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/


Internet 64

04/05/2010

Predictions revisited

The Internet anticipated in 1964

or “The World in a Box”

When the New Scientist’s 1964 series of predictions for “The World in 1984” was published by Penguin Books the following year, I added tables at the end. They summarized what seemed to me the main expectations of the scientists and scholars (about 100 of them) who contributed to the project. The first table concerned “Major Technological Revolutions” and I reproduce its contents below, reformatted to fit the page but otherwise unmodified in any way. The question marks denoted explicit disagreement or implicit controversy on important points.

The reader is invited to score the forecasts as hits, misses, or premature in relation to the 1984 target date. About the United Nations owning the ocean seabed, for example, or fuel-cell generators in the home, feel free to scoff as much as you like, because I have an ace in the hole.

It was no accident that item 1 in the table had the heading “Revolution in information”. Prompting me especially was what a visionary computer pioneer, Maurice Wilkes of Cambridge, wrote in “The World in 1984” (in 1964, remember) about the marriage of computing and telecommunications. Read the rest of this entry »