I am taking a few days to see the sights in Paris after delivering the commemorative address at the council meeting of the IFA, the International Fertilizer Industry Association. This was both a chance to meet the men and women who are feeding the world (literally, almost half the world’s population is alive thanks to their work), and also to get a more informed sense of the challenges facing the industry in the next decades. It is remarkable how much effort is being directed toward issues around sustainability. I was very well treated by the IFA leaders and staff (thanks especially to Charlotte Hebebrand), stayed in a truly grand hotel, ate great food, learned new things, and now have the chance to wander around one of my favorite cities in the the world. Special treats so far include lunch in the Auberge Nicolas Flamel (a restaurant in the house built by the legendary alchemist), the chance to see the Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysees, eating pain au chocolate every morning, and of course seeing the Eiffel Tower by day and night.
Back from two terrific weeks in Chile. I spent most of it in Santiago (the huge, energetic capital city), plus a few days in the great desert of the north, the Atacama, the driest place on earth. Chile is like an island — Andes on one side, Pacific on the other, the Atacama to the north and Antarctica to the south — with a unique culture, its own politics, even its own brand of Spanish. I learned a lot. Gracious people, great seafood, a very good time. Many thanks to the organizers of The First International Congress on Scientific Culture at Andres Bello University (special nod to Andres Gomberoff, Natalia Mackenzie, and Carla Firmani) and to my hosts on a terrific trip to the Atacama, Eugenio Ponce and Patricio Garcia Mendez at SQM.
Heading to Santiago, Chile, this weekend, for The First International Congress on Scientific Culture at Andres Bello University. I’ll be speaking about the impact of technology on food production, and issues around population growth.
It’s a great chance to spend some time exploring one of the great cities of South America. I like Chile a lot, but have only been in the far north of the country. This will be my first time in the capital — with nearly 7 million people it has almost twice the population of my entire state. More on that later.
This recent op-ed in the New York Times got it right about population growth.
It’s time for us to get over the old population-growth=doom mindset of the 1970s (based on the assumption that human population growth inevitably leads to disaster because we’re like bacteria in a Petri dish and we’re going to consume all our resources until they’re gone — and then we’re all going to die!). This has long been accepted as common sense, received wisdom from Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich (read The Population Bomb if you want a good chuckle about the pitfalls of predicting the future).
Malthus was wrong. So was Ehrlich.
Ester Boserup was closer to right. She’s one of my heroes. True, by all “natural” standards, there are far too many homo sapiens on the planet. The low-or-no-tech carrying capacity of the planet for humans — let’s say, the max number we could feed if we farmed every available acre with the best organic methods possible — is about 4.5 billion — if we all eat a low-calorie, mostly vegetarian diet. That’s the human population the earth could support if we were like any other animal (well, any other animal that could do organic farming).
But we’re not like any other animal, at least in one important way. As Ester realized, humans bring something new to the table: The ability to adapt to growing population by advancing our technology. In other words, we’re not like bacteria in a Petri dish. We’re more likely to open up the dish, explore outside, then invent some way to make a lot more food, say out of air (see World’s Greatest Invention?). Or something else clever that no other animal can do.
The results: We’re at 7 billion and climbing fast. Yet everyone on earth, on average, is getting more calories per day than at any time in history. Instead of mass famine, we’re eating better than ever. And we can continue to produce enough food, using currently available technologies, to feed a global population of at least 10 billion — which, interestingly enough, according to the United Nations mid-level estimates, is about where the human population will top out during this century. That topping out, by the way, has less to do with food availability than with changing fertility rates, and those rates are determined not by scarcity but by plenty — fertility rates drop as a family’s income goes up and women become more highly educated.
Well, everything, apparently. My old site — the full, rich, information-packed one with all the pages and images and posts — vanished during a switch of domain registrations, dissolving into the electronic ether, leaving me to put up this meager temporary page. I am working on fixes. Meantime, please email me here if you have any questions. For information on my books, just type my name into Amazon or any handy search engine.
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