Utopia beats Dystopia

30/11/2011

Predictions Revisited

Let’s lay Malthus to Rest

After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm

Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”

Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:

 

Rudy Rabbinge. Photo Wageningen U.

  • The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
  • We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
  • The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
  • Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
  • Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,

Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:

Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.

Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.

For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/


Malthus with a computer

24/06/2010

Predictions Revisited

Malthus with a Computer”

Take a model that purports to predict the future and just run it back to the past. The result are sometimes salutary. Ross McKitrick of Guelph (celebrated for his role in trashing the warmist’s Hockey Stick) has done that with a model from the Canadian Medical Association.

The model predicts a shocking loss of life from air pollution. As reported last week by Peter Shawn Taylor in Canada’s Financial Post, McKitrick put 1960s levels of air pollution into the model and found that the deaths it attributed to pollution in the Toronto area reached more than 100% of all the people who actually died. As McKitrick said, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The story rang a bell with me, about a famous computer model of the early 1970s, which spawned the best-seller The Limits to Growth from Donella H. Meadows and her colleagues at MIT. It predicted industrial pollution growing out of control and a global population crash in the 21st Century. That may sound familiar, but four decades ago the pollution wasn’t greenhouse gases but good old-fashioned smog and poisonous wastes from industry and agriculture.

Here is the “standard” projection in The Limits to Growth 1972. It runs from 1900 to 2100. You can see the global population climbing and outstripping food production, so that food per capita falls, bringing the population down with it. Meanwhile natural resources, starting high in 1900, are being rapidly exhausted at the end of the century, and converted into steadily rising industrial output and accelerating pollution. Everything unravels in the early 21st Century, with agriculture and industry collapsing, and billions of people dying.

As I noted in my book 1984 and After, Sam Cole and Ray Curnow of SPRU (the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University) ran the Limits to Growth model backwards. It told them that, before 1880, the world’s population was infinite. Again: “It just doesn’t make sense.”

A book of essays rebutting The Limits to Growth, produced by SPRU (see the Cole reference),  pointed out that a moderate rate of discovery of new resources, combined with slow progress in pollution control, would completely avoid the predicted disasters. Chris Freeman, SPRU’s director, called his own critique ‘Malthus with a computer’.

There’s a sub-plot in this story, about the Club of Rome that funded the original Limits to Growth study. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist, and Alexander King, a British scientific civil servant, founded it in 1968. King tried hard to seduce me with the idea that international technocrats should rule the world. I’m sorry to say I can see some influence on my writings in the late 1960s. But Limits to Growth brought me to my senses. What if the technocrats’ expectations are completely wrong?

Nowadays the Club of Rome is seen by some as the spider that spun the web of authoritarian environmentalism, which then promoted the global warming scare two decades later. I leave that as a googling exercise for the readers to pursue if they wish. Better to end, perhaps, with a limerick that I learnt from Chris Freeman of SPRU.

A trend is a trend is a trend

But when and how does it bend?

Does it rise to the sky,

Or lie down and die,

Or asymptote on to the end?

References

Shawn Taylor’s article in the Financial Post is here: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2010/06/15/junk-science-week-the-missing-smog-dead/

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth, New American Library, 1972

Nigel Calder, 1984 and After, Century Publishing, 1983.

H.S.D. Cole, Christopher Freeman, Marie Jahoda and K.L.R. Pavitt, Thinking About the Future: a Critique of the Limits to Growth, Chatto & Windus for Sussex University Press, 1973