This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Path to a Sustainable Future? Part I-Food

Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing me to a NYTimes story about the ideas of a group of academics and policy-planners to keep the human species going for a while longer. As I have been saying for a long time, the idea of sustainable development is nonsense unless we make sure that the population stops growing and we figure out how to raise standards of living (and, of course ever more food) without relying on coal and oil. Indeed, we need to forget about the term "sustainable development," and think more pragmatically about improving human well-being without destroying the environment. This is exactly the approach taken in the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Let's talk about food (Part 1), energy (Part 2), and population growth (Part 3). With respect to food, The Ecomodernist Manifesto suggests that we need to be realistic:
This new framework favors a very different set of policies than those now in vogue. Eating the bounty of small-scale, local farming, for example, may be fine for denizens of Berkeley and Brooklyn. But using it to feed a world of nine billion people would consume every acre of the world’s surface. Big Agriculture, using synthetic fertilizers and modern production techniques, could feed many more people using much less land and water.
As the manifesto notes, as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution, when humanity was supposedly in harmony with Mother Nature. Over the last half century, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed per average person declined by half.
“If we want the developing world to reach even half our level of development we can’t do it without strategies to intensify production,” said Harvard’s David Keith, a signer of the new manifesto.
The eminent Australian conservationist William Laurance, who is not involved with the eco-modernists, put it this way, “We need to intensify agriculture in places that we have already developed rather than develop new places,” he said. “What is happening today is much more chaotic.” 
And, of course, we need to stop wasting good land growing corn as a biofuel, rather than as food. On top of that, everyone needs to eat less meat, so that land (and water) can be devoted to feeding human directly rather than feeding a lot of animals for slaughter. 

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Weeks - I have been looking more carefully at the global computer models. In particular, I have been looking at the models from MIT and their projections (along with some informal discussions with the researchers). Currently, the primary thing that GOES WRONG in the future is a collapse in the variable called "Industrial Output Per Capita". Basically, this means that at some point in the future, technology and industry are NO LONGER able to sustain the world population. The limitation comes about because non-renewable resources are used up. You have pointed out one example - deforestation. Other resources would include fresh water, low-cost heating oil, other low-cost fuels (e.g. charcoal bricks), etc. The essential problem is that these commodities would rise to price levels where they are unaffordable to a large part of the worlds population.

    We can EXTEND this concept a little bit. As you know, the world has already OVERSHOT the carrying capacity for human life. We are on an overshoot trajectory for the global demographics. We could sustain an overshoot - provided that there was a BOOST in technology and industry to keep human beings alive. In principle, if the whole world made a dramatic effort to change our patterns of behavior and production, we might be able to avert a disaster. BUT IN PRACTICE what this means ... is that our economy and technology must be devoted to raising and maintaining the living standards of people. And that comment applies to ALL PEOPLE ... not just those in the USA and Europe. Therefore, our dilemma is this. Do the current investment practices of Wall Street, London, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Tokyo really promote PRODUCTIVE INVESTMENTS that sustain human life. I would argue that in large part the answer is NO!! And that is precisely the problem. And this is one important reason why "Industrial Output Per Capita" will peak and decline in the future. The global society is not acting as a society that truly wants to sustain a large world population.

    The consequences of NOT making the necessary reforms ... are very serious. Indeed, for most people the consequences are unimaginable. But these consequences are driven directly by basic demographics. And for this reason, they are irrefutable. We are "propelled into an unpalatable future" by the laws of large numbers.

    Pete Pollock, Redondo Beach, California