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Sustainability

Older woman smiling, holding canned goods wearing a
“It would be great if we could engage active retirees and give them an opportunity to do something that’s positive and that makes a lasting contribution.”

Can the Planet Survive Us All Living to 100?

As people live longer lives and the planet’s population grows, how will that impact the environment? What kind of strain does that put on our natural resources? Will there be enough water, food and energy to sustain everyone? Will we reach a tipping point?

“I think a lot of it is going to depend on what we do now,” says Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative and associate professor in the Department of Biological Science. “It’s sort of a luxury to have a large portion of the population in a retired phase. It’s resource-intensive. Whether or not we’re going to have the resources to be able to do that, I think that’s an open question.”

Rooney-Varga works closely with Climate Interactive, an organization that is at the forefront of creating decision-support simulations around climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy. The simulators take into account a growing population and the associated “feedbacks” from climate change and resource availability.

“We already know there are feedbacks. Environmental problems are negatively impacting population growth already,” says Rooney-Varga, who recently received a $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help bring the climate change simulation to college students across the country. “And then you start to think about climate change and the potential impact on food resources."

Right here in Massacusetts, for instance, "we're going to face some really big, expensive and difficult questions regarding sea level rise," says EEAS Assoc. Prof. Mathew Barlow, who recently received a $454,000 NSF grant to study on extreme rainfall events in the Northeast. "Fifty years from now, we may feel like we’re in a somewhat different world.”

Those hoping to grow old in Florida, meanwhile, may be even worse off. “Florida’s not looking too good,” says Rooney-Varga. “Seawater is already coming into freshwater—and parts of Miami are flooding regularly. There’s no reversing that.”

Here are some other likelihoods to consider:


WE’LL HAVE MORE CARS, BUT LESS POLLUTION.

For many people, driving a car means independence. And as people live longer, the number of older drivers continues to accelerate. According to AAA, in 2009 there were 33 million licensed drivers over the age of 65—a 20 percent increase since 1999. By 2030, it’s estimated that nearly 63 million Americans over the age of 65 will be licensed to drive. That’s a lot of extra cars, and senior drivers, on the road. But the good news, according to Energy and Sustainability Manager Paul Piraino, is that most of those cars will be electric. “Gas-powered cars are not going to be around in the next 10 to 20 years,” says Piraino, who notes that Volvo has already announced it will stop making cars with internal combustion engines in 2019—producing only electric and hybrid vehicles instead. “That’s where the world is going. It’s just a matter of time.”


Green basket full of colorful vegetables

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In addition to precipitation, Barlow also looks at extreme weather events such as heat waves. And the news isn’t good there, either. “Heat waves are definitely increasing, and are going to go nowhere but up,” says Barlow.

While the elderly and poor are hit hardest by heat waves, Barlow says everyone suffers in one way or another. “It affects crops, so food prices go up,” he says. Indeed, the shifting climate is already impacting our ability to grow certain foods, Rooney-Varga says: “The climate in Kansas, for instance, is no longer appropriate for growing corn.” With production of food like chocolate, coffee and wine at risk, consumers can expect to see double or triple the prices in the future.


SUSTAINING HOPE

Despite these challenges, one potential upside to the longevity boom is that active older people could get involved in working toward solutions.

“It would be great if we could engage that population and give them an opportunity to do something that’s positive and enjoyable that makes a lasting contribution,” Rooney-Varga says.