Leaves fall and the air begins to bite. Time for the annual ritual of Halloween frights. Here are five of the scariest things on Earth—that is, if we hope for a sustainable economic future.
1. Seven billion people. The United Nations predicts that on Halloween this year, the human population will hit the seven billion mark. But that's not the scary statistic. The one that should inspire goose bumps is that we numbered two billion in 1927 and took three decades to get to three billion. The most recent billion people were added in just the last 10 years. Feeding that many hungry mouths, especially at this accelerating pace of population growth, is made even scarier when considering how inefficiently we do it today.
2. Water scarcity. Directly related to how many people there are is the impact that those seven billion people will have on water supply. Food production uses about 70% of the planet’s fresh water already. Climate change is impacting crop yields, predictability, and water supplies, so the ability to keep food coming in a world hitting eight or nine billion is hard to imagine without a lot of adjustment.
3. Dead zones. To increase yields, agribusiness turns to more chemical solutions, such as fertilizer and pesticides. But only 50% of those chemical inputs are actually used by plants. The rest is washed into rivers and aquifers, polluting fresh water sources and reducing supplies even further. A lot of the chemicals flush down rivers like the Mississippi, creating massive "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, destroying other food supplies—fisheries—in the process.
4. Food waste. Too many people, not enough water, and a system that makes things worse would be scary enough, but beyond this, we waste about a third of all the food grown for human consumption. According to a recent study by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization ("Global Food Losses and Food Waste"), developed countries waste the equivalent of our body weight every year, mostly because consumers throw it away. Developing countries waste about 10% of that amount, due mainly to inefficient harvesting techniques and a lack of appropriate storage facilities.
5. The Solyndra Effect. Seven billion will need a lot of energy to produce their food, especially in the expanding number of regions that use energy to pump, treat, move, desalinate or otherwise make water fit for agricultural uses. If we keep burning fossil fuels for that energy, climate change will exacerbate the conditions that already challenge our ability to keep pace with demand for food and water. We need to move ASAP to renewables, but the recent missteps with Solyndra will create a backlash against the trend towards leveling the policy playing field that is bringing more clean energy to the marketplace today. Yes, mistakes were made with Solyndra, but far greater subsidies are paid annually to the oil industry that gave us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. That's just one of many costly mistakes in the fossil fuel industry every year. We might want to eliminate all energy subsidies and let all technologies and sources compete in a truly open market, but until then, it will serve us well to avoid a "Solyndra Effect" that misaligns the market even further.
All of these trends imply either disaster, or opportunity. Innovative companies can make money improving food systems, saving water, reducing waste, and creating new ways to harness renewable energy. There are many things going bump in the night this Halloween (my personal nightmare is the specter of no NBA games this season), but if we study the data and adjust our thinking ahead of disaster, the global economy might still produce more treats than tricks.
[Image: Flickr user Jason OX4]