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Otherwise great essay on hunger in 2050 ignores the role of fossil fuel.

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Graphic from theatlantic.com Jan. 2018

Graphic from theatlantic.com Jan. 2018

by Len Bahr, Ph.D.

This post is about time — specifically the 32 year time horizon of the year 2050 and what it means for hungry earthly citizens facing overpopulation and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change (ACC). The punch line to a classic (Texas) Aggie joke told by the late Rez Darnell, a sardonic coastal scientist from Texas A&M, was simply “What’s time to a pig?” I recall hearing this joke in the context of the need to speed up the response to coastal change along the gulf coast.

The year 2050 is prominently featured in the highly-touted Louisiana 2017 comprehensive coastal plan as a milestone in the challenge to restore America’s Delta. Thirty-two years may be seen as very long or a very short time, depending on your age and point of view. According to this link to the Social Security Administration calculator, my beloved wife Guille is currently predicted by U.S. government actuaries to live until the year 2052, whereas my lifetime is statistically unlikely to last more than about a decade, hopefully long enough for my grandchildren and step grandchildren to establish fond memories of PoppaLen.

At any rate, with the year 2050 in mind I call to your attention an important article by Charles C. Mann* published in the March 2018 issue of TheAtlantic.com on the issue of feeding the ten billion humans that demographers predict will be competing for food by that time. A fascinating aspect of Mann’s article is the portrait he presents of two rival futurists on the issue of hunger, ecologist Willam Vogt (1902-1968) and technologist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), founder of the so-called Green Revolution. Here are some extensive quotes by Mann about these two men:

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement.* In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College population researcher Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption and limits population, it will ravage global ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra.

Borlaug, born 12 years after Vogt, has become the emblem of “techno-optimism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament. He was the best-known figure in the research that in the 1960s created the Green Revolution, the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that increased grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was his cry.

Both men thought of themselves as using new scientific knowledge to face a planetary crisis. But that is where the similarity ends. For Borlaug, human ingenuity was the solution to our problems. One example: By using the advanced methods of the Green Revolution to increase per-acre yields, he argued, farmers would not have to plant as many acres, an idea researchers now call the “Borlaug hypothesis.” Vogt’s views were the opposite: The solution, he said, was to use ecological knowledge to get smaller. Rather than grow more grain to produce more meat, humankind should, as his followers say, “eat lower on the food chain,” to lighten the burden on Earth’s ecosystems. This is where Vogt differed from his predecessor, Robert Malthus, who famously predicted that societies would inevitably run out of food because they would always have too many children. Vogt, shifting the argument, said that we may be able to grow enough food, but at the cost of wrecking the world’s ecosystems.

Carrying capacity is the ecological term for the theoretical mean population density or biomass of a species that can be sustained within a host ecosystem. Mann’s article addresses the ecological concept of carrying capacity in terms of humans and he credits an ecologist named William Vogt for popularizing the notion for the human species in his 1948 book The Road to Survival. This was published fully two decades prior to Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s*** iconic book The Population Bomb that hit the bookstores in 1968, followed two years later by Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a small planet.

In his otherwise impressive monograph Mann inexplicably ignores the role that fossil fuel played in rebooting the global carrying capacity for humans. When we tapped into coal at the onset of the industrial revolution three centuries ago I contend that we massively expanded the then current thermodynamic limits to our population. We (temporarily) escaped from the renewable global energy base that had previously limited earth’s carrying capacity to roughly one billion souls. The ominous demographic trajectory toward ten billion by 2050, and the onset of ACC, are directly and indirectly the consequence of this technological innovation.

We should not equivocate on this subject.

*I would respectfully disagree, crediting Alexander von Humboldt for that honor.

**Mann is the author of the pre and post Columbian books 1491 and 1493 on which I have posted here.

***Anne Ehrlich was not credited!

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  1. Anonymous says:

    If there isn’t an ample supply of food to supply the demand the population will line out at that point and be sustained until supply is increased or decreased. No thermodynamics only common sense. If a thermodynamic event occurs that results in a nuclear winter then the level of the oceans will subside and the population will automatically adjust to the new parameters. It happened in the mini ice age in Europe.

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