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]


Two miles high, one mile wide, and housing a million people

Edward Willett @ 30-01-2008

Cover of The World Inside In Robert Silverberg’s 1971 novel The World Inside (a book I remember fondly for having contributed a great deal to my early sex education), the bulk of the 75 billion people on a future Earth live inside Urban Monads, or Urbmons, each of which is three kilometres tall and houses 800,000 people. (Via io9.)

Architect Eugene Tsui has a proposal on his website for something similar: the two-mile high “Ultima” Tower, intended to be home to a million people:

There are 120 levels to the structure with great heights at each level. The scale of this stucture is such that the entire central district of Beijing could fit into its base. One must not think in terms of floors but, instead, imagine entire landscaped neighborhood districts with “skies” that are 30 to 50 meters high. Lakes, streams, rivers, hills and ravines comprise the soil landscape on which residential, office, commercial, retail and entertainment buildings can be built…the structure itself acts like a living organism with its wind and atmospheric energy conversion systems, photovoltaic exterior sheathing, and opening/closing cowl-vent windows that allow natural air into the interior without mechanical intervention….ecological efficiency is a rule and all areas of the structure feature resource conserving technolgy such as recycled building materials, compost toilets, nature-based water cleansing systems for all buildings, plentiful amounts of forrest, plant life and water-based ecosystems.

Even the setting would be beautiful:

The tower is surrounded on all sides by a lake. Sandy beaches, stone cliffs, water inlets, grass, trees and rocky islands create a beautiful and majestic setting…

Could such a thing ever be built? Well, Tsui’s concept dates back to 1991, and nobody’s breaking ground for it yet, or for similar projects like Tokyo’s SkyCity. (The projected $150 billion price tag might have something to do with that.) But the problems of urban sprawl and overpopulation aren’t going away, and structures like this could be part of the solution.

And to me, at least, it actually sounds like a pretty cool place to live…unlike Silverberg’s rather nightmarish (plentiful–mandatory, in fact–sex notwithstanding) Urbmons.

(Image: Amazon.)

[tags]cities, urban sprawl, overpopulation, architecture, skyscrapers[/tags]