12 min read

The Age of Scarcity is Here. And We're Not Ready.

The Age of Scarcity is Here. And We're Not Ready.
Source: World Resources Institute

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

Today's Read: 11 Minutes

New Data Shows That Our Civilization's Running Out of...Water. And The Other Basics, Too. What Does it Mean for Economics, Politics, Society, and Our Future? 

Our mission, and your help

We believe great analysis, information, and thinking shouldn't be behind a paywall. For a reason. This is a critical time in human history. We bring you the Issues that matter most. We keep over 50% of our content free—more than half of every week's Issues. In order to keep the lights on, support our staff, and grow our readership, we offer special editions, full access, and bonus features to paying members.

If you'd like to support this project, please consider subscribing. If you're already a subscriber, please consider taking a moment to spread the word about The Issue (you can forward this email or share our URL www.theissue.io)

 1. American democracy is cracking. These forces help explain why. (WaPo)
 2. The fandomization of news. (The Verge)
 3. Climate change made Canada's wildfires seven times more likely. (Sky)
 4. Using air conditioning to cope with heat: a new form of precarity. (Le Monde)
 5. Trump yearns to govern a mafia state. (Guardian)

Today's Issue. Water. Food. Air. Scarcity. Civilization. Crisis.

It’s a megatrend we discuss often. Emanuel Macron put it best. The Age of Scarcity.

"Macron warns of 'end of abundance'"

What we are currently living through is a kind of major tipping point or a great upheaval … we are living the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance … the end of the abundance of products of technologies that seemed always available … the end of the abundance of land and materials including water.


How real is it? It’s getting more so by the day. Consider startling new data from the World Resources Institute: it suggests that our civilization's running out of…water. And guess what water makes? Everything.

Here’s how the Washington Post put it. “By 2050 an additional billion people will be living in arid areas and regions with high water stress. Two-fifths of the world’s population — 3.3 billion people in total — currently live in such areas.” That's if we hit our climate targets and keep warming to 1.5 degrees. Translation: about half the world will be water stressed—and three billion people are expected to live in areas where 80% of water’s been depleted.

Let me say that again, to really emphasize the stakes here. Where 80% of water’s been depleted. That means right at the razor's edge. One flood or missed rain or season away from…catastrophe. From not having water. 80% water depletion is a shudder-inducing figure. It means that there's no margin of error--because there's barely any water left. It implies that cities, regions, towns can't grow, but will shrink, suggests political measures like strict rationing, social contracts fracturing, significant losses in economic output. Subsistence, industry, society will then depend on the mere 20% of water that's left. But who gets the precious water, and to what uses is it allocated? And this data raises the question: where's the line, at which survivability's crossed, the threshold of extinction? 15%? 10%?  

This is going to sound unreal, but it's true. How much water did it take to make your jeans? "According to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme, it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store."

That's four tons of water as an input into your jeans. That's not a moral point, meant to make you feel guilty. It's an economic one. Scarcity arriving is very real. And it's a measure of how water-illiterate we are, too. 

Let me put that in a more provocative way--which is why I used the jeans example above. We're used to having...100% of a water supply. Not 50%. Certainly not just...20%. But now? Take a moment to reflect on that.  If we stretched the criterion down to say 70 or 75% of water depletion, we’d hit about half the world--facing...well, what precisely? What do you do without water? That’s a Big Issue if ever there was one. It can be put in a headline-grabbing way: we're running out of water as a civilization. A dry, analytical way: we're becoming a water-stressed civilization. Or perhaps what's a succinct way: we're entering the age of water poverty. As a civilization? We're running out of water.

"Extremely High Water Stress"

Living with this level of water stress jeopardizes people’s lives, jobs, food and energy security. Water is central to growing crops and raising livestock, producing electricity, maintaining human health, fostering equitable societies and meeting the world’s climate goals.

World Resources Institute

What an historic—and striking—trend. Think about how post Industrial Age civilization's proceeded--or perhaps even pre-Industrial Age civilization. We've taken water...for granted. The world's great breadbaskets have come to rely on abundant flows of water, which were once seen stretching into perpetuity. The Industrial Age was a creation of water—from waterwheel-driven mills to steam power. We've never really questioned the availability of water, though of course it's sudden lack has caused plenty of civilizations to fail. For us, water's been something like a birthright—even if that's not universally true, for the world's grindingly poor, it is in the larger sense of modernity, progress, and rising living standards.

Now things are different. The world is entering a phase of regress. Living standards aren't rising anymore, after centuries. Our long upwards trajectory has flattened, and it's beginning to reverse. And so becoming a water poor civilization  is part of a larger megatrend: the Age of Scarcity. This is the crucial context I think that this startling new data is best understood in.

So. The Age of Scarcity. What does that phrase really mean? It means something that—when I say it out loud, sounds over the top, hyperbolic, sci-fi dystopia—even to me. And yet it appears to be becoming very real. We are beginning to run out. Of the basics. Water. Air. Food. The most fundamental elements of human life--all life. I don’t mean that to sound “alarmist.” Sadly, these are becoming facts that need to be contended with and understood. And I agree—they sound unbelievable.  Yet they’re empirically real. Let's delve in. What does that mean? Where does it take us?

Let’s zoom out for a moment, and then we’ll zoom back in. It’s not just water that we’re running out of. Consider the issue of…air. Coast-to-coast mega fires in Canada sent plumes of smoke all the way to Italy. They turned the skies over American cities orange—and made their air quality the worst in the world. Then there’s the return of Covid. Are you wearing a mask? The air itself is becoming hazardous to your health in many ways. Again, even I feel a bit silly writing that—and yet it’s a fact of life now. And as megafires accelerate—of course air quality will only get worse. Covid’s not going anywhere, either—since we’ve decided to do little about it as societies.

Consider the following--in the aftermath of the terrible, sudden fire that levelled Lahaina, on Maui:

"The toxic aftermath of the Maui fires could last for years"

Debbie Van Alstyne, an employee at the Plantation House Restaurant in Kapalua, said local air quality officials told her and other residents this week that they cannot expect to be back soon in their homes, even if they didn’t burn, because the air is still dangerously contaminated.

“You can’t have children playing out there. The air quality coming from front street with the winds, is deeply toxic with asbestos,” she said. “He says that it’s absolutely not safe for anybody to stay near there. For a while.

The Washington Post

I raise and highlight this example precisely because it’s so surreal. The air…itself? It’s the single most fundamental necessity of human life. Think back in history, to elemental theories—air, water, earth, fire. Think of ancient Gods of skies. And yet we live in an age where this element itself—well, it’s not that it’s totally poisoned, as in a sci-fi scenario, and we all have to wear respirators just to step outdoors (editor’s note: if you’re immuncompromised, maybe you do)—but it is that it’s quality is declining rapidly, to the point that we can’t take it for granted anymore. That’s…bewildering. To really have to take in, to reflect on and think about.

Because it’s happened so fast. Nobody much a decade ago worried too much about something as basic as…air. Outside a handful of rapidly industrialized cities—Beijing, Delhi—air quality was something that we, especially in the rich West, just took for granted. If I’d told you a decade ago that you’d need to think twice about breathing…would you have believed me? And yet now, the days that many of us do are growing. And they’ll only continue to grow. That’s happened at lightning speed—less than a decade.

That brings me back to water. What do we know about forecasts and predictions, especially when it comes to climate change? It’s not that they’re wrong—but it is that their impacts are happening much, much faster than even scientists once thought. It’s that they’re right—early. The mega-scale impacts expected to arrive in 2050 are arriving now—like the burning of Canada’s boreal forests. Many are questioning whether we’ve entered a new phase of climate change—eminent scientist James Hansen has pointed out that the earth’s energy imbalance is suddenly rising sharply.

This prediction for water running out by 2050 is just that. But if climate change is accelerating now, already arriving far faster in terms of mega-scale impacts than we once thought—there’s a pretty good chance that this prediction will come true faster, too. Do we have until 2050 until the water begins to run out? Think of how many regions around the world are already heading into profound, prolonged water stress. The American West. Europe, from Spain to France. South Asia. Mexico. The list grows longer by the year.

"Extremely High Water Stress"

Global food security is also at risk. Already, 60% of the world’s irrigated agriculture faces extremely high water stress — particularly sugarcane, wheat, rice and maize. Yet to feed a projected 10 billion people by 2050, the world will need to produce 56% more food calories than it did in 2010 — all while dealing with increasing water stress as well as climate-driven disasters like droughts and floods.

World Resources Institute

I know—many people think they’re insulated from all this. Why should I worry? I’m living in a water-safe place, DC, New York, London. Wrong. Nobody’s safe from…a world where water suddenly becomes scarce. Why not?

What does a shortage of water do? The impacts are likely to be so profound that they’ll be shattering. Again, it sounds like hyperbole, but. But. Think of everything that’s made…from…of…with…water. Not just you and me our bodies. But literally everything that we use and depend on. Water’s used in everything from mining to manufacturing to fracking to…stone washing those jeans you love…livestock…cement…glass…iron…steel.

So the impacts of the water running out can’t be overstated, really. The primary immediate effect is going to be that prices begin to skyrocket. We live in an integrated, globalized world economy. All that stuff that you buy from Amazon—it’s made with water. Lots of water. From faraway places. China, Thailand, India. Countries with poor water governance. Your jeans and shirt are probably from Pakistan or Bangladesh, chances are, or maybe Vietnam—places which are right on the edge of profound water impoverishment. Making those uses copious amounts of water, which you’re importing right along with those. jeans and shirts and what have you. But as the water runs out? The price of everything soars—even if you once thought to yourself “but I’m living in a water safe place!”

"The Story of the Three Tons of Water in Your Jeans"

The global blue jeans brand Guess Inc commissioned Robert Vos, a researcher at USC in California, to carry out a study looking at water use in its supply chain. Vos mapped out the water use and identified the hot spots in the production line, finding that most of the water use from producing the raw materials for the denim.

The study showed that the facilities involved in denim manufacturing are largely located in hot-spots, areas with large consumption of water despite not that much are actually available. This includes areas of Pakistan, Mexico, China and India and also parts of California.


There’s no such thing as water security, in that regard, really. Think bigger. The problem for the bottom half of humanity is absolute water scarcity—turn on the tap, nothing comes out. But even for the top half, which is probably you, if you’re reading this, there are going to be many, many ramifications of a water-poor world. One is rising prices. But what do those do? They leave less over for the public purse—and so social contracts begin to shrink. Meanwhile, the growth of water poor regions will destabilize financial and insurance industries, because of course, how much is a house worth if the pipes begin to run dry? If fires can't be put out? And yet those systems are where we are all keep our money, accounts, retirement funds, investments, savings.

What else is water used to make? That’s right, food. So the next impact of a water poor world—and this one’s less abstract—is that the price of food soars. Continues to soar. Think of how this Extinction Summer, with it’s sudden apocalyptic mega-weather around the world, from great heat domes to mega fires and floods, has caused crops to fail. India stopped exporting rice—that should be a warning signal of how dire the situation is. Now add to that water poverty. So now the weather can wipe out your crops—the ones you can barely plant and raise because irrigation can’t be relied on. What does that do to the world’s food supply?

Take a deep breath, because you’re not going to like what you’re about to read next.

"The World's Food Supply is Made Insecure by Climate Change"

To ensure food security for the predicted population of 9.6 billion people by 2050 the FAO predicts that food production must increase by at least 60 per cent to meet the demand, and a report from Tilman et al. in 2011 projected that food production must increase by 100 per cent to meet the projected food demand. With yields declining, and demand for both the amount and quality of food increasing (due to increased disposable income amongst developing countries) intervention is a must.

United Nations Academic Impact

So our food supply has to increase by 60 to 100 percent in the next few decades, to keep our civilization intact. But meanwhile, we’re a) being hit by mega-scale climate impacts b) from flood to fire and c) our water’s running out. It’s hard to imagine that a civilization confronted with the sudden issue of water impoverishment is going to be able to double its food supply…almost overnight. If this sounds deeply worrying…that’s because it is. How are we going to ensure our most basic necessities?

What does that mean? It means risk. This is an historic collision—an immense one, happening at a civilizational scale. Food supply needs to double. Yields are declining. The age of water scarcity is here. Add all that up, and it doesn’t just mean rising prices—it means that civilizational risk skyrockets. Civilizational risk includes many things—political destabilization, conflict, aggression, fanaticism, the breakup of societies, the erosion of social contracts, prolonged underinvestment, regression. And it’s not too hard to see how an age where water’s scarce—and so is food—triggers all that.

Which Megatrends should we file "the world's running out of water, food, and maybe even air" under? The Age of Scarcity. The Age of Extinction the Rise of Civilizational Risk. It's a startling illustration of what plight we're in, and how unaware of the stakes we generally are yet.

The stakes are bigger than we know or understand yet. When I speak to people about this thing called “climate change,” there’s a kind of person who, reading statistics about renewable energy growing, is confident that there’s no problem. Overconfident. Yes, renewable energy's a good thing. But as a civilization, we're entering an age of profound, prolonged crisis. The Age of Scarcity. Air. Water. Food. Impoverishment of these basics is now spreading. We will speak about the world in new ways, as we’ve already begun to—being water or food or air wealthy, or poor. Our basic systems and institutions for these fundamentals are already beginning to fail, buckle, break. Their models of governance and their infrastructures are on their last legs. And so all this? It’s what civilizational risk, at its most elemental—in that ancient sense of the word, air, water, earth, fire—means.

❤️ Don't forget...

📣  Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫  Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!