In Why We Fight, we discussed why most conflicts are sparked by resource scarcity and the economic damage caused as a result. Civilization requires resources to operate, so when they become scarce states attempt to secure them by whatever means necessary – thus militaries are mobilized and war is waged.
As we know resource conflict is not a new phenomenon, there have been multitudes of social thinkers who have feared great bloodshed once humanity’s expanding population eventually coincided with dwindling resources on a global scale.
Historically, perhaps the most famous alarm raised was the Principle of Population, an essay published by Thomas Malthus in 1798 that predicted dire consequences once our numbers exceeded our ability to feed ourselves. His concerns were echoed 174 years later through The Limits to Growth, a study commissioned in 1972 that concluded a bleak future awaited humanity should our population growth continue unabated in a world with finite resources. Numerous other studies before and since made the same predictions and drew the same conclusions. Yet in doing so they all shared a singular trait: none have yet come to fruition.
Indeed, the world is still here. Civilization is still standing. We have water, food, oil and building materials. The cataclysm has not occurred. This has led many to conclude that those worrying about resource scarcity are simply subscribing to unfounded alarmism, a modern-day equivalent to a boy crying wolf. But today, things are uniquely different. And the facts as they stand now show that Malthus and those like him were not wrong – they were just a little hasty.
To explain why this is the case, let’s take a step back and look at our circumstances from a high-level view:
As a species, human beings have been around for about 200,000 years. 95% of that time involved a “cave man” lifestyle, mostly hunting and gathering of natural resources and food sources. This continued until around 12,000 BCE, where we discovered basic farming techniques and learned how to domesticate animals, a breakthrough commonly referred to as the Neolithic Revolution.
Since that time, humanity has continued to evolve to become more sophisticated. Civilizations rose and fell, wars were fought, discoveries were made, and we continued to advance upward – as did our population.
At the dawn of WWI in 1914, Humanity had just reached 1.7 billion people. It had taken us 200,000 years to get there. At 200 millennia and 2,000 centuries, that’s 100 times the timespan between today and the height of the Roman empire. Yet only one century later in 2016, we’ve surpassed 7.4 billion – twice the population of 1972, the year The Limits to Growth was published. By 2040, our population is expected to reach 9 billion people – 10 billion by 2050. Our population has already grown 430% in the last 100 years, and by 2050 it will have grown 600% from the start of the 20th century.
This exponential population growth has occurred in an era of intense social advancement that has been powered entirely by natural resources. Thus, our rapid population expansion has rapidly accelerated our rate of resource consumption. In turn, this has rapidly accelerated our rate of resource depletion on a global scale – depletion that is in no way sustainable with the way the world works today.
To gain a clearer perspective of this impact, consider the following:
- By most estimates, our planet is 4.6 billion years old. If we were to scale that down to a century, it would mean Earth is 46 years old, and the entirety of human existence began 4 hours ago. The industrial revolution started in the last 60 seconds. Since that time, we’ve destroyed more than half of the world’s forests.
- Although controversy exists on solutions to climate change, it’s well understood that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making the planet warmer. As temperature and dryness increase beyond a certain level, crop production drops. The United Nations and several respected science journals independently estimate that this will severely impact food production, with the World Bank estimating that crop yield will reduce by as much as 25% by 2050. Yet at the same time, both warn that the world must produce far more food than we do today to feed our growing population worldwide, respectively estimating figures of 50% - 75%.
- Several other important resources are also depleting globally: coal, phosphorous, certain hardwoods and thousands of plant and animal species. Combined, many scientists believe that humanity has caused Earth’s 6th great extinction event, the “Holocene Extinction,” and conclude that most of Earth’s biodiversity will be extinct within the next three centuries if present trends continue.
The reality behind these examples is unquestionably grim. To be sure, we’ve been forewarned of a lot of grim realities lately. But this isn’t just another grim reality – it is the grim reality, and it is the root of nearly every large-scale social problem we face as a species. The problems spawned by this reality have begun to converge, and as our situation is unsustainable, these problems will grow in number and severity until we reach what will ultimately become an eventuality: that as natural resources become more scarce, the potential for global conflict over them spikes dramatically. This is not something that risks occurring on a small-scale, it risks occurring on a global scale, posing severe consequences to our collective futures.
Among the resources that face growing global scarcity, there are none more critical than water, inexpensive oil and food. From here, we’ll concentrate on the nature of their scarcity and the consequences that come with it, so that we can be given a basis to shift the discussion towards how this problem may be solved.