Coping with an era of shortages
POSTED 25 JUNE 1998.Take almost six billion people on a planet that's gaining enough people to populate another United States every three years. Multiply by their vast needs for fresh water, food, material, energy and transportation. The result is a world that's running short of critical supplies like air, food and water.

While some economists argue that growing consumption does not make natural resources scarce (arguing that people are ingenious enough to find substitutes), common sense says that some of the shortages we're seeing indeed announce the arrival of an era of limits.

Will a soaring population and rapid global industrialization collide with a finite planet's limited resources? Perhaps. In this issue, The Why Files will look at some unpleasant indications that continual growth could spell trouble.

Dusty 'n thirsty
water According to a 1997 United Nations report, one-fifth of humanity lacks access to good drinking water, and half lack adequate sanitation (see "Tackling the Big Three" in the bibliography). Fresh water use grew twice as fast as population for the last century. By 2025, 5.5 billion people -- two-thirds of the expected global population -- will face water shortages. Some experts are warning that wars might be fought over water supplies.

Low on gas
With gasoline prices near record lows, the phrase "energy crisis" seems as antiquated as that old Duran Duran vinyl. But the United States is importing a record amount of oil, and some industry experts are saying that supplies won't meet the growing demand. Too little oil is being found: Discoveries peaked in the early 1960s, and 80 percent of today's production comes from fields discovered before 1973. Oil industry veterans Colin Campbell and Jean Lahierrere argue that the date when output starts dropping is more important than the date when oil ultimately disappears, since it will signal a rise in prices -- and conceivably another energy crisis. "Barring a world recession, it seems most likely that world production of conventional oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century," they wrote in "The End of Cheap Oil" (see bibliography). However, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, argues that "current reserves will be able to sustain the current rate of oil consumption for another half-century." Advanced recovery technology, they note, will allow more oil to be extracted from existing fields.

air Gaspin' for breath
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by burning fossil fuels are causing global warming. Earth's average temperature is predicted to rise by several degrees over the next half-century or so, raising sea levels and increasing fires, floods and storms. Some scientists think they're already seeing evidence of the long-predicted global warming.

Futile fishing
More than half of ocean fisheries are fully exploited or overexploited, mainly due to overfishing, and some of the richest fishing grounds in the Atlantic are partly or fully closed. As their preferred prey perish, big, sophisticated ships are switching to less-desirable species. With fish prices rising and subsistence fishers having a harder time feeding their families, the future of marine fishing looks pretty grim.

Are we running short on people?

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  The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; Dave Tenenbaum, feature writer; Susan Trebach, team leader