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]

Peak coal in Christmas stocking?

Tom James @ 23-12-2008

A new report from the American Geophysical Union suggests governments may be substantially over-reporting coal reserves, from Ars Technica:

Such fallacious reporting is nothing new—the United States government happily overestimated oil reserves in the 1950s and 1960s until peak oil hit the lower 48. David Rutledge, professor of engineering and applied sciences at the California Institute of Technology, claims the same mistakes are being repeated with coal.

His results, reported in a panel discussion at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting, state the world only has 662 billion tons of coal, including reserves already exploited. The estimate is well short of the 1,027 billion tons remaining in proven and projected reserves, according to the World Energy Council.

Leading to the possibility of imminent peak coal.

[via Bruce Sterling][image from sic on flickr]

As food prices rise, Opium fields in Afghanistan change to Wheat

Tomas Martin @ 11-04-2008

Rice in India is hitting record pricesFood prices are at historic highs, thanks to a number of factors including increased biofuel use. Rice prices are causing shortages and inflation problems in India, Bangladesh and the rest of Asia, with prices of many grains double what they were this time last year.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown today called for action about the price rises at the next G8 meeting, with the incentives for making biofuel having unforeseen consequences leading to the shortages.

“For the first time in decades, the number of people facing hunger is growing. Food prices have risen sharply leading to food riots in several countries,” Brown wrote.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Telegraph reports that farmers who had been producing opium for the illicit trade of heroin have begun to switch from the poppy to wheat because the grain fetches higher prices than the drug. Unforeseen consequences, indeed!

[via Russ Winter and Paul Krugman, image of rice at Colaba Market, Mumbai by Dey]

The internet is a major feature of reducing carbon emissions

Tomas Martin @ 30-11-2007

Will we all be connected and working through low power laptops like this one?A lot of the plans for sustainability try to provide the energy for what we already do using new sources of power. Whether you subscribe to the peak oil camp or you fear global warming or even if you want to prudent ahead of a possible recession caused by sub-prime mortgages, each problem has the same solution: use less. Buying less consumables, reducing food miles, rebuilding soils and producing electricity from renewables can only do so much.

Transport is a huge part of the energy (and money) we spend. A future coming to terms with the ‘Peak Century’ will need to travel much less distance for work, play and neccessity. The 50 mile commute seems illogical now at close to $100 dollar a barrel of oil. If oil gets harder to extract and prices rise, that commute won’t just be an annoying expense, it’ll mean bankruptcy. Fortunately new technology has arrived, seemingly perfect timed to coincide with reducing our carbon footprint and energy consumption.

A geologist recently said “My hopeful view is that we’ll be living like we did at the turn of the 20th century, but with computers.” I like the analogy. The internet and low-energy computers offer us a real potential of making a low carbon economy yet still providing jobs and a worldwide community. As Worldchanging puts it, the ‘High bandwidth, Low Carbon future’ could be both sustainable and more personally fulfilling. Google is investing $100Million in Green computing and the Asus EEE laptop uses 11 watts. All this talk of choose your own price music, online markets for fiction and e-readers is important because it’s a first step to creating an entertainment economy that could work in the low-energy world that’s coming, sooner or later.

[picture by jaaron]

Peak food is an inevitable consequence of peak oil

Tomas Martin @ 05-11-2007

Vertical farming may save the cityCurrently for every 1 calorie of food, some 10 calories of energy are used to make it. As George Monbiot said in the Guardian last week, it is increasingly unclear where future supplies of water and phosphates will come from. After world war two the world population was around 3 Billion. Using newer techniques and fertilisers we have increased the amount of food an acre produces. The population has risen to match. Fertilisers are almost entirely all oil-based on large scale, however. With biofuels taking away land and oil prices rising as well as increased transportation costs, the current system of food from around the world is becoming a danger to supply. If the recent survey of 155 oil experts saying peak oil will come before 2010 turns out to be true, we will have to downscale very quickly indeed.

Two ways to combat this would also reverse many of the social changes of the last thirty or so years. Firstly, the reduction of food miles by producing stuff closer to home will bring down fuel needed to transport the food, often a massive contribution to the energy cost. The second involves fertilisers and other fuel-intensive techniques. As the amount of machinery and fertiliser brought into farms decreases due to prices, manual labour becomes increasingly important again. Eating less meat, particularly red meat, will reduce the amount of calories an acre of land can produce, as well as boosting our health. Large farms currently operating with few employees will need to split into smaller units and introduce nitrogen fixing vegetables between grain crops. On a social level this could increase the number of people making a small living for themselves off a plot of land, selling most of their produce locally. Using more varied crops, utilising the seasons and even vertical farming mean we could have good food even without shipping it in from abroad.

[photo by Chris Jacobs for The Vertical Farm Project]

Note: edited to attribute the photo to Chris Jacobs, who says: ‘For all of you out there…this illustration is NOT how a real vertical farm would be…it would be 100% hydroponic. This was just created to “show” growing food.’ – thanks for keeping us informed Chris!