David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural sciences, sees several possible scenarios for the 22nd century: A planet with 2 billion people thriving in harmony with the environment; or, at the other extreme, 12 billion miserable humans suffering a difficult life with limited resources and widespread famine. Pimentel says the next century is crucial because the human population could pass sustainable limits.
'We must avoid letting human numbers continue to increase and surpass the limit of the earth's natural resources and forcing natural forces to control our number by disease, malnutrition and violent conflicts over resources,' Pimentel writes in his report, 'Will Limits of the Earth's Resources Control Human Numbers?' which appeared in the first issue of the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability.
Pimental says the only way to manage the earth's population is to reduce the number of children per couple. He estimates that if people average 1.5 children per couple, the optimal earth population of 2 billion could be achieved in 100 years. Even slightly more children per couple will make the earth's number's swell in short order: 'If we adopted a policy of 2.1 children starting tomorrow, the world population will continue to increase and 60 years from now we will have close to 12 billion people,' he said.
Pimentel says that in order for every person on earth to have adequate resources of food, shelter and clothing, the ideal population on the earth should be about 2 billion -- approximately the number of people living on the planet in the 1950s. These fortunate 2 billion will be free from poverty and starvation, living in an environment capable of sustaining human life with dignity, the report suggests.
But even at a reduced world population -- achieved, ideally, by democratically determined population control practices and sound resource-management policies -- life for the average person cannot be as luxurious as it is for many Americans today, with a standard of living about half of that in the United States in the 1990s, or the standard experienced by the average European today.
In addition to reducing the earth's population, cropland needs to be preserved, and water and energy must be conserved, Pimentel says. 'None of these solutions, unfortunately, will be painless,' Pimentel points out. While Pimentel holds some optimism that if people recognize the problem there will be a movement toward a solution: 'But the question is, when will we recognize that this is a problem? History dictates that we humans never get at a problem until there is a crisis.'
Pimentel concedes that the findings of the report are disturbing: 'I found that it's a lot worse than I had anticipated. I have children and grandchildren and, unless something is done, the future doesn't look too bright,' he said.
Contact: David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agricultural sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 607-272-2668.
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