Our biggest environmental crisis -- by far

The Ebola epidemic.  The Syrian crisis.  The murderous Islamic State campaign. 

These might sound like serious worries at the moment, but by the end of this century they'll seem about as frightening as a cricket match.

Our biggest crisis

Our biggest crisis

Why?  Because the Earth will have up to 13 billion people then, according to the latest demographic projections.  And the population won't even have stabilized yet.

These are astounding conclusions, and they result from the most robust population projections yet conducted, by a team of leading demographers using the latest United Nations data.  The results appeared recently in the world-leading journal Science.

Why does our population continue to skyrocket?  A key explanation: Africa.  Unlike much of the rest of the world, fertility rates (the average number of children borne per woman) haven't fallen in Africa. 

Fertility rates have also remained stubbornly high in the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East -- and these are growing rapidly as well.

Conclusions like this should scare us all, but Europeans should be petrified.  Legal and illegal immigrants are already streaming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, in some cases causing serious social and economic conflicts. 

Concern over this has led to a resurgence of anti-immigration political parties across Europe.   

But imagine the situation in the year 2100, when Africa's population has quadrupled.  When the population of Nigeria -- already teetering on the edge of political and economic chaos -- has increased by 500%. 

Today's steady stream of desperate immigrants will become a tsunami.

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

There's one vitally important lesson here: It doesn't have to be this way.  Populations in Africa and the Middle East are exploding because women there don't have access to adequate family-planning information and contraception

It's also happening because educational and economic opportunities for young women are inadequate.

There's a very simple way to stabilize population growth.  Delay the age of reproduction.  If a woman has her first child at, say, 23 years old, instead of 18, everything changes.

She has fewer children.  Those children are better-off economically.  As a result, they have better educational opportunities, and are healthier.  And rates of divorce and domestic strife are, on average, much lower. 

As they grow up, children from such families are far less likely to become involved in crime, or to be unemployed and socially disenfranchized -- a key correlate of violence and radicalization of young people by extremist groups.

It all comes down to delaying the age of reproduction -- everything else follows from this one simple change.

If we want to avoid a truly calamitous future, we have to tell our politicians -- loudly and emphatically and often -- that they must invest in family planning and educational opportunities for young women. 

It has to happen now -- today.  And our biggest focus should be Africa and the Middle East, as well as other rapidly growing regions of the developing world. 

Forget about the latest screaming headlines -- the crises of the moment.  This is our biggest crisis -- the one that, most of all, will determine the ultimate fate and health of our planet.

 

Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal?  (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.