McGurn's latest babble ('The Population Bomb Was A Dud', May 1, p. A13) misfires on the first count because he appears not to be aware that was not the author's own choice of title. It was actually, 'Population, Resources and the Environment' - much less sexy and eye-catching. Of course, this is why the publisher insisted on the catchier title. The second misfire is when McGurn latches onto a defective tract (book) by Julian Lincoln Simon entitled 'The Ultimate Resource' in which the author insists "we live in an epidemic of life" and it's all basically glorious bounty. Well, I'd sure love this fool to try to prove that to the people clamoring for housing across the nation right now, and often having to spend down to get even a spare bedroom to rent in the metro Denver area,. (The median monthly rent in Denver is now $2100).
McGurn cites a bet that 'Population Bomb' author Paul Ehrlich made with Simon based on commodities and which Ehrlich ultimately lost. The bet was for $1,000 - not a mammoth sum but not unreasonable given the implicit uncertainties. The bet was that the inflation-adjusted prices of five metals (chromium, tin, copper tungsten, and nickel would rise by 1990 (Ehrlich) or fall (Simon.) Simon ended up winning but that may only have been because of dumb luck in timing and choosing those particular commodities. (Potable water and arable land would have been better choices given both are in precipitous decline.)
Ehrlich was right in one sense: the population continued to soar from 4.5 billion in 1980 to 5.3 billion in 1990. More importantly, a 2014 paper by David S, Jacks ('Front Boom to Bust: A Typology of Real Commodity Prices in the Long Run" ) disclosed Ehrlich would have won the bet had the time frame been extended. In summary, the Jacks' paper found that:"Cumulatively, the picture emerging from this exercise is a clear patter of real, rising commodity prices from at least 1950."
Even The Economist's "free exchange" blog ca. 2014, pointed out that while Simon may have won the specific bet, the Cornucopians haven't yet proven their position is correct. The blog pointed out:
"The (Jacks) paper does suggest that while innovation, substitution and conservation can reduce the price impact of rising demand for fundamentally scarce resources, they can't necessarily eliminate it entirely ."
"Of course, rising demand itself might come to an eventual end given new technologies - or to validate Mr. Ehrlich - the ultimate decline and stabilization of the global population. It may still be too early to tell whether humanity faces Malthusian limits or not."
I am inclined to concur with this - especially in terms of limits to fresh water access, already a problem in many countries. (Look for example at Capetown, S. Africa, narrowly avoiding "Day Zero" but at the cost of 40 percent of the country's water intensive crops.) Without fresh water resources, the whole 'enchilada' goes south, from crops to public health. It's a no brainer, given we are seeing the exhaustion of stores of fresh water globally.. One notable ‘State of the World’ report (2000, pp. 46-47), warned that the ever increasing water deficits will likely spark “water wars” by 2025. Even now, 1 billion-plus people live in water-stressed conditions, meaning that renewable water supplies have dropped below 1,700 cubic meters per capita, a critical survival threshold. As observed (p. 47):
“When a country’s renewable water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita (what some analysts call the water stress level) it becomes difficult for the country to mobilize enough water to satisfy all the food, household, and industrial needs of its population.”
Anyway, McGurn swallows Simon's codswallop hook, line and sinker that "human beings are more than just mouths to feed" (Really? Tell that to the underfed billions in sub-Sahara Africa, India). He also insists - on the basis of Simon's garbage -- that "Paul Ehrlich got it wrong because he never understood human potential", adding:
"Fifty years out, alas, Mr. Ehrlich remains as impervious to the evidence as ever. In an interview two months ago in the Guardian, Mr. Ehrlich decreed the collapse of civilization a 'near certainty' in the next few decades."
But in truth it is Neoliberal, market -worshipping Cornucopians like McGurn who are impervious to the evidence. That is, that a finite planet simply cannot support an ever expanding population that consumes more resources in one year than the planet is able to provide. McGurn, for example, questions that carrying capacity is "settled science". In fact, it comes closest to a sensible form for quantifying the human imposition on planetary resources in terms of conserving them for future generations. It is defined:
Carrying capacity =
(usable land-water resource base providing water + food + fuel) / (individual food, fuel + water requirement)
If the numerator is » 11.4 x 10 9 hectares of usable aggregate equivalent land-water resource base and if 6 hectares is the ideal "mean individual requirement" over a lifetime (e.g. meet all basic needs and have a few private luxuries) , that means:
CC = (11.4 x 10 9 hectares) / 6 hectares/person » 2 billion
Obviously, this can be increased if the numerator can be increased or the denominator (each individual's ecological footprint) decreased. The problem is how to achieve it? (Especially if the total population continues to increase at 2-3% per year)
This is why McGurn and his ilk don't get it, as when he asserts: 'It is rooted in an absurdity that when a calf is born a country's wealth increases, but when a baby is born it goes down." Well, because the calf is a net asset which adds to wealth via its usage (and temporary lifetime) for providing nutrition etc. A baby on the other hand becomes a net consumer - draining the planet's resources and imposing an ecological footprint of hectares- from the time it's born. (Unless humans descend to eating babies as in the dystopian scifi film, 'The Road')
The point is we're rapidly approaching the threshold at which there will simply be too many people to feed given existing resources: water, arable soil, fertilizers etc.. The projections now are for at least 10 billion people by 2050, and an 80 percent probability of 12.3 billion on Earth by 2100. Simply put, there simply aren't the resources to support even the lower addition. At root, the issue is sustainability - especially for water which is needed for crops. NO water, no crops to feed a growing population. The graphic below puts this into perspective;
The interpretation of the graph (upward) is straightforward. By June, 2030 TWO full Earths - that is the resources therein - will be needed to support the then population. Already we are at 1.5 Earths. Every year Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with its Earth Overshoot Day campaign. Earth Overshoot Day is the day on the calendar when humanity has used up the resources that it takes the planet the full year to regenerate.
The most damning indictment of McGurn comes from his own pen, as when he writes - in seeming delirium:
"It turns out hell isn't other people after all. To the contrary, human beings constantly find new and creative ways to take from the earth, increase the bounty for everyone and expand the seats at the table of plenty."
But this is precisely where he surrenders to a kind of "perpetual motion" machine delusion. Just as perpetual motion machines are impossible because entropy eventually has the final say, and energy -motion ultimately dwindles to near nothing, so also with "taking from the earth". The reason is that each "taking" is accompanied by less and less useful energy or what we call net energy. In effect, we need more and more higher quality energy to keep extracting more coal, or oil, or natural gas or whatever - and have ever less left- less environmental quality with each taking and less quality energy (e.g. higher energy return on energy invested, or EROEI) to use for anything else.
McGurn also doesn't get that the ongoing loss of resources via his takings can be quantified. For example:
- Every day humans permanently remove 3.2 billion gallons more water from aquifers than nature can replace. If McGurn's "human ingenuity" was as great as advertised it would be able to compensate for the losses nature is unable to. But it can't!
- U.S. consumption of energy grows every day despite efforts to conserve it. This is important because each energy use is accompanied by entropy or degradation in the quality of energy remaining which also impacts our environment.
- To accommodate growth we pave over an area equal to the state of Delaware every year.
Common sense ought to inform one that this is unsustainable and can't go on indefinitely.
The Cornucopians get it wrong because they don't see population growth for the toxin it is, and can't put 2 plus 2 together to see how it leads to the Malthusian nightmare. All of this comes back to net energy which is that energy humans need to survive. If the oil taken from the ground, say by fracking, only has a ratio of 1:1 (for energy produced to energy consumed) then it is barely of use to extract it. The same amount of oil-energy you are using up to get it, is basically what it carries. There is no net gain.
To fix ideas, the net energy equation in the case of oil (cf. Physics Today, Weisz, July 2004, p. 51) has been given as:
Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op) + E/T]
In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0
Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity that must be used to obtain it. For the last 700 billion barrels of available oil , i.e.from the original 3,000 billion - of which 1,500 b have been consumed: Q(net) = negative quantity = -Q (Currently we are working our way through 1,000 b barrels of "break even" oil)
It's crucial to note the rate of energy production (Q (PR) must be debited by the energy consumed for its operation Q(op), and the energy E invested during its “lifetime” Thus its Q(PR) will be small in relation to the bracketed quantity.Thus, the problem in a nutshell is not “running out of oil" but running out of CHEAP oil. When oil prices go up radically that's a sign of running out of break even oil.
It is the net gain that has allowed humans to reproduce and cover the globe. It is the reduction in net gain and eventually a negative energy (- Q (net)) balance that will eliminate a majority of humans. THIS is what Ehrlich was referring to when he predicted the "collapse of civilization" within a few decades.If you need to envision what that will look like, well nothing too dramatic - just picture a Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria where the electricity and water never come back on. And extend that picture globally. There! Now you have it! Does McGurn? I doubt he ever will as he's committed to Neoliberal ideology that markets will always solve the day combined with much touted human "ingenuity". (Which can't seem to take without replacing the same, and without entropic cost.)
Every current major societal, environmental problem: from clogged highways, to overflowing hospital ERs, to over-crowded schools, as well as scarcity of commodities (reflected in their much increased prices) to fouling of our water and atmosphere and the greenhouse effect, can be laid at the feet of too many people on this planet - each needing food, air, water and energy from the time born. The more people generated the more CO2 produced as a result of their gobbling resources and assorted carbon footprints. While the latter are greatest in the West, because our societies are based on consumption, the lesser footprints also matter in the sense that wars, tribal unrest and religious wars can result in millions fleeing their home nations and disrupting the balance of life in those countries to which they flee .
The capitalist's favorite barometer, the GDP, needs to be replaced by the sustainability index of Herman Daly. Only in that way will be able to see how much real wealth we have left, and how much has been consumed by a reckless, wretched system designed to pillage the planet to enrich the very few.
Isaac Asimov in one of his early essays (in his anthology ‘The Stars in Their Courses’) on population and carrying capacity, put it bluntly:
“Humans have a simple choice: they can either decrease their numbers on their own to live within the Earth’s carrying capacity or they can let nature do it for them”.
It's past time Bill McGurn stopped deluding his readers with ecological fairy stories and for once told the truth about the actual, precarious position humans are in. That the way the reckless consumption of resources is going, there will be little or nothing left for future generations.