Projecting population growth is not an exact science, so when the United Nations chose October 31, 2011, Halloween, as the day that world population will surpass 7 billion, one has to wonder as to why they would want to make the connection between the 7 billion mark and a holiday associated with ghosts, death and horror? Maybe it’s because they’re slightly terrified of the environmental implications of an ever-growing population on a finite planet?
Historically, Halloween, originally the Celtic holiday Samhain, marked the transition from the “light half” to the “dark half” of the year. It was the transition from a time of plenty following the harvest to a time of scarcity. It was believed that on Samhain, the dead returned, destroying crops, stealing children and killing livestock. The Celts lit sacred bonfires, burned crops and sacrificed animals to honor the (“good”) dead, as well as to ward off supernatural troublemakers.
As we hit the 7 billion population mark, we too are entering a time of scarcity. This scarcity is not brought on by the coming winter or angry spirits, but by overpopulation and overconsumption. As Richard Heinberg, author and senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute puts it, we are heading toward a “peak everything”: a world in which fossil fuels, soil, fresh water, minerals, food production and economic growth will all be in decline.
Fresh water is most fundamental to life and therefore the most worrisome declining natural resource. Humans can go up to 60 days without food, but just a few days without water. The Earth may be covered in water, but 97% of it is salty; only 3% is fresh water, and over two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers or in deep underground aquifers.
In the United States, the fresh water that we do have has been squandered and polluted. 40% of the rivers and 46% of the lakes are too polluted for aquatic life, swimming or fishing. Two-thirds of our bays and estuaries are degraded due to phosphorous and nitrogen pollution. And every year, 1.2 trillion gallons of industrial waste, storm water and untreated sewage are dumped into our waters. The average American uses 150 gallons of water a day (compare to the average Kenyan who uses only 3 gallons a day). That only accounts for daily direct use drinking, cooking, washing) not the water associated with your coffee (74 gallons), the t-shirt you’re wearing (700 gallons), or the fast-food meal (750 gallons) you had for lunch.
As it stands, globally nearly 1 in 5 people do not have access to safe drinking water. By 2025, 2.8 billion people in 48 countries will be facing water shortages. And water demand is supposed to increase by 85% over the next half century. In the U.S., 36 states are predicting water scarcity over the next ten years. It is no coincidence that George Bush purchased nearly 100,000 acres in Paraguay on one of the largest underground water reserves in South America. In a world of depleting natural resources, water will be the hottest commodity and South America will be the new Middle East.
You just need to compare the hockey stick-like graph of world population growth to the steady downward slope of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita for a good scare.
The Celts believed that on Samhain, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. With overconsumption and overpopulation, we are headed toward something of a living hell, where the lack of resources to sustain our population will daily blur the boundaries between the living and the dying. Samhain was not just about warding off evil; it was about taking stock of what you had and planning for a harsh season. Perhaps the U.N. feels it’s time for us to take a good look at our situation and start addressing the challenges that lay ahead.
For more on population issues, visit HowMany.org.
For more information on “peak everything”, visit the Post Carbon Institute.
For more on water challenges and solutions, visit Clean Water Action.
Gaffikin, Lynne. "Population Growth, Ecosystem Services, and Human Well-Being." A Pivotal Moment. Ed. Laurie Mazur. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2010. 124-135. Print.
A History of Samhain http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/404622/a_history_of_samhain.html?cat=38
Sterling, Elaeanor and Erin Vintinner. "How Much is Left? An Overview of the Water Crisis." A Pivotal Moment. Ed. Laurie Mazur.Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2010. 193-204. Print.
Water Pollution Facts http://water.ygoy.com/water-pollution-facts/