The Greens, in their own words…
“In my view, after fifty years of service in the United Nations system,
I perceive the utmost urgency and absolute necessity for proper
Earth government. There is no shadow of a doubt that the present
political and economic systems are no longer appropriate
and will lead to the end of life evolution on this planet.
We must therefore absolutely and urgently look for new ways.”
“The concept of national sovereignty has been immutable,
indeed a sacred principle of international relations.
It is a principle which will yield only slowly and reluctantly to
the new imperatives of global environmental cooperation.”
“Effective execution of Agenda 21 will require a profound
reorientation of all human society, unlike anything the world
has ever experienced a major shift in the priorities of both
governments and individuals and an unprecedented
redeployment of human and financial resources. This shift
will demand that a concern for the environmental consequences
of every human action be integrated into individual and
collective decision-making at every level.”
“Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the
industrialized civilizations collapse?
Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?”
“A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells;
the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people.
We must shift our efforts from the treatment of the symptoms to
the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many
apparently brutal and heartless decisions.”
“A total population of 250-300 million people,
a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal.”
“One America burdens the earth much more than
twenty Bangladeshes. This is a terrible thing to say.
In order to stabilize world population,we must eliminate
350,000 people per day. It is a horrible thing to say,
but it’s just as bad not to say it.”
“Childbearing should be a punishable crime against
society, unless the parents hold a government license.
All potential parents should be required to use
contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing
antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.”
“If I were reincarnated I would wish to be returned to earth
as a killer virus to lower human population levels.”
One of the popular refrains of the Greens is that the world is over-populated. They are more cautious nowadays about publicly proposing final solutions to the population question, but even decades after the argument was debunked, their calls for something to be done about this fundamental “problem” are not yet discredited. Even people who aren’t environmentally inclined have picked it up as a background assumption – believing that it is a problem. So it is still worth thinking about – how many people could the world support with future technology?
It’s a complicated question that I can’t answer completely, but we can make a start by thinking about food. Everybody knows that fertile land is in short supply, and takes a huge effort to farm. Even today, many people don’t have access to enough food. Is this a fundamental limitation?
The simple answer is no. In prehistoric times, palaeontologists think one could harvest about 200 kg of wild wheat per hectare. Modern strains of wheat contain about 3000-3500 Calories/kg, and you need about 2000 Calories/day, so you would need around 200-250 kg to keep you going for a year. So you could support a population density of about one person per hectare, ballpark.
When we invented agriculture, yields shot up. The Romans achieved 600-800 kg/hectare, and Cicero’s estates on the fertile slopes of Mt Etna yielded 1500. You can see why the people of that time made the change.
Agricultural knowledge developed, and around 1300 they were getting 1000-1500 kg/hectare over most of Northern Europe. At the height of pre-industrial technology, Europeans were getting yields of about 2100-2850 kg/hectare using organic fertilisation and with animal and human power alone. It is reckoned today that about 3000 kg/hectare is the limit for organic techniques.
This is important, because it sets a limit on how much time you have to spend just growing food to survive, and how much you therefore have left to do everything else, like making cars and telephones and space ships. It takes a while to walk around a hectare, so farming is labour intensive. In 1500 about 80% of the workforce was involved in agricultural labour, this declined steadily to about 60% in 1800. Think about that – 60% of all the effort people put in just devoted to growing food! Today, in the developed nations, it is less than 5%.
That is one of the fundamental reasons why our civilisation has taken off so meteorically. We have far more time to devote to inventing stuff.
So you see, back before 1800, the fundamental limitation was lack of people. You need people to clear land and make it fertile. (Contrary to popular belief, fertility is something that is mostly manufactured. Clear away rocks, level the ground, drain it, irrigate it, till it to improve the structure, clear the weeds, fertilise it. It is a tremendous investment of human labour. It is not something we found simply lying around.) But virtually all your effort was devoted to just maintaining what you currently had. You had none spare to expand. You had none spare to invent ways to do it more quickly.
But then Fritz Haber invented a way to make artificial nitrate fertilisers. All you need is energy! Nitrogen and hydrogen gas are heated under pressure in the presence of a magnetite catalyst. They react to produce ammonia, which can then be oxidised into nitric acid and thence to ammonium nitrate and similar substances.
This invention was explosive! Crop yields for wheat in developed countries like the United States can be up to 10,000 kg/hectare! That’s from two crops per year made possible by the use of fertilisers. The mechanisation of farming yielded another massive advantage, freeing up the vast majority of the labour force for more productive activity.
It has got to the point where we have too much capacity, and 30 million acres of good farmland are being diverted from food production by federal subsidies in the US alone. The Common Agricultural Policy does the same in Europe. The United States and Argentina alone, if they were to redeploy this fertile land, could feed an additional 1.4 billion people. And with no effort at all – just by stopping governments getting in the way.
How far can we go? Well, the next step up is hydroponics. Here, we don’t bother with soil, we instead grow the plants in a nutrient solution. (Potassium dihydrogen phosphate, potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate, magnesium sulphate, iron, traces of manganous sulphate, boric acid, copper sulphate, ammonium molybdate, and zinc sulphate.) Grown indoors all year round in greenhouses with enhanced CO2 and brighter continuous lights, commercial greenhouses have yielded a ton of food per day from less than half a hectare. (Back in 1988!) That’s a rate of about 900,000 kg/hectare.
But with artificial light, you don’t have to lay it out flat, you can stack the layers on top of one another. Assuming a ten-storey building is feasible, with three layers per storey, you can think of that as 27,000,000 kg/hectare-year, ground-plan.
That’s a lot of water to put in a tall building, though, and water is heavy. But there is another even better technology, in which crops are grown in nothing but air! Aeroponics as it is called has the nutrient solution sprayed onto the roots as a fine mist. There are various technologies for doing this – such as the ultrasonic nebulizer. This uses ultrasound to divide the water up into tiny, light droplets that will float in the air. How can you possibly argue with a technology that has such a cool name? They actually do have it on Star Trek.
So remember, you need about 250 kg of food per year to keep you going. That means about 3 metres squared to grow it on. If we were to cover the entire Earth’s surface ten layers deep, that would feed about 5 quadrillion people, a million times the current global population. Turning the Earth into Trantor probably isn’t practical, of course, but slightly more serious estimates reckon the ultimate carrying capacity using currently foreseeable technology is somewhere around a trillion.
The Greens use a particular common trick to make their case: they quote the way we currently do things as a basis for calculation, and extrapolate assuming nothing about the way we do things will change. The problem is, the way we currently do things is often dictated by economics, not ability. It’s presently far cheaper to stick it out in fields under the sun and leave it than it is to water and feed and light it ourselves. We don’t care about yield per hectare, we care about yield per dollar spent. And as we all get inexorably richer over the coming centuries, and invent ever better ways of doing things, that calculation will change.
We use resources as stepping stones to new resources. It does not matter that any one of them is finite, so long as we keep moving. Extrapolating our continuing development based on the size of any one step, it always appears we must soon run out. But this is based on a fallacy. It is like counting up the contents of your refrigerator and declaring that you’ll have totally run out of food by next week, after which you will surely starve to death. And then demanding that the fridge door therefore be locked shut, so that this terrible disaster does not happen.
“The common enemy of humanity is man.
In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up
with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming,
water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill. All these
dangers are caused by human intervention, and it is only through
changed attitudes and behavior that they can be overcome.
The real enemy then, is humanity itself.”