Why 11 is a very important number for the future of humanity

In Brief: 

By Paul Hanley
Friesen Press
Victoria, BC

  • Canadian journalist Paul Hanley asks — and answers — an urgent question: Can we feed the projected 11 billion people by 2100 without destroying the earth’s ecosystem?
  • Yes, he says, but only if humanity moves from materialistic, consumer-based, economy to one driven by concern for the community, and planet, as a whole.
  • Such a shift will require a global program of alternative education that stresses human values, based on the “understanding that happiness is achieved through the quality of one’s inner life and relationships.”

Paul Hanley’s bold and sweeping new book, Eleven, opens with a simple but extremely consequential question: Given that the world’s population is by all accounts slated to reach 11 billion by the year 2100, how will we feed everyone?

Mr. Hanley, a Canadian journalist specializing in agriculture and the environment, gives a two-part answer.

First part: if humanity stays on its current consumerist economic path, there is no way we can feed another four billion people. Indeed, he says, the earth is already taxed beyond its carrying capacity in the effort to feed seven billion, and will soon reach a crisis point.

Second part: If people adjust by embracing a new conception of themselves and rethinking their relationship with material things, it is quite possible for all 11 billion to have enough to eat — and to enjoy a bountiful and meaningful life.

Like many others, Mr. Hanley says our current path is unsustainable, noting human activity already exceeds the earth’s ecological carrying capacity by 60 percent. “While the sheer volume of Earth’s natural capital may allow us to carry on as is for some time, to do so with 50 percent more people would mean that our collective ecological footprint in 2100 would exceed Earth’s carrying capacity several times over.”

He then explores what can be done to ensure humanity does not starve itself and precipitate an ecological collapse at the same time — an exploration that in its positive and pragmatic detail makes this book stand out from purveyors of environmental gloom and doom.

In one chapter, for example, he methodically totals up the available global acreage of damaged or underutilized land that can be recovered. And he offers success stories, like China’s restoration of of the upper banks of the Yellow River, calling it a “little-known, $500 million enterprise” that transformed an area the size of Taiwan from a “dusty wasteland to productive farms, wetlands, and forest” through “terracing, watershed restoration, replanting native trees and other vegetation” with the help of the World Bank.

He also cites studies saying that organic farming can easily match and even exceed the yield — and profits — of petroleum-based agriculture, which is unsustainable. Organic farming also helps sequester carbon, which, he says, can “substantially mitigate climate change if done on a large scale.”

 “This form of geoengineering is a safe, win-win situation, since land restoration and soil improvement also restores watersheds, fosters biodiversity, improves productivity, and assists with rural poverty reduction,” he writes, adding that community and urban gardens will also need to become commonplace.

But Mr. Hanley is concerned with more than landscapes. If we are to feed 11 billion, he says, we must also change the way we think by transforming our “inscapes.” That’s because he believes so much of what is unsustainable about current human activity stems from an incorrect but prevailing mental paradigm that equates consumption with happiness. One chapter starts, for example, by suggesting that the proliferation of fast food restaurants is not only environmentally unsound but also unhealthy and fundamentally unsatisfying.

 “Much, even most, of what we do — from eating doughnuts to building car-dominated cities — lies on a continuum between unnecessary and destructive,” writes Mr. Hanley. “Therein lies an opportunity. Not only would we be happier and healthier if we gave up many unnecessary and all destructive activities, letting go would free up resources to do things right.”

Because the consumerist mindset is so deeply seated in modern culture, changing it will ultimately require a massive and global education campaign, he writes.

“Just as we have been trained in current norms by our families, schools, peers, workplaces, the media, and other environmental influences, we need to be trained to live in a world of 11 billion,” writes Mr. Hanley. “We will have to replace conventional education modelled on the current, defective world view, which is focused mainly on turning out a new crop of passive, self-interested consumers. We need an educational approach ... that will educe the innate moral capacity of human beings and guide them toward thoughtful and effective involvement in the process of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization.”

More evidence of the need to re-think our values, he writes, can be found in the fact that humanity is already growing enough to feed the seven billion currently alive. Yet extreme poverty and malnutrition continue to exist, proof of misplaced priorities.

“The momentum of the current world order, its inequalities and blindness to ecological realities, will be impossible to change without an ethical transformation,” he writes. “Until an ethos built around the material well-being of the individual in the present shifts to one built around the spiritual well-being of humankind throughout time only limited progress will be made.”

At the book’s end, he discusses alternative education programs that promote this ethos, mentioning the Millennium Villages Project and the Harlem Children’s Zone. But the model he finds most promising is a program developed by the Bahá’í-inspired Ruhi Institute in Colombia, which he describes in the final chapter.

That program uses a “low-cost process of learning and capacity building that is continuously adaptive,” he writes.

Moreover, “the Ruhi approach offers a viable alternative to a materialistic worldview that is driving a social-ecological system based on unjust, unequal, and unsustainable economic activities. It promotes a balanced approach to development, understanding that happiness is achieved through the quality of one’s inner life and relationships.”

As such, he suggests, the Ruhi approach could be used to help humanity transform its “inscape” — and help us wean ourselves from those behaviors that are unsustainable.

“The core proposal of this book is that human beings are fundamentally virtuous, but these virtues only develop through effort by families and communities and institutions to foster them,” he writes. “This educational process will require everyone’s involvement. Many are already leading the way, and many more will become early adopters, but in time the moral education process will come to involve whole villages and neighborhoods and spread through whole countries. Ultimately, to make the world work for 11 billion people, we will be called to become what can only be described as a new human race.”