Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The End of Civilization, or the Earth, or Whatever

Paul Erhlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968. I read it then as an impressionable kid. It was totally wrong then and moreso now. He predicted mass starvation by the 1970s. The world's population was 3.5 billion in 1968. The world's population is now about 7.4 billion, and the fraction of undernourished people has dropped by half, from 33% to 16%, since 1968. For the math-challenged, that works out to about the same number of malnourished people then as now, but the total population of the planet has doubled. You should be impressed. I am.

From Wikipedia's article on the book:
Famine has not been eliminated, but its root cause has been political instability, not global food shortage.[19] The Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, has argued that nations with democracy and a free press have virtually never suffered from extended famines.[20]
In other words, if you want to complete the war on starvation you need African governments to get out of the way of democracy and freedoms. It wouldn't hurt if we had more of that here, too.

But what started this massive increase in the ability to feed people? Agri-tech. Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, plant improvement programs which allowed people to more easily feed themselves with disease resistant, higher yielding plants.

Ehrlich has left the land of Soylent Green and is writing eco-catastrophe books, which I'm sure are every bit as accurate as The Population Bomb.

A very similar story can be told about "peak oil" and dire predictions of millions freezing in the dark, versus our current situation with inexpensive oil and natural gas, with huge and increasing proven reserves. Petroleum engineering produced effective hydraulic fracturing technology seemingly at the best chosen of times. Why?

When someone believes money can be made by producing something more efficiently, more abundantly, more inexpensively, they start looking for solutions. Some start looking because of altruism, and good on them. But altruism won't put together the millions of dollars of investments needed to find huge amounts of new oil, or provide massive amounts of fertilizer and machinery needed to produce good and inexpensive food.

What about... scarce metals? scarce rare earth elements? scarce water? I'm worried more about scarce brains, but I can guarantee there are people now thinking about how to make a buck supplying more or better replacements of every scarce item you and I can think of. For instance, scarce water becomes a non-issue if someone develops a sufficiently low-cost and efficient desalination method. (The solution may be close.) Good grief: the planet is covered in water!

Which brings me back to the humanitarian, Bono: "Capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid." Not just poverty, brother, but thirst, and hunger...

As we wander into the political chaos season, please keep in mind the elements that foster abundance for the world: freedom, democracy, capitalism.

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