I found this through Facebook the other day. It follows some comments made by “legendary” investor Jeremy Grantham about humanities future. This has led to the response in the link above. I thought it would be interesting to take each of the authors assertions in term and see if I could agree.
Mr Naam is quite correct as has been stated on this site at least once and in our book the rate of increase in population is slowing. However there are still more people to have more babies and the global population is set to increase. Mr Naam takes the middle of the range. That is still a 35% increase on today’s figures. It could be much higher than that figure. All these people have to be fed (see below). In a way this is like setting up a straw man. There is little we can do about population except genocide in the short to medium term. However, I agree the population data is encouraging.
The next area is that of food. Some data is used to show that the energy input per unit of food has fallen and that food production in the US has risen consistently since 1948. Also if everyone was as productive as the US in their agriculture there would be plenty of food to go round. All true, but its also true that this has relied on cheap fossil fuels. As these have rocketed in price so has food, reaching an all time high last year. As the If campaign say there is currently plenty of food to go round but its not distributed fairly. Its also true that on average for every calorie of food intake 1o calories of energy has been used to get it into your mouth. The institute of Mechanical engineers in their food report gave some data stating the human energy input per Ha of wheat was just 6MJ compared with 10651MJ for fertilizer (1). The implied assumption made by Mr Naam seems to be that making nitrogen fertilizer can get more efficient indefinitely is not true, there are thermodynamic limits. So plenty of food at the moment, but a rising population, less oil and climate change (not mentioned to the end and then only in passing) means this will be a significant challenge in the future. All this brings us neatly to energy.
Basically all our problems will be solved by Solar power according to Naam. I’m a big advocate of solar power. As I look out of my window I can see the sun falling on one of my systems with the cat sunbathing by it. Its also true that more than enough energy falls on the earth every hour to power the planet and the costs of solar have plummeted. However, things are quite as simple as that. It doesn’t fall always when we want it, or in the place or time we want it. There are other renewables of course and we make them work in tandem. But as we wrote in “No oil in the lamp” there are things we need to replace that renewables cannot fully, or only with great difficulty replace, such as air transport and plastics. So we can run our electricity system only on renewables but this will require not only huge investment but also changes in the management of the system. All this again brings us neatly to materials.
The standard economic argument is used here, that higher demand drives up supply by people looking for more. Two problems with this analysis. First, there has to be more to find, there are physical limits. Second, all the easy to extract stuff is mined first and lower grade ores take more energy to extract. There are estimates that up to 40% of global energy might be required for mining by 2050. This is perhaps the weakest bit of the whole article.
The article is based around a book the premise of which seems to be we can innovate our way out of problems. Much as I like technology and admire humanities ability to innovate I don’t believe this is possible for all our problems. To believe this in my view is a faith position. The power of human progress has long been questioned by Christians. Certainly the bible seems to question it, think of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11v1-9). In Ecclesiastes 1v18 the teacher writes
“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;the more knowledge, the more grief“.
Psalm 8v4 says
“what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
However, it goes onto say
“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly being and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, ..”
so there is clearly a balance. Maybe the dividing line is to do with with remembering who gave us the knowledge to invent in the first place.
This article also raises the issue of whether human progress will continue. Can things only get better? There is a long standing Christian view that things are going downhill until Christ returns. This is especially prevalent in the US. When I was a young Christian I got a sort of non-apocalyptic watered down version. Things were going to get worse in a low key kind of way until in the distant future Christ would return. I was told during a UCCF mission that if people became Christians society’s problems would be solved. I found this intellectually unsatisfactory then and even less so now (2). After all Christians are not perfect (this is official see Romans 7v15). I know I’m not. There is plenty of evidence that our world is not perfect. But looking back over the last 2000 years has anything changed?
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” 2 Tim3v1-5.
I guess I still don’t think we are going to hell in a handcart or that we are ever going to build a perfect world. Human nature shows the very best and worst of us. I do know that we face some very significant problems in the years ahead and being in denial about them is not healthy or helpful.
1) “Global food waste not, want not”. IME 2013
2) Throughout the developed world as covered on this blog crime (almost all categories) is falling. No one can explain it although its not because Western countries are getting more “Christian”, mine certainly isn’t.