The Frightful Prospect of 2050

“We’ve come a long way….” The wry words of Kitty van der Heijden, Director of Europe and Africa, World Resources Institute, at the World Circular Economy 2017, held at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki from 5 to 7 June 2017.

Followed by a string of evidence on how little we have evolved, Kitty was quick to point out that the future is bleak. With a population explosion of 9 billion by 2050, we need to produce 70% more food in order to sustain mankind.

In today’s world, one out of every nine people goes hungry every day while 32% of food gets thrown away.

Credit: World Resources Institute

“We are at a tipping point,” she says. “We need a reduction in consumption and the issues of food waste and loss need to be addressed urgently.”

Beef cattle alone use 25% of the earth’s mass, consume 33% of its water, produce 1/3 of emissions while the industry has grown by 95% due to increased prosperity. Western societies have set the tone and are still leading the overall consumption chart. No less than nine developing countries, some with the world’s largest populations, are following suit with the dangerous ‘middle class effect’ when the average per capita income reaches $6000 per year and household expenditure increases contributing to further growth of a middle class.* With more spending, more resources are needed and this is where the picture starts looking dismal. Business growth will grind to a halt and unless new models are embraced, the glimmer at the end of the tunnel will be eradicated.

A not-so-quick fix is suggested by Kitty van der Heijden. For a truly circular economy to exist on the planet, the following issues need to be addressed:

No poverty

Zero hunger

Clean water

Decent work and economic growth

Responsible consumption and production

Climate action

Life below water

Life on land*

However, take a look at our daily existence in a first world country. Most of us cannot live without:

Shelter

Water

Food from supermarkets usually packaged in unrecyclable plastic

Electricity

Transport in the form of cars, buses, trams and trains

Holidays involving airline flights

Mobile phones and computers that have a short lifespan and cannot be fixed

Clothing travelling the globe before it reaches the shelves of a store

Waste removal

We hide behind the argument that we are as green as we can possibly be ‘under the circumstances’ but how many of us are willing to give up that long-haul flight, that Harley Davidson we’ve wanted since childhood, the status of living in a dwelling far larger than we need?

If we are heading for an increase of 70% to feed the 9 billion human beings that will be inhabiting our planet by 2050, closing the food gap is the challenge that awaits us. Businesses and politicians have to face the elephant in the room. Increasing production is unsustainable. Decreasing consumption however, is reachable by a shift to diets that are kinder to our planet, not an impossibility considering the huge range that is at our disposal. Less meat and dairy products, eating local, demanding better packaging and recycling will contribute. Lessening food waste is vital. From our own private kitchens to those of restaurants and supermarket shelves, we need to be aware and ask if we’re not, making sure that we keep everyone in the industry accountable. Become a custodian not a fanatic and spread your green story with tolerance.

And just when you think that the difference you are making is but a drop in the ocean, bring to mind the Ethiopian proverb, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, go to sleep in a room with a mosquito,” Kitty van der Heijden advises.

*World Resources Institute