Some good news for us all, especially the Pope

At the beginning of his Encyclical, Pope Francis said this: The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor… Because I was reading on to see what he wanted to say about global warming and  ‘climate change’ I let that passage pass, though I felt it was hyperbolic in the extreme, and I made a glancing reference to the issue in my essay of that time.

It is pleasant to be able to say that His Holiness can take comfort from a stirring account of the positive changes that have been occurring to Nature in at least the developed parts of the world. The monograph, Nature Rebounds, is by Jesse Asubel of Rockefeller University in the USA. Dr Asubel leads a research program that aims to find the technical means to facilitate a large, prosperous society that emits little or nothing harmful and spares large amounts of land and sea for nature. He is closely associated with the concepts of decarbonization, dematerialization, land sparing, and industrial ecology. Sounds good?

His little book is a good read, too. Asubel starts with the story of  the bear that recently killed a hiker in New Jersey, close to New York City. The last known bear attack in NJ was 150 years ago. America, it seems, is going back to Nature. There seem to be about 2500 wild bears in the state, with a hunting season for six days to keep the numbers down. Protesters have picketed the area in an attempt to stop the hunt. It all sounds reminiscent of the annual fuss about the cull of kangaroo numbers in Australia’s capital city.

In contrast to the Pope’s argument, Dr Asubel says that in the USA (and I would argue the much the same is true of Australia) …[a] series of decouplings is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production. Changes in behavior and technology liberate the environment.

The rest of the monograph spells out his message. In farming, grain harvests are five times larger than they were in 1940, but with no more, or even less, land being used. Pesticides, nitrogen, phosphates, potash and even water are used less than they once were. The conversion of crops to meat has also decoupled, because farmers are now much more efficient than they once were.

Forests are no longer being laid to waste. The first transition from cutting forests down to growing more trees came in 1830 in France, with the move to coal and iron as industrial staples. The transition in the USA occurred 75 years ago. The Americans, and we Australians also, use plantations now for a significant proportion of of timber needs. We use less paper, Australia Post is not delivering the volume of letters it used to, we don’t need railway sleepers any more, and we burn much less wood for heating. As we know, newspapers of the traditional kind are in real trouble, and publishing is in a similar crisis.

Asubel calles ‘global greening’ the most important ecological trend on Earth todayand satellite comparisons of the biosphere in 1982 and 2011 by Ranga Myneni and his colleagues show little browning and vast green expanses of greater vegetation. A fine global map illustrates this point, and it looks like this (yellow, brown and red represent a loss of greening):


As with farming and timber, Asubel thinks that that the USA has already passed peak use of other materials too. Back in the 1970s, we thought America’s growing appetite might exhaust Earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. But a surprising thing happened, even as our population kept growing. The intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before. The relative and absolute use of nine basic commodities has been flat or falling for twenty years, and they include plastics, paper, timber, lead, aluminium, steel and copper. America has started to dematerialise, he says. The smart phone, whose materials are worth about $1.50, can and does replace 32 other devices, in whole or in part.

What about petrol? Per capita consumption of petrol peaked about 1970, and Asubel thinks the USA may have passed peak car travel. Why? We live mostly in cities, and cars have choked urban roads. There will be more sensible ways to use vehicles, like shared cars, the Uber taxi, and much more personally directed public transport. He sees maglev trains, rather than planes, the way of the future in land transport.

More generally, there has been a decoupling of economic growth and air quality, something I have noticed particularly in the UK and Europe, whose urban areas were black with soot when I first went there in the early 1960s. The black has gone, along with the pea-soup fogs I remember.

As I have written before, population is not rising at all quickly. Asubel estimates that we have passed peak child. It is likely that immigration will keep Australian, Canadian and American populations rising, but globally, the estimate is that the absolute annual number of humans born reached 130 million in 1990, and has stayed at around that number ever since. Given that fertility is declining just about everywhere, the annual global production of babies is likely to fall. Populations will stay high because of advances in medicine but, he says, a 2 percent annual gain in efficiency can dominate a growth of population at 1 percent or even less.

Is there anything he’s not happy about? Well, the oceans. We are moving towards aquaculture for fish food, and we must move even further: If we want to eat sea life, we need to increase the share we farm and decrease the share we catch. And he has some fancy futures for eating generally, which I’ll leave for the gourmets.

Nature Rebounds is a most optimistic and well-referenced account of what has happened. Its cover photo is of a whale surfacing in the Hudson in sight of the Empire State Building. That was not photoshopped. In my suburb at night I have my lights on high beam, partly because there a few true street lights, and partly because you need to look out for kangaroos, wallabies, foxes and possums, as well as cats and dogs.

If you are an environmentalist, you should be really happy at what has been achieved over the last fifty years. Yet the prevailing tone of environmental talk is, like that of Pope Francis, despairing and gloomy. It really is time for the positive side of human activity in the world to be given its proper status. Nature Rebounds was published in January, months before the Encyclical. Pity the Pope didn’t read it.

Footnote: I don’t think he watched Hans Rosling’s wonderful, hour-long examination of world population trends either, but if you haven’t seen it , spend 60 minutes doing so, here.



Join the discussion 44 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, Good to see this. At the heart of the modern relationship with ‘The World’ is ill-morale and, worse, the appetite for ill-morale. This post, and the book you cite, are like calm psychotherapists disarming an ingrained melancholia.
    I fear I must raise one melancholic fact (if fact it still is). The Chinese, I gather, have taken up fish-farming rather than fish-catching with enthusiasm, and this is good. The problem is that they feed their farmed fish with unfarmed krill, vacuumed up from Antarctic seas, and do so in huge quantities. The obvious result, I presume, is to deplete the food chain for all that wild ocean food that otherwise might be getting a new lease of life.

  • Colin Davidson says:

    Another book with a similar theme is “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley.
    And I share your concern for fish in the oceans – there has to be a more sensible way forward than fish mining, which threatens a repeat of the whaling and sealing scenarios.

  • margaret says:

    Well before the encyclical issued from the Vatican:

    A draft from Paul Sagan

  • Danceswithdachshunds says:

    The idea that warmer temperatures and more CO2 would benefit life on earth was known decades ago from geology and written historical accounts. It was known from receding glaciers in Alaska and the Alps exposing forest remains from 1000 years ago. It was known from Vikings settling on Greenland and wine grapes in northern England. It was known from sedimentation records in the Arctic and giant clam shells in the South China Sea.

    At every turn the alarmists have been busy hiding, misrepresenting and altering the past to convince everyone of impending disaster if we continue to use FF energy to benefit humanity. It is exactly the thing that brought wealth to the west via free market capitalism – and exactly the thing these evil people do NOT want to allow to happen in the third world.

    My cry to those of faith is to stop sending the Vatican money! Almost all the wealth they have it can be traced to the surplus brought to us via free market capitalism. And almost all the wealth they have was dug out of God’s earth along with the energy to form it.

    This pope is only listening to pagans and atheists so he only knows how to serve Satan. Gospel is now forbidden and you can all line up to pay your indulgences to the doom mongers who are thoroughly INVESTED (100’s of billions of dollars) in establishing “world order” under THEIR thumb.

    I am a free person and wish to STAY a free person. I refuse to kowtow to anyone who wants to take my freedom away including this poser of a pope.

    • margaret says:

      So ugly… and birds get killed by them and farmers whose farms weren’t part of the scheme that returns a healthy income to the lucky ones, suffer terrible health problems …

      • margaret says:

        *sarcasm alert*

      • Don Aitkin says:

        I don’t find them ugly at a distance, as across Lake George from the highway, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live near one. Their size is out of proportion to a domestic house, and they do make a noise. I’ve been close to one, and I’ve heard it. At the same time, I have little doubt that most of the stories about birds and ill-health are exaggerated —as of course are their benefits.

        • margaret says:

          Wave farms then couldn’t be objected to – invisible until you’re about 10 k’s out to sea. Open cut mines however … truly a scar on the landscape whether coal or other mineral resource. Driving through Peak Hill I couldn’t believe the huge open cut gold mines on either side of the highway. Ah Australia – so lucky. Gina Rinehart – did luck play any part in your success?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Why? The value of the coal produced will be vastly greater than the agricultural output of the mining area. There seem to be reservations there to protect water and black soil country. Is it that you you don’t like coal at all? Seventy per cent of our electricity comes from it.

          • margaret says:

            “Is it that you don’t like coal at all?” Is that question disingenuous or a trap?
            You saying that there ‘seem to be’ reservations there to protect water etc. and that you ‘didn’t mind’ the open cut gold mines at Peak Hill is sufficient for me not to answer.
            ‘Money doesn’t talk it screams” – Bob Dylan and the Chinese owners of the giant Shenua coal mine know that.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Yes, I agree. But are you sad because (i) you don’t like coal mines at all, and don’t want to see another one; (ii) you wish renewable energy that could power the grid were coming faster than it is; (iii) you think there was some corruption involved; (iv) or something else?

            It takes a lot of capital to develop a big coal mine. Everyone in the world connected to a power grid depends on it. You do, and I do. So I’m not sad about it, and what I’ve read suggests that the mine is to be on the ridges of the Liverpool Plains, and that only a tiny amount of available groundwater can be used. What I’ve read suggests to me also that the grief about it from landowners is an example of NIMBYism. They too depend on coal-fired power, but they don’t want a mine here. It will spoil the look and it’s not what their grandfathers had in mind…etc.

          • margaret says:

            I’m not using sad in a personal sense – more in the regrettable sense as in a sad state of affairs.
            I feel like a contestant on The Eggheads now – (i) yes – time to evolve not dig the same hole deeper (ii) yes (iii) who would know, that wasn’t in my head.
            (iv) I don’t like vast holes in the earth and I know that there is a large artesian basin under NSW and the non scientific me doesn’t like to mess with that and I don’t like fracking or Australia for sale either – Kidman properties next. who will buy?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            The major part of the development of Australia in an economic sense — railways, ports, all infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities — was undertaken with money borrowed from overseas. It was invested wisely for the most part (cf Argentina), and we have all benefited from it. The Chinese-funded coal-mine is a new example. It creates jobs, opportunities and mining royalties here. The coal goes to China where it underpins economic development there. It is a win win, if proper attention is given to the externalities that you refer to. The NSW Government has says it has done this. I see no reason why I would dispute its claim.

          • margaret says:

            Thanks. We all have different ways of seeing and we all put different weightings on what we see as affecting us.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            I am not trying to change your point of view. Rather I am trying to give you fresh information. You are the only one in charge of your p.o.v.



          • margaret says:

            As I said, thanks. I gave you my fresh p.o.v.

          • dlb says:

            Ah, open cut mines, free of most of the hazards of underground mines that you have alluded to in the past Margaret. Most of the miners now earn good money, often in air-conditioned cabs.
            The biggest change to the Australian landscape has been agriculture not open cut mines. Yes, unfortunately some farmers have been dislocated (probably with good buy-ups), but nothing like the dislocation of the original inhabitants when the farms first moved in.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            In Germany the open cuts are restored after the ore has been removed, and that has happened in some mines in Australia, but not to all. I didn’t mind the Peak Hill mine hole.The lower Hunter ones are much much bigger, though they are to be filled in eventually. And the Kalgoorlie one is enormous.

          • margaret says:

            Aren’t you glad you don’t work in an Australian mine in Africa dlb?


          • Don Aitkin says:

            My father started his working life, as had been with the case with his father, underground in Broken Hill, and he worked there later in each long vacation to pay his rent when studying at Sydney University. So mining is my my family’s history, and my grandmother insisted that each of her children went through high school to the end so that they had other options.

          • margaret says:

            It’s not in my history although a former brother-in-law worked night shifts in the Coalcliff mine in the seventies so that he could surf at the Coalcliff beach during the day.
            That was a lifestyle choice, weird but true.
            But my father although born in Marrickville, grew up in Kandos near the cement works. I understand that industries keep economies booming, however your grandmother was wise.

          • dlb says:

            Yes I am glad Margaret, but what does this have to do with “unsightly” open cut mines in Australia?

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Wave farms in principle seem fine to me, but I don’t know how well they stack up financially. Tidal is more regular and reliable as a continuing source, but again as with all sources, a thorough cost-benefit analysis is always enlightening.

          • dlb says:

            Harnessing tidal energy will slow the rotation of the earth and cause the moon to move further away. Sorry I couldn’t resist a few ideas form the alarmist playbook. 🙂

          • Don Aitkin says:

            My understanding is that the corrosive effects of seawater on the structures are very costly.

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          While previously discounting those complaints about noise, I’m not so sure now about the reported effects of the very low frequencies. Some time back I observed a strong and distressing physical reaction by my wife to some persistent very deep sound levels from a neighbouring hi-fi system. She said they made her feel physically ill, To me, they were just a pernicious deep noise, intensely irritating, but not physically debilitating (except to my peace of mind).

          I understand that the low frequency pulses emanate from each blade at it passes the tower body.

  • […] Before I go on, note that there is no reference to anything written, in that long assertion. In my most recent essay I provided a well-referenced account of just how it is that in fact the world is improving, food […]

  • dlb says:

    Thanks Don for the link to the article by Ausubel. I found interesting the massive amount of corn produced in the USA, with about a third of it going to produce the bio-fuel ethanol. Rather concerningly he says that the area of corn grown for energy is about the size of Alabama. A bit of subsequent research has revealed this production only makes up around 10% of the US gasoline market. Not only is ethanol taking up a lot of land but it has an energy balance of 1.5, that is one litre of ethanol equivalent is consumed in making 0.5 litres of fuel.

    I note Ausubel avoids discussion on the future of corn ethanol, instead making some sort of wishful comment about the land currently under corn ethanol could be converted to nature refuges and parks. This sounds a bit airy-fairy to me.

    Another interesting fact is that nearly half of US corn production is used for animal feed. This brings up a topic not mentioned the factory farming of animals, which I assume is very big over there. Taking animals out of the barnyard and rangeland may be more efficient and free up land but what about the ethics of such farming?

  • […] footnote: In a recent piece I pointed to evidence that in fact things are getting better, for the broad mass of humanity, and […]

  • […] Outcomes? The warming and higher CO2 levels of the last hundred years have helped to produce much higher levels of agricultural and pastoral production on the same or less land, and a perceptible greening of the biosphere. Why is all this a problem? What should we do about […]

  • […] papal mate need to read some more cheerful material, like the work of Jesse Asubel I referred to in a recent essay. It’s not as bad as you think, at all! Why haven’t you read the other side, the more […]

  • […] think this is a good example of over-egging, and there are many others. On the evidence, people over the world live longer, are better off, eat better and are bringing more land into […]

  • Nicole Parton Fisher says:

    Thanks for directing me to this, Don. I was generally aware of many of these positive trends, but it was good to see them grouped logically, concisely, and well. Too many of us are nonetheless eating “too many cupcakes,” as I commented in your early 2016 blog, principally because … well … there are too many of us. The slowing of birth rates does not apply to many third-world countries.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Nicole, I guess you didn’t go to the last link. Yes, it does apply to many third-world countries. Go to the last link in the post, Hans Rosling’s lecture, and watch it all. If you can only spend a few minutes then go the link a fast-forward to about 9 minutes in; you can get the gist in the next three minutes. All these data come from the UN and similar population sources. Birth rates everywhere have slowed down a great deal, even in Catholic and Muslim countries.

      Worry about cupcakes if you must , but demography is moving towards a stable, then reducing population for the world.

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