May 31, 2012

Running out of Planet

On May 22, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) held their third annual Malthus Lecture in Washington, DC. Addressing the theory put forward by Thomas Malthus in the 19th century that eventually population is checked by famine and disease, this event strives to tackle an issue still relevant today about how our natural resources can sustain a growing population.

This year’s speaker, Jonathon Foley, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, poses the question, “can we feed a growing world and still sustain the planet?”  This is of course a valid concern, as this past October global population hit 7 billion, and within the past two generations aggregate (resources and food) demand has greatly increased. While he informs the audience of staggering negative effects the ever increasing population and consumption levels have had on food security and the planet’s well being, Foley remains an optimist.  The astounding statistics work to both shock and focus the audience, demonstrating that it is this generation during which action must be taken, and the business as usual approach will no longer suffice. Foley breaks down this overwhelming issue into three concerns that need to be addressed:

  1. How do we feed the world?
  2. How do we meet future demands?
  3. How do we respect planetary limits?

These questions are integral to  the sustainability of humanity and the environment.  And Foley’s response to these key concerns includes several strategies that focus on food and nature: reducing waste, closing “yield gaps”, improve efficiency, and overall reduce the negative impacts agriculture has on the environment. But people are also a part of the picture, and Foley stresses the need for cooperation to realize holistic landscape management. He acknowledges that sustainability of the environment and people are “no longer separate entities,” and that stakeholders from multiple fields must be engaged in developing solutions.

Running out of planet is a multifaceted problem, as its impacts are not singular but instead pose critical problems for both the environment and civilization. Watch an earlier TEDx Talk online about The Other Inconvenient Truth.

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