Technology and population growth

Tom James @ 28-09-2009

fieldThere’s a great interview over at New Scientist with environmentalist and techno-realist Jesse Ausubel on the subject of how technology and improved agricultural practices may enable and support continued population growth and economic prosperity:

You’ve said that we could feed 10 billion people on half the area we currently use by improving agricultural efficiency. How would that work?

High yields are the best friend of nature. Even if humans remain carnivorous, if we continue lifting yields at roughly 2 per cent per year, as farmers have achieved over the past 100 years, then simple arithmetic shows lots of land now farmed will be abandoned and can return to nature. The world population is increasing by only around 1 per cent per year, so sustaining 2 per cent yield growth could free half of farmed land over 75 years or so. The highest yields that have been achieved in China, India, the US and many other countries are typically 300 per cent of average yields, so 2 per cent yearly gains are not miracles. They are business-as-usual, but with a lot of sweat.

It’s weird to hear someone talking about population growth as if it was something manageable, rather than something to be worried about. I was particularly intrigued by the notion of quorum sensing:

Surely our inability to limit ourselves is a major issue.

Some recent research suggests organisms do try to sense limits. Even bacteria turn out to have networks of social communication and to use something called quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population, and so avoid disastrous growth.

Ever the optimist, I see no reason why problems like global warming, deforestation, or resource depletion should not eventually be resolved. It rarely seems to be a matter of practical or even economic barriers, but rather political will to take the kind of action needed.

Clean air laws and action taken on the ozone layer show that it is possible to make the necessary changes.

[image from Olof S on flickr]

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3 Responses to “Technology and population growth”

  1. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    While I also believe that human ingenuity is capable of coming up with excellent technology to fix many of the problems confronting us, I remain much more pessimistic about whether people will actually use this technology effectively or even provide the economic resources necessary to develop it properly. It appears that we are growing enough food right now to feed everyone, but people in this world are still starving to death every day. And I notice the interview didn’t provide any ideas on how we’re going to provide enough clean water for all those people, given that we’re failing at that right now, too.
    But that doesn’t get to the more basic question: Why would be want 10 billion (or, god help us, 20 billion) people on this planet? I feel overcrowded now and I live in a country with relatively low population density and in a region of that country where wide open spaces are just a few hours drive away.
    Seriously, even supposing we can provide food, housing, water, and decent lives to 10 billion or more (preferably while still preserving some of the natural beauty and ecological balance of the planet), what is the advantage of having that many people? I can’t think of any myself, but if someone else can, I’d be interested in hearing their perspective.

  2. Chad says:

    Nancy,

    I agree with you. I don’t want 10-20 billion people on this planet. Not only would it be ridiculously crowded in most areas, but can you imagine the cost of open land? No normal person would ever be able to own a house and 20 acres.

    However, I do have one benefit more people would bring…a greater chance for an Einstein. The more people the higher the chance someone very special is born.

  3. Shane says:

    I might add that in that period of time we will also mostly likely ready to colonise another planet. Which might seem far fetched right now but if you look closely at colonisation of mars its not. We are almost now ready to visit mars in our life time so in another 100 years colonisation of mars will be very posable. So taking the other ten billion to mars is what will be needed to colonise on other planets, as all of us stuck on one planet is not a good thing to be wiped out!