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Letting the Numbers Speak for Themselves

October 16, 2009

If we are to look to any one place as a sign of what’s to come for the growing global population, it’s China. In Marq de Villier’s book, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, he paints a rather bleak image with these statistics:

Street in Shanghai, China

Street in Shanghai, China

The United States uses irrigation to produce only 17 percent of its food, and thus, if it ever runs out of irrigation water, its own and the world’s food supply will be challenged, but not catastrophically. China, in contrast, uses irrigation to produce 70 percent of its food, and if it ever runs out of water, the results could be disastrous. China would have to import food — more food than the world grain market currently has in its surplus. If the Chinese bought massive amounts from a finite supply, world commodity prices would go through the roof. China might be able to afford it, but what about the poor countries in the world who feed themselves with difficulty now, when grain prices are low? Remember the numbers: there were 1.2 billion Chinese by century’s end, an increase of nearly 700 million since the end of the Second World War. Despite rigorous attempts at curbing fertility, most of them unexpectedly successful, China will in the next forty years add to its population the equivalent of the entire North American continent. If the Chinese ate as much fish per capita as the Japanese, that would take the entire annual world fish harvest of 101 million tons. If the Chinese consumed as many eggs as Americans, they would require a flock of 1.3 billion hens, and reaching that goal would require an additional 24 million tons of grain, equal to Canada’s entire grain exports.

Though we are facing many impending environmental disasters, nothing even comes close to the scope of problems that will be caused by the rapidly expanding human population. How we choose to deal with the problems of China right now will be a strong indicator as to whether or not we can live sustainably.

photo by Stephen Codrington, via wikimedia commons

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