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Population, Consumption and the Future

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First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on April 27, 2012.

As the world population grows toward 10 billion, consumption of water, food and energy is expanding at a rate that cannot be maintained without depleting the planet’s resources. If we fail to address these two issues together, we face a grim future of economic, social and environmental ills, warns a new report prepared by a group of scientists and other experts for the Royal Society.

The report “People and the Planet,” published this week by the London-based society, examines trends in population and consumption and points to some stark realities:

  • While population increase has been declining since the mid-1960s, experts project we will still add 2.3 billion people by 2050, much of it in increasingly crowded cities.
  • Along with an increasing demand for basic needs, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is striking. For instance, the report says, “a child from the developed world consumes 30-50 times as much water as one from the developing world.” By 2025, the report says, 1.8 billion people could be living in areas where water is a scarce commodity.
  • A similar gap holds for food and energy: While average consumption of calories has increased, in 2010 “close to one billion people did not receive enough calories to reach their minimum dietary energy requirements.” Per capita emissions of CO2 “are up to 50 times higher in high income than low income countries, with energy insufficiency a major component of poverty.”

“The world now has a very clear choice,” concluded Sir John Sulston, a fellow of the Royal Society and chairman of the report’s working group. “We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption. We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices.  Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.”

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Study: Light May Break Down Super-Strong Nanotubes

In the test tube at left, exposed to sunlight, single-walled carbon nanotubes have settled out of solution; at right is a control sample that was not exposed to light. (Photograph from study)

By David Funkhouser

A new study has found sunlight may help break down carbon nanotubes—but also suggests the products of the photochemical reaction could be toxic to aquatic organisms.

This study is one of the first to address whether [carbon nanotubes] undergo reactions in the environment,” said environmental engineer Chad Jafvert of Purdue University, one of the researchers. He said exposure to sunlight seems to produce highly reactive oxygen molecules that could degrade the carbon nanotubes; but those same molecules also are known to damage cells and DNA.

The results mirror the complexity of the effort to understand how manufactured nanoparticles—materials measured in billionths of a meter—might affect the environment and human health.

The growing use of nanomaterials in hundreds of industrial and consumer products, and their huge potential in medicine, electronics, energy and other fields, have lent urgency to that effort. Scientists are concerned about what happens to these substances when workers and consumers are exposed to them, and when they enter the environment.

Because of their tiny size, the materials can take on extraordinary properties. Carbon nanotubes, for instance, can be lighter and stronger than steel and are already used to make bicycles, tennis racquets, car bumpers and other products.

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