It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain. As water becomes scarce and countries are forced to divert irrigation water to cities and industry, they will import more grain. As they do so, water scarcity will be transmitted across national borders via the grain trade. Aquifer depletion is a largely invisible threat, but that does not make it any less real.
The problem with water, though, is that the shortfalls don't show up until the very end. You can go on pumping unsustainably until the day you run out. Then all you have is the recharge flow, which comes from precipitation. This is not decades away, this is years away. We're already seeing huge shortages in China, where the Yellow River runs dry for part of each year. The Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese civilization. It first failed to reach the sea in 1972, and since 1985 it's run dry for part of each year. For 1997 it was... Read more »
Among the environmental trends undermining our future are shrinking forests, expanding deserts, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, disappearing species, and rising temperatures. The temperature increases bring crop-withering heat waves, more-destructive storms, more-intense droughts, more forest fires, and, of course, ice melting. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize.
The foundation is being laid for the emergence of both wind and solar cells as cornerstones of the new energy economy. World wind generating capacity grew from 7,600 megawatts in 1997 to 9,600 in 1998, an expansion of 26 percent. At a national level, Germany led the way, adding 790 megawatts of capacity, followed by Spain with 380 megawatts, and the United States with 226 megawatts. In the past, U.S. wind generating capacity was concentrated in California, but in 1998, wind farms began generating electricity in Minnesota, Oregon, and Wyoming, broadening the new industry's geographical base.
Each summer, for example, nitrogen and phosphate washing from farmlands in the Mississippi Valley enter the Gulf of Mexico, creating a massive algal bloom covering some 16,000 square kilometers. As the blooms die off, this area-roughly the size of New Jersey-is so deprived of oxygen that no fish survive.
We can build an economy that does not destroy its natural support systems, a global community where the basic needs of all the Earth's people are satisfied, and a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized. This is entirely doable.
In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Shanghai, and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. In some cities, the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.
In the Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.