Global Challenge 3

Global Challenge 3: How can population and resources be brought into balance?

Brief Overview

The current world population of 7.9 billion is expected to grow by nearly 1.8 billion by 2050 creating unprecedented demand for food, water, energy, land, construction, and employment. Population is expected to double in the 49 least developed countries during this period. With economic growth, improvements in women’s education, child survival, and enhanced family planning, world population growth could be lower. Assuming a 9.7 billion population in 2050, FAO says food production would need to rise by 70% and double in the developing world; however, a recent review of studies shows only a 30-62% increase in demand from 2020 to 2050. Life expectancy at birth increased from 46 years in 1950 to 67 years in 2010 and about 73 years in 2022 (a temporary data correction is expected due to the Covid pandemic). The population over 65 is expected to grow from over 9% today to about 16% or 1.5 billion people by 2050. Those over 80 years are projected to be 426 million by 2050. A study published in The Lancet concluded that world population would peak at 9.73 billion in 2064 and fall to 8.79 in 2100 because the fertility rate is falling faster than previously expected. Deaths of children under 5 declined from 1 in 11 in 1990 to 1 in 27 in 2019. Falling fertility rates and increasing longevity will changes in retirement plans.


The uneven advances and implementation of health care, the variations in family planning and changing reproductive behavior, and the devastations of war, disease, and famine have left some countries with disproportionately aging populations and others with an overabundance of children and young people compared with workers and retirees. Much of Europe and some Asian countries will face difficulties in supporting their aging populations, while most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of Latin America have growing youth populations that will require massive growth in education and employment. Future migrations from low-income, high-youth-employment regions to high-income aging societies seem inevitable.


Raw materials consumption continued to increase. The UN’s global material footprint rose from 43 billion metric tons in 1990 to 92 billion in 2017 and is projected to increate to 190 billion by 2060. While China is becoming the world’s leader in total consumption of some commodities (coal, copper, etc.), the U.S. remains the per capita consumption leader for most resources. The environmental performance index lists Denmark 1st, USA 24th, and China 120th.


By 2050, there could be as many people over 65 as under 15, requiring new concepts of retirement. The breadth and depth of longevity research is dramatically increasing. The first senolytics treatments have begun. Life extension has been demonstrated in worms and mice. Human clinical trials are starting with metformin and rapamacyn. Advances in longevity R&D are likely to help many more people live much longer and healthier lives than current trends. This includes regenerative medicine, DNA repair, and other longevity strategies. For example, scanning ultrasound removes amyloid-β and restores memory in 75% of Alzheimer’s diseased rats. If this and other related research can work on humans, then older people mentally and physically youthful could be an economic asset rather than a liability.


Such advances will be needed; otherwise, the long-term future health costs of an aging society cannot be met. Human brain projects, artificial intelligence, and other advances are likely to eventually prevent mental deterioration in old age and even increase intelligence. People will work past current retirement age and create many forms of work. This will reduce the economic burden on younger generations and provide a more interesting life for the elderly.


However, the world is not creating Eco-Smart Cities and retrofitting older cities fast enough to prevent future large-scale complex disasters from decaying infrastructures for water, energy, waste, transportation, housing, food, and security. Urban populations will nearly double by 2050, increasing the pressure on these systems especially in developing-country cities, where nearly all of the population growth will occur. AI connected to IoT and sensor networks will be needed to provide real-time information for continual urban repair, improvement, and public participation. Early examples are Songdo in South Korea and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. India is implementing a plan to retrofit all major cities to be smart cities. China has launched nearly 200 smart city pilot projects.


Unless agriculture and food production change, the environmental impacts of feeding another 2 billion people by 2050 plus improved nutrition for 800+ million undernourished today will be devastating. Agricultural runoffs are already polluting rivers and creating ocean dead zones around the world. Factory farming is increasing food-borne diseases and can reduce the nutrient content of crops, thus escalating the risk of hidden hunger (sufficient calories but insufficient nutrition). Although undernourishment fall from 19% some 25 years ago to about 10.6% in 2015, it has stopped falling since then and is now 811 million in 2020, up from 690 million the previous year. Malnutrition has stunted the growth of 75.2 million children under 5 years in the 55 food-crisis countries or territories. At the same time, more than 41 million children under five are overweight or obese, of which 10 million are in Africa. The Covid pandemic is expected to increase malnutrition.


About 70% of human-use water is used for agriculture. The majority of that water is used to grow food for animals to eat, that we eat. Water tables are falling on all continents. Around 60% of humanity gets its water supply from rivers with sources controlled by two or more countries. Water demand will increase as lower income countries industrialize and add another 2 billion people or so by 2050. If we cut out the “middle man” (animals) and produce pure meat directly from genetic material, CO2 emissions would be reduced along with requirements for water, energy, and land. If saltwater/seawater agriculture is developed along the wasteland coastlines of the world, carbon is pulled from the air, fresh water demand is reduced along with problems of rain fall (or lack thereof), and can produce (among other things) algae (for biofuels and feedstock for growing meat without animals).


See Global Challenge 2 for implications for water resources and Global Challenge 13 for energy resources.


Actions to Address Global Challenge 3:

  • Develop tele-work to connect high-income aging societies with low-income unemployed youth regions.
  • Fund climate resilient agricultural planning with small farmers for the transition to new crops, methods, food systems, and markets
  • Integrate urban sensors, mesh networks, and intelligent software to create smarter cities that let citizens help in urban improvements.
  • Increase R&D for large scale saltwater agriculture (halophytes) on coastlines to produce food for humans and animals, biofuels, and pulp for the paper industry as well as to absorb CO2, which also reduces the drain on freshwater agriculture and increases employment.
  • Support policies to improve child survival, family planning, and girls’ education.
  • Implement the UN Urban Agenda.
  • Increase training and education in urban systems ecology, resilience, disaster forecasting, and management.
  • Improve rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management.
  • Invest in precision, smart, digital agriculture and aquaculture.
  • Produce pure meat without growing animals (demonstrated in 2013).
  • Genetic engineering for higher-yielding, drought-tolerant, and salt-tolerant crops.
  • Invest in farm to mouth efficient technologies and management (one-third or 1.3 billion tons of agricultural production is wasted each year).
  • Plant sea grass along coastlines to bring back wild fish populations.
  • Expand insect production for animal feed and human diets (insects have low environmental impact per nutrition, and 2 billion people already supplement their diet with insects today).
  • Encourage vegetarianism.
  • Build floating cities for ocean wind & solar energy, agriculture, and fish farms.
  • Accelerate R&D for safe nanotechnology to help reduce material use per unit of output while increasing quality.
  • Optimize pension systems.
  • Encourage youth to begin “health deposits.”
  • Experiment with Seasteading for innovations in food, energy, medicine, social structures with significant political autonomy
Graphs expressing the global situation:
Life expectancy at birth (years)
Source: World Bank indicators, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast; graph part of the 2015 State of the Future Index; details in the 2015-16 State of the Future report