Apocalypse delayed: the re-greening of the Earth

A striking theme of our time is the notion that we are facing a great, perhaps unresolvable crisis. Hollywood has been churning out films that show humanity dealing with the end of the world for a long time, and I read that there are more of them in preparation. The current heatwave is portrayed both by official sources and the media as a sign of things to come, not just a run of hot weather. The fires that we have seen (some at least the work of arsonists) provide a kind of counterpoint: this is our future.

Underpinning it is another theme that has been in vogue every since the Rev Thomas Malthus first voiced it in 1799. There are too many of us. It is impossible to feed us all. Soon every hectare will be devoted to food. Eventually there will only be a square metre or so on the planet for each of us. We will have to give up meat, because it takes so much grain to produce a small amount of animal protein. The seas are being fished out. Caged hens must be released. Genetically modified foods will kill us all. We will run out of water. Some people do seem to get a perverse joy out of all this, and of course it is the underlying theme of Green parties everywhere: we are the wreckers, humanity is a virus that is killing the world. And so on.

I am by nature an optimist, not a pessimist, and there seems to me to be such a lot of evidence pointing to the capacity of human beings to learn and adapt. Why don’t people look at what has been done to improve what it means to be alive, and take comfort and resolve from it? What Australia has achieved since 1950 is extraordinary. Many countries far worse off than us have achieved striking gains over the same period. Look at Thailand and Malaysia — look at the more recent progress of India and China, the world’s most populous countries, and what has been done to raise the living standards of their people. Oh yes, says the pessimist, but it’s not sustainable.

Isn’t it? Why not? I advise the gloomy to read a new paper, yes, peer-reviewed, and yes, from academics, not bloggers like me, called ‘Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing’. Messrs Ausubel, Wernick and Waggoner point out that in fact more efficient agriculture has meant that, to take India, population has more than doubled since 1960, national income has increased fifteen times, today’s Indians eat more than their counterparts in 1960, and 15 million hectares have been added to India’s forests: less land is used for agriculture. India used to import food; now, commonly, it exports it. Indians don’t eat much more meat than they used to.

In China the rises have been even more dramatic, with national income increasing 45 times, and while the Chinese are consuming more eggs, meat and milk, Chinese forests are also expanding. The authors then develop a technique for explaining the relationship between economic and population growth and food production, and generalise it to the whole world. Some of it is familiar to me from past research ( I spent ten years of my working life looking at farmers and faming and the economics and politics of it all). Despite our worries about obesity, in general as people become wealthier they spend less on food, while farmers have steadily improved the productivity of each hectare. There is no reason to suppose that they will not continue to do so. The rate of population increase is falling as affluence increases, while the demand for meat is not growing as fast as one might suppose.

The cumulative outcomes are that we may be at ‘peak farmland’ or already have passed it. Forests are growing, as is their density (the volume of timber within the forests), and were countries not using arable land for bio-fuels like ethanol, which is subsidised by governments, the ‘return’ of land to  its ‘natural’ state would be even more dramatic. There are lots of wild cards in projecting what has already happened into the future. Will demand for meat shift from beef to poultry? It has done in my lifetime in Australia. Will humans grow taller, and thus need more calories? Will the shift to landless agriculture (hydroponics) intensify? Will obesity decline, or become the norm?

But the wild cards cannot push aside the fact  that human beings are good at overcoming limitations to their existence. They have shown this capacity since they began to live together in settled societies ten thousand years ago. And I have every confidence that they will continue to do so. A study like this one shows why and gives you confidence. I doubt that you will read about it in the press, or hear about it on the ABC. It just runs counter to the fashionable gloomy outlook, and is easily ignored.



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