the conservation ball forward.’


Tercek and Huffman believe that water is the key to securing our collective good fortune – not just in the US but here in the UK and around the world. ‘Over the next 20 to 30 years, 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban area of 10 million or more,’ say Tercek and Huffman. ‘More people in our cities will equal more demand for water, energy and food, not to mention the necessary infrastructure and economic development to support such demands. Conservation will be the key to tackling this issue—it is our least expensive option to stretch our water resources further.’


As it stands, we have just as much water today as Adam and Eve had way back when; the difference is that there were two of them, and now there’s seven billion of us. ‘The truth is that we must all use less to guarantee sufficient water to support our rapidly growing population, grow our economy and protect our natural resources,’ Tercek and Huffman assert. ‘Our success will depend on our ability to optimise the use of water for cities, energy and food production. But in doing so, we cannot pit one interest against another; it won’t work.’


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