Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People?
Humanity has 30 years to find out.
All parents remember the moment when they first held their children—the tiny crumpled face, an entire new person, emerging from the hospital blanket. I extended my hands and took my daughter in my arms. I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly think.
Afterward I wandered outside so that mother and child could rest. It was three in the morning, late February in New England. There was ice on the sidewalk and a cold drizzle in the air. As I stepped from the curb, a thought popped into my head: When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the Earth. I stopped midstride. I thought, How is that going to work?
In 1970, when I was in high school, about one out of every four people was hungry—“undernourished,” to use the term preferred today by the United Nations. Today the proportion has fallen to roughly one out of 10. In those four-plus decades, the global average life span has, astoundingly, risen by more than 11 years; most of the increase occurred in poor places. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. This enrichment has not occurred evenly or equitably: Millions upon millions are not prosperous. Still, nothing like this surge of well-being has ever happened before. No one knows whether the rise can continue, or whether our current affluence can be sustained.
Today the world has about 7.6 billion inhabitants. Most demographers believe that by about 2050, that number will reach 10 billion or a bit less. Around this time, our population will probably begin to level off. As a species, we will be at about “replacement level”: On average, each couple will have just enough children to replace themselves. All the while, economists say, the world’s development should continue, however unevenly. The implication is that when my daughter is my age, a sizable percentage of the world’s 10 billion people will be middle-class.
Affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem.
Like other parents, I want my children to be comfortable in their adult lives. But in the hospital parking lot, this suddenly seemed unlikely. Ten billion mouths, I thought. Three billion more middle-class appetites. How can they possibly be satisfied? But that is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide for everyone without making the planet uninhabitable?
while my children were growing up, I took advantage of journalistic assignments to speak about these questions, from time to time, with experts in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As the conversations accumulated, the responses seemed to fall into two broad categories, each associated (at least in my mind) with one of two people, both of them Americans who lived in the 20th century. The two people were barely acquainted and had little regard for each other’s work. But they were largely responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas. Unfortunately, their blueprints offer radically different answers to the question of survival.