Has Earth finally and permanently outstripped the planet's ability to support us?
Investor Jeremy Grantham of GMO recently published a startlingly depressing outlook for the future of humanity. Grantham thinks the number of people on Earth has finally and permanently outstripped the planet's ability to support us.
Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion).
Basically, Grantham thinks most of us are going to starve to death.
In part because we're churning through a finite supply of something that is critical to our ability to produce food: Phosphorus.
Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and there is a finite supply of it. The consensus is that we will hit "peak phosphorus" production within a few decades, after which point our phosphorus supply will inexorably decline. As it declines, we will be unable to feed ourselves. And you know the rest.
Of course, ever since Malthus, a steady stream of doomsayers have predicted a ghastly end to the human population explosion--and, so far, they've all been wrong.
So why is a man of Grantham's intelligence adding his voice to this chorus?And how real is this threat? Are we all going to starve?
Humans have been around for a while. But for most of our existence, our population was small and stable. Then it exploded.
Most of this explosion has come in the past 200 years--just as Malthus predicted. What Malthus did not foresee was the discovery of oil, commercial fertilizer, and other resources, which have (temporarily) supported this population explosion.
Take oil, for example. Oil traded at about $16 a barrel for a century. Then, as demand outstripped supply, the "normal" price increased to ~$35 a barrel. Now, Grantham thinks "normal" is about ~$75 a barrel
Over the past century, the world has produced ever more food from the same (relatively) finite supply of arable land. For example, this chart shows global wheat production in the past 50 years. The blue line is farmland. The yellow line is total wheat production. The pink line is "yield per hectare." Production is rising because yield is increasing.
In the past half-century, we have used an ever-increasing amount of fertilizer. Not just in total, but per acre. This chart, for example, shows the number of tons of fertilizer used per square kilometer of farmland.
And this leads us to the first problem. 40 years ago, the average growth rate of crop yields per acre was an impressive 3.5% per year. This was comfortably ahead of the growth rate of global population. In recent years, however, the growth in crop yields per acre has dropped to about 1.5%. That's dangerously close to the growth of population.
Phosphorus (P) is essential for life. Plants absorb it from fertilized soil, and then animals absorb it when they eat plants (and each other). When the plants and animals excrete waste or die, the phosphorus returns to the environment. Eventually, given enough time, it gets compressed into rock at the bottom of the ocean.
Phosphate is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and there is no substitute for it (because plants are partially made from it). This photo shows the difference between corn fertilized with phosphorus (background) and corn without.
The trouble is that there isn't an infinite amount of phosphate rock. Estimates differ on the amount of reserves available in the world, but they're not unlimited. Some scientists think we have enough to last hundreds of years. Others, however, are far less optimistic.
Not necessarily. It turns out that our urine and feces contain a lot of phosphorus--which is why they make good fertilizer. If we got serious about recycling our bio-waste, we could reduce our need for phosphate rock.
But although conservation and recycling will help, they won't fix the problem. Because a huge amount of phosphorus will still be lost to runoff. Phosphate that isn't consumed by plants leaches out of the soil into rivers and then to the ocean.
So, why is all this happening now, when the global population has been exploding for two centuries? The answer, in part, is the spectacular growth of China, India, and other massive countries. The resource-usage of these countries is mind-boggling. Here, for example, are Grantham's estimates of the percentage of world consumption of various resources that are consumed by China alone.
Common sense will tell you that finite resources can't support infinite growth. And another look at the "growth curve" of human population shows why it might be silly to dismiss Malthus, et al, as "obviously wrong." (Maybe they were just early).
Two recent events—the spectacle of Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury creator, attacking a group of murdered cartoonists for offending his sensibilities, and the protest organized by a group of bien-pensant writers against the PEN American Center for planning to honor those cartoonists tonight in New York—have brought the Charlie Hebdo controversy back to public consciousness. So has the failed attack Sunday in Texas on a group of anti-Islam militants staging a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest, though, unlike Charlie Hebdo, the organization that sponsored the Texas event is run by an actual anti-Muslim extremist who, I'm proud to say, is a personal nemesis of mine.
Much has already been written about both the Trudeau and PEN controversies. I particularly recommend David Frum on Trudeau, and Katha Pollitt and Matt Welch on PEN, as well as this fine op-ed by Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the president and executive director, respectively, of the PEN American Center. These represent only a handful of the many dozens of writers who have risen in defense of free speech, and of Charlie Hebdo’s right to lampoon religion.
A Modest Proposal makes a passing reference to “the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa.” This blond, blue-eyed “savage” claimed people ate children in his homeland. “When any young person happened to be put to death,” Jonathan Swift recounted, “the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality as a prime dainty.” George Psalmanazar claimed to be a kidnapping victim who was snatched from Formosa (now known as Taiwan) by a Jesuit named Father de Rode of Avignon. This sinister missionary brought him to Europe and pressured the fair young lad to convert from paganism to Catholicism. He was thrown into prison after resisting their overtures but soon escaped their clutches. Soldiers belonging to the elector of Cologne captured Psalmanazar and shipped him off to another batch of scheming Catholics, but he got away again. Then Dutch soldiers detained him and pushed Calvinism on him, to no avail (he just couldn’t buy into the doctrine of predestination). While in the Netherlands, Psalmanazar crossed paths with an Anglican priest named Alexander Innes, who dazzled him with the Church of England’s teachings. “At my arrival at London,” he later recalled, “Mr. Innes, and some worthy clergymen of his acquaintance, introduced me to the bishop of London, and got soon after a good number of friends among the clergy and laiety.”
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Last year, as part vanity project, part science experiment, I decided to adopt a new skin-care routine, something that an aging celebrity might use on a daily basis. My goal was to determine whether, in fact, a high-tech routine can make a difference. Are beauty products worth it?
A dermatologist friend introduced me to Marie, who ran a “skin science” clinic next to his office in Calgary, Canada. This was not a medical office, but a clinic that provided cosmetic services and products aimed at helping people enhance the look and condition of their skin. “I am, really, a skin coach,” Marie told me as she showed me around the office. She had a degree in microbiology, was infectiously good-natured, and had absolutely flawless skin.
I recently spoke with Pugh about what this means for American workers, society, and public policy. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Rebecca J. Rosen: A central premise of your research is that work is about more than money—it's also about identity and relationships, particularly within a family. How does work shape us beyond our bank accounts?
The man from Hope is back. Nope, not that one—the one whose wife is leading the Democratic field. The one who succeeded him as governor of Arkansas: Republican Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee is announcing Tuesday that he's a candidate for president with a kickoff in the hometown he shares with Bill Clinton. After a strong run in 2008 and a decision to take the 2012 cycle off, Huckabee is testing whether he still has the same pull he once did.
He's the third Republican candidate to announce this week alone, and the fourth in 10 days. On Monday, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and tech executive Carly Fiorina both announced campaigns, and last week Senator Bernie Sanders announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination.
Sullivan: Now we’re getting somewhere. And I’m not just referring to all of the potential wars that so many of our Game of Thrones characters are trying to either stave off or set aflame. We’ll get to those in a moment. No, I’m talking about the long-simmering question that should be on every fan’s mind, the one that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to answer before George R. R. Martin would hand over his series so they could bring it to television
Unless you’re a baseball historian, Ray Chapman probably isn’t a name that sounds familiar. If you do recognize him, it’s because he has the ignominy of being the last Major League Baseball player to die from being hit by a pitch. The Cleveland shortstop died in 1920 at the age of 29, after the Yankees pitcher Carl Mays accidentally struck Chapman in the head with a ball. That MLB has gone nearly an entire century without another on-field fatality has less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck.
Every season, numerous pitchers are instructed to throw—with intent to injure—at members of the opposite team. Every season, these intentional hits result in bad blood, threats of future violence, and occasionally serious injury to players whose livelihoods depend on their ability to stay fit. And every season, MLB turns a blind eye to the practice. The recent high-profile dust-up between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics is only noteworthy because it so perfectly captures the absurdity of team-sanctioned assault. The hit batsman gets a free base, but pitchers pick their spots—waiting until there are two outs and no one on base, or after the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt. Unlike other sports, which assess a meaningful immediate penalty (lost yardage, free throws, forcing a team to play a man short for a period of time), MLB has no such disincentive and so this behavior happens frequently. Meanwhile, baseball fans roll their eyes and shrug—they’ve seen this all before.
Texas has the rare distinction among U.S. states of having been, for a decade in the 19th century, its own nation. That history of independence, that lingering pride of sovereignty, has never really left the state, and every so often it arouses a certain suspicion of outside forces—be it Mexicans, ISIS fighters, or most frequently, the federal government. So when the U.S. military announced plans to hold an eight-week joint exercise it called Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas and five other western states this summer, the people of Bastrop County quickly—and with the help of radio host Alex Jones and Infowars.com—saw it for what it really was: a preparation for the military to impose martial law in the Lone Star State.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.