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. Why?
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).
The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
How the election looks to backers of the Republican nominee
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in contemporary American politics is to imagine how the world looks from the other side. I’ve made no secret of why, as a Republican, I oppose Donald Trump and what he stands for. But I’ve also been talking to his supporters and advisors, trying to understand how they see and hear the same things that I do, and draw such very different conclusions. What follows isn’t a transcription—it’s a synthesis of the conversations I’ve had, and the insights I’ve gleaned, presented in the voice of an imagined Trump supporter.
“You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be. He’s playing this game in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen. And he’s winning too, in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen.
Not the people—the term. How generational divisions have driven down voter turnout over the last century of American politics.
Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pundits and activists have debated how to get more Millennials involved in politics, always stressing their distinctive character. But it was actually this tendency to slice up the electorate into unique generations that drove young people from politics in the first place.
In the 19th century, children, youths, and adults “mingled freely together” at rowdy campaign rallies, lured by the holy trinity of booze, barbecue, and bonfire. Older citizens introduced young people to politics, helping to drive voter turnouts to their highest levels in U.S. history. “It’s the ‘big fellow,’” observed the Republicans canvassing in pool halls and saloons in the 1880s, who does the best job getting “the ‘little fellow”’ into politics.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
The World Well-Being Project uses Facebook updates to correlate language with personality traits.
Do our Facebook posts reflect our true personalities? Incrementally, probably not. But in aggregate, the things we say on social media paint a fairly accurate portrait of our inner selves. A team of University of Pennsylvania scientists is using Facebook status updates to find commonalities in the words used by different ages, genders, and even psyches.
“Governments have an increased interest in measuring not just economic outcomes but other aspects of well-being,” said Andrew Schwartz, a UPenn computer scientist who works on the project. “But it's very difficult to study well-being at a large scale. It costs a lot of money to administer surveys to see how people are doing in certain areas. Social media can help with that.”
A collection of books recommended by The Atlantic’s editors and writers
The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
Learning how to bond with my daughter, who found comfort in the familiarity of being alone, has come through understanding reactive attachment disorder.
My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the words with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” The words “reactive attachment disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace.
I think back to when Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn't suggesting that my daughter Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the '80s and '90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, Shut up, Judith. We got Julia young. It shouldn't be an issue.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
It’s a staple in American homes, but at what environmental cost?
As Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans in 2005, neighborhood after neighborhood collapsed from flooding. Of the houses that stood, many still had to be bulldozed due to mold within the walls. But one building, a plantation-home-turned-museum on Moss Street built two centuries before the disaster, was left almost entirely unscathed.
“The Pitot house was built the old way, with plaster walls,” says Steve Mouzon, an architect who helped rebuild the city after the hurricane. “When the flood came, the museum moved the furniture upstairs. Afterwards, they simply hosed the walls—no harm done.”
The other houses weren’t built the old way. “All the homes around the Pitot house were lost because they were built with drywall,” says Mouzon.