Volume 87 Issue 19 | p. 2 | Letters
Issue Date: May 11, 2009

Catastrophe Awaits

Department: Letters

RUDY BAUM makes some important observations relative to the use of the atmosphere as a sewer for CO2 (C&EN, Feb. 9, page 3). Another problem may be even more significant, however: the exponential growth of the world's population, which because of religious and cultural constraints, may be uncontrollable, except by nature.

The world's population doubles every 30 to 50 years, which means that more people are now alive than have ever lived. It means that by 2050, the population will double to about 12 billion. Even now, people are living in less and less hospitable locations and are more subject to disastrous floods, tsunamis, mudslides, droughts, and earthquakes. Three-quarters of the people in developing countries do not have a suitable water supply.

More people mean more pollution in the form of carbon dioxide from burning carbon-containing fuels, sewage, toxic metals, and materials from manufacturing and from discarded products. These factors, in turn, upset the natural environment, and we are beginning to see results such as global warming and loss of species.

Meanwhile, the percentage of land devoted to agriculture is decreasing continuously. Sooner or later, food production will be overtaken by population growth. Profligate use of natural resources such as oil, iron, nickel, and other metals will render such resources extremely scarce. This, combined with the rapid increase in population, will bring shortages and much higher prices for those goods that are available.

People in China and India, in particular, are tasting the fruits of modern technology and demanding automobiles, air-conditioning, TVs, cellular phones, and other gadgets. Demand for energy (oil) in these countries is growing rapidly and will continue to grow. Unfortunately, environmental sensitivity in the developing world is often minimal, and even now, dumping and burning electronic waste from discarded computers and cell phones, etc., is a major problem in China and Africa. Factor in the current worldwide recession, and the problems become even more challenging.

Solutions to these problems are neither easy nor obvious. If population growth were to stand still, we could probably work through today's problems by using windmill power, alcohol fuels, and so on. But it won't stand still, and it's unlikely that anything significant will be done. We may rest assured that the laws of nature will prevail whether or not we do anything. The outlook is grim, but shouldn't these challenges be confronted?

A. Lee Smith
Howell, Mich.

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