Sunday, May 8, 2011

Overcrowded World

One death is a tragedy. a million deaths is a statistic.
-(mis)attributed to Joseph Stalin

Recently the UN updated their future estimates of global population increase, and the results aren't pretty. Previously, one glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim resources picture was the fact that global population was expected to top out at approximately 9 billion by the middle of the century, and decline somewhat thereafter. Now, the new estimates put the human population at 10.1 by 2100. Much of that growth will be in Africa, where population will more than triple to 3.6 billion, from one billion today.

Numbers like this are notoriously hard to fathom. Dunbar's number states that the human brain is reasonably equipped to deal with no more than 100-150 close personal relationships. Beyond that, it's just a faceless mass. Somewhere, the ghost of Malthus is clucking a sad "I told you so."

Population considerations are a notoriously frustrating thing to contemplate, since, unlike so many other situations where the government is expected to "do something," like, say, the economy; with population no one is in charge. It just happens according to the inexorable mathematics, like bacteria breeding in pool of yeast. We feel helpless against the tide. In his essay, Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley hit the nail exactly on the head when he wrote in 1958:

Even the poorest government is rich enough to provide its subjects with a substantial measure of death con­trol. Birth control is a very different matter. Death control is something which can be provided for a whole people by a few technicians working in the pay of a benevolent government. Birth control depends on the co-operation of an entire people. It must be practiced by countless individuals, from whom it demands more intelligence and will power than most of the world's teeming illiterates possess, and (where chemical or me­chanical methods of contraception are used) an ex­penditure of more money than most of these millions can now afford. Moreover, there are nowhere any reli­gious traditions in favor of unrestricted death, whereas religious and social traditions in favor of un­restricted reproduction are widespread. For all these reasons, death control is achieved very easily, birth control is achieved with great difficulty. Death rates have therefore fallen in recent years with startling suddenness. But birth rates have either remained at their old high level or, if they have fallen, have fallen very little and at a very slow rate. In consequence, human numbers are now increasing more rapidly than at any time in the history of the species.

Simply put, the more people you have, the faster population tends to increase, because there are more people around to breed. It becomes an accelerating trend. Those of us who believe that the world does indeed have limits are naturally quite concerned that there is going to be enough for all of us. Either one of two distasteful things must happen: increasing competition means the cost for everything will be bid up, or many must simply be denied resources. Neither of these is very morally satisfying. So can we feed ten billion humans?

I doubt it. even under perfect circumstances it would be difficult, but there are several reasons why I don't think it will be possible:

1.) We are running out of arable land.
2.) We are running out of water
3. We are running out of fertilizer.
4.) we are running out of fossil fuel
5.) We are running out of topsoil
6.) Crop yields are increasing at a slower rate than population growth
7.) Earth's climate is changing to be less amenable to agriculture.

Any one of these would be a game ender. All of them are leading to a Malthusian Catastrophe - the point at which population outruns the ability to feed itself.

First, let's take a look at those declining crop yields. From Michael Roberts via Mark Thoma's Website:

There are many reasons for high commodity prices. But recent data from FAO shows a pretty rapid slowdown in productivity growth. The price spike in 2008 occurred in a particularly bad year in which yields declined on a worldwide basis for three of the four largest food commodities. In 2009 all four of the majors saw yield declines, something that hasn't happened since 1974. 2010 couldn't have been much better and was probably worse, given how bad things were in the U.S, the world's largest producer and exporter (worldwide data for 2010 isn't available yet).

The yield slowdown comes at a particularly unfortunate time, with accelerating demand from emerging economies like China and subsidy-driven expansion of ethanol. Keep in mind: we need productivity growth to accelerate considerably to keep up with projected demand growth. FAO says we need 70 percent higher yields by 2050. (Although I'd like to do my own projections, and will one of these days...)

According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, the world is one poor harvest away from chaos:

Over the longer term, expanding food production rapidly is becoming more difficult as food bubbles based on the overpumping of underground water burst, shrinking grain harvests in many countries. Meanwhile, increasing climate volatility, including more frequent, more extreme weather events, will make the expansion of production more erratic.

Some 18 countries have inflated their food production in recent decades by overpumping aquifers to irrigate their crops. Among these are China, India, and the United States, the big three grain producers.

When water-based food bubbles burst in some countries, they will dramatically reduce production. In others, they may only slow production growth. In Saudi Arabia, which was wheat self-sufficient for more than 20 years, the wheat harvest is collapsing and will likely disappear entirely within a year or so as the country’s fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, is depleted.

In Syria and Iraq, grain harvests are slowly shrinking as irrigation wells dry up. Yemen is a hydrological basket case, where water tables are falling throughout the country and wells are going dry. These bursting food bubbles make the Arab Middle East the first geographic region where aquifer depletion is shrinking the grain harvest.

While these Middle East declines are dramatic, the largest water-based food bubbles are in India and China. A World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is feeding 130 million people. Spreading water shortages in both of these population giants are making it more difficult to expand their food supplies.

Beyond irrigation wells going dry, farmers must contend with climate change. Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent. Thus it was no surprise that searing temperatures in western Russia last summer shrank the grain harvest by 40 percent.

On the demand side of the food equation, there are now three sources of growth. First is population growth. There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. Second is rising affluence. Some three billion people are now trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs. And third, massive amounts of grain are being converted into oil, i.e. ethanol, to fuel cars. Roughly 120 million tons of the 400-million-ton 2010 U.S. grain harvest are going to ethanol distilleries.

If that weren't bad enough, according to a report published in the New York Times the very same day as it reported on the new population numbers, Climate Change is already reducing crop yields around the world:

Global warming is already cutting substantially into potential crop yields in some countries — to such an extent that it may be a factor in the food price increases that have caused worldwide stress in recent years, researchers suggest in a new study.

Wheat yields in recent years were down by more than 10 percent in Russia and by a few percentage points each in India, France and China compared with what they probably would have been without rising temperatures, according to the study.

Corn yields were off a few percentage points in China, Brazil and France from what would have been expected, said the researchers, whose findings were published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

Some countries saw small gains from the temperature increases, however. And in all countries, the extra carbon dioxide that humans are pumping into the air acted as a fertilizer that encouraged plant growth, offsetting some of the losses from rising temperatures caused by that same greenhouse gas.

Consequently, the study’s authors found that when the gains in some countries were weighed against the losses in others, the overall global effect of climate change has been small so far: losses of a few percentage points for wheat and corn from what they would have been without climate change. The overall impact on production of rice and soybeans was negligible, with gains in some regions entirely offsetting losses in others.

“We aren’t talking about the sky falling,” Dr. Lobell said. “But we are talking about billions of dollars of losses. Every little bit of production is valuable when we’re trying to feed the world.”
If the price estimate is correct, it makes climate change a small contributor to a large trend. The prices of many foodstuffs have doubled or tripled in recent years as a result of a host of factors, including rapidly rising food demand in Asia, government mandates to use crops for biofuel production and extreme weather that may or may not be linked to climate change.

The authors of the new study specifically excluded the effects of extreme weather like brief heat waves and flash floods because of limitations in the data that they used. For that and other reasons, Dr. Lobell said, the study’s estimate of the impact of climate change is probably conservative.

We're already overpumping aquifers and facing widespread drought. Only a tiny fraction of the world's water is fresh water suable for drinking or agriculture.

This recent report by the BBC's Damian Grammaticus from Northern China paints a bleak picture:

Across northern China swathes of land are dry, parched by drought.

In some areas these are the driest conditions in a lifetime. Snowfalls in recent days have helped a little, but still, across huge areas of land, water is in short supply.

The countryside is dotted with empty dams. Standing on top of one, near Qufu in Shandong Province, you can see just a tiny muddy pool in the centre of a dam that is hundreds of metres long.

Sitting rusting on the earth is a small boat. Along the dry dam floor people have been planting rows of crops because it has been like this for so long.

Li Si Jiao, 77, his back stooped with age, shuffles slowly along a path on top of the dam. His face is weathered and creased with lines. He gestures at the dam and says the water used to stretch all the way to the village in the distance, but no more.

This is China's breadbasket, the heart of its grain growing lands, and all around are Shandong's wheat fields. They are full of lines of seedlings, sprouting from the ground, but wilting and yellowing.

A grey, polluted haze hangs in the air. Every few hundred yards small groups of men and women are working to try to save their crops from the drought.

China is the world's biggest grower and consumer of wheat. In normal years it is self-sufficient. But if it has to import grain this year then that will have an impact far afield.

Already just the warnings of a possible shortfall in China's crop have put pressure on global wheat prices.

Some 200 million people live across the north China plain. It is home to giant cities like Beijing and Tianjin which are expanding fast. But the area has water resources comparable to a desert country and every year as the population swells the water stress grows worse.

China's industries are inefficient, they consume far more water than those in developed countries. The country's construction boom means water use is even more intensive.

Many of the rivers in the north have dried up. Dams have blocked their normal flow, the water diverted to towns, farms and factories.

The northern megacities now rely on underground water sources for two-thirds of their needs. But the aquifers beneath places like Beijing are being drained, sinking as they are used faster than the rain can replenish them. Some fear the water could be gone in 30 years in places.

Ma Jun is one of China's most prominent environmentalists. Over a decade ago he wrote a book titled China's Water Crisis.

As we walk along one of Beijing's dirty canals he tells me: "In China two-thirds of our cities are short of water.

The situation is little better here in the United States. The Ogalalla Aquifer is one of the largest underground aquifers in the world, underlying eight states right in the US agricultural heartland-South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Twenty-seven percent of the irrigated land in the US overlies this aquifer system, which yields about 30 percent of the water used for irrigation. It is also being depleted much faster than it can replenish:

The first ranchers, and the Plains Indians before them, knew of water below the ground from the watering holes that sustained buffalo and then cattle far from any river. The white man learnt to drill, leaving primitive windmills on top of wooden derricks silhouetted against Wild West horizons.

But it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl (the result of a severe drought and excessive farming in the early 1930s), that the US Geological Survey worked out that the watering holes were clues to the Ogallala, now believed to be the world's largest body of fresh water. They were about to repeat the dreams of man from the days of Ancient Egypt and Judea to turn the desert green, only without the Nile or Jordan. With new technology the wells could reach the deepest water, and from the early 1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendantsf Dust Bowl survivors became millionaire landowners.

'Since then,' says David Brauer of the US Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, 'we have drained enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.' Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feet of water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – have been pumped. 'The problem,' he goes on, 'is that in a brief half-century we have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.'

Brauer's agency was set up in direct response to the Dust Bowl, with the brief of finding ways to make sure that the devastation never happens again. If it does, the impact on the world's food supply will be far greater. The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America's 'industrial' agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in Africa and anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. 'The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,' Brauer says. 'That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That's all we can do.'

Estimates vary, but with careful conservation, less wasteful irrigation and seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum genetically engineered for drought conditions, farming may yet go on for 60 years. That would be over the deepest stratum of the Ogallala. But the husbanding of water, soil, minerals or anything else has never been the Texan way, and without it the dust will start blowing in as few as 10 years.

The American Southwest is in even more dire straights due to climate change:

Climate change could cut water flow in several of the American West's largest river basins by up to 20% this century, the interior department report said.

Those rivers provide water to eight US states, from Texas to California.

The West and South West are among the fastest-growing regions in the US.

The Colorado, the Rio Grande and the San Joaquin are three of the rivers mentioned in the report, which said an 8% to 20% decrease in average annual stream flow is expected.

"Impacts to water are on the leading edge of global climate change," said Mike Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, a US agency that helps provide water to more than 31 million people in 17 Western states.

Oh, and we're losing topsoil at an alarming rate, especially in area of heavy monocropping like Iowa, where we've lost half the topsoil during the twentieth century:

For Iowa — and other Corn Belt states facing similar problems — this means an increasing loss of fertility that has to be replaced chemically. It marks a failure of stewardship, since these soils will have to feed future generations. And every particle that washes away causes problems downstream, including sedimentation — which can increase the risk of flooding — and the alarming dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of runoff of the chemical fertilizers farmers apply to make up for lost fertility.

The Agriculture Department says that a “sustainable” rate of topsoil loss for most of Iowa is 5 tons per acre per year, and the actual average soil erosion is 5.2 tons. But using Iowa State University statistics and an aerial survey, the Environmental Working Group concluded that average annual soil loss in much of Iowa is double the federal government’s estimates. This pace of erosion is caused partly by an increasing number of intense storms. As the report says, it has been exacerbated by a fundamental bias in federal farm policy and supports. In the dozen years before 2009, Iowa received nearly $17 billion in subsidies that fostered high-intensity farming and less than $3 billion to support conservation. In the recent budget battles, conservation programs were the hardest-hit farm programs.

Meanwhile, the race to profit from high crop prices — especially corn for ethanol — and the sobering jump in the cost of rented land in Iowa means that there is an intense push to create greater yield on more acreage and less incentive than ever to practice sound soil conservation.

This is all the more tragic because the techniques for conserving soil are well understood. It requires planting buffer zones between fields and rivers and contour strips on sloping fields and planting regimes that keep crop cover on the soil by rotating between 3 and 4 crops, not just soybeans and corn. It also requires comprehensive conservation regulations and enforcement and, above all, facing the fact that erosion is not nature or bad farmers at work. It is the legacy of bad agricultural policy.

These pillars—located outside a rest area off Highway 80 in Adair County, Iowa—represent the topsoil Iowa has lost since large-scale farming began 150 years ago. In the 19th century, Iowa had 14-16 inches of topsoil. Today, it has just 6-8 inches of the stuff, and more is being lost all the time.

According to David Montgomery, author of Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations:

Worldwide, over two billion acres of virgin land have been plowed and brought into agricultural use since 1860. Until the last decades of the twentieth century, clearning new land compensated for loss of agricultural land. In the 1980s the total amount of land under cultivation began declining for the first time since farming reached the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the developed world, the rate at which new (and generally marginal) land was brought under cultivation fell below the rate at which land was being exhausted. Although we use a little more than a tenth of the Earth's land surface to grow crops, and another quarter of the world's surface for grazing, there is little unused land suitable for either. About the only places left that could be used for agriculture are the tropical forests where thin, highly erodible soils could only briefly support farming....

Acorss the planet, moderate to extreme soil erosion has degraded 1.2 billion hecatres of agricultural land since 1945 - an area the size of China and India combined.... The United Nations estimates that 38% of global cropland has seriously degraded since the Second World War. ... average cropland erosion of 10 to a hundred tons per hectare per year removes soil about 10 to a hundred times faster than it forms.

As for fertilizer, phosphorus, a critical fertilizer, is running out. An article in Foreign Policy Magazine by James Elser and Stuart White highlighted the dangers last year. According to them, "it's an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it's running out." As the The New York Times reported:

The two academics say the long-term problem isn’t insufficient production (the problem recently); it’s finite supply:

Our supply of mined phosphorus is running out. Many mines used to meet this growing demand are degrading, as they are increasingly forced to access deeper layers and extract a lower quality of phosphate-bearing rock. … Some initial analyses from scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative estimate that there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years. Although more research is clearly needed, this is not a comforting time scale.

The geographic concentration of phosphate mines also threatens to usher in an era of intense resource competition. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s estimated phosphorus reserves are found in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan and the United States. In comparison, the 12 countries that make up the OPEC cartel control only 75 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

The upshot, the authors write, could be international tension, rising prices, even “a Malthusian trap of widespread famine.”

“We need to dramatically reduce the demand for phosphate rock by eliminating our wasteful practices,” they write, noting that phosphate can be recycled over and over.

This post from Cecil Adams at the Straight Dope summarizes the situation well:

Without oil, uranium, or coal we'll be short of energy, which is bad enough. But without phosphorus we'll starve.

Phosphorus is found in everything from matches to Coca-Cola, but more than 90 percent of the phosphorus we use goes to make fertilizer, where it's usually mixed with nitrogen and potassium. Phosphorus is a key component of DNA and cell structures and in plants plays an important role in leaf growth, yield, disease resistance, and overall maturity and health.

Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fertilizer. Between 1919 and 1955, about a quarter of all improvement in U.S. crop yields was due to fertilizer. A UN study estimates every pound of fertilizer is responsible for about 10 pounds of cereal grain. You can fertilize with nitrogen and potassium alone, but at considerable cost to your harvest. Rice yields, for example, can fall off 15 percent if you skip phosphorus, and wheat and corn crops could decline even more. In much of the world people don't have enough to eat as it is; you can imagine the disaster if key crops drop by a sixth.

Now for the bad news: the U.S. produces a bit more than 27 million tons per year of phosphate rock, the primary source of phosphorus, and has reserves of about 1.1 billion tons. That means we'll run out in 40 years. Worldwide the situation is a little better, with about 160 million tons of annual production and 16 billion tons of reserves, enough for 100 years. While that sounds like a decent margin, the global peak, after which production can no longer keep up with demand, may be less than 30 years away.

As for fossil fuels, I will not rehash the overwhelming amount of data that points to declining fossil fuel resources. It is pretty much guaranteed that we will have passed the peak of coal, oil, and natural gas by 2050. By 2100, we may have nearly no oil resources. Faith Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, believes that conventional oil production peaked in 2006:

Dr Fatih Birol
When we look at the oil markets the news is not very bright. We think that the crude oil production has already peaked in 2006

Hang on - did you get that? Crude oil production for the world peaked in 2006.

Dr Fatih Birol
The existing fields are declining sharply in North sea, in United States, in Gulf of Mexico. Just to stay where we are today we have to find four new Saudi Arabia's, this is a tall order.

OK - so what are their current projections, which include tar sands, natural gas liquids, all additional sources of oil.

Dr Fatih Birol
We see the total oil production can increase up to ninety six million barrels per day in 2035. But this is potential, nobody can guarantee me that the oil under the ground, especially in some key Middle East producers will be developed and will be brought to the markets in a timely manner.

Dr. Birol is not alone. According to a report by the US Forces Joint Command released in 2010:

"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.

It adds: "While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."

A German military report leaked onto the Web warns of similar scenarios, as does Lloyd's of London. As for coal coming to the rescue, don't bet on it:

Is the world about to begin running out of coal?

Two researchers say so. In a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Energy, they write that the world will hit "peak coal" production next year or shortly thereafter, and then mining would begin a long, steep decline.

Bottom line, say the paper's co-authors, Tadeusz Patzek, a University of Texas engineering professor, and Greg Croft, a St. Mary's College of California earth science professor, is that the 7 billion tons of coal the world is now mining and burning each year is about the best it can do.

"Our ability to produce this resource at 8 billion tons per year, in my mind, is a dream," Patzek said.

The pair's prediction is based on the "Hubbert Cycle," the resource-depletion theory that American geophysicist M. King Hubbert used in the 1950s to correctly forecast that U.S. oil production would peak two decades later.

Patzek predicts coal will peak not because supplies are running out but because the remaining deposits are increasingly difficult to mine. Alaska's North Slope, for example, has coal reserves that rival those of the continental United States, but turning that coal into energy would be practically impossible, Patzek argues.

"It would take 10 or 11 of the largest coal terminals on the Earth operating 24-7, 365 to load ships above the Arctic Circle during the polar night," he said.

Russia, China and other energy consumers face similar logistical difficulties with coal, Patzek said.

And while global supplies are set to trail off, the stage is set for demand to spike, Patzek said. U.S. consumers use slightly less than 1 billion tons of coal annually, the Chinese use an estimated 3.5 billion tons, and emerging energy giants like India and Indonesia are hungry for more.

And as for natural gas, it is a major feedstock for the production of ammonia, via the Haber process, which is a major source of fertilizer. If we start burning it for energy, the price of fertilizer will go through the roof.

As Future Pundit blogger Randall Parker points out, "The key need is cheap energy. Given sufficiently cheap energy any other natural resource shortage becomes easy to solve." Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. We've been able to solve many resource shortages, from water to phosphorus. It takes energy to build irrigation works and pump water long distances. It takes energy to mine phosphorus and transport it long distances. What will do in a world where energy is scarce? China is already engaging in massive engineering projects just to buy time:

So China is pressing ahead with one of the world's biggest engineering schemes to shift the water northwards.

Fond of massive schemes, the country's Communist Party leaders are building the North-South water project, a giant series of canals and pipes to carry water from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to Beijing. The cost of the project is a staggering $60bn (£36.8bn).

Standing on a giant crane looking down on one of the North-South construction sites you can see hundreds of workers welding and cutting iron bars, building huge metal moulds to make sections of concrete pipe.

Each section is around 10m (33ft) high, 8m (26ft) wide and 30m (99ft) long. When complete the North-South project will deliver the equivalent of 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools full of water to cities in the north each day.

One of the men overseeing the site tells me that it is a great honour to take part in the project, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a construction engineer.

But the scheme can only be a stopgap. The amount of water it will deliver will buy China time to change and, hopefully, become more efficient.

But it won't be enough to solve the country's water woes. China's thirst is just too great, and unless it alters its ways, millions might find one day, that their water could run dry.

These schemes will not be possible in world short of energy and money in the throes of economic contraction. In his stunning shareholder report, Jeremy Grantham sums up the world's agricultural situation:

Moving on to agriculture, the limitations are more hidden. We think of ourselves as having almost unlimited land up our sleeve, but this is misleading because the gap between first-rate and third-rate land can be multiples of output, and only Brazil, and perhaps the Ukraine, have really large potential increments of output. Elsewhere, available land is shrinking. For centuries, cities and towns have tended to be built not on hills or rocky land, but on prime agricultural land in river valleys. This has not helped. We have, though, had impressive productivity gains per acre in the past, and this has indeed helped a lot. But, sadly, these gains are decreasing. Exhibit 10 shows that at the end of the 1960s, average gains in global productivity stood at 3.5% per year. What an achievement it was to have maintained that kind of increase year after year. It is hardly surprising that the growth in productivity has declined.

It runs now at about one-third of the rate of increase of the 1960s. It is, at 1.25% a year, still an impressive rate, but the trend is clearly slowing while demand has not slowed and, if anything, has been accelerating. And how was this quite massive increase in productivity over the last 50 years maintained? By the even more rapid increase in the use of fertilizer. Exhibit 11 shows that fertilizer application per acre increased five-fold in the same period that the growth rate of productivity declined. This is a painful relationship, for there is a limit to the usefulness of yet more fertilizer, and as the productivity gains slow to 1%, it bumps into a similar-sized population growth. The increasing use of grain-intensive meat consumption puts further pressure on grain prices as does the regrettable use of corn in ethanol production.

The fertilizer that we used is also part of our extremely finite resources. Potash and potassium are mined and, like all such reserves, the best have gone first. But the most important fertilizer has been nitrogen, and here, unusually, the outlook for the U.S. really is quite good for a few decades because nitrogen is derived mainly from natural gas. This resource is, of course, finite like all of the others, but with recent discoveries, the U.S. in particular is well-placed, especially if in future decades its use for fertilizer is given precedence.

More disturbing by far is the heavy use of oil in all other aspects of agricultural production and distribution. Of all the ways hydrocarbons have allowed us to travel fast in development and to travel beyond our sustainable limits, this is the most disturbing. Rather than our brains, we have used brute energy to boost production.

Water resources both above and below ground are also increasingly scarce and are beginning to bite. Even the subsoil continues to erode. Sooner or later, limitations must be realized and improved techniques such as no-till farming must be dramatically encouraged. We must protect what we have. It really is a crisis that begs for longer-term planning – longer than the typical horizons of corporate earnings or politicians.

Gratham is the fund manager for one of the world's largest funds, and his frank assessment that we are running up against the limits of our resources sent shockwaves through the economic community. Let's hope it wakes a few people up. His summary at the beginning of the report, invoking Malthus, is essential reading for anyone who cares about the human species:

Malthus’ writing in 1798 was accurate in describing the past – the whole multi-million year development of our species. For the past 150,000 years or so, our species has lived, pushed up to the very limits of the available food supply. A good rainy season, and food is plentiful and births are plentiful. A few tough years, and the population shrinks way back. It seems likely, in fact, that our species came close to extinction at least once and perhaps several times. This complete link between population and food supply was noted by Malthus, who also noticed that we have been blessed, or cursed, like most other mammals, with a hugely redundant ability to breed. When bamboo blooms in parts of India every 30 years or so, it produces a huge increase in protein, and the rat population – even more blessed than we in this respect – apparently explodes to many times its normal population; then as the bamboo’s protein bounty is exhausted, the rat population implodes again, but not before exhibiting a great determination to stay alive, reflected in the pillaging of the neighboring villages of everything edible. What hydrocarbons are doing to us is very similar. For a small window of time, about 250 years (starting, ironically, just in time to make Malthus’ predictions based on the past look ridiculously pessimistic), from 1800 to, say, 2050, hydrocarbons partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth, and scientific progress. World population will have shot up from 1 to at least 8, and possibly 11, billion in this window, and the average per capita income in developed countries has already increased perhaps a hundred-fold (from $400 a year to $40,000). Give or take.

As I wrote three years ago, this growth process accelerated as time passed. Britain, leading the charge, doubled her wealth in a then unheard of 100 years. Germany, starting later, did it in 80 years, and so on until Japan in the 20th century doubled in 20 years, followed by South Korea in 15. But Japan had only 80 million people and South Korea 20 million back then. Starting quite recently, say, as the Japanese surge ended 21 years ago, China, with nearly 1.3 billion people today, started to double every 10 years, or even less. India was soon to join the charge and now, officially, 2.5 billion people in just these two countries – 2.5 times the planet’s entire population in Malthus’ time – have been growing their GDP at a level last year of over 8%. This, together with a broad-based acceleration of growth in smaller, developing countries has changed the world. In no way is this effect more profound than on the demand for resources. If I am right in this assumption, then when our finite resources are on their downward slope, the hydrocarbon-fed population will be left far above its sustainable level; that is, far beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. How we deal with this unsustainable surge in demand and not just “peak oil,” but “peak everything,” is going to be the greatest challenge facing our species.

So, to summarize, I am skeptical that we will be able to solve our overpopulation crisis except by the worst ways possible. We can have a small amount of people thriving, or a large number of people barely surviving at the margins. I, for one, would very much prefer the former. Later, we will return to this topic and contemplate it further.

Update: Climate Change Stunts Growth of Global Crop Yields.

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