Humanity's challenges will be 'of growth and abundance'

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Humanity's challenges will be 'of growth and abundance'

Related tags: Water, Water supply

Humanity faces major challenges in feeding the world – but we should not underestimate our capacity to innovate to deal with crises, according to keynote speaker at IFT 2013 Fareed Zakaria.

Speaking in Chicago on Sunday, the broadcaster and author gave delegates an optimistic view on global challenges as the world slowly recovers from recession – although he recognized that there is an ongoing sense of gloom, particularly in Europe.

“The point I am trying to make is not that we haven’t gone through terrible crises, but that we always somehow find a way to recover,”​ he said.

Zakaria said that there had been many economic papers over the centuries predicting an imminent shortfall in food supply, even in highly developed nations, but often these have failed to take humanity’s capacity for innovation into account. He pointed in particular to the 18th​ century scholar Robert Malthus’s prediction that Britain’s population growth would outpace its ability to produce food.

“What Malthus didn’t appreciate was that, far from starving, people respond, and Britain ended up exporting food,” ​he said.

Human response

“Part of the reason we miss this kind of thing is that it is very easy to describe a problem but what is impossible to predict is how people will respond…It is much easier to talk about the problem than it is to talk about the human response, which is disaggregated, decentralized and bottom up.”

As an example, he noted that water supply is one of the most pressing areas of concern for supporting a growing population – but we live on a planet that is rich in water, albeit water that is, for the most part, not fit for consumption. However, desalination plants are being set up in many water-poor nations in order to process sea water into drinking water.

“At the moment desalination is about five times the cost of putting a hole in the ground, but the costs are dropping rapidly,”​ he said – although he added that the problem of water supply was one about which we hadn’t yet thought enough.

Challenges of growth and abundance

“What we have to look for, encourage and harness is the human response to challenges…The thing we have to recognize is that we are going to face enormous challenges but they won’t be the challenges of collapse, decline and decay, but the challenges of growth and abundance.”

We need to take our challenges seriously, he said, but also recognize that they are opportunities as well as challenges.

“If the past is prologue and there is anything we can learn, it is that if we approach these problems in the way we have in the past, we will find solutions.”

Related topics: Sustainability, Market Trends

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IF We are Truly Resourceful Innovators...

Posted by Dave Gardner,

If we're lucky, the very innovative solution we brilliant humans come up with to the perfect storm of full-world crises is we will stop worshipping economic and population growth on a finite planet. Instead we focus on making the world better, not bigger.

This requires we stop deluding ourselves about our technological capacity to make something out of nothing. Desalination, as an example, uses enormous amounts of energy, has a destructive waste stream and harms ocean ecosystems.

I expect to post this report on the Wall of Shame at Julian Simon has left the building. If there are no limits to human imagination, let's hope we can imagine a world in which enough is enough.

Dave Gardner
Director of the documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

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But we have not been here before!

Posted by david dunn,

Yes I agree mans ingenuity is always astounding , but with climate change and degradation of land from over farming and lack of water, we will surely need to ensure our ability to succeed will not be at any price.
Indeed in the past man has exploited natural resources without question, but today as resources are getting scarce and harder to get, our long term sustainability is in question, unless we act quickly in a real profound way to securing all natural resources for future generation in a sustainable way.

To achieve this replacing all taxes with a natural resource tax, based on the damage that is caused to the environment by there use.

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Posted by Juan Francisco Mollinedo,

It's incredible that a lot of people still believe in food and water doom. If we apply ALL the technologies and knowledge we already have at hand, plus the rising billion adding to this conversation interestting proposals and answers to great challenges, I only can be optimist. One thing is certain, Technology and human participation to collective problem solving will kill politics and public money wasted on futile campaigns and conflicts. Human beings are taking control of their lives for the first time in history

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