Critical Mass: Philip Rhys Matthews

30 June - 18 July 2015

Critical Mass explores the relationship between resources and population as we approach the year 2050. On this date the world population is projected at over 9 billion people by the United Nations. The works on display question todays geo-political arrangements between the developing nation and the ‘super-nation’ and explores mankind’s growing dependence on weakening resources.


“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Thomas Robert Malthus, 1798


In 2010, the official UN figures showed a world population of 6,895,899,000. By 2050 The United Nations and Population Reference Bureau estimate a population of 9 billion. With resources pushed to the limit, sustaining a population of this size will require massive change in industry and agriculture and will require us to dramatically change our way of life.


Advances in Agricultural productivity have so far allayed global fears of famine. The agronomist Norman Borlaug who led the “Green Revolution” introduced disease resistant crops and modern farming techniques to developing nations in the mid 20th century. This averted major food shortages allowing nations to more than double their crop yields. However According to NASA Scientist Doctor Molly Brown, who uses satellite imagery to monitor the world production of food “We are currently using 30–40% of the entire lands surface... Globally we are beginning to see a leveling off of agricultural production”.


Many governments have leased undeveloped agricultural land from other countries to produce food for their own nation. China is the most notable with ‘land grab’ deals being struck with Kazakhstan, Sudan, Cameroon, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. Many countries taking part are in Africa and receive international food aid, which seems paradoxical; a struggling nation exporting food.


With agricultural methods throughout much of the world working to almost full capacity, we encounter another problem. Water is essential for all life on earth and to irrigate crops requires huge amounts. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but satellite images show its dramatic shrinkage due to water being diverted to irrigate cotton fields and crops. This worrying example illustrates the immediate problem of this precious and finite resource. As David Attenborough states...“With Groundwater levels declining across the world from North Africa to China, pollution of rivers and Wetlands are on the increase, and already today more than 1.2 billion people living with water scarcity, our prospects for providing water to nearly 3 billion more people does not look good”.

Oil plays an essential role in agricultural production and industry. With demand outstripping supply and a global leveling off of oil supplies, our reliance on this this once seemingly unlimited resource has thrown the future into uncertainty. “The growing sense of vulnerability arising from increased dependence on oil imports has heightened the geopolitical scramble on the part of China, India and the United States for scarce oil resources” (Nan Li). Oil security is at the forefront of foreign policy and finding new sources of sustainable energy is becoming a priority of governments around the world.


“We could just let capitalism solve the problem. Capitalism is ruthless. There’s no compassion in capitalism. If we end up with too many people on this earth I can tell you people will starve.... What will happen before the food runs out? The costs will go up...How will you feel or your grandchildren feel about buying food from countries where people are starving to death?” - Dick Smith.


It is clear that at the current rate that the world population is expanding, the journey we must undertake to avert disaster is an urgent one. To simply do nothing will result in global famine and the collapse of modern life. With so many variables to the equation, a course of action is needed to prevent the problems we face, rather than deal with the ever-worsening symptoms. What those actions are will be controversial and will affect us all.