The Third Revolution
Paul Harrison

III. Bounded in a Nutshell: The New Limits to Growth

The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation.

--- William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793.

The third crisis is quite different in nature from the previous two. Quite different from the one that was expected in the sixties and seventies. At that time many thought that population growth was pushing humanity towards a resource crisis. That we would simply run out of the things we consume to live and prosper: food, land, energy, minerals.

On the eve of the twenty first century, there seems to be no impending global shortage of any of these essentials.


Cook, little pot, cook


When Jesus fed five thousand people from five loaves and two fish, the leftovers alone filled twelve baskets. The history of fossil fuels and minerals has been almost as miraculous. The more we have used of many materials, the more we have had left - so far.

We can think of the global stock of any particular mineral as a huge buried mountain. Like an iceberg, only a small part is easily accessible. This is the reserve - that portion that can be exploited using current technologies, and yield a profit at current prices. Below this is the reserve base - a much larger segment which may not be economic to exploit till prices rise. Deeper still - metaphorically - is the resource: the mass of the buried mountain that we know or can intelligently guess about. Much of this is not, at present, economically or technically exploitable - though it may be one day. Finally, far out of sight, there may be further stores of which, as yet, we have no knowledge.

Most people think of mineral reserves as a pile that shrinks the more we pull out of it. But reserves defy all the laws of arithmetic. Take the curious case of copper. In 1950 copper reserves amounted to 100 million tonnes. Over the following thirty years 156 million tonnes were consumed. And at the end of that period reserves stood at 494 million tonnes - five times the 1950 level.

Reserves are constantly changing. Technological progress and price changes alter the share of resources which can be classed as reserves. Exploration adds to our knowledge of resources. According to resource economist William Vogely investment `creates' reserves out of the stock of resources, in just the same way as investment creates new manufacturing capacity in response to price and technology changes. 1

Hence the enigma of simultaneous depletion and expansion. Aluminium consumption between 1950 and 1980 would have almost exhausted the 1950 reserves. Yet reserves in 1980 were 3.7 times bigger. Over the same three decades the starting reserves of lead were used up twice over - leaving reserves more than three times bigger at the end. 2

Present reserves of silver, tin, zinc, mercury, and lead have lifetimes of 22 years or less at current rates of use. But most fundamental minerals have a long life expectancy. 1988 reserves or iron ore would last 167 years at current depletion rates. Aluminium would last 224 years.

Oil reserves have been given varying spans to live: but the date of their final exhaustion has been postponed again and again. In 1950 there was enough for only 18 years. In 1989 they could last 44 years, at much higher rates of use. 1989 reserves of natural gas would last 58 years at current use rates. Coal reserves would not run out for more than two centuries. 3

Another sign that there is no immediately impending scarcity of resources: the real prices of most minerals have been on a long term decline. Between 1948 and 1989 the trend of commodity prices fell by almost 45 per cent in relation to manufactured goods. There was a brief surge in the 1970s, but this was linked more to the market muscle of OPEC, the oil-exporters' cartel, than to any underlying scarcity. 4

When scarcities do arise, other adjustment mechanisms come into play. Efforts are made to make the material stretch further. Recycling becomes more attractive. Substitutes are used. Reduction in the end-use is the last resort, and rarely called for.

The oil price rises from 1973 did precipitate brief recessions which reduced end-uses. But this was due to their suddenness, which gave no lead-time to adjust. They were soon surmounted and growth resumed. And they gave a shot in the arm for energy conservation. In 1988 OECD members were using 25 per cent less energy to produce each $1,000 of Gross Domestic Product than they had been in 1970. Britain was using 33 per cent less, while Japan cut the energy intensity of her GDP by 31 per cent and the United States by 27 per cent. 5

The same story applied for other materials that had been the mainstay of economic growth earlier this century. In 1988, for example, developed countries were using 39 per cent less steel per dollar of GDP than in 1961. In the USA the amount of steel and cement used per person began to fall from about 1970 onwards. 6

The magic porridge pot that has spewed forth riches in the past may work for us for a few decades more.

But it would be imprudent to rely on it ever. The lessons of the past cannot be confidently applied to the future. The studies on changes in resource availability look back to times when we numbered only two, three or four billion. When the overwhelming mass of humanity was consuming at very modest rates.

There are no reliable precedents for what lies ahead. We have never been so numerous before. And we have never consumed at such rates before.

Let us construct a nightmare scenario.

Suppose that, some time after 2100, world population levels off at the latest United Nations forecast of 11.5 billion. Imagine that by then poverty has been abolished. Assume that the whole world has achieved the American dream and is greedily overconsuming at the rates of the United States in 1988.

If this were to happen, then the 1988 world reserves of aluminium would be consumed in only eighteen years instead of 224. Copper reserves would disappear in four years instead of forty one. Zinc reserves would be used up in three years instead of twenty one. All the adjustment mechanisms we know of could not cope with such a rate of consumption. The globe would be laid waste to mine resources at that rate. 7

Nor is the long term fossil energy scenario much more consoling. A world of 11.5 billion people, consuming energy at developed country rates, would use six and a half times more energy than we use at present. Today's oil reserves would run out in seven years instead of forty one. Even our current 220 years of coal reserves would be eaten up in 34 years. 8

Such a scenario is no more than a nightmare. It can never come about.

But it does illustrate one thing. A world of 10 to 16 billion people cannot continue to consume resources at current Western levels. Something has to give.

At some point, probably towards the end of the next century, scarcity of minerals could limit either our population, or our economic growth, or both. We could face a conventional resource crisis. If past history is anything to go on, this crisis need not be followed by collapse, as the Limits to Growth scenarios suggest. More likely it would lead - like the agricultural and industrial revolutions - to adaptations, substitutions, in some cases reductions in consumption.

But long before this resource crisis comes upon us we shall have to deal with the present environmental crisis.


Land and food: Malthus was wrong - but for how long?


`Both the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer the chickens, while the more men the more chickens.'

-- Henry George, Poverty and Progress.


One question lies at the core of Malthus' original argument. It remains the focus of all discussions of population and resources. Can world food production expand in line with rising populations?

As a universal principle, Malthus' basic theorem has been proved wrong. Indeed one could turn it upside down. Human ingenuity has so far been able to increase world food production in line with the increase in human numbers.

Between 1961 and 1989 world cereal production doubled, from 885 to 1,865 million tonnes. Over this same period population grew by only two thirds. As a result, cereal production per person rose from only 288 kilos to 358 kilos. Even in the developing countries there was a substantial rise, from 189 kilos to 249 kg per person. 9

Food prices, in real terms, have been on a falling trend. Even in current US dollars, the average wheat price in the years 1985-8 was $121 per tonne - $5 less than 1975-8. Maize in 1985-8 cost $88 a tonne - $19 less than the eralier period. 10

Nutritional standards have improved dramatically. The average daily energy intake in developing countries rose from 1,939 calories in 1961-3 to 2,434 in 1986-88. Over the same twenty five years, protein consumption grew from 49 grammes per day to 59 grammes. There was a parallel increase in intakes of retinol, B vitamins, and vitamin C. 11

So far so good. But we cannot safely extrapolate the past into the future. There have been food crises in the past. In Africa there are recurrent food crises in the present. No-one can guarantee that there will be none in the future.


Looming limits


And the question: can the world feed itself? doesn't get us very far. If the answer is yes, all that means is that we won't all starve at once.

In practice the world is not one big happy family, and does not go in for feeding itself. There are surpluses in some countries and deficits in others. Average food intakes in 1986-88 ranged from 1604 calories per day in war-torn Mozambique, all the way up to 3901 in carnivorous Belgium. 12

Those who have money to buy food can always get it. Those who don't starve in the midst of plenty. The reassuring global trends are no comfort to the world's 1,100 million poor, nor to the 500 million who cannot afford a minimum diet for good health and normal activity. Famine relief reaches some people in some situations. But it does not touch the bulk of quiet, grinding, daily hunger among the poor. In 1980 there were 46 countries with average daily intakes below 2,300 calories. Intakes in 23 of these actually fell during the next eight years. 13

Even at regional level there are massive disparities.

Asia has performed spectacularly in the past two decades. In terms of food production, the Green Revolution has worked. Food production per person in China was 94 per cent higher in 1989 than in 1961. In the rest of Asia it was 22 per cent higher. 14

But the sheer size of the Asian countries biassed the global averages upwards. Most other regions of the developing world have not done well at all. In Latin America, cereal production per person fell by 5 per cent from 1970 to 1989. In the Near East it fell by 18 per cent. Africa fared worst, with a 20 per cent decline. In Latin America and the Near East income from other sources paid for imports, allowing food consumption to improve. In Africa average food consumption rose slowly to 1980, but has fallen slightly since then. In 1969-71, sub-Saharan Africa produced 101 per cent of her eceral requirements at home. Seventeen years later she was growing only 85 per cent. 15

For most individual countries the trends of the recent past are alarming. Between 1978 and 1989 food production lagged behind population growth in 69 out of 102 developing countries for which data are available. In the Near East and North Africa food production per person dropped in ten out of fourteen countries. In Africa, it fell in 35 out of 41. The Caribbean and Central America performed no better than Africa, with per capita food production falling in fourteen out of sixteen countries.

Only in Asia (thirteen up, six down); and in South America (eight up, four down) did countries with per capita increases predominate. 16

Malthus' theorem is invalid. But the concern that it expresses is often justified. At the level that matters practically - the individual country - food production often does not keep up with population growth over extended periods of decades. During that time, in our own generation, millions of people have suffered dull daily hunger. And millions of children have died directly or indirectly from malnutrition.

Even the global figures look less assuring when we look in more detail at the trends. The growth in cereal production per person has slowed steadily down. In the sixties it was growing at 1.4 per cent a year. In the seventies, just over half as fast. During the 1980s, the improvement was only 0.2 per cent a year. Indeed since 1977 there has been no visible upward trend, underlying the year-to-year fluctuations. Cereal production per person in 1990 was slightly lower than in 1978. 17

And there has been a systematic slowdown in the growth of all those factors that go into agricultural production: land, fertilizer use, irrigation and livestock.


The closing frontier


Land is basic.

In developed countries the total farmed area has barely changed since 1970. Farmland per person fell from 0.67 hectares in 1961 to 0.55 ha in 1988.

In developing countries the cultivated area increased less than half as fast in the 1980s as in the two previous decades. And because population was growing faster, there was an even steeper drop in cropland per person, from 0.33 ha to only 0.21 ha - or a square with sides 45 metres long. The decline happened in all regions. By 1988 even spacious Latin America had only 0.42 hectares per person. Africa - thought to have ample land - had only 0.31 hectares per person. In Asian communist countries the overall farm area fell by 5 per cent between 1961 and 1988. The average Chinese had 0.09 hectares - a mere thirty metres square - to produce all their food needs. 18

Land is also crucial to the provision of livelihoods. Some 1,100 million adults still worked on the land in 1990. In developed countries the arable area per person working in agriculture rose from 5.4 hectares to a massive 12.5 hectares between 1961 and 1988, due to mechanization and the shift of labour into industry and services. But in developing countries, the agricultural workforce continued to grow. Here the average farmer or farm worker had only 0.78 hectares to provide a livelihood in 1988 - down from one hectare in 1961.19

When Europe overcrowded in the nineteenth century, her huddled masses could seek their fortunes in the wide open spaces of the Americas and Australasia, conveniently peopled by natives mostly at the gathering or shifting cultivation stage. But the world's population has trebled in the meantime. The gaps have filled out, and there are few virgin lands where the huddled masses of the South could find breathing space. The frontier is shrinking fast.

Humans avoid extremes of heat and cold, dryness and humidity. Dry areas cannot produce enough food. Humid areas crawl with pests and diseases. It was not by chance that the rainforests - notorious `green Hell' of early explorers - were last to be settled. But these preferences are perverse in terms of food production. As the rainy season lengthens, food-producing potential rises. But population densities tail off. In areas where crops can be grown all the year round, population densities are three to six times lower than where the growing season is only four to five months. 20

So this is where the bulk of remaining land reserves lie: under rainforest. There's plenty of it. But it is concentrated in a handful of equatorial countries. And the soils are often fragile, easily degraded once tree cover is removed.

South America is the only continent with comfortable elbow room. In 1988 it was farming only 15 per cent of its cultivable land. 21

Africa is farming only 22 per cent. But three quarters of her reserves are in the centre and south. Out of 37 sub-Saharan African countries, 18 will be using more than half their potential farmland by the end of the century. The Sahel and West Africa are already farming an area equal to the whole of their suitable land. Reserves in these two regions, such as they are, are mainly marginal.

In other regions the frontier is already closed. In 1988 the Near East and North Africa were farming all the land that was suitable for agriculture, plus some that was unsuitable.

Asia was farming 54 per cent of the land that was cultivable by 1988. But much of the theoretically cultivable area is in fact marginal, and the yields could not provide a decent living for farmers. If only suitable land is considered, Asia was farming 95 per cent of her decent farmland in 1988. Already India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the two Koreas are farming more than 97 per cent of the land that is capable of being farmed.


The inner frontier


Where land is in shorter supply, inputs that can boost the yield of land become more important. Extension into new areas gives way to intensification of the old areas. This is the inner frontier of agricultural growth.

Yields in developing countries are still low. But this is a double-edged sword. Low yields indicate slow progress. But the lag offers that much room for future improvement to accommodate growing populations. African cereal yields are a quarter of those in the West - and Africa's population is expected to grow four and a half times before levelling out. Latin America's and Asia's yields average one half of those in the West - and their populations are projected to double before levelling out. In these regions, then, if Western yields could be achieved, future populations could be fed with little increase in the farm area. 22

The Near East faces a much tighter situation. Populations are likely to more than treble while yields can only grow by 2.3 times to reach Western levels. All cultivable land is already in use.

Future population growth makes China's achievement is a hostage to its own success. Chinese rice yields in the late 1980s were approaching 90 per cent of Japan's. Fertilizer use was already higher than Europe's. The cultivated area was shrinking. Yet China's population will increase by a half before it levels out.

But growth in yields cannot be taken for granted. It is a constant battle, of crop breeding, fertilizer application, expansion in irrigation, and fighting pests, diseases and erosion. If the yield improvements of 1961-1988 can be sustained, Asian developing countries could catch up with present Western yields in thirty years, Latin America in 33 and the Near East in 42. It would take over 130 years, at the slow rates of the last three decades, for African cereal yields to catch the West. 23

Yet there has been a worrying slowdown in many of the elements that are needed to achieve higher yields.

World fertilizer use grew by over 9 per cent a year during the 1960s. But by the 1980s it has slowed to less than a third of that rate. The slowdown in developed countries is understandable. Western farmers were already using more fertilizer than made economic sense, and concern about pollution was mounting. But developing countries still had a lot of ground to make up. Thei*r fertilizer use was growing rapidly in the 1960s, at 16 per cent a year. In the 1980s this slowed down to only 5.9 per cent a year.

Cattle are important for manure and for power. But their numbers grew only half as fast as human populations. In 1970 there were 0.27 cattle per person in developing countries. In 1989 there were only 0.22. 24

Irrigation increases yields further. In many cases two or even three crops a year can be grown on the same piece of land. Yet here too there has been a marked slowdown. The irrigated area in developing countries expanded by an annual 2.2 per cent in the sixties. In the 1980s it grew half as fast. The potential for expansion is still very large. But the easiest and cheapest irrigation schemes have already been built. What remains will be increasingly expensive. The economic returns will be less attractive. And the environmental protests will be louder. 25


The mathematics of Malthus


One pathbreaking study tried to answer the ultimate Malthusian question: just how many people were the lands of developing countries capable of feeding? 26

The FAO's study of population carrying capacity used data on soil, slope and climate from 117 developing countries. These were compared with the requirements of fifteen basic food crops. The crop that would grow best in each area was selected, and the expected yield was converted into calories. Since human dietary requirements are known, it was a fairly simple task to work out how many people could be fed.

Farming methods have a huge impact on yields, so three levels of inputs were considered. The high level corresponded roughly to Western European farming intensity. It assumed high levels of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, improved seed varieties, and conservation measures. For each area it used the crops that gave the highest output. The low level used only traditional methods and varieties with existing crop patterns. Intermediate inputs lay half way between the two. At the end of the 1980s, measured by fertilizer use, Africa is at the low level, Latin America and the Near East are about two thirds of the way towards intermediate. Asia has almost reached the intermediate level. 27

The overall results were widely quoted to prove that there was no Malthusian threat hanging over the developing countries.

And indeed at first reading they seem hugely optimistic. Even using low inputs, the developing countries would be able to feed 60 per cent more than their year 2000 populations from their own lands. With intermediate inputs they could feed some 13.5 billion people. Using high inputs a massive 32 billion people could be fed. This is almost three times the level at which world population is expected to level out. And it does not count the lands of Asian Communist countries, or of developed countries, which would double the farmland of the countries stuided.

Most of the regional results were equally cheering. With intermediate inputs, the regions could feed anything from 2.3 times (for Asia) to 13.3 times (for South America) their expected year 2000 populations. On past form Africa is likely still to be at low input level, but even then could feed 1.6 times its year 2000 population. South West Asia would be unable to feed itself unless it used high inputs.

But it is not regions, but individual countries that must feed their people, or fail to. And the country results are much less comforting.

The huge surplus food-producing potential which the study identified is focussed in a few countries. Brazil alone has almost three fifths of South America's food-producing potential. Turkey has 44 per cent of South West Asia's. Just five humid countries account for more than half of Africa's capacity. Short of clearing their rainforests and importing tens or hundreds of millions of labourers from hungry neighbours, these countries will never develop their vast potential.

At the other end of the scale, some 64 countries, with over one billion inhabitants, would be unable to feed their 2000 AD populations from their own lands if they were using low inputs. Some 29 of these are in Africa, and house 60 per cent of the continent's population. Out of 16 countries in South West Asia, no less than 15 would be critical, along with 14 out of 21 in Central America and the Caribbean. Thiry six countries, with 485 million people, would remain critical even if they used medium inputs. Of course many of these countries can export other goods and services to pay for food imports. But others - espcially most of the African ones - can not.

These findings are worrying enough. But the picture they present is, if anything, hugely over-optimistic. For the study assumed a spartan world where the land grows nothing but staple foods. Rich and poor alike eat the bare minimum for health and work activity. There are no luxuries: no beverages, no fibres, no fruit apart from bananas, no green vegetables. Livestock are banished to land incapable of growing crops. Almost a quarter of the cropland is marginal, with meagre yields that few farmers would find worth the effort. On top of all this the higher input levels involve radical shifts in the mix of crops that people grow and eat.

To allow for all these factors, at least one third should be deducted from the potential output. When this is done the results are even more alarming. By the end of the century no less than 75 of the 117 countries could not feed their populations from their entire land base using low inputs. And 43 of these still could not manage using intermediate inputs.

Even this adjustment does not go far enough. For the study assumes that every square centimetre of land that can grow crops is farmed. Yet Africa and South America are currently using less than a quarter of their cultivable land. At the present slow rates of opening up new land, this picture will not change much for many decades. If we recalculate the results, using only the land that is farmed or likely to be, the picture darkens even at regional level. By the year 2025, only the Far East would be able to support its projected populations at low input levels. The other regions could feed no more than 70 per cent. Africa could feed only 40 per cent. 28


Plumbing the depths


We can increase the produce of the land by farming it. But we cannot yet farm the oceans. At sea, humans are like jayhawks: the more fishermen, the less fish.

More than two thirds of the Earth's surface is covered by ocean - an area of 362 million square kilometres, deeper, in places, than Mount Everest. Yet already we are pressing against its limits. This vastness has become our garden pond.

Since the war the total ocean fish catch has risen from 20 million tonnes to 85 million tonnes in 1988. Catches grew very rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, averaging over six per cent a year. Plastic nets, mechanical net hauling, electronic aids to locate fish, all stacked the odds against fish. Freezing at sea, and bigger boats, widened the range open to fishermen. 29

The early 1970s saw disaster. The South American anchoveta fishery collapsed. The total world fish catch actually declined in the first half of the decade, and recovered only slowly thereafter.

The 1980s saw a resumption of growth, but at only half the pre-1970 rate. Catches declined only in the heavily fished North Atlantic, and for several of the most popular species found there - especially cod. 30

But there were clear signs that humans were approaching the limits of the sea's sustainable yield.

The fate of the whales stands as warning. As each species was overfished and declined, fishing effort shifted to another. When catches of humpback whales bottomed in the beginning of this century, whalers shifted their attention to blue whales. Catches of these peaked in the 1930s and fell off. Fin whales were the next target - but these began to decline after the 1950s. Sperm and sei whales took the slack, but then they too peaked in the 1960s, leaving only minke whales to hunt. This lethal game of muscial chairs continued until all the big whales were threatened. 31

This same process is now at work in ocean fisheries as a whole. As the growth in catches slows in traditional areas, fishing boats head for others. As catches of one species fall, attention shifts to others.

The FAO has estimated the total sustainable yield of the ocean's fisheries at roughly 100 million tonnes. The total catch in 1988 was 85 million tonnes - and this does not include an estimated 24 million tonnes of artisanal fisheries. Thus the overall sustainable yield of the world's oceans was probably already passed in 1988. 32

Almost all stocks of bottom-dwelling fish and crustaceans are already fully exploited or overfished, the FAO reports. Very few untapped resources of conventional fish species remain. There is still scope to reduce waste during and after the catch. Some fish currently processed into meal or oil may in future be sold for direct human consumption. Yet these measures will not do much more than meet increased demand up to the end of the century. 33

Of course aquaculture - the rearing of fish in ponds - could well expand to meet the rising demand. But it seems likely that future generations face a dwindling supply of ocean fish: less per person, and at much higher prices.


Water, water everywhere - and not a drop to drink


The name Earth is misleading: a visitor from space might well call our planet Water.

But this ubiquity is illusory. More than 97 per cent of the total is salt, poisonous to people and crops, corrosive to industry. Of the freshwater, three quarters is frozen in ice-caps and glaciers. Most of the rest is buried too deep to tap. The annual run-off from rainfall is only 41,000 cubic kilometres. Of that, discounting flood waters that cannot be harnessed and remote waters that cannot be reached, perhaps only 9,000 km3 are reliably available for human use. Of this, we are already using more than a third. 34

Water is the most abundant of all resources. Yet it is the most likely of all resources to impose severe limits on human development in many parts of the world.

Water is fundamental to every aspect of human life and economic development. It is crucial for food production - rainfed as well as irrigated. Agriculture took 69 per cent of world water use in 1987. In many developing countries the share was as high as 99 per cent. 35

For industry and energy production, too, it is a crucial input. These consumed 23 per cent of water withdrawals globally. Annual consumption per person increases with industrial development. 36

And water is essential for human health and amenity. Most diseases in developing countries are passed on directly or indirectly through water, or caused by lack of sufficient water to wash. Home uses accounted for 8 per cent of the 1987 total. Domestic consumption rises with prosperity. As incomes grow, extra taps are added, extra bathrooms, extra washing machines and dishwashers. People with taps in the house use far more than people who have to fetch water in buckets. Typical use per day rises from around 20 litres per person when wells are the source, right up to 170 litres when there are several taps. 37

In many developed countries water use has stabilized. Indeed in several it has begun to fall. Industry is recycling more water to reduce output of polluted effluents.

But in developing countries, growth in water use is compounded. Increasing intensification of agriculture demands more water per hectare. At the same time growing industries gulp down more and more. And on the home front the spread of improved water and sanitation doubles and trebles water consumption per person. On top of all this the number of persons continues to grow rapidly. 38

Countries using less than 10 per cent of their annual renewable water resources do not usually face supply problems. Between ten and twenty per cent, there may be regional difficulties. Over 20 per cent there are serious problems with storage, large scale transfers and so on. America uses 19 per cent - and has severe water shortages in the arid west and parts of the urban east. In Britain, which uses 24 per cent, there are persistent regional problems. 39

Already in the late 1980s many countries were headed for trouble. Out of 113 developing countries, fourteen were using 10-20 per cent of their resources. China and most of South Asia fell into this band. Another twenty five countries were using more than 20 per cent. 40

As with food the tightest situation faces the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Out of twenty countries in the region, eleven are already using more than half their water resources. Libya, and all the Arabian peninsula save Oman, are using more than 100 per cent. They are relying on expensive salinization, or drawing on underground reserves of fossil water that cannot be replenished. And populations in the region are projected to double, treble or in some cases more than quadruple before stabilizing. 41

Much of Africa also faces dangerous shortages, according to Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark. In 1982 only six countries, with a total population of 65 million, faced a situation of water stress or scarcity. By the year 2025 the number of countries affected would have risen to 21, with 1,100 million people - two thirds of the population of the whole continent. 42

Water shortages will mean competition at every level.

Local disputes over wells, canal routes, and irrigation schedules, are already common among farmers in South Asia and the Near East.

At international level there are conflicts between nations that share water resources. In 1975 India built the Farakka barrage to store water for irrigation, and to ease Calcutta's water shortage. The dry season flow has declined, and salt water now pushes further inland in Bangladesh. Yet future population growth will force India to siphon off more and more water along the full length of the Ganges.

Egypt already uses 97 per cent of her water resources. But she gets almost no rainfall. All but 3 per cent of her water flows down the Nile from outside her borders. As the upstream water needs of Sudan and Ethiopia grow, so will the scope for conflict. Perhaps the most intense competition in the world exists over the Jordan river, which Israel - already using 88 per cent of her water resource - must share with Jordan, using 41 per cent. Water need is a powerful incentive for Israel to retain control over the West Bank and over southern Lebanon, where the river rises.

At national level shortages mean competition between uses. Agriculture, industry and home uses are all essential to development - yet it may not be possible to satisfy all demands. In some countries one sector or other will be held back.

Take Afghanistan. In the late 1980s the country was using 52 per cent of its water resources - almost all of that for agriculture. Afghanistan's 1990 population of 16.6 million is projected to reach 79 million before it levels out. Suppose the country uses water in homes and industry at European levels. Suppose that crop production requires the same amount of water per head of the population as now. Then Afghanistan will be using 154 per cent of its water resources by 2025 AD and no less than 277 per cent by the year 2100 AD. 43

Tunisia currently uses 53 per cent of her water resource for a population of 8.2 million. By 2100 AD, for her expected population of 19 million, she would need to use 326 per cent.

For many Near Eastern and African countries it is clear that water will set a development ceiling. It will constrain improvements in agriculture, industry, home use, or all three. And water resource development will eat up a rising proportion of national income.

But it is not only arid and semi-arid countries that face problems. In the USA thirsty cities in the dry states are buying water rights from farmers - whose ability to produce food is thereby reduced. Many areas are drawing down their groundwater resources. Water tables in some parts of Tamil Nadu have dropped by 25 to 30 metres in a decade.

In parts of Northern China they have been falling by up to a meter a year. Beijing's water needs have already caused water tables to drop by up to two metres a year and dried up a third of the city's wells. One management study suggests that farmers around the Chinese capital could lose 30 to 40 per cent of their current water supply over the next decade, to meet city needs that will grow by 50 per cent. 44


Stop, little pot, stop


Let us sum up the resource accounts.

Many individual countries will face resource crises of growing severity. They will come up against limits of land, water, and food. And those limits will cramp their economic growth, their population growth, or both.

But the world as a whole is not facing a straightforward resource crisis. There is for the present no underlying global shortage of minerals, energy, and land to meet our essential needs and expected numbers.

Like the magic pot of the tale, the world economy has gone on bubbling out porridge for us. The danger is that the town may be swamped by it, and no-ne can say the words needed to stop it.

For we are facing a crisis. It is broader in extent than its predecessors. Indeed it is the most serious home-made crisis the earth has faced since the cyanobacteria poisoned the atmosphere with oxygen. It affects the entire global environment, at every level from forests, farms and pastures, to rivers and oceans, right through to the atmosphere and climate.

It is not a resource crisis but a pollution crisis, and our solid, liquid and gaseous wastes are the cause of the problem. It is hitting other species first, just as the rise of the cyanobacteria massacred the methanogens. But we cannot rely on evolution, or Gaia, to muster compensating forces. Life may survive in some lowly form. We may not.

For the effects of this crisis will come full circle, through all the other species and systems we damage, right back to us. A resource crisis could develop, not through our direct consumption, but through our waste and wasting.

Deforestation accelerates soil erosion and climate dessication. Erosion, desertification and salinization cut food production. We may run short of usable land even though there is at present no underlying shortage.

Acid rain kills forests. Ozone depletion may cut food production. And the full consequences of global warming are incalculable.

We may stop short of the brink.

But if we do so we face a different kind of resource crisis: one of enforced abstinence.

There is no shortage of productive land to feed and employ expanding populations: but it is almost all under rainforest. If we cut it down we accelerate global warming. We can compensate for land scarcity by using fertilizer: but fears of water pollution will set limits on how much we can use. There is no shortage of fossil fuels of one kind or another. But we dare not burn them all.

It used to be feared that we would run out of non-renewable resources - things like oil, or gold. Yet these, it seems, are the ones we need worry least about.

It is the renewables - the ones we thought would last forever - that are being destroyed at an accelerating rate.

They are all living things, or dynamic parts of living ecosystems. They may be renew-able - but at present they are not being renewed. Over the next seven chapters we shall examine the state of these resources - and the reasons behind their degradation.



 1. Vogely, William, Nonfuel Minerals, in Repetto, Robert, ed, The Global Possible, Yale University Press, 1985, p458.

2. Ibid.

3. 1950 figure from: MacKellar, F. R. and Vining, D. R., Natural Resource Scarcity, in Johnson, D. G. and Lee, Ronald, eds, Population Growth and Economic Development, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1987; modern reserves from: United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Data Report, UNEP, Blackwell Reference, Oxford, 1989, p416; and World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, p145.

4. Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington DC, 1991.

5. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The State of the Environment, OCED, Paris, 1991, p226.

6. Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington DC, 1991, p 20-21; Repetto, Robert, Population, Resources, Environment, Population Bulletin, 42: 2, 1987.

7. These rates are calculated on the basis of 1988 US consumption rates of 18.8 kilos of aluminium per person, 9.2 kilos of copper and 4.5 kilos of zinc, with world reserves of 3960 million tonnes of aluminium, 437 million tonnes of copper, and 149 million tonnes of zinc. Figures taken from United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Data Report, UNEP, Blackwell Reference, Oxford, 1989, table 3.24 and World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, table 21.4.

8. Calculated on the basis of reserve figures in United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Data Report, UNEP, Blackwell Reference, Oxford, 1989, p416; World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, p145.

9. Calculated from Food and Agriculture Organization Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, Fao, Rome, Italy.

10. Food and Agriculture Organization, Food Outlook Statistical Supplement, 1982 and 1990, FAO, Rome, Italy; prices are for US no 2 hard winter wheat, and US no 2 Yellow maize. I have chosen years without major droughts. No run of years is strictly comparable - but there is no overall increase visible, even before allowing for inflation.

11. Food and Agriculture Organization, Production Yearbook 1989, FAO, Rome, 1990, table 106.

12. Ibid.

13. Poverty: World Bank, World Development Report 1990, World Bank, Washington DC, 1990, p29; malnutrition: Food and Agriculture Organization, Fifth World Food Survey, FAO, Rome, 1985, p25; calorie intake drop: Alexandratos, Nikos, World Agriculture in the Next Century, XXI International Conference of Agricultural Economics, Tokyo, 1991; food aid in 1988-89 was 10,043,000 tonnes of cereals (FAO, Food Aid in Figures, 8 (1): 36, FAO, Rome, 1990), enough to keep 40 million people alive for a year, on a survival diet of 250 kg per person.

14. Per capita food production since 1961 from: Food and Agriculture Organization, Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990. Index recalculated using 1961 as base year.

15. Cereal production figures calculated from Food and Agriculture Organization, Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990; sub-Saharan Africa cereals: Alexandratos, Nikos, World Agriculture in the Next Century, XXI International Conference of Agricultural Economics, Tokyo, 1991.

16. Food and Agriculture Organization, Production Yearbook 1989, FAO, Rome, 1990, table 9.

17. Food and Agriculture Organization, Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Higgins, Graham, et al, Potential Population Supporting Capacities of Lands in the Developing World, FAO, Rome, 1982, pp35-37.

21. The figures on land reserves that follow are based on Harrison, Paul, Land, Food and People, FAO, Rome, 1984, p10 (for cultivable area); Food and Agriculture Organization, Production Yearbook 1989, FAO, Rome, 1990, for 1988 arable and forest areas; and Alexandratos, Nikos, ed, World Agriculture: Toward 2000, Belhaven Press, London 1988, table A.7.

22. Developing country cereal yields from FAO data disks, Alexandratos, Nikos, ed, World Agriculture: Toward 2000, Belhaven Press, London 1988, table A.7. Yields for China and developed countries from Food and Agriculture Organization, Production Yearbook 1988, FAO, Rome, 1989. Plateau populations from Bulatao, Rodolfo, et al, World Population Projections 1989-90, World Bank, Washington DC, 1990.

23. Growth rates and target yields calculated from sources in note 13.

24. Fertilizer growth from Food and Agriculture Organization, Fertilizer Yearbook 1989, FAO, Rome, 1990. Cattle to people ratios calculated from Food and Agriculture Organization, Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990. The effect of population pressure in reducing livestock numbers is discussed by Ester Boserup in Population and Technology, Blackwell, Oxford, 1981, pp17-18.

25. Irrigated area and livestock number trends calculated from Food and Agriculture Organization, Economic and Social Policy Department, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990.

26. The following account is based on Higgins, Graham, et al, Potential Population Supporting Capacities of Lands in the Developing World, FAO, Rome, 1982; Harrison, Paul, Land, Food and People, FAO, Rome, 1984; other material from Agro-ecological Zones Project, vols 1-4, World Soil Resources Report 48, FAO, Rome, 1982.

27. See Harrison op. cit., p14, adjusted to fertilizer levels from Food and Agriculture Organization, Fertilizer Yearbook 1989, FAO, Rome, 1990.

28. Results with one-third deduction, and for actually cultivated lands, from Harrison, Paul, op. cit., 1984, pp 34-45.

29. Catch statistic from FAO, Country Tables 1990, FAO, Rome, 1990; and FAO Fishery Statistics: Catches and Landings 1988, FAO, Rome, 1990.

30. Ibid.

31. Whale catches from United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Data Report, UNEP, Blackwell Reference, Oxford, 1989, p292.

32. Sustainable yields: Alexandratos, Nikos, ed, World Agriculture: Toward 2000, Belhaven Press, London 1988; Robinson, M. A., Trends and Prospects in World Fisheries, FAO, Rome, 1984; 1988 catches from FAO, Yearbook of Fishery Statistics: Catches and Landings 1988, FAO, Rome, 1990.

33. Food and Agriculture Organization, Trends and Prospects for Capture Fisheries, Committee on Fisheries, COFI/89/2, FAO, Rome, 1988.

34. Global water figures from Speidel, David, et al, Perspectives on Water Uses and Abuses, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, p28; current use from World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, p330.

35. World Resources Institute, loc cit.

36. Consumption per person for industrial uses calculated from per capita withdrawals and sectoral shares in World Resources Institute, loc. cit.

37. Sectoral shares from World Resources Institute, loc. cit.; domestic use by source from World Resources Institute, World Resources 1986, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1986, p130.

38. Falling use in some developed countries: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Environmental Indicators, OECD, Paris, 1991, p25.

39. Falkenmark, Malin et al, Macro-scale water scarcity requires micro-scale approaches, Natural Resources Forum, November 1989, pp258-267.

40. Percentage use levels from World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, pp330-31.

41. Ibid.

42. Falkenmark, Malin, The Massive Water Scarcity Now Threatening Africa, Ambio, 18 (2): 112-118.

43. These calculations are based on figures in World Resources Institute, World Resources 1990-91, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 1990, pp330-31. Population projections for 2025 are from the United Nations Population Division, for 2100 from the World Bank. It is assumed in both cases that per capita use in agriculture remains stable. Industrial and domestic uses rise to the European levels of 392 and 94 cubic metres per person.

44. Postel, Sandra, Water for Agriculture, Worldwatch Paper 93, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, 1989.

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