It's Time to Contemplate Seriously What Kind of World We Will Leave to the Next Generations

Our world faces multiple challenges. Solving them for our kids and grandkids requires not just technology, but diligent efforts on the part of everyone.

On a warm April day 38 years ago, my first child, daughter Sonya, was born. The next day, I hiked a trail in a favorite park and, in a north-facing hillside, found the last vestige of winter’s snow. My thoughts then revolved around what Sonya would be like and what kind of father I would be; I didn’t ponder anything of cosmic significance.

Several years ago, Sonya gave birth to my grandsons, Tucker and Perrin. As I held each child for the first time, I pondered how as a grandpa I would fulfill the sacred and essential job of spoiling those two beautiful boys. Lately, though, my thoughts about them tend toward the cosmic side: In what kind of world will they live after I’m gone?

It’s hard as a grandparent to rest easy and say, “The kids and grandkids will be fine.” Consider that the world’s population is now about 7.6 billion, projected to approach 10 billion by 2050. A basic question is whether our planet can provide food, water, clothing, housing and other necessities for that many people.

Toward middle class

A bigger question is whether it can support the middle-class lifestyles to which people in many now-impoverished countries aspire. They want to live in comfortable homes and have cars, nice clothing and thriving cities, just as we in the developed world do. Where will we get the wood for the houses? The metals for the cars and appliances? The fuel for heating and transportation?

Furthermore, how will we deal with the issues we face right now? Consider food. The United Nations says one in nine people today — that’s 815 million — are undernourished. Turning to water, the UN says about 1.2 billion people live in areas of scarcity.

In our oceans, global fish stocks are being overexploited and depleted. In the Pacific, a swirling pile of trash has grown to twice the size of Texas. All over, coral reefs are dying from warming water and pollution.

You’ve heard about peak oil. What about peak phosphorus — one of three primary nutrients (with nitrogen and potassium) that crops need to grow? Most of the phosphorus farmers use today comes from mines, many of which are depleting. How will we feed a world of 10 billion people with inadequate phosphorus supplies?

Prophets or wizards?

Then there’s global climate change, about which volumes have been written and multiple alarms sounded. If all this sounds like doom and gloom, maybe it should, but all is not necessarily bleak. In addressing these concerns, two basic schools of thought are illuminated in a book, The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles C. Mann.

Mann characterizes prophets as those who believe we must drastically curtail consumption of resources and limit our population. Their mantra, Mann says, is: Cut back! The wizards, meanwhile, are optimists who believe science and technology will help us maneuver through the challenges. Their mantra, Mann says, is: Innovate!

If we’re going to solve real problems, perhaps we need to be a little bit of both. The prophet in us, for example, can encourage us to be less wasteful. Today in our society vast amounts of water, food, energy, paper and resources of all kinds are wasted every day. We all know commonsense ways to use resources more wisely and waste less.

As for the wizardry, solar and wind power have been made much more affordable. Electric and hydrogen-fueled cars are gaining momentum. Water? As Treatment Plant Operator readers well know, reverse osmosis and other technologies can make drinking water from wastewater. On the food front, scientists are working to impart to rice plants a new kind of photosynthesis that lets them grow with less water and fertilizer, yet produce more food.

For any of this promise to be fulfilled, we need to break political gridlock. Substantial progress requires individual action as well as big-government policies. The latter can’t happen when two sides of the spectrum can’t even agree on the objective realities. For example, how can we deal with global warming when some in power deny its existence?

Science for guidance

So, what to do? To name one essential point: We need to trust science as a basis for sound policies. When I think of science, I liken it to flying an airplane in heavy, disorienting fog: You have to trust your instruments. There is an extremely high probability your instruments are right and a similar probability that your gut feel or intuition is wrong. Science is like those instruments, helping guide us through crises.

Meanwhile, in our own industry, we can do our part by advocating zealously for the government actions and the funding needed to restore water infrastructure, build new capacity where needed and support research to bring new, more effective and more efficient water treatment processes into the commercial sphere.

As individuals, we need to work in our communities in support of all manner of prophetic and wizardly endeavors. Our world can solve its problems. That world is us. It doesn’t just take a village. It takes a human race. We can do it. For the sake of Tucker and Perrin, and your kids and grandkids, we have to.


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