A lot of people have been asking me to respond to Stephen Emmot’s apocalyptic ‘Ten Billion’ thesis – on the Guardian website under the title “Humans: the real threat to life on Earth” (and being promoted heavily across the media).
Under that Guardian headline you’ll find the cheery: “If population levels continue to rise at the current rate, our grandchildren will see the Earth plunged into an unprecedented environmental crisis”.
I’m not in the business of personal attack, and Emmot is clearly a smart cookie and an able wordsmith, but I think he’s falling into a narrative of humanity that is only half-true, and like all half-truths it’s potentially dangerous. A big caveat – I haven’t read the book (yet) from which the article is an edited excerpt, and I’m sure the arguments in the full-fat version are more nuanced.(Update: actually it turns out the aren’t.)
I have two immediate reactions to the article:
1) It extrapolates growth in population, but not growth in the power of technology and innovation (whilst he acknowledges humans are clever and inventive it seems we’re not clever or inventive enough to embrace the problems we now face). From now on are human beings only units of consumption, not invention?
2) It does some rather neat statistical sleights of hand that, whilst certainly bolstering the apocalyptic narrative is, to my mind, misleading. Again, this may be a function of the short-form article format (or editorial decisions)
Before I begin – let me clear: we’re in trouble – and it is true that if we don’t change the way we go about energy and food production, we’re in deep, deep water (an ironic metaphor given what we’re doing to the water table). But let’s put some light at the end of this tunnel.
Argument 1: We can’t feed 10 billion
So, Emmot’s argument has long history. Its roots go back to 1798 when, foreseeing a catastrophe where human numbers would outstrip the carrying capacity of the planet, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus famously wrote (and over nearly thirty years continually rewrote) his influential “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” In it he predicted that food production would eventually fail to keep up with the population. “It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence,” he concluded.
Malthus was both right and wrong. He was right because food production must, of course, keep pace with population if we are not to starve. He was wrong because so far, as the population has grown, we’ve managed to find ways to increase agricultural yields to match our needs. That is not to say that in some areas of the world there aren’t shocking levels of malnutrition. This, however, is a problem with distribution, not production. Despite the dramatic increase in human population since the 1950s, world food production per capita has increased. That’s a stunning achievement. Our crime has been that we have not distributed either it, or the means of production equitably.
Still, with the population growing, the need to increase food production seems obvious. And despite a generally positive trend of bringing people out of food poverty in recent decades things are starting to look precarious. Thanks largely to rising oil prices and the effects of climate change, the UN Food Price Index has risen 135% since the beginning of the century and, according to the World Bank, 44 million people were driven into poverty by rising food prices in the second half of 2010 alone.
And then you find out that 30 to 50% of all food produced on the planet never reaches the human stomach. That’s right, we lose up to half of it before it’s eaten.
There’s a brilliant report on the matter here by the awesome Dr. Tim Fox of IMechE who told me “It’s a combination of food waste (largely by us being wasteful in the developed world) and food loss (largely post-harvest losses in the developing world). Both components are roughly equal in tonnage terms (i.e. we waste as much as the developing world looses) of which, very roughly, 15%-25% of the total tonnage produced can be attributed to post-harvest losses”.
Dealing with Post Harvest Loss is something we need to grapple with – and we might. In fact, it’s something I’ll cover in depth in my new book – looking at the innovators who are doing just that. For now there’s an excellent article elsewhere on the Guardian website about how we might combat the problem.
So, if we eradicated this waste and loss we would be well on the way today to producing enough food to feed close to 9.5 billion today. That in turn has huge implications for water, energy and land in all this waste and loss, the tightening up of which would go a long way to helping meeting many of the other challenges 21st Century population growth presents.
That said, much of our current food production is unsustainable – which is why Professor Olivier De Schutter (the United Nations Special rapporteur on the right to food) is worth a read: “We urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments.”
Olivier’s 2011 report, Agroecology and the Right to Food, is a tour de force of evidence, demonstrating that agro-ecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, including an increase of 116% for all African projects. Again, I’ll be visiting a bunch of Agro-ecology innovators who are doing incredible things in the book. For now, here’s a wonderful example: Sumant Kumar, who harvested 22.4 tonnes of rice from a single hectare of land. (To put that in context the average yield per hectare in his native India is 2.3 tonnes).
So, when Emmot writes, “We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system” I fear he’s missed a trick or two.
Argument 2: We don’t have the energy
We don’t have an energy crisis, we have an energy conversion crisis.
Solar power has quartered in price in the last decade and is continuing to plummet. Have a look at McKinsey’s analysis of solar market worldwide. In fact, the utilities companies are very worried about that. In May 2013 the Edison Electric Institute (the association of U.S. Shareholder-Owned Electric Companies) published a report entitled Disruptive Challenges. It warned that the traditional utilities model was at risk of “declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential, particularly over the long-term”. In short – there is a very real chance of user-owned renewable energy revolution coming our way – and the energy companies know it (even if they don’t like it). As the head of a big consulting firm’s Utilities Practice (and because he probably likes his job I won’t name him) told me, “Unless my customers adapt radically most of them are toast.”
Trillion Fund (the world’s first financially regulated crowd investing platform) is one example of people trying to help us all get involved in that, and hopefully profit from the shift to green energy. (Full disclosure: I sit on Trillion Fund’s advisory board – mostly because I think it’s one of the smartest ideas out there as we work to avoid Emmot’s apocalypse). So, yes, we’re in a race with fossil fuels – and we may lose it, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s a race I’ll cover in the new book and as writer of the film The Great Energy Race, which should start shooting later this year. In the meantime if you want to see some good work on how we can avoid the energy cliff read Amory Lovins’ Re-inventing Fire – or watch Peter Byck’s Carbon Nation.
It’s also worth noting that, in private, oil companies know that they’re massively overvalued because reserves that will never be economic to extract are counted as assets on their balance sheets. The only way those reserves become viable is if the price of oil rockets, which in turn would send the world economy into recession. With solar set to become as cheap as fossil fuels in the next decade the switch to renewables will be driven by economics not climate change, but that’s still good news for the planet.
There is lots more to say about the perils of our current energy system and how some people are innovating around it – and I hope I do that justice in forthcoming projects.
Argument 3: Population is out of control
The statistician Hans Rosling from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute tells the story of how many of his students wonder if keeping the poor alive is really such a good idea.
“In a time when we know the pressures on the environment are growing, so my students tell me ‘population growth destroys the environment so poor children may as well die.’ This is a statement they don’t make in class, but afterwards. They say ‘Why save the lives of all these small children? Because if they survive, we’ll be even more people, we’ll destroy the environment and they will emit carbon dioxide and it will be even worse and then we will all die in the end.’ ” The problem with this logic, says Rosling, “is not that it’s not moral, it’s that it’s wrong” — and here’s why.
As the population is growing it seems to be stabilizsing. The rate of growth is slowing down dramatically and looks set to stop (and possibly reverse) sometime this century. Already the population in many countries is falling. The important figure to keep in mind is 2.1. This is the number of children, on average, every woman needs to have to keep the population static. (The 0.1 accounts for the fact that some of us never have children, either because we choose not to, suffer from infertility orto die before we get chance.) Between 1950 and 1955, the number of countries where the fertility rate was less than the crucial 2.1 figure was just five. In the period from 1995 to 2000, that number had risen twelve-fold to fifty-nine. According to the U.N., countries who weren’t replacing their population in 2010 included the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, every country in Europe, Chile, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Thailand, North and South Korea, Tunisia, Japan and Singapore.
Countries with the highest number of births and therefore rapidly growing populations are usually the poorest with Africa dominating the lead table. Across Africa fertility rates of between four 4 and seven 7 are common, but crucially these too are dropping. Taken worldwide the human race’s fertility rate has fallen from 4.92 in the 1950s to 2.4 in 2011. By the end of the century the U.N.’s “median variant estimate” (a sort of “best guess”’) is that the figure will dip below the all-important 2.1 replacement level across the entire world population. This means we’ll stabilisze at about the 10 billion people that gives Emmot’s book its title – and then possibly fall in number. But why is this happening?
The contributing factors seem to be falling rates of child mortality, increased life expectancy, more urbanizsation, improved access to birth control and the growing emancipation of women, all of which are in some way linked to increased prosperity. The first two reasons seem counter intuitive. If both us and our children are living longer, surely that would increase population, giving us both more time to breed and creating more offspring to do the same? The figures, however, show the opposite trend.
One theory is that when you know fewer of your children are likely to die, and those that survive will live longer, you don’t feel compelled to have as many. Secondly prosperity is linked to increased choice, not only in whether to have children or not (through access to birth control) but also in what to do with your time. With the health of our children assured we can choose to spend more of our time being entertained and educated, and dedicating more time to educating and entertaining them too. With a few notable exceptions, prosperous nations seem to automatically reduce their birth rate (as the list of countries above amply demonstrates).
The rise of cities also has a role to play. One of the results of prosperity is urbanizsation and this in turn also seems to encourage us to breed less. According to George Martine, lead author of the U.N. Population Fund’s State of World Population 2007 report, eighty to ninety percent of economic growth takes place in cities, which drives prosperity, which reduces the number of children we have. I cite this slightly old report because it focusses on a key part of the Emmot’s article – urbanisation – which he seems to argue increases our use of land (I hope that’s just bad sub-editing). Martine makes the point however that the increased density of city populations “makes it easier to provide social services, or services of any kind:; education, health, sanitation, water, electrical power. Everything is so much easier, much cheaper on a per capita basis.” The report also found that female emancipation is more likely to occur in the city, again reducing birth rates. The city is where many go to make a career, often delaying starting a family. Property is also more expensive, meaning that even though you may be wealthier than many of the rural population, you have a lot less space in which to put your brood. And, of course, in the city the distractions of entertainment and education are ever greater. All this means that across the world, fertility rates are lower in cities than they are in rural areas—which, as the world becomes ever more urban, confers yet another downward pressure on the birth rate.
Beyond all this, cities are also good for biodiversity because they attract subsistence farmers away from the land. Subsistence farming might have a romantic image of honest rural folk in tune with their environment but the clue is in the name. Subsistence, by definition, is “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” Subsistence farming is characteriszed by extreme poverty, along with overgrazing and tilling of the land that has seen soil carbon levels plummet along with the reduction of biodiversity as people use the natural ecoszystem for resources, a key example being the use of wood as a fuel for cooking and heating. When humans leave, natural ecosystems return.
“To suggest that urbanisation will impact on land availability for food production is spurious” says Tim Fox. There’s a nice analysis of Land Use Tensions in this policy statement from IMechE which is helpful.
Prosperity also bring reforestation. The UN’s State of the World’s Forests report shows that as countries prosper and urbanise so their forests regrow. In Europe, forest resources “are expected to continue to expand in view of declining land dependence, increasing income, concern for protection of the environment and well-developed policy and institutional frameworks.” In Asia and the Pacific, “forest area will stabilize and increase in most of the developed countries.” In parts of Latin America “where population densities are high, increasing urbanization will cause a shift away from agriculture, forest clearance will decline and some cleared areas will revert to forest.” In Western and Central Asia, “Income growth and urbanization suggest that the forest situation will improve or remain stable in some countries, but the picture is less promising for a number of low-income agriculture-dependent countries.” In Africa, however, deforestation continues apace. Overall though, as we move to the city we leave behind ecosystems that regrow.
The teeming metropolis is therefore an engine of renewal. Hans Rosling’s students are dead wrong. Those “poor children” must live, move to city, prosper and in doing so they will, in just a few generations, come stablise the world populace while allowing many ecosystems to flourish.
Everyone likes a scare story
Emmot writes, “I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.” But as we know, the birth rate is dropping radically the world over. So, for instance, the predicted population growth he quotes for the USA is some cute double counting for a scare – because the USA’s fertility rate is below replacement rate (nice summary of the US population situation here). You can only get to his projected 478 million US population due to a massive reversal of the prevailing trend (perhaps people stop dying? which, by the way, the transhumanists are working on – but that’s another story) or immigration from those countries where population is still rising (but also, over this century, stabilising)
So, yes. Emmot is right – we are up shit creek. But, like Malthus, he could be wrong – because we do have some paddles – and some people are trying to use them.
Again, I want to be clear, we are in trouble, but Emmot’s extrapolations and his pessimism about our ability to innovate round it I have doubts about. Like he says in the article, he hopes I’m right. So, if Emmot’s wants to be the stick, I hope my book will be the carrot – because there are people working hard on this problem – and the more we know about them, the more we champion them, and the more we become them, the greater chance we have of a sustainable future. That’s why I do what I do.