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Scarceonomics: Why oil sheikhs are learning how to farm

A desalination plant.
Tanuki Photography | E+ | Getty Images
A desalination plant.

Global population hit 7 billion well ahead of most predictions. The U.N. now forecasts that we will share the planetand its increasingly scarce natural resourceswith about 10 billion fellow humans by 2050.

Even more sobering are the numbers of people moving out from ultralow water-food-energy footprints and into the middle class in China, India, Africa and South America, setting new records for buying everything from cars and groceries to homes and lawn flamingos. Welcome to a not-too-distant future of "scarceonomics."

By now we've all read reports about fisheries collapsing; predictions that worldwide demand for freshwater will exceed supply by as much as 40 percent by 2030; and serious food shortages, with attendant price spikes, are already spreading from local to global.

Few have put these trends in context as succinctly as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. "The geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil," he said.

In fact, oil and food are directly interconnected, because industrial agriculture depends heavily on petroleum for fertilizers and fuel to plant, harvest, process, and transport crops.

In a growing number of places, as disparate as Bahrain and California, energy is used to desalinate water, so the availability and price of those crops will also be inextricably dependent on how wisely we use those finite resources (or how quickly we can develop more abundant renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar).

(Read more: A hungry world: Lots of food, in too few places)

So what does the scarceonomics of food, water, energy, and other critical commodities mean for governments, economies, investors, and consumers? If we apply some lessons learned and a little ingenuity, the prospects could be positive.

During a visit to Beijing last month, I heard much talk about Hong Kong–based Shuanghui International Holdings proposed multibillion-dollar acquisition of U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods.

Smithfield has long been criticized for failing to address the environmental and human health impacts from the 4.7 billion gallons of manure it generates each year. Chinese companies have been criticized for selling food that is unsafe, even as that nation worries over how to feed so many mouths.

If the parties see the opportunities in scarceonomics, China could learn more efficient protein production methods and Smithfield could invest in new waste conversion technologies that would produce renewable diesel fuel from all of that manure.

In Brazil, I recently participated in the launch of Rio de Janeiro's efforts to replace its 400,000 old streetlights with efficient LEDs that save more than 50 percent of the energy. The scale of that initiative will jump-start a streetlight manufacturing industry in Brazil that can create hundreds of new jobs and benefit the entire country's effort to grow sustainably.

(Read more: As drought spreads, firms could be up the creek)

These kinds of win-win approaches to shrinking resources can address other global challenges. The Arab Spring was powered largely by unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). According to the International Monetary Fund, youth unemployment there exceeds 25 percent, more than "any other region in the world."

But job opportunities abound when scarceonomics makes governments and investors look at underutilized resources.

For example, most of the countries in the MENA region truck waste to dumpsites or landfills, with little sorting or recycling. I recently toured a large landfill in Bahrain, which handles 4,000 tons of waste per day employing a few dozen workers.

A modern sorting facility at that site with technologies to convert organics to fertilizers, plastic bottles back into plastic bottles, and construction debris into new building materials could employ hundreds. Companies doing these things today include BHS and Carbonlite, both of which would be great technology export opportunities for America, creating jobs at home and abroad.

(Read more: What we can learn from Algeria's energy policy)

Many of the MENA oil-producing countries are also beginning to plan futures when oil and gas runs out, especially in terms of their own food security. On my trips to Doha, I have been very impressed by Qatar's National Food Security Program, which has recognized the need for massive renewable energy projects to power desalination plants that will be required for irrigation.

Now might be a good time to consider investments in the companies that produce the goods and services needed in those industries as demand increases over time, innovators like Endurance Wind and Aqua Sciences.

Many more solutions will be needed to address the challenges presented by growing demand on shrinking resources, but these few examples demonstrate that a little awareness and innovation can at least begin to take the "scary" out of scarceonomics and create a more sustainable future for our shared global environment and economy.

—By Terry Tamminen.

Tamminen is the former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and is president of Seventh Generation Advisors, and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors. He's the author of "Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy."

(Disclosures: Tamminen has no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned above.)

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