World Demographic Shifts Signal Resource Crunch

Article excerpt

HISTORY accelerates. Too often Americans focus on short-term change: change in taxes, change in budgets, change in first ladies' hair styles. Meanwhile, deeper forces of change sweep past with less notice, faster and faster.

Consider these examples of global trends, all taken from recent international organization reports:

Land. The world is now losing an area of agricultural land almost the size of Ireland to soil degradation every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

People. The urban population of developing nations is growing so quickly that by 2025 it will be 16 times larger than it was in 1950, the UN Population Fund says.

Health. Since 1953 life expectancy has increased more than it did during all previous history, according to the World Bank.

The overall picture of these reports is one of growing pressure on resources, especially in the third world. And a large, restless third-world population is becoming the whole world's problem. Migration "could become the human crisis of our age," states the UN Population Fund study.

The size of developing-nation populations is already straining the soil. Over the past 45 years about 11 percent of the world's arable land has suffered moderate or severe degradation, according to the FAO.

In both Africa and Asia, 4 percent of the land surface has seriously deteriorated. By contrast, in North America, despite the dust bowl of the '30s, the figure is only 1.3 percent.

Overgrazing, deforestation, and destructive agricultural practices such as poor plowing are the main causes of land deterioration. One reason famines have struck Africa in recent years is that even good land is being depleted, lowering yields.

The African continent still has much land that could be converted to agriculture. But "few African countries can hope to achieve sustainable agriculture in the near future" because of land degradation, according to the FAO. Latin America and Asia are only marginally better off.

Meanwhile, people are leaving rural areas in droves. Every year, 20 million to 30 million of the world's poor leave their villages to move to the exploding cities of developing nations. …