The Earth Policy Reader


Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. Assessing the Food Prospect: Introduction

Throughout most of human existence, the scale of economic activity was small relative to the size of the earth’s ecosystem. But over the last century this has changed. In 1900, global economic output totaled $2.4 trillion. In 2001, it was $46 trillion, an expansion of 19-fold. The world economy is now so large that its growth in the year 2000, a single year, exceeded that of the entire nineteenth century. 1

The growth in population and in individual incomes, the two elements of this phenomenal growth, have both escalated over the last half-century. Population went from 2.5 billion at mid-century to 6.1 billion in 2001. Those of us born before 1950 are members of the first generation to witness a doubling of world population during our lifetimes. Stated otherwise, the growth in world population since 1950 is greater than that during the preceding 4 million years since our early ancestors first stood upright. 2

Individual income climbed from $2,582 in 1950 to $7,454 in 2001, nearly tripling. Despite the extraordinary growth in the global economy over the last half-century, 1.2 billion people, one fifth of humanity, still live in abject poverty. The average income in the 20 richest countries is 37 times that of the poorest 20 countries. 3

Since 1950, the growth in individual incomes has accounted for slightly over half of the economic expansion. Between 1950 and 2001, population grew by 146 percent and individual incomes by 188 percent. Population growth has come to a halt in 32 countries. In these nations, births and deaths are essentially in balance. Scores more want to stabilize their populations. No country, however, has stabilized individual consumption, however high it may already be. 4

Although the global economy expanded nearly sevenfold from 1950 to 2001, the earth’s ecosystem did not expand. The amount of water produced by the hydrological cycle is essentially the same today as it was in 1950. The capacity of oceanic fisheries to supply fish has not increased. Nor has the capacity of rangelands to support livestock or that of forests to supply wood for fuel, lumber, and paper. The earth’s capacity to fix carbon is not increasing and may have decreased. Its capacity to absorb waste has not changed.

While the capacities of the earth’s natural systems have not increased—and in many cases have diminished—the demands being placed on them have risen dramatically. World water use has tripled since 1950. The oceanic fish catch has expanded nearly fivefold. The pressures on forests to supply fuel, lumber, and paper have multiplied severalfold. Paper use has increased sixfold. Pressures on rangelands have intensified as the demand for beef and mutton has nearly tripled since 1950. 5

In much of the world, the demands placed on natural systems have become excessive, leading to their deterioration and, in some locations, their collapse. The relationship between the global economy and the earth’s ecosystems is an increasingly stressed one. Many of the stresses, including expanding deserts and increasingly frequent dust storms, rising temperature, falling water tables, eroding soils, collapsing fisheries, melting glaciers, and rising seas directly affect the food prospect.

These signs of stress, these trends of deterioration, are in large measure the result of market failures. The market has many strengths, but it also has some weaknesses that were not evident when the human enterprise was much smaller.

The market economy has brought a wealth to the world that our ancestors could not even have imagined. It allocates resources among competing uses, it balances supply and demand, and it facilitates the specialization that underpins the productivity of modern economies. But as the economy expands, the market’s weaknesses are beginning to surface. Three stand out: its lack of respect for the sustainable-yield thresholds of natural systems, its inability to value nature’s services properly, and its failure to incorporate the indirect costs of providing goods and services into their prices.


*Data and additional resources have been omitted from this mobile version of our website to ensure the most optimal experience. To view this page with its entire information, please visit the full website.