Steven W. Running On Empty

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

Let me start by getting the jargon out of the way. The “NPP” is the “net primary productivity”. It is how many total tonnes of new plant matter are produced around the globe each year as a result of photosynthesis.

In a book excerpt in the February 2002 UnScientific American magazine entitled “The Bottleneck”, Edward O. Wilson, a brilliant ant biologist and also an unrepentant alarmist about, well, everything, put forward the Malthusian argument that humans are about to run out of food. He said that we are currently wedged into a “bottleneck”, he warned of the dangers of “exponential growth” in population, and he averred that we will be squeezed mightily before the population levels off. The following quote was one part of his argument, an idea which has resurfaced recently as a “scientific” claim:

Wilson: “We already appropriate by some means or another 40% of the planet’s organic matter produced by green plants.

e o wilson lord of the ants

Figure 1. E. O. Wilson. Photo Source: PBS

 When I read Wilson’s claim at the time, my mind just went goofy. That was the day I stopped reading UnScientific American magazine. By any reasonable standards, that number is way, way too large. Humans harvesting and consuming forty percent of everything growing? No way. I’ve flown over the expanses of forests of the north and the Amazon in the south, I’ve sailed across endless ocean miles of living green plankton soup, there’s no way we’re consuming forty percent of the new green matter every year, that’s crazy.

So back then, a decade ago now, I decided to follow it up.

I found that in 2002 when Wilson repeated this claim about humans using most of the sun’s energy, it was already very popular. Here’s a few of the many, many references. A 1999 Sierra Club magazine article says “Homo sapiens now consumes [...] 45 percent of the total energy captured from the sun through photosynthesis.”

In “Can America Survive?”, Joseph George Caldwell had the claim as: “Mankind is currently utilizing about half of all the solar energy captured by plant photosynthesis, and even this is not sufficient to cover its food, forest products, and energy consumption.”

Slightly earlier, in 1998 the claim turned in the United Nations “1998 Revision of the World Population Estimates and Projections” as: “Humans use 50% of all of the solar energy captured by photosynthesis.”

I note the different variations on the theme, from “appropriates 40%”, to “consumes 45%”, to “utilizing about half”, to “humans use 50%” … my urban legend alarm is ringing wildly …

I bring this history up because recently, this most tenacious and ludicrous idea turned up once again. This time it appeared in that modern bastion of alarmism, Science magazine.

steven w. running

Figure 2. Steven W. Running. Photo source: Montana Learning

Dr. Steven W. Running wrote a “Perspective” column in Science called A Measurable Planetary Boundary for the Biosphere (PDF, paywalled). In that piece, just like E. O. Wilson a decade before, Dr. Running repeats the same specious claim, that humans are

… consuming or directly co-opting 40% of biospheric production;

Running also says:

According to the most recent estimates from global satellite data sets, humans currently appropriate 38% of global NPP.

Now, before I dig further into the origin of this crazy belief, can some one please tell me:

What does it mean to “co-opt” biosphere production?

What does it mean to claim that man “appropriates” 38% of global NPP?

Seriously. What does either of those mean in terms of the NPP? Talk about vague terms, when you use words like that it is just pseudo-scientific babbling, without meaning.

In addition, those are both emotionally loaded words. “Co-opt” means to summarily take or assume for ones own use, with “appropriate” given as a synonym. In turn, “appropriate” means to take without the owner’s permission. Both words have strong negative overtones, and have no place in scientific discourse in my opinion … but more to the point, what do “co-opt” and “appropriate” actually mean regarding human use of the products of photosynthesis?

For example, are the people around Phoenix, Arizona “appropriating” hard-won carrots from their gardens in the desert? No. They are using carrots or eating them or selling them or utilizing them in some definable manner, but they are not “co-opting” or “appropriating” carrots from their own gardens. That’s a very distorted and unscientific description, not to mention unbearably vague. But I digress … where did this crazy belief, this idea that humans consume about half the solar energy captured by photosynthesis, have its origin? Who made this nonsense up in the first place?

Think about it for a minute. There’s no possible way that humans are consuming anywhere near half the green matter produced on the planet every year, that’s impossible by far. When we take a tree we leave the roots behind, the amount of photosynthetically captured energy underground is huge by itself. Where did this mistaken idea get started? And what accounts for the idea’s persistence now that it is started?

I should have guessed.

Because what science doesn’t know, Paul Ehrlich will be very glad to warn you about.

paul ehrlichFigure 3. Paul Ehrlich. Photo Source: Stanford

You may remember Paul — in the 60’s, he was writing “The Population Bomb” and warning of widespread starvation coming in the 70’s.

In the 70’s, when the starvation didn’t appear, he was writing of famine and worldwide suffering coming in the 80’s.

And in the 80’s, when there were no worldwide famines, he was earnestly counseling of starvation and widespread suffering coming in the 90’s.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Despite this unblemished record of failed serial doomcasting, Paul is still in business at the same old stand, Stanford University. Tenured professor, doesn’t matter how many mistakes he makes he can’t be fired. He is still making exactly the same prediction, food riots are just around the corner. Well, not quite. You’ll love the logic.

He now is claiming that because his predicted global starvation and food riots haven’t shown up as he confidently had claimed they would …

… that what that proves is when they do show up in the next decade, they’ll be Worse Than We Expected (™ climate science).

I gotta say, it’s almost embarrassing to see a man who has never made a successful prediction in his dotage, scrabbling to explain a lifetime of successive failures … or it would be embarrassing if his ideas had not already caused so much damage.

Not only that, but people are still using his wacky old numbers to predict that death and destruction is just around the corner. The toad at the bottom of the whole pile of “human appropriation” claims, the 1986 treatise which was the genesis and original source of this whole train of bogus “we consume half the sun’s energy” misperceptions, turns out to be called “HUMAN APPROPRIATION OF THE PRODUCTS OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS”  by Peter Vitousek, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich and Pamela Matson (1986)

In this paper, they claim that human “appropriation” of the green growing stuff of the planet, depending on whatever they might choose to say “appropriation” means at a given moment, ranges from their low value of 3% to their high value of 40%.

From 3% to 40%??? This is science?

Now to me, that reflects a poorly defined term. If “appropriation” were properly defined, we’d have one number. Instead, they give the Goldilocks estimate, three widely separated numbers. So now we see why they chose such a vague (yet accusatory) word as “appropriating”—so they could handwave about it. On the other hand, their disdain for humans, evident in the emotional loading of their choice of words, is still unexplained … but I digress.

Further reading reveals that at the 3% level, “appropriation” means just what you might expect it to mean — what we actually eat and wear and build our houses with, the stuff we actually use. You know, what is really consumed and utilized by humans, duh. They run through a number of calculations, and they say that the real number for what humans consume is about 3% of the total captured each year by photosynthesis.

As you might imagine, I’ve run the numbers myself, mine are a little higher here and lower there. At the end I get a bit under 2%, they say 3%, but it’s all dependent on assumptions so I’m not going to argue. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll agree with Ehrlich that humans actually use somewhere around three percent of what the sun produces, the NPP.

… 3% …

So I assume that your question, like mine, is … how the heck do you get from 3%, what we actually use, up to 40%, their claimed level of “co-optation”?

In other words, how do they calculate the forty percent when they claim humans have got the insufferable gall to appropriate 40% of the products of solar energy without the owner’s permission?

The secret is that “appropriate” turns out to be what I call an “accordion word”, one that can play any tune and expand to accommodate any definition. If you want to get humans to plead guilty to appropriating excess NPP, three percent just won’t do it at all. You need to expand that, nobody would worry about three percent. You’ve got to jack that number by an order of magnitude and more to get people properly alarmed.

So they just redefine “appropriate”.

You see, at the 40% level, what we “appropriate” means the 3% of the NPP that we actually use and consume each year, the green growing things we eat and wear and build with, plus:

• every green living thing that grows in any human owned pastures and fields, regardless of whether a human ever touches it, plus

• the annual difference in production between what we grow on a piece of land versus their optimistic theoretical calculation of what could have grown on the same land, plus

• the annual production that might have happened where we put our roads and cities (figured, of course, at the highest possible production rates), plus

•   estimated maximum production of agricultural lands lying fallow, plus

•  if you eat a fish, include all the smaller fish that fish ate, and all the copepods the smaller fish ate, and all the phytoplankton those copepods ate, plus

• the apples that fall off your apple tree and are eaten by the birds, or rot in the soil, plus

• (I kid you not) we get charged for their calculated annual production lost through “desertification”, whatever they choose for that to mean on a given day.

So when you see a deer grazing in a farmer’s back woodlot, the deer’s not really eating that grass, you are—because it’s happening on land someone is utilizing or letting sit fallow, and by the Ehrlichs’ cockamamie calculation that makes it a human “appropriation” of the products of photosynthesis. It’s simple to get up to 40% when you know how …

Why does Steven Running quote this number? For the same reason that E. O. Wilson and Paul Ehrlich quote this number.

Alarmism.

The quote it to “prove” how close we are to filling up the Earth, to try to give some mathematical, measurable weight to their crazy, oft-refuted Malthusian fantasies.

Running: “Will human consumption of primary plant production soon reach its limits?”

Wilson: “If humans utilized as food all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis on land and sea, some 40 trillion watts, the planet could support about 16 billion people.”

C’mon, folks, Wilson is saying that 2.3 times the number of people currently on earth (7 billion) would consume, not just the production of every single green growing thing on the whole planet, but the raw energy captured by photosynthesis to create that production.

This fails the reasonability test, it is wildly out of scale. Does anyone think we currently eat forty percent of everything that the planet grows?

Of course, they are using their 40% “appropriated” figure to make that estimate that the earth could only support 16 billion people. But as their own paper says “We estimate that humans use approximately 7.2 Pg of organic material directly each year—about three percent of the biosphere’s total annual NPP”That’s their real number, not the 40%.

If we calculate it by their figures, then, they say 3% of the products of photosynthesis are being eaten, worn, or lived in by the 6 billion people on the planet. If we consumed all the products of photosynthesis as he suggests, then we would be able to support an absolute minimum of 6 billion people divided by 3 percent, or 200 billion people.

Or we could calculate it another way. In the Ehrlichs’ paper, they list the total growing matter produced to be 224.5 billion tons per year, (gotta love the “.5″, especially as it is the fourth significant digit on a worldwide guess) which is in general agreement with other estimates of total world production.

For a rule of thumb estimate, we could use the fact that the earth, with 7 billion people, produces about 6 billion metric tons of food and fiber per year (including shells, husks, waste, etc). Conveniently, that means each person consumes a little less than a metric ton of food and waste per year. 225 billion tons of captured photosynthesis would therefore support the food habit of 225 * 7/6 = 260 billion people. Cut it in half to be conservative and allow for use of wood and the like, call it 130 billion people. (Remember, just as Wilson did, I’m just calculating the possible population using NPP alone, and ignoring dealing with the waste streams, overcrowding, and the rest.)

Finally, to calculate more directly the number of people who could be sustained if we could directly eat all the energy captured by plants, we can figure it a third way.

Humans need say 2,500 kcal/day, which very conveniently is about 10 megajoules per day. “40 trillion watts” is what Wilson says is captured by plants, which is 3.5 trillion megajoules per day. Dividing that incoming energy by 10 Mj/day, we find that if we could “utilize as food all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis” we could feed 350 billion people. Cut that in half for all the uncertainties, call it 175 billion people with room to spare.

Just so we’re clear on this:

Wilson says if humans utilized as food all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis on land and sea, then the earth could support 16 billion people max.

The true figure (based on NPP alone, just as is his figure) is well over a hundred billion people, depending on your assumptions. I’ve figured the number using three different methods. He’s out by an order of magnitude.

Sadly, this same nonsense is now being peddled in Science magazine by Steven Running. He is once again selling the Ehrlich idea that we’re almost up to the planetary limits, based on the same bogus figures. Here’s Running again:

If global NPP is fixed by planetary constraints, then no substantial increase in plant growth may be possible. Hence, the obvious policy question must be whether the biosphere can support the 40% increase in global population projected for 2050 and beyond.

For this question, it doesn’t matter whether the “global NPP is fixed by planetary constraints”, or is amenable to human expansion as I would argue has already been proven in semi-arid regions around the planet. It doesn’t matter because at 3% actual utilization of NPP, we are so far from running up against constraints based on the NPP we can let our great, great grandchildren worry about it.

Finally, Running makes another misleading claim:

Agriculture now consumes 38% of the global land surface, with major new expansion only available in underdeveloped parts of South America and Africa.

He makes it sound like the world is running out of land to farm. This is not the case at all. In reality, the amount of un-utilized rain-fed cropland is staggering. The unused cropland in Sudan alone, 75 million hectares, is more than enough to feed all of Africa.

There is more unused cropland in Africa (394 Mha) than there is under cultivation in Europe and Russia combined. (314 Mha)

And there is much more unused cropland in South America (413 Mha) than there is land under cultivation in North America (225 Mha).

In addition, there is 117 Mha of unused cropland in North America, and another 150 Mha available in Europe and Russia.

The only area with no available unused cropland is Asia, so they will have to farm smarter rather than more, and may need to import food … which is one reason why the Chinese are so interested in gaining influence in Africa. Details are at the GAEZ website.

The good news is that most of Asia is not using modern farming methods. Average rice yield in North America is 7.9 tonnes/ha … while in Asia overall it’s only 4.5 t/ha, in China it’s 6.7 t/ha, and in India it’s a pathetic 3.5 tonnes/ha. So large increases in productivity are assuredly possible.

And remember, the population is projected to level out somewhere around nine billion people, so we only need ~30% more food production to stay even. A thirty percent increase is easily within reach.

suitability for rain-fed cropsFigure 4. GAEZ study results, suitability for rain-fed crops. SOURCE

So in summary, despite Mr. Running’s best efforts at Malthusian alarmism, he’s come up empty …

•  No, we’re not up against planetary limitations, whether based on NPP or on available cropland.

•  No, we’re not anywhere near running out of food.

•  And no, Paul Ehrlich’s claim that we “appropriate” 40% of the NPP is still not true, no more than when he made it back in 1986.

All the best,

w.

PS – Does this mean that there are no problems, that we can be complacent? No; the steady improvement over the last half century in the nutrition, health, shelter, and clothing of the people of the world has happened precisely because people have not been complacent …

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137 thoughts on “Steven W. Running On Empty

  1. Willis says, “…When I read Wilson’s claim at the time, my mind just went goofy…”

    After reading the explanation behind that 40% figure, I think I understand what you mean. I’m having a hard time bringing myself to understand and accept that anybody could have ever taken this argument seriously. I’m at a loss for even an analogy of the stupidity involved to help my mind bring this into scale.

    All I can say at this point is, it sort of explains what happened to science. It might have been just these brave, ground-breaking pioneers who first cut these uncharted trails into madness that paved the way for modern climate science.

  2. The popularity of figures like this (and “97% of climate scientists”) rests on a fairly universal if nasty human behavior – lazy, thoughtless acceptance of whatever fits your preconceived notion.

    It goes to an extent that people will prefer to believe any old rumor on an internet forum unrelated to the question rather than actually try to look up the answer – because that would mean opening a new tab, typing in *words* – hard stuff like that.

    And so, people who try hard to base their ideas on reality are constantly snowed in by nonsensical rumors. In this case, “rumors” translates as “widely accepted studies and papers,” but too often that’s the same thing.

  3. I don’t know. The alarmists’ claims make me feel empowered. Even though I didn’t build that, at least I appropriated it.

  4. “…In other words, how do they calculate the forty percent…?”

    How? They’re New Age liberals. They just make it up.

  5. Thanks Willis , as an retired farmer I have seen the incredible advances in Organic and Non-Organic farming since 1972, The first apple orchards I worked in produced appr. 20- 25 bins/ acre (900lbs per.) I am retired now but my neighbor on 5 acres last fall produced 239 bins ( actually now consistently year in and out). The accumulation and expansion of technology and knowledge as in irrigation, equipment, root stocks, varieties plantings and the education of farmers everywhere has been mind boggling in the past 30 -40 years.
    After reading your article Steven should still be Running

  6. When you consider that as aerial CO2 increases biomass production increases, Paul et al would/should be pushing CO2 as a panacea.

  7. Another great analysis, Willis, that is logical and easy to follow. I would note that we already produce more than enough food to feed the global population, but much is lost to war and waste. Add to that the potential increases possible with more modern farming technologies, as you mentioned, and it is obvious there is really no problem, now or for the foreseeable future. But of course, there is no crisis in that vision. Gotta have a crisis!!

  8. Willis said:

    You see, at the 40% level, what we “appropriate” means the 3% of the NPP that we actually use and consume each year, the green growing things we eat and wear and build with, plus:

    • every green living thing that grows in any human owned pastures and fields, regardless of whether a human ever touches it, plus

    • the annual difference in production between what we grow on a piece of land versus their optimistic theoretical calculation of what could have grown on the same land, plus

    • the annual production that might have happened where we put our roads and cities (figured, of course, at the highest possible production rates), plus

    • estimated maximum production of agricultural lands lying fallow, plus

    • if you eat a fish, include all the smaller fish that fish ate, and all the copepods the smaller fish ate, and all the phytoplankton those copepods ate, plus

    • the apples that fall off your apple tree and are eaten by the birds, or rot in the soil, plus

    • (I kid you not) we get charged for their calculated annual production lost through “desertification”, whatever they choose for that to mean on a given day.

    So when you see a deer grazing in a farmer’s back woodlot, the deer’s not really eating that grass, you are—because it’s happening on land someone is utilizing or letting sit fallow, and by the Ehrlich’s cockamamie calculation that makes it a human “appropriation” of the products of photosynthesis. It’s simple to get up to 40% when you know how …

    ****************

    This should be a poster. I did not think I could be gobsmacked anymore with these ridiculous alarmism claims. But this… This has to be fraud. Making claims that are simply not true and pushing it as science to force the population to cower and sacrifice civilization or their own children (Their own parents? Neighbours? They are out to chop down PEOPLE, right?) – this has to be a crime. When are these @#%! going to be held accountable?

    We have seen the enemy and he is green. The only cancer we have is green.

    Thanks, Willis, for posting this.

  9. I have no doubt society is close to collapse but it is not because we consume solar energy in excess. The why is a great story and the machinery has been put in motion. To avoid hijacking your story, our economies of scale are under attack by our government and when fundamental supplies become unaffordable all that depends upon them collapses. Carbon -> fuel -> tires -> asphalt -> farming equipment -> rail -> transportation -> fertilizer -> plows -> labor… =>> food –… > life. An excellent tale of connections in the vein of the classic James Burke TV series.

    Bottled water – one of the single most important items we can buy. Nothing is needed more in a regional crisis. Without the existing economies of scale it might as well be gold. Yet it is soundly under attack by the greenies. Senseless.

    The great satan energy – nothing is needed more in a healthy society than energy and the same greenies are doing all they can to destroy the economies of scale that make that healthy society possible. All in the name of a fraudulent alarmist climate scam.

  10. I often think that the people who complain about overpopulation the most have never flown coast to coast across the United States at night.

  11. The REAL issue is that close to 100% of NPP is eventually consumed by bacteria. Bow to your bacterial overlords !!

  12. As much as I hate to muck up your math CO2 at 400 ppm results in a 10 to 15% increase in plant growth. If, a big if, CO2 doubles then so does the percentage of growth.
    The problem I see, if any, is the increase in blue-green algae especially in coastal waters fertilized by sewage and poor farming practice run off. CO2 has an unknown effect in that department.

  13. Good work.

    I’d add that the idea that food production is limited by the amount of sunlight and available cropland (rain fed) is false for 2 reasons.

    Firstly, there is already commercial production of vegetables from essentially food factories housed in stacks of shipping containers. No sunlight involved. An activity limited only by the cost and availability of energy.

    Secondly, the main constraint on agricultural production is water. With sufficient water available, anywhere within 30 odd degrees of the equator can produce 2 to 4 crops a year. As you recently highlighted, the water could come from cheaper desal, or it could come from continental scale water distribution, in the same way we distribute gas and electricity over continental distances.

    Malthus, and every Malthusian since, fails to understand that innovation is inexorable.

  14. I read somewhere that 75% of our bodies are made up of water and bacteria, which means that the human part of us is only 25% so responsible for four times as much, which means, …. like WOW!!

  15. jorgekafkazar says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    “…In other words, how do they calculate the forty percent…?”
    How? They’re New Age liberals. They just make it up.
    yup. funny to see how unhappy they are when I reply that ants are producing more CO2 then humans…
    of course they miss the increase productivity of plants with increased CO2.
    So even if now we consume 2-3% with increased population in 50 years we might still be at the same 2-3% number due to increased plants productivity if CO2 continues to increase at the same pace.
    What we need to keep under control are the bloated bureaucracies, that is the only thing that is continuously increasing without any tendency of levelling.

  16. Paul Ehrlich was a standing joke decades ago, after his first predictions failed to appear.
    I bigger question is why Stanford University hires nutballs like this. The proper response to claims like “humans appropriate …” would be a “So what? You got some problem with that?

  17. This non-scientist thinks that 3% is way too high of an estimate. If it really could be calculated, I’m sure it is infinitely smaller than that.

  18. Julian Simon pointed all this out, a long time ago. He wasn’t listened to. He pointed this out as well.

    For the record, when Ehrlich talks about ‘humans appropriating’, I assumed that he meant everything, up to and including LOOKING at the greenery. I could believe that, in total, over a year, humans view about 40% of the greenery on the planet….

  19. dfbaskwill says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    This non-scientist thinks that 3% is way too high of an estimate. If it really could be calculated, I’m sure it is infinitely smaller than that.

    Thanks, dfbaskwill. The numbers that they used in their calculation are in the Vitousek-Ehrlich paper. You’re welcome to punch holes in them, I encourage you to do so …

    w.

  20. Environuts are used to controlling small groups of like minded dull people.

    The argument against greater population is in fact a self preservation argument.

    Environuts are scared off larger populations as that would lead to more intelligent people to contend with, people that they view as a threat to their ideals & idiocy. They’re biggest fear is natural selection.

    Environuts want artificial selection over evolution.

  21. BioBob says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    The REAL issue is that close to 100% of NPP is eventually consumed by bacteria. Bow to your bacterial overlords !!

    Not only that, but they appropriated it with asking me … the nerve.

    w.

  22. So Paul Ehrlich was deceiving long, long before he started mentoring other scientists to do the same.

  23. Scientists make calculations.

    However, in stark contrast, Paul Ehrlich makes crapulations… Garbage numbers entered in garbage algorithms resulting from a garbage view of mankind.

  24. “• the annual difference in production between what we grow on a piece of land versus their optimistic theoretical calculation of what could have grown on the same land, plus”

    I have a photo book of Oregon. On one page is a scenic photograph taken around 1900. On the facing page is a modern photo attempting to recreated the same point of view today. The most striking difference in the photos is the increase in vegitation in the modern photos. Humans favor trees and plants and have the ability to bring water that sparks green life. Without people, plants don’t seem to do as well.

    So maybe the “co-option” noted above is really a negative number.

  25. Hey, you never complained when Lewis Carroll wrote this kind of stuff so why make a big deal now?…
    ;)

  26. My ecology lecturer at uni always said that a good approximation in a food chain is that each “trophic level” consumes 10% of the trophic level below it. Thus 40% is about 4 times the total herbivory on earth. Ehrlich and his followers are ignorant of the most basic elements of ecology.

    Those were the days – I remember in the end-of-year comic review one student colleague, impersonating the said lecturer, proposed a research project entitled “Individual component of global macrophytophagy in Mysus persicae, in other words, how long would it take a single greenfly to eat all the plants in the world. I guess Ehrlich and his ilk are asking the same joke question but replacing Mysus with Homo sapiens.

  27. Reminds me of the calculations for sex and physical abuse. The statistics on physical abuse includes the times I smacked a kid for potty mouth, or wacked a kid bottom for pinching another kid, or hit a hand for reaching out to grab something off the grocery shelf. Sex abuse includes the fact that daddy has a stash of magazines under the bed in a household that includes children.

  28. Another excellent W.E. article! No wonder the alarmist crowd hides out from any real debates. Willis writes:

    “Think about it for a minute. There’s no possible way that humans are consuming anywhere near half the green matter produced on the planet every year, that’s impossible by far.”

    A while back there was a discussion here about the total mass of human beings. It turns out that you could fit every human on earth into a 1 km diameter sphere, with room to spare.

    Compare that minuscule mass of humanity with the planet’s vegetation to see how ridiculous these wild-eyed claims are. As Willis points out, there is no possible way that humans use anywhere near half of the planet’s vegetation.

  29. We shall NOT be running out of food. Food depends on warmth, sunlight, and water. The bottleneck is water,until now, but Lockheed Martin have developed a carbon-based (carbon, that enemy of the planet-sarc off) membrane filter that will work on the same principle as the reverse osmosis one, but needing 100 times LESS energy than the conventional membranes, making the desalination of water dirt cheap.

    Add to that endless supplies oif energy; abiotic oil and gas, methane hydrates, fracking, thorium, conventional nuclear, possibly LENR, and limitless coal supplies if one needs to.
    The future looks good and we may soon be able to end poverty, but the UN and the Agenda 21-ers wont like it.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/13/us-usa-desalination-idUSBRE92C05720130313

  30. Hmmm….seems like nothing but a big, red herring to me. The earth, if anything, is getting greener. Greenie guilt and alarmism, nothing more.

  31. Well done Willis.
    40+ years, or (if you include Malthus) around 213 years of bs neatly debunked in 9 pages (226kb pdf). Nicely timed for Earth Hour (aka “I’m with Stupid”).

  32. I barely can keep up with the advancing vegetation at my suburban single-swelling residence. Once I get the garden going, I really cannot keep up – I miss out on productivity because I cannot maximally cultivate. Despite all that I might cut, mow, trim, or burn, and allow to go to the landfill via the local trash collection, the next year I have even more biomass to wrestle with.

    It is amazing to think that the water comes and goes as part of the water cycle, and that the mass, otherwise, largely carbon, literally emerges from mid-air.

  33. In the 1970s, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay, “The End”, in which he calculated the “ultimate” human population by simply replacing the (estimated) total mass of non-human animal life with people. That worked out to a population of about 40 trillion, or roughly two orders of magnitude greater than Willis’s figure. Of course every square inch of the planet (including the roofs of the megastructures housing humanity) would be covered with tanks growing algae, presumably genetically engineered and/or post-processed to provide optimum human nutrition. The algae would of course be fertilized by human waste and corpses.

  34. A.D. Everard says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    … When are these @#%! going to be held accountable?

    Thanks, A.D. I’m doing my best to do just that …

    w.

  35. I was sitting in the Adelaide (Australia) central bus station two weeks ago waiting to catch a ride to the ferry which would take us to Kangaroo Island wild life refuge, and I picked up a used newspaper and read that Paul Ehrlich was coming to Adelaide to speak. His message was that Australia is already over populated and to avoid starvation, government needed to reduce population by more than @ 60%: no immigration, rather promote emigration. (There are about 20 million people on the Australian continent.)

    Your puzzling about hard numbers: 3% or 40% of all photosynthesis products expropriated, reminded me that a reporter was asking the local spokes person for the ecological society or some such, who was paying the bill for Paul Ehrlich’s trip to Australia to tell them to get out of Australia. Now here’s the interesting part about hard numbers. The ecological spokes person said that there were both private funds and government funds. The reporter further queried, “and just how much government funds were involved?” Now the hard numbers: ” none of your business.” Aussies seem to be direct at times.

    Paul Ehrlich came to Australia to tell Australians to leave Australia and the public does not have the right to know how much of their tax dollars are being used in this message. However, the message was authoritative, less than 10 million people should remain after this putsch.

  36. What would the alarmists say about this: Humans are something like 1/2 percent of the animal biomass on Earth (if in fact not much less than that), and their consumption of food is probably less than that of other life forms, on a per-unit-of-weight basis, since humans are relatively low emitters of CO2 through respiration (a pretty good index of food consumption, since CO2 is generated by oxidizing food to supply bodily energy, and the amount exhaled probably could be correlated to calories). That would seem to kick the alarmies in the cojones, methinks, for their ridiculous allegations that humans consume any measurable portion of photosynthetic energy, let alone 40 percent – or even 3 percent, for that matter. Bullbleep!!

  37. D.B., I’ve read where the largest mass of (non-plant) life is the total of all the ants on the planet. If you’ve ever looked at the chicken-pox pattern visible on a vast portion of the satellite photos covering undisturbed areas, what you’re seeing is where ants have cleared a circle of all the vegetation from around their colonies.

    Funny that Wilson claims to be Lord of the Ants. I could be disparraging, but I’ll spare him–he looks rough enough.

  38. Dr. Steven W. Running …..
    Having read his ‘perspectives’, Running On….Running On Empty seems ironically appropriate.

    Thanks for the vignette on this nattering naibob of nincompoopy, Willis!
    MtK

  39. Dodgy Geezer says (March 20, 2013 at 4:03 pm): “Julian Simon pointed all this out, a long time ago.”

    For example in “The Ultimate Resource 2″, Chapter 6, “Limits on Food Production”. He didn’t directly address the deception as Willis did, but demonstrated its irrelevance.

    “For the record, when Ehrlich talks about ‘humans appropriating’, I assumed that he meant everything, up to and including LOOKING at the greenery.”

    I walked through a forest once. Didn’t realize I was ruining it for all the poor woodland creatures. Sorry, Gaia. :-)

  40. Willis, do you know of how much food is wasted by spoilage before reaching the market. For example I read once that perhaps 25% of food in India is lost this way due to insufficient transportation infrastructure and perhaps refrigeration.

  41. Hi Willis, I think you intended to say “prediction in his dotage ” instead of “predition in his dotage,”

    Though one could argue that he engages in predation.

  42. A list of things that make more accurate predictions than Paul Ehrlich:

    Punxsutawney Phil
    Coin toss
    Magic “8” ball
    Nostradamus
    Ouija board
    Miss Cleo, my psychic friend
    Broken clock
    Goat entrails

    Feel free to add to the list.

  43. We can easily double, and double again grain production:

    http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/grains-and-why-food-will-stay-plentiful/

    We can get a factor of 10 with some extra effort. All that before we even begin doing more “exotic” things that are available. (like algae farms that are 10x as productive as regular plants).

    The reason we use so much land is to reduce costs of labor and capital. A farm is run for most PROFIT, not for most productivity / acre. “Intensive gardens” are grown for most productivity / area. (Do not misinterpret this. Any given farm and farmer for any chosen plants will be optimized inside those choices for productivity. But if your labor cost goes up by 10 x to get a 2x increase in yield, you just don’t do it.

    When / if real scarcity ever begins, folks pay a bit more and farmers apply a lot more labor and fertilizer and… to get more yield. You can see that today in corn where US farmers are putting a lot more effort into growing corn and we are getting very high yields (due to excess demand for corn as fuel).

    There are many other examples in the link.

  44. May be a silly question (before I go to bed) but in photosynthesis do plants convert energy which would otherwise contribute to warming the earth ? (my brain is a little tired at the moment, it now being 1.00am – too much so to dredge back through biology and physics education of nearly 50 years ago…)..

    Just wondering that if that is so and given that vegetative matter has increased globally by 20% or so in the last 25 years as a direct result of increased CO2 levels then presumably it would be another part of earths natural thermostat. (or maybe not …)

    Apologies if it is a silly question.

  45. On top of all the nonsense with the amount of NPP humans consume, their estimations of human population growth are way off.

    The current long range projection of human population (out to 2300) has population peaking at 9.22 billion in 2075 then declining and recovering slightly to only 8.97 billion in 2300.

    http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf

    So even if Paul Ehrlich’s drastic underestimation of the level of human population the earth can support, we don’t have any reason to worry about it for a very very long time.

  46. The 40-50% NPP mantra was recently espoused by the American economist Jeffrey Sachs (Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University) at a recent London School of Economics (LSE) Public Lecture entitled, “What is Sustainable Development and How Can We Achieve It?” – http://preview.tinyurl.com/c3cggnl (link to LSE podcast web page).

    You can here the mantra’s reiteration at the 37:58 time stamp in the lecture. And yes, the term “sustainable” in the lecture’s title is meant to support the UN’s use of the term, which is nothing more than a euphemism for anthropogenic global warming. What’s old (Malthus) is new (Sachs), and it represents something borrowed and necessarily blue. Who knew the air we breath is actually a commodity best managed by the economic principles of supply and demand, as detailed in the book “Limits to Growth” published in 1972? Well, Sachs did (as have thousands of environmentalists, politicians, attorneys, and brokers, too, who advance establishing carbon markets).

    What’s comical in the lecture is Sachs’ castigation of economic models as only being “half right” (50%). And yet, he accepts the excessively warm outputs of climate models (i.e., a 5+ deg C warming by 2100) without question or exception because… “the evidence is overwhelming” of its impact as exemplified by the number of unprecedented and extreme, weather events. It is always amazing to see ignorance so boldly displayed in one so educated.

  47. The last time I learned of my place in this “nature”, was when I set off on a hike along the south shore of Lake Superior.
    I made it to the destination with an assumed blister building after the 4 hour walk.
    About an hour into the return trip, it was no doubt, a blister !

    How many cooling streams I crossed on the way back I couldn’t tell, but I bet there were a few.
    I never thought to take the relief so generously offered.

    I staggered back to my car, a beaten but not quite defeated, certainly learned, victim of the
    over- exuberance of middle age.
    =======
    Now I search for the cooling streams, they refresh more than ones feet.

  48. Hi, Willis – thanks for a good read, as always. On a THOROUGHLY pedantic note ( ;^> ), where you say “In the EHRLICH’S paper, they list the total growing matter produced…,” the apostrophe should follow the s, and I’m sure I don’t have to say why.

    I know it’s just a typo/oversight but thought you might like it noted, anyway.

    As an aside, it would be super sweet if WUWT had a sort of “back channel” way of pointing out typos and misspellings and other piddly little technical oversights. On the one hand, it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that posts be as clean and mistake-free as possible, even the little stuff, because the fact is there are a lot of eyeballs watching what gets written on this sight, and not all of those eyeballs come here in peace. On the other hand, though, it’s really embarassing and a waste of the other readers’ time to offer such “pedanticisms” in the actual comments section (like I’m doing now!).

    Just a thought…

  49. World population approx 7 billion:

    Call them all to a meeting, standing in a crowd, each with a square meter of space:

    7 billion square meters.

    They would take up an area of about 84 km x 84 km ( 52 x 52 miles)

    IE, Everyone in the world could meet on the main island of Hawaii (Were it flat!)

    If we built a frame, and allowed a cubic meter of volume for every man woman and child, they could all fit in a cube of 1.9 km x 1.9 km (1.2 x 1.2 miles) ….

    …..then if we all fell in the ocean, we’d barely make a ripple on the surface, or on the ocean’s ecosystem.

  50. tobias says: March 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks Willis , as an retired farmer I have seen the incredible advances in Organic and Non-Organic farming since 1972, The first apple orchards I worked in produced appr. 20- 25 bins/ acre (900lbs per.) I am retired now but my neighbor on 5 acres last fall produced 239 bins

    Hi Tobias ..I deal more on the intensive animal side, and the gains in efficiency have been going on for 40 years and are relentless, they are there year in year out, and rate of improvement is now actually accelerating as more and more gene markers are elicited …

    A question: … is that now 239 bins/acre (ten fold increase) or 239/ 5 acres (two fold increase)?

    It is a travesty that so much funding goes to certain climate lobbyists (scientists?) when there are other scientists out there really saving the world. (And I have no doubt some climate scientists too ae useful and necessary).

  51. LamontT says:
    March 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Hi Willis, I think you intended to say “prediction in his dotage ” instead of “predition in his dotage,”

    Though one could argue that he engages in predation.

    Or “perdition” … thanks, fixed.

    w.

  52. provoter says:
    March 20, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Hi, Willis – thanks for a good read, as always. On a THOROUGHLY pedantic note ( ;^> ), where you say “In the EHRLICH’S paper, they list the total growing matter produced…,” the apostrophe should follow the s, and I’m sure I don’t have to say why.

    I know it’s just a typo/oversight but thought you might like it noted, anyway.

    As an aside, it would be super sweet if WUWT had a sort of “back channel” way of pointing out typos and misspellings and other piddly little technical oversights. On the one hand, it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that posts be as clean and mistake-free as possible, even the little stuff, because the fact is there are a lot of eyeballs watching what gets written on this sight, and not all of those eyeballs come here in peace. On the other hand, though, it’s really embarassing and a waste of the other readers’ time to offer such “pedanticisms” in the actual comments section (like I’m doing now!).

    Thanks, fixed, and it’s fine with me if people know that I make typos …

    w.

  53. By the time a “fact” has been quoted/cited 3 times (degrees?) removed from the original, it is rarely questioned. First liar wins.

  54. I once calculated the total cubic volume of all the people in the world, and came up with 0.4 cubic Km. It would fit in my neighborhood. Go ahead and calculate a number yourself. (I dare you to not use metric!)

    THAT’S what’s consuming 40% of the planet.

  55. In the area of science, setting aside your brilliant essays on thunderstorms, this essay is my favorite by you. Over the decades since Population Bomb, several someones should have written similar essays critical of Ehrlich’s outrageous, propagandistic claims.

    Decades ago, Ehrlich should have learned enough to understand that his “Population Bomb” demands another book with the title “Population Dud.”

    He has never been a population scientist. It is to Stanford’s shame that they have employed him as a population scientist for all these years of false predictions and scare mongering.

  56. I read somewhere back in the seventies, I think it was, that if the average Indian farmer could raise his annual production of food to the level of an average American farmer in the late 1860’s, India could feed itself and in fact be a net exporter of food.

    On a related point and as counterpoint to Erlich et al., may I suggest a look atHypersea: Life on Land by Mark A. S. McMenamin and Diana S. McMenamin. Available at Amazon.com for $42.00.

  57. Steve O, your 0.4 cubic Km is 83.7 million cubic yards, or 2.26 billion cubic feet. Since I believe the volume of the average person is somewhat more than a cubic foot, I’d say your estimate was on the shy side. What did you use for volume per world capita (cubic ft per person)?

  58. Something else wrong about these kinds of activist claims is they act as if NPP is a constant.*

    On contrary, for instance, when Israel irrigates deserts for agriculture, NPP goes from nil to high, and there would even be some more animal life indirectly accidentally supported by that gain, locally as if a negative
    percentage NPP consumption was the net effect of humans.

    So too did, for instance, hydroponics on rocky islands in WWII.

    While Earth’s average net primary productivity is about 0.5 kg per square meter per year (with such times 5E14 m^2 total land & ocean area corresponding to the total figure), even a fraction of yields up to tens of kg per square meter per year in controlled-environment agriculture (gains as illustrated in http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/75SummerStudy/5appendC.html except not 24-hour sunlight) would be an order of magnitude higher.

    Space colonization one day is going to even more blatantly take areas of nil prior life, fill with life, and raise NPP, helping reduce the anti-human mindset if mankind makes it that far.

    There has been about a 5% increase in satellite-observed global NPP since the 1980s, largely from CO2 fertilization and (beneficial) climate change. Some iron fertilization of the oceans could make that figure higher,
    as each kiloton of appropriately dispersed iron could give literally thousands of times its own mass in payback, but knee-jerk
    activists would oppose it.

    * (And they do likewise with “carrying capacity,” as if people were mere beasts, as if the number of people who can be supported per unit area
    is the same for tech levels from stone age hunter-gatherers onwards — either depicting such that way or falsely claiming technology decreases
    such when it is blatantly the other way around).

  59. That assumption that the human population is projected to level off in this century.
    Isn’t this expectation based on the belief that modern technological wealth will spread to the poor world wide?
    That is rising personal wealth leads to better family planning, ecetera?
    If we do not succeed in wresting control of our countries and economies away from todays destructive idiots, that assumption of rising world wealth is flawed, so if the less children thro better living that depends on it.
    Cheap energy sources are abundant, human capitol abounds, but the political will is stagnant and rotten to the core in my democracy (Canada), hows yours doing?
    Sorry its late and I am using too many words, my sense is that if we, rich,lazy westerners do not clean the dead wood out of our own societies, the poor are doomed and the need for many children so that some may live, will not abate.
    Perhaps there is a cause, after all.

  60. What a delightful “Fermi Problem”. What % of photosynthesized energy do humans “reduce to ashes” (ash, CO2, H2O) and to heat radiated to space? First approximation: there is about 10^17 watts of sunlight striking the earth. There are about 7×10^9 people each of whom produce 100 watts of heat by “burning” plant material (eating). That’s 7×10^-6 or 0.0007% of the solar energy. Not much.

    But we then adjust. On the input side, perhaps only 10% of the surface is green, and photosynthesis is only 5% efficient. This adjustment is reasonable to require. So divide the input watts by 200. We are now at 0.14%. This is what we require to keep us “warm 100 watt bodies” rather than dead.

    Now the much more tricky part is the consumption. So let’s increase our 100 watts to include a 300 watt “companion cow” (the meat of our diet) and perhaps another 300 watts for our non-food plant material (now up to an even 700 watts). This non-food we can estimate, in part, as the human-sequestered firewood equivalent of the continuous replacement of our house, bio-fuels fully to ashes, etc. This would get humans to 1% of photosynthesis. Not sure I believe any of this part!

    But I don’t include the tree in my yard, even if I planted it, and enjoy it, unless a human cut it down and reduce it to ashes (with the heat radiating to space). If my cow eats the tree – well I already counted my cow. Still a bit short of 40% – so it seems!

    Lots of fun.

  61. Thanks, Willis. Good debunking!
    Lies based on old lies are the demons haunting the world.
    A post-modern Malthusian ‘scientist’ during his lifetime will cause more damage than all the hurricanes during his miserable lifetime. Prove me wrong!

  62. From what I have been seeing, perhaps it would be better if Wilson stayed with the ants while the Ehrlichs went back to the butterflies. Why mess with success, I say.

  63. If one has to wait out the coming perdition, the Stanford property of West Palo Alto is pretty nice digs. Ehrlich couldn’t do much better. Though they do have to suffer through a major earthquate ever 80 years or so.

  64. I was going to say that ants ate more than we do, but others got there first. Interesting read.

  65. Aloha Willis, I can’t stop thinking about Helena from Manila..

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/01/13/we-have-met-the-1-and-he-is-us/.

    The reason Helena didn’t want you to visit her, at her home was her neighbors… Her neighbors (unless she moved) are there for ever. Many Eyes are all on her when she had to share time with you in her living space.. At the time you had no idea the beggars and “friends” hassling her for help and what nots….
    Exposing her to your wealth endangered her…
    THEN again, you were out of there, she may be dealing with that fallout today..
    Given her ability to speak English, I bet she is not there…

    I find your Pacific sailing adventures wonderful.
    I have sailed from Pohnpei to Ant atoll… Out in the middle of nowhere,,,, lolz

  66. @ markx. sorry , Yes the end result only seems to be twice the weight from on average 23 to 46 bins per acre but I did not (I’m lazy in my dotage) did not include the way !! higher efficiency in areas such as better equipment, lower cost of operating said equipment (because it is better and better, easier maintained) and other facets of the operations on farms, I am not sure how to to explain it , but I remember looking after 40-50 cherry pickers 40 years ago that they took a day to process an acre or two a day and now the same 40 -50 pickers “MOW” down 10 if not more acres a day, you have to see it to believe it. Most tree fruits like apples, peaches, pears etc. still need mostly to be picked by human hands, so the industry has had to find ways some where else to improve and they have! it is fun to watch. The other and maybe the most important thing is the quality of the fruit that is being produced ( they are a bloody bunch of capitalistic farmers they make #1 get #1 $$).

  67. provoter says:
    March 20, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    As an aside, it would be super sweet if WUWT had a sort of “back channel” way of pointing out typos and misspellings and other piddly little technical oversights. On the one hand, it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that posts be as clean and mistake-free as possible, even the little stuff, because the fact is there are a lot of eyeballs watching what gets written on this sight, and not all of those eyeballs come here in peace. On the other hand, though, it’s really embarrassing and a waste of the other readers’ time to offer such “pedanticisms” in the actual comments section (like I’m doing now!).

    I went to the WordPress website and suggested this, where I was told that a plug-in to do this was available for persons hosting their own sites. But it should be built into the hosted WordPress site—and be a standard option in user-hosted sites.

    In detail, the Report button should have three options: Offensive; Typo; Double-post.

  68. I have just scrapped my third attempt at writing a comment on this – I figure it is just too insane – I don’t know what to say, or even on what in particular.

    Other than ‘appropriation’, another technical term comes to mind: “waste of space”, as in ‘somebody’ :)

  69. Interesting calculations in Ehrlichs “paper”.

    In contrast, Olson et al. (1983) assume that average agricultural NPP exceeds that of natural ecosystems. If we use their estimates, converting land to agriculture does not decrease NPP–but the amount of potential NPP co-opted by humans increases.

    Wow. Just, wow. If NPP increases, then the amount “co-opted” increases. The mental contortions invloved in this are painful to watch.

  70. Willis,

    Excellent essay, but there is a somewhat more rigorous recent estimate of human appropriation of NPP out there these days, from Helmut Haberl at Klagenfurt University in Austria. see here:

    http://www.eoearth.org/article/Global_human_appropriation_of_net_primary_production_(HANPP)

    He comes up with 15% consumed by us and our pets, 9% destroyed or prevented from growing, or 24% in all. Because it is a much smaller number than Ehrlich’s, the likes of WWF and Running and Ehrlich have ignored Haberl’s estimate. On the other hand, as you argue, it’s almost certainly too high. The one good thing Haberl has done is to allow for the fact that human beings often enhance NPP through irrigation and fertiliser.

    Here’s an extract from the above site:

    “We have proposed a definition of HANPP that has proven its usefulness in spatially explicit as well as long-term studies on a national scale. This definition (Figure 1) is related to Wright’s suggestion and defines HANPP as the difference between the amount of NPP that would be available in an ecosystem in the absence of human activities (NPP0) and the amount of NPP which actually remains in the ecosystem, or in the ecosystem that replaced it under current management practices (NPPt). NPPt can be calculated by quantifying the NPP of the actual vegetation (NPPact) and subtracting the amount of NPP harvested by humans (NPPh). HANPP is then defined as NPP0-NPPt with NPPt = NPPact – NPPh. If one denotes as ?NPPLC the difference between NPP0 and NPPact, HANPP becomes equal to NPPh+?NPPLC.

    “This definition has the following advantages: (1) It avoids being too inclusive. Even in strong­ly human-impacted systems such as grasslands, managed forests, or even cropland, some of the NPP is used by wild-living organisms not controlled or used by humans, thus supporting some, in grasslands often even a very high, biodiversity. (2) It is robust in time-series calculations. Land use sometimes reduces NPP, even prevents it altogether (e.g. soil sealing), but technologies such as irrigation, fertilization or use of improved crop varieties may also raise NPP over its natural potential. Such effects are significant and historically variable, and should thus be included in any comprehensive HANPP assessment. For example, in Austria changes in agricultural technology increased above-ground productivity on agricultural land by a factor of 2.6 from 1830 to 1995.”

  71. Very, very interesting calculations… to try and determine what is the maximum amount of people we could feed…
    Over 100 billion people… my god, where would we put them? All current calculations estimate a leveling off around 10-12 billion, maybe more, but 100 billion… incredible.
    A few years ago I had a stint of what you might call social work… helping people find jobs and a place to stay and whatnot. From that standpoint, the world population goes like this:
    Let’s say I put you in charge of 10 people, and give you one week. In those seven days, you have to find all ten of those people a job, a place to live, clothing and other materials, transportation, health care, and so forth. Set them up to have a relatively self-sustained successful life, and not die on the street hungry, or become dependent on help.
    It would be hard work and long hours, but with the right contacts, I bet you could do it for those ten people. Set them up on the right track.
    So after that week, you come back to me, and I give you over a million more people to set up in the same way. That’s how fast the world population is growing, and how quickly we need to develop in order to keep up.

    Also, this:
    BioBob says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm
    The REAL issue is that close to 100% of NPP is eventually consumed by bacteria. Bow to your bacterial overlords !!

    That’s a similar argument to the one I use on vegetarians. They have some silly notion that if a human doesn’t eat an animal, it will get to live on happily forever after.
    Two facts:
    Everything that lives, dies.
    When it dies, something eats it.

    Why not me?
    I much prefer I eat that cow than a pile of bacteria and scavengers.
    And with the recent talks by Allan Savory and Matt Ridley, we have plenty of evidence to argue that if I eat it, I will have a monumentally positive influence on life on this planet, much more so than any lesser creature might achieve.

  72. john robertson says: March 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    That assumption that the human population is projected to level off in this century.
    Isn’t this expectation based on the belief that modern technological wealth will spread to the poor world wide?

    It has been noted that surprisingly enough, relatively underdeveloped countries are reducing their birth rates at a faster rate than did “The West” as it developed…

    About That Overpopulation Problem
    Research suggests we may actually face a declining world population in the coming years.
    By Jeff Wise|Posted Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, at 7:45 AM ET

    Moreover, the poor, highly fertile countries that once churned out immigrants by the boatload are now experiencing birthrate declines of their own. From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s. This change in developing countries will affect not only the U.S. population, of course, but eventually the world’s.
    Why is this happening? Scientists who study population dynamics point to a phenomenon called “demographic transition.”

    “For hundreds of thousands of years,” explains Warren Sanderson, a professor of economics at Stony Brook University, “in order for humanity to survive things like epidemics and wars and famine, birthrates had to be very high.” Eventually, thanks to technology, death rates started to fall in Europe and in North America, and the population size soared. In time, though, birthrates fell as well, and the population leveled out. The same pattern has repeated in countries around the world. Demographic transition, Sanderson says, “is a shift between two very different long-run states: from high death rates and high birthrates to low death rates and low birthrates.” Not only is the pattern well-documented, it’s well under way:

    Already, more than half the world’s population is reproducing at below the replacement rate.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/01/world_population_may_actually_start_declining_not_exploding.single.html

  73. Steve O says: March 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    ,i>I once calculated the total cubic volume of all the people in the world, and came up with 0.4 cubic Km. It would fit in my neighborhood. Go ahead and calculate a number yourself. (I dare you to not use metric!)

    THAT’S what’s consuming 40% of the planet. Voracious little blighters ain’t we?

    But gotta use metric…. 7 billion x 65 kg (probably a bit high, for men, women and children, but then there are Americans, Dutchmen, Germans and a few Aussies in there with something of a height and/or an obesity issue or two …. )

    = 455,000,000,000 litres
    = 455,000,000 m3
    = a cube of sides of 769.13 metres (2,523.4 feet)

    = 0.457 cubic km …. of humans on the planet.

    (Yeah … that is without airspaces!)

  74. … fixed html…

    Steve O says: March 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    I once calculated the total cubic volume of all the people in the world, and came up with 0.4 cubic Km. It would fit in my neighborhood. Go ahead and calculate a number yourself. (I dare you to not use metric!)

    THAT’S what’s consuming 40% of the planet. Voracious little blighters ain’t we?

    But gotta use metric…. 7 billion x 65 kg (probably a bit high, for men, women and children, but then there are Americans, Dutchmen, Germans and a few Aussies in there with something of a height and/or an obesity issue or two …. )

    = 455,000,000,000 litres
    = 455,000,000 m3
    = a cube of sides of 769.13 metres (2,523.4 feet)

    = 0.457 cubic km …. of humans on the planet.

    (Yeah … that is without airspaces!)

  75. Dear Willis,
    Excellent paper. Most if not all of such dire predictions are are written, not to inform, but to impress. As stated by others on this Blog, with prediction expire dates well beyond the active lives of the predictors.

  76. Willis,

    Is it possible you missed the word UP out in your summary section?

    Surely the last entry should read:

    • And no, Paul Ehrlich’s claim that we “appropriate” 40% of the NPP is still not true, no more than when he made it UP back in 1986.

    /sarc

  77. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll agree with Ehrlich that humans actually use somewhere around three percent of what the sun produces, the NPP.

    That was back in 1986. The biosphere has been greening for 3 decades too. See here and here [pdf 2.3 mb]

    QUESTION:
    Does anyone know whether Ehrlich has ever made a successful prediction?

  78. On Malthus: Well in most parts of the world we are now behaving in a responsible way. During the rein of the Mullas in Iran the average number of children per women has dropped from five to 1.9. In Theran the figures are lower than i Stockholm (my home town). But there are still problems. There are no signes that fertility drops south of Sahara (excepting South Africa). Nigeria might well have half a billion inhabitants in twenty years time. Outside Africa there are only a few outliers, e.g. Afganista, Iraq and orthodox jews in Israel, which aim for trubbles. Africa needs a “cultural revolution” if their present rawmaterial induced growth should result in growing living standars.

  79. Just to back up Willis’s comments on the new lands still available for agricultural expansion
    A good friend of mine who has at least four degrees plus a couple of doctorates. sits on a couple of major UN food committees. Because of concerns about future food production expansion to feed our growing numbers, the UN committee got their staff researchers to run some numbers on the amount of land that could still be turned over to food production. The researchers came up with figures that showed there was still as much unused arable land on this planet as is already being used for mankind’s food production.

    The following is the guts of a letter on historical grain prices to farmers which I sent to our local media and which was subsequently printed.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    To set the scene, Australia’s current National Minimum Wage as set by the Fair Work Commission is $606 / week
    The Australian full time adult average weekly ordinary time earnings in November 2012 was around $1,400 / week, say about $73,000 / year of which tax takes a very large lump out of.

    In 1932 in the depths of Australia’s Great Depression, the minimum wage as set by the various then State wage and conditions setting commissions was about 3 pounds a week although a large percentage of the those still working during the years of the Great Depression didn’t get this minimum wage.
    In 1932 Wheat prices dropped to one shilling and sixpence a bushell, equivalent to two pounds sixteen shillings a tonne or just a bit below the minimum wage.
    So even under the extreme financial stress of those times wheat prices per tonne, still remained about the same as the weekly wage.

    In 1948 following the devastation of WW2 there was some starvation in Europe as world food stocks were so depleted and the production of food in Europe was still to get underway so as a boy of ten years old I can remember my father getting 25 pounds / tonne for his wheat and that was in his pocket after freight and all costs were deducted.

    The minimum wage in 1948 was about seven pounds to seven pounds ten shillings a week.
    Most workers took home probably nine pounds a week or more.
    Therefore, one tonne of wheat in 1948 was worth over two week’s wages.
    Those late 1940 ‘s and early 1950’s really were the glory days for agriculture in Australia and a period where Australian agriculture had the money and resources to go from a near peasant animal dependent [ horses ] farming system to a modern advanced machinery, herbicide and fertilizer based farming technology.

    1968 was also the year where there was a huge apparent excess and build up of wheat stocks in the world so Wheat Delivery Quota’s were brought in in Australia allowing a grain grower to only deliver a percentage of his average deliveries of past crops.

    What you did with any other wheat that you had produced over your delivery quota was your problem and as there was only one legal delivery point. Quota wheat was paid for by the then Australian Wheat Board at an end price of $62 /tonne.
    Non quota wheat generally went for about $40 to $45 /tonne in the over state border trade which was deemed legal by the High Court under our constitution’s Freedom of Interstate Trade .

    A tradesman’s wages in 1968 was about $55 / week.
    So even during what was a very bad period for wheat prices, quota wheat per tonne, in the late 1960’s was still selling for more than a tradesman’s weekly wage.

    In October 1972, unbeknown to the rest of the world, the Russian Soviets after a series of very bad harvests which were carefully hidden from the rest of the world, had literally run out of grain so they embarked on a carefully planned buy up of some 6 million tonnes of still cheap wheat across the world, most buying of which was done over a period of about 5 days.
    It is known as the Great Grain Robbery.
    Wheat went from about $65 / tonne on the friday night of the GGR to about $150 / tonne in the following mid week and stayed there for the next couple of years.
    It was another period of great prosperity for the grains industry in Australia

    Today wheat is priced both here in Australia and currently on the Chicago market at around the AUD $280/ tonne at port so freight and etc of some $50 / tonne have to be deducted from this to arrive at the price the farmer gets, a price of about AUD $230 / tonne for his year’s work and risk and thats if the farmer is lucky.

    So to ask a question often asked by farmers. If the price of wheat had kept up with Australia’s long term inflation figure what would the true price of wheat per tonne today?
    Well the Reserve Bank of Australia [ RBA ] has a very interesting inflation calculator where you can work that out for yourself which can be found by googling for; “RBA Inflation Calculator”

    So if I enter those very low prices of the Wheat Quota years of the late 1960’s at the then non quota wheat prices of say $45 / tonne in 1968 then the RBA inflation calculator gives a price for the same wheat today, after inflation is taken into account, of AUD$496 / tonne.

    Of course if we used the really good grain prices of 1973 of $150 / tonne then today that same wheat would be worth $1263 / tonne.

    Can anyone even imagine what it would mean for local businesses if the grain farmers got over a AUD $1000 / tonne for their grain?

    The Roman’s had a saying; Destroy your peasants and you destroy your civilisation.

    Is that what Australia really wants as it sits idly by while it’s rural food producers are destroyed due to sheer complacency and almost total ignorance on where Australia’s food comes from and where it’s wealth is created?

  80. tobias says: March 20, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    ….. Yes the end result only seems to be twice the weight….
    No worries Tobias – doubling is pretty good anyway!

  81. NPP quantity is a guessing game. Global oxygen production, another measure of photosynthesis, is not concentrated in the rainforests or indeed any land based plant areas but the oceans. Considering the 70% global ocean coverage this is not surprising.
    If we ”allow” the third world to develop as we have been lucky enough to do then their birth rates will fall, as they have in the developed world, and perhaps the global population will stabilize below that 9Bn figure.
    Thanks Willis for a good post.

  82. One does wonder how people like Ehrlich can remain unimpressed by a life-long trail of abject personal failure; perhaps he considers himself the equal of those real scientists who predicted the Higgs particle and were vindicated many years later.

    PS On a side-note it appears to be a law of Internet discourse that a post correcting others’ grammar mistakes will itself invariably contain one. I’m sure I don’t have to point out to provoter his own little oversite ;-).

  83. Even the 30% increase in population that Willis mentions is iffy at best. Every decade the UN comes out with a new guess as to when the population will peak and what the peak number will be. And every decade, for as long as I’ve been paying attention those numbers get sooner and smaller.

  84. provoter says:
    March 20, 2013 at 6:19 pm
    . . . On the one hand, it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that posts be as clean and mistake-free as possible, even the little stuff, because the fact is there are a lot of eyeballs watching what gets written on this sight, site, and not all of those eyeballs come here in peace. . .

    Peace. /Mr L

  85. Back in high school in the 1980s, I was taught by teachers who were fairly typical “soft left” leaning, if not outright socialists (this is up here in Canada).

    The curricula was supported by books such as “The Fate of the Earth” and “Entropy”, and movies such as “The Day After” were must-watch “suggestions” (a movie almost as bad as “The Day After Tomorrow”, which seems to be a Nigel Tufnelish ‘going to eleven’ moment of upping the scare title).

    In other words, I was thoroughly and deeply indoctrinated. We were all going to die, terribly and soon, and it was all Reagan’s fault. One teacher intoned that “2001: A Space Odyssey” was overly optimistic in that we probably weren’t going to see 1991, let along a new century.

    In order to give me experience, I was given “the other side” in a debate with some classmates. They were joined by a local peace activist, I had the local conservative MP (like an American Representative from Congress). I think I won the debate when a cardboard prop set up by the hippie fell over and all I had to say was that his arguments were as flimsy and easy to knock down as his giant coin…

    The scary thing is, most of these teachers are now retired to a huge pension, the likes of which my generation won’t see because we’ll live too long. I doubt many of them care how wrong they are as they jet around the world on trip after trip on those planes that must be running on unicorn farts, as we all know they can’t be running on fuel. It was running out, you see…

  86. AndyL says:
    March 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm
    I read somewhere that 75% of our bodies are made up of water and bacteria, which means that the human part of us is only 25%
    =============
    Only 10 % of the cells in the human body match the host (human) DNA. The other 90% are the bacteria that keep us alive. They do so because we find them food and water to eat. The real question is whether we are running the show, or if it is the bacteria.

  87. megawati says:
    March 21, 2013 at 4:57 am
    . . . PS On a side-note it appears to be a law of Internet discourse that a post correcting others’ grammar mistakes will itself invariably contain one. I’m sure I don’t have to point out to provoter his own little oversite ;-).

    Aw, rats. Megawati beat me to it. /Mr L

  88. Interestingly, while the human body is about 70% water by weight, it is about 99% water by molecule count. This is because water molecules are so small in comparison to hydrocarbons. (Yes humans are carbon pollution). So, depending upon the units, you could say humans are 70% water or 99% water and still be correct

    We see the same situation in solar science. How many times have you heard that the sun is 99% hydrogen? Well, it is if you count molecules. However, by weight the sun is 70% hydrogen.

  89. Did Ehrlich count that dump I took this morning?

    Seriously, the unasked question by the alarmists is what would happen if humans didn’t utilize the photosynthesis. Much of the growth would eventually rot (feeding bacteria) and/or get saved away as future coal/gas/oil. In other words, it would be unused or lost through heat. Sure, we’ve crowded out a few other species but for the most part the energy would either be trapped below the surface or eventually radiate to space like it does after we use it. That old conservation of energy thingy comes into play.

  90. Matt Ridley says:
    March 21, 2013 at 12:02 am

    Willis,

    Excellent essay, but there is a somewhat more rigorous recent estimate of human appropriation of NPP out there these days, from Helmut Haberl at Klagenfurt University in Austria. see here:

    http://www.eoearth.org/article/Global_human_appropriation_of_net_primary_production_(HANPP)

    He comes up with 15% consumed by us and our pets, 9% destroyed or prevented from growing, or 24% in all. Because it is a much smaller number than Ehrlich’s, the likes of WWF and Running and Ehrlich have ignored Haberl’s estimate. On the other hand, as you argue, it’s almost certainly too high. The one good thing Haberl has done is to allow for the fact that human beings often enhance NPP through irrigation and fertiliser.

    Here’s an extract from the above site:

    “We have proposed a definition of HANPP that has proven its usefulness in spatially explicit as well as long-term studies on a national scale. This definition (Figure 1) is related to Wright’s suggestion and defines HANPP as the difference between the amount of NPP that would be available in an ecosystem in the absence of human activities (NPP0) and the amount of NPP which actually remains in the ecosystem, or in the ecosystem that replaced it under current management practices (NPPt). [emphasis mine]

    Thanks as always, Matt. For those unaware of his interesting work, Matt writes the “Rational Optimist” blog for the Wall Street Journal. Well worth a look.

    The work you link to seems superficially interesting … but they are still off into “appropriation”. I fear that anyone pushing that description is blowing smoke. As I mentioned, “appropriation” is both far too vague and far too emotionally loaded to be used by an actual scientist . Ergo …

    In addition, they define human “appropriation” as the difference between what we see around us, and what we would see if humans never existed … yeah, that’s the ticket. Define your major variable as the difference between reality and your imagination of what reality would have looked like if humans were never invented … what’s not to like?

    I mean, that way you can pick any damn number you’d like, because nobody can claim you are wrong in your description of your own personal imaginary pre-human Eden.

    That means you can simply adjust your imagination until your oh-so-“scientific” results are exactly where you want them … like some bogus 24% “appropriated” by humans and their pets. I suppose I should go over and figure out how they get such a ludicrous number, but having read their ridiculous method, truly, I can’t be bothered.

    Their method is as stupid as saying we want to see the difference between the present situation, and the situation as it would be if the Germans had won WWII … we don’t know what that would look like, any more than we know what the world would look like if humans never evolved.

    That branch of literature is fairly popular, though. It’s called “alternative history”, and everywhere but in climate science, it’s found in the “FICTION” section of the bookstore …

    All the best,
    w.

  91. The attached world agricultural summary supports the above assertion that there is available land that could be put into agricultural production (Africa). One issue might be how quickly it could be put into production, in addition to political stability where the land is.

    It is suggested to understand world food production other possible downside issues should be discussed. How much time is available to put new agriculture land into production? Are current farming production methods sustainable?

    (White Hat. See comments de Bono “6 hat” process below.)
    The following is a summary of issues related to world agriculture production.
    ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/004/y3557e/y3557e.pdf

    (The following is an example of using a Black Hat. What is the down side, risk? See comments de Bono “6 hat” process.)

    Scenario 1:
    The discussion of world food production assumes there is no abrupt climate change. The extreme AGW paradigm pushers have anchored the climate discussion with a warming scenario and are pushing an extreme warming scenario. It is suggested to understand the world food production issues an abrupt cooling scenario should be discussed. The abrupt cooling could be caused by whatever causes the Heinrich events or it could be caused by a super volcano eruption in Iceland for example.

    http://arstechnica.com/science/2011/09/if-iceland-volcano-erupts-would-tragic-history-repeat/

    http://www.pnas.org/content/108/38/15710.full.pdf+html

    There is roughly 60 days food storage. The US is currently using 40% of our corn crop to convert to biofuels.

    The discussion of world food production assumes there is currently no problem with world food security. That might not be correct.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_security

    “Worldwide, around 925 million people are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty, while up to 2 billion people lack food security intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty (source: FAO, 2010). According to the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, failed agriculture market regulation and the lack of anti-dumping mechanisms engenders much of the world’s food scarcity and malnutrition. As of late 2007, export restrictions and panic buying, US Dollar Depreciation,[7] increased farming for use in biofuels,[8] world oil prices at more than $100 a barrel,[9] global population growth,[10] climate change,[11] loss of agricultural land to residential and industrial development,[12][13] and growing consumer demand in China and India[14] are claimed to have pushed up the price of grain.[15][16] However, the role of some of these factors is under debate. Some argue the role of biofuel has been overplayed[17] as grain prices have come down to the levels of 2006. Nonetheless, food riots have recently taken place in many countries across the world.[18][19][20] “

    Scenario 2:
    The discussion of long term world food production does not consider soil life or availability of irrigation water.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Younger_Dryas

    Comments;
    1 ) The observational evidence and analysis supports the assertion that there will be no extreme AGW and certainly no rapid increase in planetary temperature. The paleoclimatic record shows there are cyclic abrupt cooling events. During the last extreme abrupt cooling event the “Younger Dryas”, occurred 12,800 years BP. At 12,800 years BP, the planet went from interglacial warm to glacial cold with 70% of the cooling (about 4C total cooling) occurring in a decade. The Younger Dryas abrupt cooling event lasted about a 1000 years. There was a less severe abrupt cooling event that occurred 8,200 years BP (about 2C cooling).
    2) The following is a thinking tool, a process, developed by Edward de Bono and used by a number of major corporations to solve problems. The purpose of the process is to enable a group of people to discuss and work through a problem to understand it and then to develop a plan(s) of action.

    http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_07.htm

  92. Willis sez:
    “In a book excerpt in the February 2002 UnScientific American magazine…
    That was the day I stopped reading UnScientific American magazine.”
    ____________________
    I would have said something like “what took you so long?”, but I figure you were just being charitable, so I will be charitable, too and won’t say anything.
    By the way, isn’t it- “Unscientific Un- American”?
    Good job.

  93. .
    Nice one Willis.

    And while you are at it, could you debunk Prof Mackay’s assertion that electric vehicles are ‘five times more efficient than fossil fuelled cars’.

    http://www.withouthotair.com

    You will find the claim at the bottom of page 140 in his (free) pdf version.

    (He missed out the electrical production stage, at the power station. He sort of apologised, but then threatened to take me to court, for finding him out and writing to the press.)

    But I object to this nonsense, because Mackay is a UK government advisor, and UK energy policy is being dictated by jerks like this. So we have a generation of government ministers who now think that going electric will save us 80% of fuel costs, and will not require any more power stations to run this all electric transport.

    In my estimation, a European diesel (45 mpg average) is more eficient than an electric vehicle powered by fossil electricity. And if we went to all-electric transportation, we would have to double the number of power stations.

    .

  94. @markx, Current birthrates are falling due to the availability of technology/medicine.
    If the watermelons get their way, poverty rises, access to these goods falls.
    Trend of population will change to match infant mortality?

  95. Beware the latest trends in academe, which include the hubristically labled schools of “sustainability” Mark my words, this will be nothing but trouble…

  96. William Astley says: March 21, 2013 at 9:01 am
    The attached world agricultural summary supports the above assertion that there is available land that could be put into agricultural production (Africa). One issue might be how quickly it could be put into production, (given the) political stability where the land is.
    _____________________________________

    That’s simple to achieve – if a little non-PC.

    Agricultural production in much of Africa has dropped like a stone recently, with Rhodesia’s output falling by 60% in 40 years. The answer, is for the Empire to ‘Strike Back’, and all would be well.

    Good governance? Oh, we cannot have that, can we – much better if we live with poverty, corruption and the lowest life expectancies on the planet. Now that is a (liberal, socialist) cause worth fighting for. I can see the banners now: ‘We want poverty, We want corruption’.

    .

  97. Willis, I am reminded of a claim put forth by an economics professor from Washington University in the mid 1970s in contrast to the Malthusian gloom of the day:

    There is more arable land in the median strips of the U. S. Interstate Highway System than there is in ALL of western (NATO) Europe, and all we do with it is mow it.

  98. It’s depressing to find that a sometimes distinguished scientist like Wilson can parrot this kind of nonsense. He has annoyed me in the past with his bien pensant pronouncements about human nature and the like, but at least there he wasn’t pandering to the anti-human crowd. I wonder if it doesn’t say something about the general academic milieu these days that even a good mind can slide into grooves like this so easily.

    A very nice article.

  99. ralfellis says:
    March 21, 2013 at 9:16 am

    .
    Nice one Willis.

    And while you are at it, could you debunk Prof Mackay’s assertion that electric vehicles are ‘five times more efficient than fossil fuelled cars’.

    http://www.withouthotair.com

    You will find the claim at the bottom of page 140 in his (free) pdf version.

    Yes, as you point out, he’s left out the following step, From UC San Diego:

    In order to deliver 30 kWh to your house to fully charge the Leaf’s 24 kWh battery bank, for example—incorporating the charge efficiency this time, the source of electricity becomes a highly relevant factor. Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

    To compare with Prof. Mackay’s numbers, that’s 80 kWh/km. This is the same number Mackay gives for your average fossil-fuel powered car …

    w.

  100. Richard G says:
    March 21, 2013 at 10:37 am

    “There is more arable land in the median strips of the U. S. Interstate Highway System than there is in ALL of western (NATO) Europe, and all we do with it is mow it.”

    Here in Toronto, right beside the busiest highway in North America (the 401), where it merges with another very busy highway (the 400), beside an industrial mall, there is a field that is regularly farmed for hay.

    And judging by the high yields that marijuana grow-op farmers get, you could also say that you could grow an “acre” of any legitimate food wouldn’t require much land either.

  101. Let’s take forestry (my field). In the USA only about 30% of the forests are used to grow timber. The rest are in parks, roadsides, cities, wilderness, private holdings (retirement home lots etc) or unmanageable places like bogs and mountain tops. Of that, some is not managed because it is near streams or can’t be reached, say 25% left to manage. On that land, the trees grow for 30 to 100 years before being cut, all the while providing a home for critters. When logged, only part is usable logs. Those same trees if not cut would eventually die and fall to the ground. So, when we “appropriate” forest, it stays forest and is not equivalent to a corn field.

  102. I believe that you can fit the worlds population into Australia, give them 1/5 of an acre each and have some land left over.

  103. Richard G says:
    March 21, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Willis, I am reminded of a claim put forth by an economics professor from Washington University in the mid 1970s in contrast to the Malthusian gloom of the day:

    There is more arable land in the median strips of the U. S. Interstate Highway System than there is in ALL of western (NATO) Europe, and all we do with it is mow it.

    That seems like a bridge too far, but I’m sure it is large. Not all arable, by any means, but from figure 4 would be arable in about half of the US …

    w.

  104. In reply to:

    ralfellis says:
    March 21, 2013 at 10:00 am

    William Astley says: March 21, 2013 at 9:01 am
    The attached world agricultural summary supports the above assertion that there is available land that could be put into agricultural production (Africa). One issue might be how quickly it could be put into production, (given the) political stability where the land is.
    _____________________________________

    That’s simple to achieve – if a little non-PC.

    Agricultural production in much of Africa has dropped like a stone recently, with Rhodesia’s output falling by 60% in 40 years. The answer, is for the Empire to ‘Strike Back’, and all would be well.

    Good governance? Oh, we cannot have that, can we – much better if we live with poverty, corruption and the lowest life expectancies on the planet. Now that is a (liberal, socialist) cause worth fighting for. I can see the banners now: ‘We want poverty, We want corruption’.

    William:
    The experiences of my father and mother supports your assertion that is massive corruption in Africa. My father went to Tanzanian, in the late 1990s to assist the government owned railway to modernize its locomotive maintenance. My mother and father noted that government officials and their family members traveled first class on air planes and drove Mercedes. My father refused to pay bribes on principal. The government owned railway was requested to pay bribes to get parts from ships for locomotive repair. My father refused to pay the bribe and escalated the problem, saying he would leave the country rather than continuing in his role, until he got the parts.

    To enter the country it was necessary to pay a bribe, at the airport, to avoid a strip search. My father payed the bribe to avoid my mother, brother, and sister’s strip search but would not pay the bribe for himself. People in Western countries have no understanding of the possible depth of government and public corruption in third world countries. (i.e. If there is not limit to corruption, hire your friends, relatives, and work together to milk to the system.)

    The observational evidence to date supports the assertion that there will be an abrupt Heinrich cooling event and there is observational evidence to support the assertion that there will be a large Icelandic eruption. Ironically the purposeless conversion of food to biofuel and the Western comfort foods such as coffee will provide an agricultural buffer to assist the world if the Heinrich event or Icelandic eruption occurs. If a Heinrich event occurs, in Africa and in South America, the Western powers will need to intervene, with an imposed governance, to manage and mitigate the effects.

  105. Richard G says:
    March 21, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Willis, I am reminded of a claim put forth by an economics professor from Washington University in the mid 1970s in contrast to the Malthusian gloom of the day:

    There is more arable land in the median strips of the U. S. Interstate Highway System than there is in ALL of western (NATO) Europe, and all we do with it is mow it.

    More on the previous question.

    Average width of the median on flat ground = 30 ft SOURCE

    Per Wiki, length of the Interstate system is 47,182 miles

    That makes 268 square miles, or a square about sixteen miles on a side, or about seventy THOUSAND hectares of land in the medians. Unitjuggler Of course, per Figure 4, only about half will be arable …

    In Western Europe, there are 35.6 MILLION hectares of land under cultivation. GAEZ Table 5

    So my gut feeling, that that claim was a bridge too far, was totally correct. Your econ professor was out by three orders of magnitude

    Best regards, Richard, and an interesting question.

    w.

  106. We could start a new web-based-lounge-game: invent figures for things as exorbitant as you can get away with on the credible side of believeability.The winner is the one who exaggerates the most without being recognised as exaggerating. You know, Mexico city has three times the population of Australia inside its greater administrative boundary.

  107. My game would have great utility: if played widely enough it could so devalue the credibility of ANY large generalisations or figures outside of ones specialised knowledge that people would eventually no longer believe anything not supported by specific figures. Maybe this is already an effect of the internet.

  108. Then we raise people to the level of doubting at which they even doubt the “evidence” for anything itself. If I chose to doubt that the Franco-Prussian war actually tookplace I can assure you theres nothing anyone can adduce as “proof” that it did which itself could not be called into doubt. I will skip the intervening steps in the argument but we do not ever, in fact, know anything for a “fact”. Ultimately, cultural predisposition, cognitive subjectivity and trust always form a set of variables in our evaluation of any proposition advanced as a statement of fact.

  109. Paul E. is a national treasure because he is always wrong. Just reduce any major prediction he happens to make down to a single sentence, add a “not” to that sentence, and now we know something about the future that we didn’t before!

  110. @ markx “twice the weight is pretty good”
    Thanks for your communications, I realize that but I really did not figure in all the other factors and just as conservative guess the weight number is closer to 4 times that. And that does not even include the improvement in the ” after harvest” industries, FI in 1989 we harvested cherries on a particular date and were informed by the agent the fruit landed in Japan (half the planet away) 36 hrs later in 1972 it took the agent 36 hrs to get it 216 miles away!!

  111. Roger Tolson says: March 21, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I believe that you can fit the worlds population into Australia, give them 1/5 of an acre each and have some land left over.

    True … but a bit of greening and water is needed first, given the fact Australia is about 70% desert.

    World population: 7 billion.
    Area Australia: 7,692,000 Km2 or 1,900,734,594 acres = 0.27 acres or 1,099 m2 each.

    Interestingly, almost the same area per person as currently exists in (a very wet and fertile, and to my feeling , very crowded) Bangladesh:

    Bangladesh population: 150.5 million
    Area Bangladesh: 147,570 Km2 or 36,465,340 = 0.242 acres or 981 m2 each.

  112. tobias says: March 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    … the improvement in the ” after harvest” industries, FI in 1989 we harvested cherries on a particular date and were informed by the agent the fruit landed in Japan (half the planet away) 36 hrs later in 1972 it took the agent 36 hrs to get it 216 miles away!!

    This is the truly astonishing thing … I saw a similar thing with catfish from Vietnam .. they could be farmed and landed in the US for about half the price they could be grown there …. but soon trade restriction resulted in hundreds of ponds in Vietnam being left empty … the world won’t starve soon ….. of course – more expensive fuel/transportation will erode that sort of advantage in the future.

  113. Here’s a summary of my long article about population at Hubpages. It has some choice words about Paul Ehrlich, and a few pictures to relieve the boredom.

    Larry’s Take on the Population Scare

    The available evidence supports the Demographic Transition model over the outdated neo-Malthusian hypothesis, favored by environmental extremists.

    LINK http://tinyurl.com/b2dqbdr

  114. “utilizing about half of all the solar energy captured ”

    Wow, we better get mining more coal.

  115. Willis Eschenbach said in part, that the high ~40% figure includes:
    “if you eat a fish, include all the smaller fish that fish ate, and all the
    copepods the smaller fish ate, and all the phytoplankton those copepods
    ate”

    I seem to think that plants consumed by animal food that people eat are
    part of the figure of human plant usage, same as plants consumed by
    people as food.

    However, I do agree with the other points on how ~3% becomes ~40%.

  116. The discussion about how much space the Earth’s population would take up reminded me of this discussion of what would happen if, after they all collected in the same place, they all were to jump at the same instant… http://what-if.xkcd.com/8/

  117. Willis Eschenbach says:March 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm
    Thanks for illustrating my point that there is no monopoly on bombast. I appreciate your penchant for drilling down to real numbers.
    To pursue the question further, I think your figure of 30 feet for median width, while good for urban designs, is a bit low for rural situations. Your source uses another number, 78 feet, which would better reflect rural interstate designs.

    “That makes 268 square miles, or a square about sixteen miles on a side, or about seventy THOUSAND hectares of land in the medians. Unitjuggler Of course, per Figure 4, only about half will be arable …”

    Multiply 35 thousand by 2.5 gives 87,500 hectares.
    Using a cereal grain yield of 6,624 kg/hectare yields 579,600 metric tonnes.

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/agr_cer_yie_kg_per_hec-cereal-yield-kg-per-hectare

    If we consider a 78 ft margin on each side for a frontage road set back, this brings us to 1,738,800 tonnes of equivalent yield. I find this an impressive number.
    Food for thought.

    If I am permitted some bombast of my own, WUWT is the Best Blog In The Universe. Kudos to you, Anthony, and all the moderators. The University Of Watts Up With That.
    Warm regards, R G

  118. Elsewhere, Tobias says ” organic and inorganic farming”, Organic in my terms is the chemisty of Carbon, you know, the stuff they want to tax like it is going out of style! All life on Earth be it ani,al or plant, is Organic. Marketing people have so much to answer for duping the minds of good folk!

  119. Some of the assumptions in Willis’s calculations seem a bit optimistic. It’s well established in ecology that each trophic level has about a 10% conversion rate to the next level. So primary producers (plants) convert about 10% of available photosynthetic energy into biomass and herbivores convert about 10% of that into biomass and so on. So 7 billion humans at 50kg each= 350 billion kg if vegetarians would require 3,500 billion kg of plants to support them. If they’re carnivores they’d need 35,000 billion kg plants so reality would be between the two.

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