The planet has reached 8 billion people, which will not be a problem for Earth if we make the right choices, argues biological mathematician Joel E. Cohen. The problem is that, until now, we haven’t made the right choices.
For him, who teaches at two American universities, the continuity of life in the world will depend on a few factors —whether countries will continue to fight wars, whether borders will be kept open, what use will be given to what is planted and to whom the production will be destined.
Author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support” (how many people the Earth can support), Cohen claims that individual choices are important for the future of the planet and that one must bear in mind that what happens on the other side of the world affects the everyone’s life.
The specialist’s certain aura of pessimism today is similar to 2011, when the Sheet heard it on the occasion of the milestone of 7 billion inhabitants reached at that time. At the time, he warned that the planet was following a “prescription for disaster” and lamented what he considered an ecologically, politically, economically and socially unstable global situation.
After all, how many people can Earth hold? There are four things we need to consider for that answer: population, economy, environment, and culture.
Population is not just the number of people, but whether they are young or old, whether they live in cities or in rural areas. Economy involves distribution of wealth, technologies, who decides how it will be managed. Environment, both living and non-living things, cities in earthquake areas, atmosphere, biome, pests. And what connects it all is culture: language, communication, institutions, religion, mythology, art.
These elements are interconnected. If you ignore these connections, you will do the wrong thing. The answer is that it depends on the connections we make involving economy, environment, culture and populations.
Are we going to allow trade between countries or use it as a weapon? Life on Earth will be better if it happens. Are we going to decide conflicts based on dialogue or kill each other? There are so many choices to make, I can’t predict which ones will be made. The world can comfortably support 8 billion people, but so far we are doing a terrible job.
And how mr. Do you evaluate the choices made so far? There is good and bad news. The good news is that there are more children in schools than ever before. The bad thing is that the quality of teaching in many cases is terrible. Children’s ability in reading and math in some countries is miserable, not just in poor nations in Africa, but in rich, industrialized places like the US.
There are an estimated 800 million people in the world with chronic hunger, long-term malnutrition. They cannot have a normal life, go to work. Among them, there are 150 million children under the age of five; 22% of all children on the planet at this age are stunted. These are children who will get infectious diseases, not grow up, not become productive adults — if they survive. They won’t be able to learn anything even if they go to school.
We produce enough food in the world. Last year, there were 2.8 billion tons of grain, enough to feed up to 14 billion people. So why is there hunger? Because the poor cannot buy food. This happens because we prefer to feed animals and machines, in the production of fuel, than to feed people. We are throwing away a fifth of our children. What kind of future do we want?
What needs to be done then? You can start by not creating conflicts. Last year the world spent $2.1 trillion on military efforts. This money would be much more productive if it were spent in another way, on human well-being, environmental protection, economic productivity. If we found a way to stop killing others, we would free up a lot of resources for other purposes.
It is also necessary to care for and provide sufficient nutrition for small children, pregnant and lactating women; contraceptive methods for the 200 million women who want and do not have access to them; information for teenagers. By caring for these groups, we can transform life on Earth.
We produce a lot of grains, and the world doesn’t know that rice and beans are a protein superfood. It is the basis of food in Brazil, but in many places, culturally, beans are seen as food for the poor. If people eat rice and beans, life on Earth will improve.
It is necessary to give information for people to reduce sugar consumption. Tobacco kills 8 million people every year, more than Covid. And who is paying attention? Companies poison people and the government allows it because it receives taxes. It is necessary to educate people, who waste their lives with the amount of alcohol they consume. If you get a little exercise, stop smoking and drinking, eat better and get enough sleep, nothing more is needed.
But changes at the individual level could change the future of the planeta? If people drive massive behavior change at scale, governments and big business will have to catch up. Walmart is one of the biggest companies in the US, and when you go there, you see aisles and aisles filled with junk full of salt and fat.
What are the challenges for the future? No one knows how far the population will grow. There are projections that go until the end of the century. But we have some idea about the future. Barring a nuclear catastrophe or a new plague worse than Covid, by 2050 the world’s population will have 1 billion more inhabitants, with a greater proportion of older people. You have more seniors today than at any time in history. And people in cities; two thirds of the planet live in cities.
On the other hand, in many places the population has been falling, which has become an economic problem. How to reconcile the population explosion in some places and the shortage of people in others? The first thing that comes to my mind is migration. But many governments impose barriers, because we are not just talking about demography, about people moving from Mali or Nigeria to Brazil, the US or the Netherlands. It’s a person with a different culture, religion, language and history going somewhere else. And many countries have not learned to accommodate cultural differences.
Governments that do not want immigrants could also understand that well-fed, well-educated people with opportunity in their countries tend to emigrate less. So, if they don’t want immigrants, they can invest in the economic development of nations with high population growth. We do not take seriously the fact that the well-being of people in poorer places affects that of people in richer places. We simply close the doors, build a wall, without understanding that everything is interconnected. What happens in Africa or South Asia will affect me personally.
There are capable people everywhere, you just have to give them enough to get their brains working. By investing in education, nutrition and economic development, the planet can support 8 billion people without any problems.
X-ray | Joel E. Cohen, 78
A biological mathematician, he is director of the Population Laboratories at Rockefeller and Columbia Universities. He is the author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support”, among other works considered references in the area.