Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing

Planet Earth
by Thomas Klutznick '61, Chair, Oberlin Board of Trustees

Sometime in the fall of 1999, probably early in October according to the best guess of demographers, the 6 billionth living human was born. Statistically speaking, the person who holds this ultimate Guinness Book of World Records distinction was most likely the son of a farm worker in India with two siblings and a life expectancy of 62.3 years. Given this historic and momentous event, the subject of population seems a logical place to begin.

Consider the following:

• The 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented population explosion. It took all of prehistory and most of history for the human race to reach the 1 billion mark, which occurred about the year 1800. Since then the billions have come faster and faster: 2 billion in 1930, 3 in 1960, 4 in 1975, 5 in 1987, and now 6 billion.

• Estimates of the planet's carrying capacity are between 7.7 billion and 12 billion persons--a range we will enter sometime in the next 50 years.

And where will these people live?

Currently about half of all the people on Earth live in urban areas, and this figure will increase as millions upon millions continue to be drawn to cities like moths to flame. Today 41 cities around the globe have populations of 5 million persons or more. By 2015 this number will increase to 64 cities, only 11 of which will be in the industrialized world.

Finally, with regard to population, since 1950 the number of human beings has more than doubled, and in the developing world the average life expectancy has increased by more than 50 percent--from 40 years to 63 years. So there are more of us, and many of us are living longer, which only intensifies the pressures on the planet's resources--my next subject.

Because each year an additional 80 million people draw on Earth's resources, we finally are beginning to push up against some limits. One example is water, which is suddenly becoming known by another name: blue gold.

Humans use more than half of all accessible renewable fresh water, and this is expected to increase to 70 percent in the next 25 years. Today nearly one-third of the Earth's population lives in countries where water supplies are stressed. In India alone, for instance, some 8 million wells have been sunk to irrigate fields where double-cropping is used to increase food production.

Some other things you should be aware of regarding water:

• Available fresh water equals less than one-half of 1 percent of all the water on Earth. The remainder is sea water or polar ice.

• The planet's supply of fresh water is renewable through rainfall at a rate of some 40,000 cubic kilometers a year. This is a phenomenal amount of water, but our usage is equally phenomenal. The absolute minimum a human being needs for domestic use is estimated at 1.5 gallons a day; a more realistic figure is five gallons. In the developed world, per-capita usage approaches 30 gallons daily, and when industry is added this jumps to 130 gallons.

• In the United States, the High Plains Ogallala aquifer, which stretches 1,300 miles from Texas to South Dakota, is being depleted eight times faster than nature can replenish it. The story is similar elsewhere in the world. In Africa, the aquifers barely recharge at all. The water table under Beijing, China, has dropped 121 feet in the past 40 years. The land under both Mexico City and Bangkok actually has sunk because of overpumping.

• Worldwide, more than 5 million people, mostly children, die each year from drinking contaminated water.

Another life-sustaining resource, of course, is energy. Despite dire predictions a few years ago that we would exhaust our proven oil reserves by 1990, there seems to be an abundant supply for as far into the future as we can peer. But energy consumption patterns underscore the glaring disparity between the world's haves and have-nots.

The United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of the world's oil. Together, the U.S. and Canada use about twice as much energy per capita as Europeans, ten times more than Asians and 20 times more than Africans.


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