Ecological Footprints – a good idea gone bad

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

In “Another day, overshot to hell” Anthony Watts commented on the “Overshoot Day” promoted by Mathis Wackernagel and the Global Footprint Network (GFN). This is based on the idea of the “ecological footprint”. Your “ecological footprint” (EF) is how many acres (hectares) of land it takes to support you, to grow the grain for your bread and the timber for your house and so on. It’s a simple and visual way to measure our impact on the planet.

Unfortunately, the particular form of the EF as advanced by Mathis Wackernagel and the GFN contains three fatal flaws. It wildly underestimates the available rain-fed cropland. It assumes that people in Britain farm like people in Africa. And it arbitrarily assigns huge weighting to CO2.

Figure 1. The effect of CO2 on the Wackernagel version of the “Ecological Footprint”. Image from Bambi meets Godzilla, a cartoon worth watching.

Here’s the stern warning from the Global Footprint Network folks:

Earth’s Overdraft Notice

On August 21, we exceed nature’s budget

It has taken humanity less than nine months to exhaust its ecological budget for the year, according to Global Footprint Network calculations.

Today, humanity reaches Earth Overshoot Day: the day of the year in which human demand on the biosphere exceeds what it can regenerate. As of today, humanity has demanded all the ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food – that nature can regenerate this year.  For the rest of the year, we will meet our ecological demand by depleting resource stocks and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“If you spent your entire annual income in nine months, you would probably be extremely concerned,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel. “The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages are all clear signs: We can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.”

First, the mandatory disclosure of personal interests.

Mathis Wackernagel was the co-developer of the idea of the “ecological footprint”. He has since built it into a business called the Global Footprint Network (GFN), licensing out the software to do the calculations. From 2001 to about 2005 I discussed these issues both in person and by email with Mathis. I invite him to respond on this thread, and I’m sure that I speak for Anthony when I say that he is more than welcome to write a guest post for WUWT. Onwards to the issues.

Ecological Footprint

The basic idea of the ecological footprint is simple, and quite interesting. How much land does it take to support you? How many hectares of land are required to grow the wheat for your bread, or the strawberries for your cereal? Add up your wheat footprint and your strawberry footprint and all the other footprints for whatever you consume, and you have your own ecological footprint.

So for example, suppose the local land annually produces one bushel of wheat per square cubit of area farmed. If you eat three bushels of wheat per year, your wheat footprint is three square cubits. That’s how much land it takes to produce the wheat you ate. (Of course we’d use modern measures.)

The formula for calculating the ecological footprint EF for a given product can then be seen to be

EF = Consumption / Yield

or including units,

EF (hectares) = Consumption (kg or tonnes per year) / Yield (kg or tonnes per hectare per year)

So that’s the footprint plan, and an interesting plan it is. However, as always, the devil is in the details. In this case the details are how Mathis and the GFN define certain values.

ISSUE 1: Underestimating Available Cropland

One of the central questions to be answered is, how much cropland do we have on the planet, used and unused? Available cropland means land that has the rain and the soil and the temperature and the other criteria to allow rain-fed agriculture. Mathis and the GFN say that the world is nearly out of cropland, and that’s one of the reasons that they say we are at the ecological end-of-times.

In the GFN calculation of the ecological footprint, the amount of land on the planet that is available for use as cropland is taken from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) website. What GFN use as available cropland is the FAO category called “Arable land and Permanent crops”. This is a huge misunderstanding. Those FAO categories are defined in the FAO Glossary as: (emphasis mine)

Title

Arable land

Definition

Arable land is the land under temporary agricultural crops (multiple-cropped areas are counted only once), temporary meadows for mowing or pasture, land under market and kitchen gardens and land temporarily fallow (less than five years). The abandoned land resulting from shifting cultivation is not included in this category. Data for “Arable land” are not meant to indicate the amount of land that is potentially cultivable. Data are expressed in 1000 hectares.

Title

Permanent crops

Definition

Crops are divided into temporary and permanent crops. Permanent crops are sown or planted once, and then occupy the land for some years and need not be replanted after each annual harvest, such as cocoa, coffee and rubber. This category includes flowering shrubs, fruit trees, nut trees and vines, but excludes trees grown for wood or timber.

The FAO specifically says that “Arable land” does not mean available potential cropland, as Mathis and the GFN maintain. It is no surprise that they think we’re out of cropland — they are using the wrong figures for available cropland, despite a clear warning from the FAO not to do just that.

The premier study on this question is again from the FAO. It is called the “Global Agro-Ecological Zone Study” or GAEZ Study. It is a study using global digital terrain maps, soil maps, precipitation and temperature maps, and other global databases. They identified “agro-ecological zones”, that is, zones which have common types of vegetation and soil, and thus are suitable for one or more agricultural crops or crop combinations. The result is a database with a huge amount of information on everything from desert areas to amounts of cropland to the area occupied by cities and roads. Here, for example, are the climate constraints (as opposed to say soil constraints) on plant growth:

Figure 2. Climate constraints on plant growth, per GAEZ. Plate Source.

The GAEZ study has some fascinating results in a variety of charts, tables, and maps. For example, there is more available rain-fed cropland sitting unused in South America than there is land under cultivation in North America. And there is enough unused rain-fed cropland in Sudan (over 75 million hectares) to feed every person in Africa. Some areas are short of available cropland, but the world as a whole is not short of available cropland.

Meanwhile, Mathis and the GFN claim that the Sudanese have no more land to farm. They say the Sudanese are farming almost 100% of the cropland available. By contrast, the FAO says that Sudan has 92,391,000 hectares of land suitable for rainfed agriculture, and it also says that they are farming 16,433, 000 hectares, or only 18%, of that land.

So when the GFN folks say we’re running out of cropland for agriculture, don’t be fooled. The Earth still has a lot of cropland. Our footprint is large … but not that large. I encourage everyone interested in the subject to read at least the GAEZ Summary.

ISSUE 2: Do the Germans farm with wooden plows?

Mathis and I are deeply divided on the next question. When you calculate say the wheat footprint of a country like say Russia, or Cambodia, should you use the local yield of the wheat they actually ate, or the global average wheat yield?

Mathis uses global average yield. I say use the actual yield from wherever the food was grown.

I say that if the folks in Scotland grow three thistles per hectare of land, and they eat a twelve thistles per year, that their thistle footprint is four hectares. It doesn’t matter if people somewhere else on the planet get six thistles per hectare of land, or if they can only grow one thistle per ten hectares. It doesn’t matter what the global average thistle yield is. I say the hardy Scots have a thistle footprint of four hectares.

Mathis says that … well, I’m not sure what his arguments are these days. He used to argue that using global yield rates compensated for the fact that some countries have good land for thistles, and some don’t. In fact, it was in researching that claim that I came across the GAEZ study. The GAEZ study actually has on-line, country-by-country data regarding cropland availability and cropland quality. Using that data, I was able to show that the use of global average yield did not compensate for varying cropland quality. That news was not well received by Mathis, and may not be unrelated to his cutting off all further communication with me.

However, there is a more subtle and devastating problem with their use of global average yields. In our example above, suppose the global average thistle yield is only one thistle per hectare. Using Scottish yields, we get the Scottish thistle footprint (consumption / yield) of four hectares. That’s a consumption of twelve thistles per year, divided by the Scottish yield of three thistles per hectare per year, equals four hectares.

But if we use the global average thistle yield of one thistle per hectare, suddenly the Scottish thistle footprint jumps up to twelve hectares! In other words, using their method, Scotland is getting penalized because they are better at growing thistles than the world average.

So when the Global Footprint folks say that England, or the US, or any industrialized countries have huge footprints, that’s absolute nonsense. The footprints of all the industrialized countries are artificially inflated by GFN, purely because they are efficient and get high yields. And the higher the yield, the higher the penalty. A country producing wheat at four times the global average wheat yield has its wheat footprint multiplied by four.

And conversely, if a country has a yield that is lower than the global average, their footprint gets artificially shrunk. Shrunk! Some countries use more hectares than the rest of the world for a unit of production, and for that the number of hectares of their footprint is reduced? I don’t think so …

I pointed this all out to Mathis. He ignored it. My conclusion was that any measuring system that penalized efficiency and high yield, and rewarded low efficiency and low yield, was off the rails. Too bad, the ecological footprint was such a good idea at the start.

So yes, the Scots would have a large thistle footprint … but only if they farmed with oxen and wooden plows like the global average farmer. But they don’t, and that’s the point. Scots farmers are both hard-working and canny, it’s a verifiable and well-attested fact. By farming hard and farming smart they have reduced their thistle footprint. It takes less land to produce their thistles, and good on them. Inflating their footprint because they are more efficient than the world average is nonsense.

ISSUE 3: Overestimating CO2

In any measure intended to show total impact, like the ecological footprint (measured in hectares or acres), we may choose to include things that can’t be measured in hectares or acres, things that have no “area”. For example, one might want to include say river pollution in the footprint … but how does one measure dead fish in hectares? You can’t.

As a result, if you want to include those incommensurate factors, I say you need to divide your analysis into measurable (wheat yield) and incommensurate (river pollution) sections. Because once we leave the measurable, we are in the world of “pick a number, any number”. Someone who is passionate about rivers will say river pollution should translate into a large ecological footprint, lots of hectares per unit of pollution. Someone who is not passionate may give it a smaller number. Mathis and the GFN folks give river pollution a value of … well … zero. Pollution, according to them, has no ecological footprint. Curious, huh? The ecological footprint as used by Mathis and GFN assigns zero footprint to air, land, or water pollution.

What they are passionate about, of course, is CO2. So it is accorded a huge footprint. The “CO2 footprint” is the reason that their model says we’ve … what was it? … “exhausted our ecological budget”.

But that’s just picking a number. They picked zero for the ecological footprint of say a mine that kills all riverine life downstream of the mine. They picked a big number for CO2. It’s just picking numbers, because there is no way to measure either dead fish or CO2 in hectares.

CO2 is in the incommensurate section of the EF indicator, not the measurement-based section. If we look at actual measurements, we’re nowhere near exhausting our ecological budget. That is an illusion sustained by the high conversion numbers for CO2 into hectares.

CONCLUSIONS.

1. Mathis and the GFN say we are running out of cropland. Not true.

2. Their use of global average yields artificially reduces the footprints of inefficient nations practising antiquated, low yield agriculture. At the same time, it artificially increases the footprints of high-yield nations. Double not true, or more.

3. The true footprint for any product is calculated using the actual yield figures for wherever that actual product was grown. Using any other yield than the actual yield figures for that particular product gives us distorted results, as discussed immediately above.

4. They combine actual measurable data with CO2 data, which cannot be measured in hectares. Not wrong, just 100% subjective, and should be flagged “WARNING: Contains Absolutely No Science.” …

113 thoughts on “Ecological Footprints – a good idea gone bad

  1. Another load of alarmist anti science rubbish. It is the same people who wnt us all to become vegans and not use any animal products. Doing this will release thousands of hectares of land to crops. Well this is also rubbish as research by and agricultural organisation in the UK has shown, if all animals are removed from food production you actually loose 60% of food production due to the fact that most grazed land is unsuitable for arable production- too rocky or steep to work or only suitable for grass production and grazing. Meat is a vital part of the crop/food mix.
    Before Mugabe in Zimbabwe this country, using modern farming methods, could have fed the rest of Africa. Its people were well fed and it exported more than it consumed. Look at it today- poverty and starvation because Mugabe has stopped the farms producing crops because of some political ideal. It is stupidity like this that should be removed not modern farming methods.

  2. Thanks again, Willis! Excellent job of demolishing nonsense with the facts.
    I read the article about the earth being ‘into ecological overdraught’ in the UKs Guardian a few days ago and the entire piece smelled of advocacy, and wildly oberblown advocacy at that. The content ranks right up there with Australian and New Zealand sheepmeat and dairy farmers getting ridiculously bad press from the Northern Hemisphere’s so-called environmental journalists for the sin of being way more eficient than farmers in the UK and Europe.

  3. Well it stands to reason that we have not used up all the earth’s resources for the year, as there are still LOTS of resources out there. Crops grow year on year and vary in yield due to local short-term natural weather effects. We are not running out of food to grow or land to grow it on.

    Are we running out of coal, gas, trees for homebuilding and other natural resources? well, yes, but we are also very inventive and creating more and more sustainable resources all the time. Certainly we are creating more and more sustainable fast growing forests all the time.

    Coal and gas and oil are the only areas where I foresee serious potentially serious depletion before alternatives are available to take over provision of the energy levels required.

    We do need to look at sustainability of resources, there is no doubt about that, but let’s do that in an intelligent and fact based way. For example, overfishing is causing some natural stocks of Tuna and Cod to become endangered. We should be far more minded to sustainability and efficiency in our use of resources. The Global Footprint Network’s overshoot day based on “science” which punishes efficiency is crazy. we do need to promote and reward agricultural efficiency, especially with the world’s population set to grow to beyond 10 billion over the next century.

    At some point we are going to have to tackle the population problem with real and human friendly policies. Contraception, birth control and limiting the number of children allowed to each couple are policies worth pursuing.

    The earth can and does provide enough resources for all of us and can provide for more of us. However it is also true that this resource is not infinite and inexhaustible, and we do need to look at levelling off the world’s population growth.

    Ironically (for the ecologists) the best way to do so would be to increase the wealth and the energy budget of the world’s poor, as the one thing that has reduced population growth in the west is access to wealth and energy.

    The thing that is driving population growth where it does exist in the west is immigration from areas of high population growth. It is not indigenous growth of the local population through having large families.

    As we have been hearing this “we are using more resources than the earth can produce” line for a number of years now, then surely the earth would have permanently run out of some resources already. It is nonsense. Yes we are putting strain on some resources, but it is important to be realistic and honest about these and seek solutions in sustainability of stocks, and increases in efficiencies, rather than create alarmist headlines based on bad, misleading and inaccurate science.

  4. I wonder if it’s best to leave them with their funny numbers, it won’t be too long until they have to announce overshoot day on January 1st every year.

    I also note this from their FAQ:

    “As with any calculation system, Footprint accounts are subject to uncertainty in source data, calculation parameters, and methodological decisions. Exact error bars or standard errors for calculations have not been rigorously compiled, and no full, comprehensive, and quantitative estimate of uncertainty has yet been carried out.”

    http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/frequently_asked_technical_questions/#dai1

  5. Thank you Willis. As always, it’s a a joy reading your articles. I like the idea of measuring ecological footprints, but it’s extremely difficult to have a rational discussion of environmental issues as long as the AGW doomsday theory makes all other problems irrelevant in the heads of the believers (I mean… they’re converting food into fuel and think that’s “sustainable”! And they’re seriously considering covering the earth in a blanket of SO2 to “protect” it…).
    Do you think it’s possible to compute an ecological footprint that makes more sense than the version you’re discussing here? I’m not so sure if it’s possible at all to compute a total footprint per human being, but I do think it makes a lot of sense in case-by-case scenarios, e.g. when comparing different energy sources, different manufacturing methods, different farming methods etc.

  6. P.T. Barnum said it best (well, the musical anyway)

    There is a sucker born every minute
    Each time the second hand sweeps to the top
    Like dandelions up they pop,
    Their ears so big, their eyes so wide.
    And though I feed ‘em bonafide AGW baloney
    With no truth in it
    Why you can bet I’ll find some rube to buy my WARM.
    ‘Cause there’s a sure-as-shooting sucker born a minute,
    And I’m referrin’ to the minute you were born.

    “No truth in it.”
    And no science, either…

  7. For Mathis to show up here, even in a comment would be a hoot. He’s selling snake oil, and he knows it. Surely he must also know that the jig is just about up.

  8. 1) I presume you can use an average but not the “common” kind. Since the yield appears in the denominator it should be some sort of a weighted harmonic average.
    2) Like your idea of keeping separate things separate. Why can we not have a CO2 column, a river pollution column a farming column and figure out the limiting factor.

    In any case all this is an interesting exercise that can be overwhelmed by technological progress. Doing this exercise, per capita, over the 20th century, which will give us a “footprint” of our ingenuity.

  9. I feel you are remiss in not mentioning Tigger when you refer to thistles, Willis.
    “…despite Tigger’s claims to like “everything”, it is quickly proven he does not like honey, acorns, thistles, or most of the contents of Kanga’s pantry. In a happy coincidence, however, he discovers what Tiggers really like best is extract of malt…
         It also would not harm your thesis to encompass the 100 Acre Wood to give a sense of proportion — and to perhaps asses the relative values of thistles against extract of malt, despite the knowledge this may drive Mathis mad…

  10. If we are running out of crop land, why:
    1) Does the EU pay a subsidy to farmers either to set aside land or to grow crops such as oil seed rape* which are of minimal use for feeding the human population of the world?

    2) Is anyone even remotely considering the growth of corn for biofuels? (btw – I think algae-derived biofuel may have its uses, as this can be developed with far less impact on available land. Not particularly interested in the carbon footprint issues of biofuels v fossil fuels, but it could provide a suitable vehicle fuel as light oil becomes less easily available).

    * Oil seed rape is a good example of why subsidies for agriculture tend to go wrong – it was a crop that was under-produced in Europe until maybe 25 years ago, when the EEC (as was, now EU) decided to subsidise farmers to grow the stuff. These days there is an enormous annual surplus, although at least it has the positive effect of brightening up Engalnd during mid to late spring, as you get fields of the most incredibly bright yellow flowers.

  11. Willis,
    If you replace CO2 with water displacement, it would be a much more plausable theory. Our species is the only ones that have displaced massive amounts of this resource in MANY different ways.

  12. I live on the fringe of a forest, in moderately fertile hilly country near a vast and far more fertile flood plain.

    It is no longer worth the effort for me to grow my own food…but not because of any impoverishment or degradation of the land.

    It is due to the irresistible re-encroachment of the bush on areas which are not prime for agriculture, a phenomenon which all can see but none will note.

    The ex-dairy country I live on is no longer economical for anything much, except, maybe, some suitable bamboo. The result is an enormous and rapid increase in native flora and fauna, mixed with exotic species. So increasingly abundant is the fauna, compared to even a decade ago, every piece of fruit is stripped by bowerbirds and possums. Against roos, wallabies, brush-turkeys and bandicoots, gardens now need to be fortresses. It is clear that as land use becomes super-efficient elsewhere, the regrowth in other places can be overwhelming. It is for me. I sometimes envy people who live in cities or in the middle of treeless agricultural country. They can grow tomatoes!

    Yet no-one notices or mentions this stupendous increase in bio-mass, which is far more significant than some stock-jobber’s feeble – and probably doomed – tree planting for carbon offsets. I wonder if Mathis has ever looked up from his charts and figures to see Gosford Wattles taking root in a paddock abandoned for just one year.

    Even our insane burning policies and compulsory organic farming could not stop this unheralded regeneration of huge areas of Australia. All thanks to Norman Borlaug.

    It seems to me that green waste and fetishism are making us blind to the most obvious workings of nature. We are indeed the victims of a mad fundamentalism, and can no longer see what is right in front of us.

    Gaia is great, and Wackernagel is her prophet!

  13. Of course, if our burning of fossil fuels doesn’t lead to a global warming catastrophe, but does lead to increased biomass, then arguably we become net contributors to the biosphere. It would be interesting to see estimates of the biomass of humankind, and of our crops and livestock, and compare that to the biomass increase due to fossil fuel CO2. Maybe that could be an achievable(?) goal of sustainability – to maintain as much “natural” biomass as before the industrial revolution?

    Of course there are many other issues that need to be addressed – loss of species, soil erosion, water supply, pollution etc. But if the CO2 release doesn’t result in global warming it could be one of the more positive things we have done for the biosphere.

  14. Nice one Willis. Maybe you should change the title to “Watchmaker Sealing Cheating Lawmakers” – a double whammy but a bit loaded. I suppose you could have “Townfolk Aborting Petrol” or just “Hoorays Voted”. Well what else can you do besides play word games with it. Does anyone think any of these types have ever ploughed a field or would know what to do with a corn drill. I doubt it.

  15. Sorry, but this is meaningless claptrap. Take a look at Zimbabwe on that map where I lived most of my adult life. That is the bit immediately north of South Africa. The bit indicating severe moisture restraint is somewhat too big and the bit indicating moisture restraint a little too large. By and large the eastern quarter of the area is largely composed of basalt and granite (mountains) and is not remotely arable. Broadly, the western quarter is semi desert to near semi desert, great for game, good for cattle only in very small areas and not remotely arable. That severely restricted bit in the south, which is near semi-desert, supplied beef to South Africa and Europe for decades until the late ‘eighties. In the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, depending on weather facilitated surpluses, the bit in the north supplied maize to South Africa often and to Europe in the better years. That bit in the north also provided the entire world with the finest Virginia tobacco of a quality that is not producible anywhere else on earth outside of the “tobacco belt” of the eastern U.S.

    The climate of Zimbabwe has not changed over the past twenty years. The only changes have been those of a political nature and the loss of energy. Not the kind of energy that one gets from spinning a steam driven dynamo, but the type that comes from within the farmer who is blessed, or cursed, with a work ethic and considerable skill and ingenuity. That energy loss to Zimbabwe, has merely resulted in a gain to diverse countries around the world.

    As a footnote, I see that Natal, where I now live, appears on the map as a single blob of green. All arable. A great deal is grown in Natal in individual locations but the vast bulk of the province consists of that same mountain chain seen in eastern Zimbabwe, and that stretches up the eastern side of Africa to Ethiopia. Come a market for igneous rock, Natal will be well placed to climb on the bandwagon.

  16. Sorry mods. “somewhat too big and the bit indicating moisture restraint a little too large.” “A little too small” that should read.

  17. In the sixties (1960´s) all these guys were SUBTERRANEANS or HIPPIES or whatever, but they were to be found in relaticely isolated places, where they were almost a tourist attraction, but now in power and public positions, with the dangerous possibility of meddling into normal peoples´lives, they are frankly unbearable.

  18. Ian B says:
    August 26, 2010 at 3:52 am
    Biofuel: A soap that did not come out from the closet :-)

  19. Facts vs. activism, that’s what we need.
    However, some people really have too big of a footprint … Al Gore comes to mind.

  20. Willis, I keep thinking about the population growth people mention in their comments. I was wondering if you could do a comprehensive paper about that. Because from what I’m gathering from these comments is that they’re are more people born in a day or better yet in a year then die in a given day/year. I’ve been thinking about looking into this myself, but you do such incredible analysis of all types of subject matters, I thought I’d ask if you’d look into this.

    Thanks

    ~Karen~

  21. They should be very cautious with this idea, imagine their dismay if people pull out the calculators and find out that the EF of a Prius is about equal to that of a main battle tank due to the batteries and rare earth elements. Oh the humanity!

  22. So with our global population headed for 7 billion in 2011, when do we think our ecological limits will be reached? We are already the most numerous species of mammal on the planet–yet sit at the top of the food chain. Surely this has to register some concern. Yes, argue with the specific findings of the study but the idea that we have (or are fast reaching) the Earth’s carrying capcity for our great species is beyound dispute. And before you all charge in and accuse me of a hatred of people, I should disclose that my wife and I have two beautiful children of our own. I just want to ensure they have the same chances to live a safe and healthy life on this planet as I was blessed with.

    MJK

  23. Ken Hall aug 26 3:13am

    Thoughtful comments but like most you have the issue of running out of resources framed wrongly(fossil fuels in your case). The demand is not for fossil fuel but rather for energy. Malthus, Jevons, The Club of Rome and modern day equivalents have proven to be wrong about this for a couple of centuries. It is the a priori reasoning of intelligent laymen untrained in resource economics. The use of commodities is decided by economics, not consciously planned like date for withdrawal for withdrawal of troops. Scarcity hikes price and results in substitution of alternatives (look what happens with centrally planned anything -economies,large use of windmills (eventually this latter will become clear to all)… I’ve mentioned zinc in another post on shrinking resources:75% is used in coating steel for culverts barn rooves and other rust resistant products + batteries, ointments, white metal.. If we ran out tomorrow no sweat. Virtually all these uses have already been largely replaced and we still have lots of zinc. It’s end use, not the particular material that drives the system.

  24. Do they include an offset for increased agricultural yields as atmospheric CO2 concentrations increase?

    I’m much more worried about depletion of the hydrocarbons that make modern efficient farming possible by providing fuel for machinery and petrochemical fertilizers.

  25. Whilst I really enjoyed your posting, Willis, you have to realise that Whackamole and his buddies don’t really care about the facts.

    “We don’t need no stinkin’ facts! We made up our minds!”

    With our Greenie chums, it was ever thus.

    You give ’em your tax Pounds, they’ll do their funny cartwheels and cut capers and try to make you feel guilty for being alive. That’s fair! Yes?

  26. And, I suspect that a large proportion of efficiently produced food is exported to nations that produce food less efficiently, further exxagerating GFN’s footprint prejudice.

  27. Just for the money so he won’t have to get a real job and live off grants and other taxpayer funds or misguided contributors.

  28. One of the local farmers has already harvested his corn this year and has planted soybeans in the same fields he harvested the corn from. One set of fields is producing two crops per year. Yet, if one looked at only the amount of land the farmer dedicated to corn and the amount of land dedicated to soybeans, the land use would be twice the size of his fields.

  29. Today, humanity reaches Earth Overshoot Day: the day of the year in which human demand on the biosphere exceeds what it can regenerate. As of today, humanity has demanded all the ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food – that nature can regenerate this year.

    Didn’t I come across this same theme in the ’70’s?

  30. Thanks Willis. Absolutely fascinating. I actually asked in the comments to the ‘overshot to hell’ post twice if anyone had a solid critique of the whole premise of the GFN (or the WWF ‘three planets’ stuff). Something deep inside me mistrusts these ‘facts’ a little more each time I hear them repeated.

    Really grateful for this,

    Dominic

  31. My hunch is that the authors of the footprint are not farmers. Did they factor in the amount of crop land that is just sitting there not being farmed? In the US, not a small percentage of what was once crop land is now sitting in conservation programs. It can’t be cropped if you want guaranteed payment. And price controls on crops like wheat don’t allow farmers to control the price based on production costs. So we lose our shirts if we plant.

    http://www.rff.org/RFF/Documents/RFF-BCK-ORRG_CRP_and_WRP.pdf

  32. What also should be taken into consideration here is the further increases in crop yield which biotechnology might be able to provide. Biotech has already added
    considerably to our crop yield (whenever and wherever the anti-biotech yo-yos haven’t gotten in the way), and it may also be able to bring more land into arable use.

  33. Willis: If one’s “’ecological footprint’ (EF) is how many acres (hectares) of land it takes to support you, to grow the grain for your bread”… how do they account for those who are Gluten Intolerant? ;-)

  34. I am curious about the “Severe Moisture Contraints’ label seeming shown for eastern Washington/Oregon. They may only get ~15-20 inches per year, but the area is a large and very productive breadbasket for grain production and has been for the last 70+ years. Select areas that use irrigation produce large fruit growing areas as well. Does ‘water constraint’ take into account the type of crops grown or only a measure of total rainfall?

  35. @ Roger Carr Aug 26 3:51

    I feel you are remiss in not mentioning Tigger when you refer to thistles, Willis.
    “…despite Tigger’s claims to like “everything”, it is quickly proven he does not like honey, acorns, thistles, or most of the contents of Kanga’s pantry. In a happy coincidence, however, he discovers what Tiggers really like best is extract of malt…”
    It also would not harm your thesis to encompass the 100 Acre Wood to give a sense of proportion — and to perhaps asses the relative values of thistles against extract of malt, despite the knowledge this may drive Mathis mad…

    Arf, arf.

    Perfect.

    Dominic

  36. The “Overshoot Day” was such obvious propagandistic poppycock that I only skimmed the beginning of Anthony’s post. But I am glad the indefatigable Willis has seen fit to grind it up in the jaws of logic and science.

    Not that the enviro-whackos will pay the slightest attention. There is a whole generation of earnest young “skulls full o’ mush” who will swallow any nonsense as long as it claims that we are destroying the planet.

    /Mr Lynn

  37. Earths population:
    1900 – 1.6 billion
    2000 – 6 billion
    2050 – 9.85 billion.
    Forget all other panics. We are screwing ourselves to death!

    Geoff Alder

  38. Nice article, but don’t forget that the inventory of available cropland is presently doing duty as the Amazon Rainforest, or the Serengeti Plain, or the rest of the Natural World. Some folks think that too much land has been converted to agriculture as it is, not that that proposition increases the size of one’s ecological footprint, it just reduces the size of the ecological carpet to put it on.

  39. GFN ignores agricultural progress, and penalizes it. So as the third world adopts better farming methods, even if slowly, the situation gets worse?

    And Carroll thought he was writing fantasy …

  40. Geoff Alder says:
    August 26, 2010 at 7:18 am

    2010: 7 billion – Geoff Alder=6,999’999,999 That would be an improvement!

  41. tmtisfree:
    August 26, 2010 at 3:44 am

    Thanks for that link – I skimmed it; very interesting.

    There is a difference between growth and development and this difference seems to elude the Malthusians. If indeed a resource is fixed and if indeed consumption grows without bound there will be shortages; but this statement lacks reality and is an abstraction. Reality has shown time and time again that we can develop, organize, and learn and gain unimagined efficiencies and produce a enormous bounties of material resources. Imagine a sprawling refugee camp and compare it to a modern well-organized city.

    Abundance and prosperity are the results of organization, imagination, learning, and development. This simple fact seems to escape the humanity-hating doom sayers.

  42. Geoff Alder says:
    August 26, 2010 at 7:18 am
    There is enough place just in Texas for the whole world population and its total needs. Make a simple calculation. And if you don’t believe it you have the self-eugenics method still available, the rest of us will thank you; we’ll make a small plate to remember it.

  43. Honestly, Overshoot Day is such a dumb concept that it should be awarded the trophy permanently and we should retire the competition.

  44. Of the two numbers for arable land, the smaller one assumes that the amount we’re using today is everything that can be used. The bigger one assumes that we could push all other life on the planet out of the prime habitats and that this would somehow be permanently sustainable. Both are low quality assumptions, but I’d guess the lower number is closer to reality. Coming up with a defensible number for this is impossible because it is an arbitrary choice of what percentage of habitat can be destroyed.

    As for productivity, your choices are to use the output from farms in areas too poor to afford energy-intensive methods or modern techniques or to use output from industrialized farms that consume more calories of fossil energy than they produce in food energy. Again, both are bad options. Theoretically, it should be possible to pick a number for productivity based on a highly technical and modern farming process that also consumes a small enough amount of energy to be sustainable, but this would require many assumptions.

  45. @Willis
    The Ecological Footprint is not a good idea gone bad. It is a bad idea. The basic notion is that there is such a thing as an absolute yardstick for what people care about. Socrates believed in this, and all classical economists from Quesnay and Smith to Ricardo and Marx. The latter three adhered to the labour theory of value, while the former (like Wackernagel) adhered to a land theory of value.

    Note that Quesnay’s theory was superceded by Smith’s, which was overturned by Marx’s and, finally, by Jevons, Menger and Walras.

    In a way, therefore, Wackernagel’s ecological footprint is a throwback to the 18th century. It’s academic regress. The ecological footprint, if anything, is an indicator of the intelligence of the analyst. (The correlation is negative.)

  46. People might want to read a recent review about future projection (2050) of crop yields (Keith W. Jaggard, Aiming Qi and Eric S. Ober 2010 Possible changes to arable crop yields by 2050 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B vol. 365 no. 1554 2835-2851).

    Available free at http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554/2835.full?sid=adda7bd3-4e81-45ed-835c-fff7236714b4. Below is the abstract:

    By 2050, the world population is likely to be 9.1 billion, the CO2 concentration 550 ppm, the ozone concentration 60 ppb and the climate warmer by ca 2°C. In these conditions, what contribution can increased crop yield make to feeding the world?

    CO2 enrichment is likely to increase yields of most crops by approximately 13 per cent but leave yields of C4 crops unchanged. It will tend to reduce water consumption by all crops, but this effect will be approximately cancelled out by the effect of the increased temperature on evaporation rates. In many places increased temperature will provide opportunities to manipulate agronomy to improve crop performance. Ozone concentration increases will decrease yields by 5 per cent or more.

    Plant breeders will probably be able to increase yields considerably in the CO2-enriched environment of the future, and most weeds and airborne pests and diseases should remain controllable, so long as policy changes do not remove too many types of crop-protection chemicals. However, soil-borne pathogens are likely to be an increasing problem when warmer weather will increase their multiplication rates; control is likely to need a transgenic approach to breeding for resistance. There is a large gap between achievable yields and those delivered by farmers, even in the most efficient agricultural systems. A gap is inevitable, but there are large differences between farmers, even between those who have used the same resources. If this gap is closed and accompanied by improvements in potential yields then there is a good prospect that crop production will increase by approximately 50 per cent or more by 2050 without extra land. However, the demands for land to produce bio-energy have not been factored into these calculations.

    More on food security here: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554.toc

  47. If we are truly enlightened we can turn deserts into grasslands, farms and cities. But who among the elite want to raise the lot of the poor?

  48. Crap dressed in a pretty wrapper, anti-science. When will it stop, trying to con people. Anybody else noticing how science is getting a bad name, in the name of science. The destruction of science can be permanent, as people just turn it off, anybody who has an interest, the time to stand and protest this type bull-crap is now.

    It obviously will not stop soon it appears, today the EPA asked for comments on banning lead, in bullets and fishing weights … And what about all the lead laying around on the ground from natural sources? For instance, anybody been to Colorado’s “Leadville”. why do you think the town was named Leadville in the first place?

    We must return to common sense.

  49. Dave Stephens says:
    August 26, 2010 at 3:28 am
    P.T. Barnum said it best (well, the musical anyway)
    There is a sucker born every minute

    Dave,
    You missed the follow-up to this quote by one of his aides: “If only one is born every minute, then why are there so many?”

  50. All GFN is doing is recycling discredited Thomas Malthus hysteria. It is pretty easy to build a model with assumed fixed resources, and assumed arithmetic rates of growth, with their partner in crime, ceterus paribus, that then spits out a doomsday prediction that we will run out of said resources. The problem inevitably is in the model assumptions and ignoring the error factors. Ceterus paribus does not exist in the real world, factors change, growth rates are incorrectly estimated, and time gives us yet another goofy doomsday scenario to mock.

  51. More Malthusian malfeasance.

    The supply and demand for food are issues of the market. Ignorance of the laws of the market are no excuse for someone pretending to science.

    Supply meets demand at a price.

    This means not only that the price adjusts, but also that supply and demand adjust. Supply will fall (or rise) to the level of the demand at any given price. The drive toward efficiency of cropland use, indeed the very supply of cropland (versus other use of the land) is controlled by the price available for crops grown on the land.

    Only a dysfunctional economy (eg centrally planned by the “scientists” who wrote this paper) would have more cropland than is needed by current and near term economic demand. The deserts and mountainsides, even the sea, become cropland when the economics justify. Innumerable historic examples give proof (Eg California deserts converted to foodbasket to the world, mountainside terraced rice farming in SE Asia, kelp farming in Japan, ……)

    These writers and their Malthusian ilk are perpetual sophomores, blinded by ideology from seeing how markets function in the real world. Food supplies will meet demand, if governments stay out of the way. Leave the particulars to the experts (the farmers, the wholesalers, the shippers, and the retailers) and they will do for us what we need.
    KW

  52. Karen says:
    August 26, 2010 at 6:09 am

    Willis, I keep thinking about the population growth people mention in their comments. I was wondering if you could do a comprehensive paper about that. Because from what I’m gathering from these comments is that they’re are more people born in a day or better yet in a year then die in a given day/year. I’ve been thinking about looking into this myself, but you do such incredible analysis of all types of subject matters, I thought I’d ask if you’d look into this.

    Karen, check out the World Clock at:

    http://www.poodwaddle.com/clocks/worldclock/

    It’s a great resource for checking births, deaths, mortality rates for various diseases etc. There are some useful statistics on food production also.

  53. Hope all these guys save their footprints in the nearest police station, they will be needed in the near future to make them accountable.

  54. My problem with the whole thing is that provably, when the standard of living goes up, the birthrate drops. The whole idea of overloading the planet revolves around the ceteris paribus, all other things remaining equal, but they don’t. People think, people act, and as can readily be observed, the actions aren’t necessarily readily predictable. Innovation isn’t predictable.

    I think the Austrian School of Economics has gotten it right, just like I think real science trumps pseudo-science.

  55. This is why so many dogs all over the world bear the name of “Malthus”, dogs don’t deserve it!

  56. Ref – “The Complete Unabridged Book of Human Nature”, Adam ‘n Eve Enterprizes, Garden of Eden Press, Ltd. (Out of Print, Last volume destroyed in the Great Fire of The Library of Alexandria, Egypt, 48BC )

    “Figures lie and liers figure.” (Adam)

  57. Thousands of Marine Biologists around the world would disagree with this ill-defined attempt to enter into a discipline that is, perhaps, difficult for the writers to understand .

  58. mjk says:
    August 26, 2010 at 6:22 am
    So with our global population headed for 7 billion in 2011, when do we think our ecological limits will be reached? We are already the most numerous species of mammal on the planet–yet sit at the top of the food chain. Surely this has to register some concern. Yes, argue with the specific findings of the study but the idea that we have (or are fast reaching) the Earth’s carrying capcity for our great species is beyond dispute. . . .

    Not at all “beyond dispute.” See E. M . Smith’s elegant disquisitions on the subject:
    http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/there-is-no-shortage-of-stuff/
    http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/there-is-no-energy-shortage/

    “THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF STUFF, AND THERE NEVER WILL BE”—E. M. Smith

    /Mr Lynn

  59. In Anglo-Saxon times in England it was know as a hide: depending on the type of land you lived on, your ‘hide’ was the amount land you needed to support your household which was kith, kin and servants.

    Nothing changes…

  60. Willis, I partly agree about issue #2. Your point seems to assume that people only eat local food. They don’t.

    Let’s pretend that someone in the antarctic manages to get 1 thistle to grow from a piece of penguin dung spread out over a whole hectar. Their yield is close to 0 but not quite. Let’s pretend it would take 4 gazillion hectars of Antarctic thistle to satisfy a Scotsman.

    So consider…
    Scots eating Scottish thistle: 4 hectares
    Scots eating Antarctic thistle: 4 gazillion hectares

    But what about the denizens of Antarctica who eat thistle? They are not going to farm gazillions of penguin-manured land compared when it’s cheaper to ship it from Scotland.

    So although I agree that global average is wrong for the same reasons you do, I think it is because the true footprint depends on where one gets the goods. Assuming it’s local isn’t the right answer either.

    And yet, I don’t know how to get the right answer.

  61. Enneagram says:
    August 26, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Thanks for the link to that very intersting website (I have filed it away next to my 9/11 conspiracy favourites) and your other very informative comments today. It is people like you that make it hard for me to take the scpetic movement seriously.

    To the moderators: Looking at Enneagram’s comments of late (8 in this post alone –and counting) do you think it might be time to give this person a rest for a week or two because of irrelevant, nuisance-only comments. The standard of the site is very much diminsished with contributions like these.

    MJK

  62. According to Ridley fossil fuels allowed England, and hence the rest of the world, to avoid the Malthusian limits on growth with a subsequent return to poverty and self sufficiency. His arguments are persuasive.

  63. My thanks to all who commented. My personal favorite was:

    latitude says:
    August 26, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Is cutting down rain forests to grow bio-fool considered crop rotation?

    A couple of people commented that the GAEZ data shows water constraints in areas where crops are grown. “Water constraints” does not mean crops won’t grow there. It means that many kinds of crops won’t grow there.

    Regards to everyone, commenters and lurkers alike,

    w.

  64. Those who are against progress invoke the EF as an evidence that we should make some steps back, using less energy, no cars, no planes, and so on.
    Biking or going on foot.
    Well this is what I like to do on holiday, but if I want to really work, I cannot go to the office by bike, not in my town, not to reach my office.
    But the important point is the relation between progress and EF.
    How much land they need to use to produce my food ?
    Well, if I were a Roman citizen, at the times of Cicero, did I eat much less, or did I use more land ? You know, at those times land produced less crop, but afterwards they improved the crop quantity, and even more as they improved their agricultural methods.
    I mean that the land I need to produce my food is related to the progress. More progress means less land.
    This is what is not counted in the EF.
    In my opinion.

  65. Another home run, Willis, although in fairness Wackernagel served up a real gopher ball for ya.

    Jaye Bass, tmtisfree, thanks for the references. I already own The Ultimate Resource II (fabulous book!), but having an online version is very convenient.

    Karen says (August 26, 2010 at 6:09 am) : “Willis, I keep thinking about the population growth people mention in their comments. I was wondering if you could do a comprehensive paper about that.”

    Karen, until Willis gets around to that, you might want to check out the population sections of tmtisfree’s Julian Simon reference.

  66. mjk says (August 26, 2010 at 11:00 am): “Thanks for the link to that very intersting website (I have filed it away next to my 9/11 conspiracy favourites) and your other very informative comments today. It is people like you that make it hard for me to take the scpetic movement seriously.”

    Heh. You can lead a horse to water…

  67. The last time I visited China, a couple of years ago, I saw something I never thought could happen. The smallest and remotest and rockiest fields up in the mountains are being abandoned and growing over.
    Even there!

  68. I didn’t see any mention of rice paddy agriculture or fishing in the calculations. WUWT? Most of the word’s population is highly dependent upon both.

    Sounds like a slam against Western civilization, period. It’s just too bad that their CAGW model is unravelling like a cheap suit.

  69. Relatively small error, but might be worth an edit… I think you meant:

    “CONCLUSIONS….
    3. The true footprint for any product is should be calculated using the actual yield figures for wherever that actual product was grown. Using any other yield than the actual yield figures for that particular product gives us distorted results, as discussed immediately above.”

  70. mjk says: August 26, 2010 at 6:22 am
    So with our global population headed for 7 billion in 2011, when do we think our ecological limits will be reached? We are already the most numerous species of mammal on the planet–yet sit at the top of the food chain. Surely this has to register some concern. I should disclose that my wife and I have two beautiful children of our own.

    MJK. You are typical of so called ‘Western’ people. 2 children or less = nil increase in the population. The potential population pressure of the Weston the world is diminishing. The burgeoning populations of Africa, Mexico and parts of Asia will not be curtailed by your wringing of hands. Could be that European people will ‘die out’ over the next century – replaced by people from the Middle East, India, Africa or other parts of Asia. These patterns are discernable already. China arbitrarily set limits on its population reproduction that caused all sorts of demographic distortions. I think this policy may be abandoned now. I suspect however, that as wealth increases in these other countries the people there will follow the way of Europe and the US and curtail their reproduction for the same reasons – to maintain what is to them, an acceptable standard of living. How do you propose to reduce these populations?
    Doug

  71. Doug in Dunedin says:
    August 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Doug, I agree with you entirely. However, I do not propose policies to reduce population. My point is that we have reached (or are fast approaching) carrying capcity. Sadly it will be natural forces (e.g famine, drought, flood, disease, violence etc) that will eventaully stabalise/reduce population in this modern era as it has done throughout the ages.

    MJK

  72. I’m not interested in thistles but I do like sweet red peppers and tomatoes.
    I wonder where and how a “hot-house” fits into my footprint calculation.

    http://www.bchothouse.com/environment-greenhouse.html

    http://www.bcgreenhouse.ca/documents/BCGGA%20Agriculture%20Advantage%20Brochure%202007.pdf

    “Our greenhouses produce food 10 months of the year. Because of long living, healthy plants and innovative crop management, greenhouses are able to produce 10-20 times the harvest of crops as the same area of land producing field crops.”

  73. My point is that we have reached (or are fast approaching) carrying capcity.

    You are as wrong as Mr. Population Bomb…

    “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” – Ehrlich in his book, The Population Bomb (1968)

  74. For all of you Malthusians:

    Dr. Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford University biologist and author of the best-selling book The Population Bomb. Since the release of this book in 1968, Ehrlich has been one of the most frequently cited “experts” on environmental issues by the media, despite the fact that his predictions on the fate of the planet, more often than not, have been wrong. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation during the 1970s because the earth’s inhabitants would multiply at a faster rate than world’s ability to supply food. Six years later, in The End of Affluence, a book he co-authored with his wife Anne, Ehrlich increased his death toll estimate suggesting that a billion or more could die from starvation by the mid-1980s. By 1985, Ehrlich predicted, the world would enter a genuine era of scarcity. Ehrlich’s predicted famines never materialized. Indeed, the death toll from famines steadily declined over the twenty-five year period. Though world population has grown by more 50% since 1968, food production has grown at an even faster rate due to technological advances.

    Perhaps Ehrlich’s best known blunder is a 1980 bet he made with University of Maryland economist Julian Simon. Dr. Simon, who believes that human ingenuity holds the answers to population growth problems, asserted that if Ehrlich were correct and the world truly was heading toward an era of scarcity, then the price of various commodities would rise over time. Simon predicted that prices would fall instead and challenged Ehrlich to pick any commodity and any future date to illustrate his point. Ehrlich accepted the challenge: In October 1980, he purchased $1,000 worth of five metals ($200 each) — tin, tungsten, copper, nickel and chrome. Ehrlich bet that if the combined value of all five metals he purchased was higher in 1990, Simon would have to pay him the difference. If the prices turned out to be lower, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference. Ten years later, Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576 — all five metals had fallen in price.

  75. Back when “Carbon Footprint” was the meme du jour for the alarmists I used to, when confronted by one of the KoolAid drinkers about the need to reduce my own, offer to construct a graph of their personal CF. They usually quieted down considerably when I demonstrated that for each of us citizens of the USA, the “worst” CO2 “polluters” in the world, our individual annual contribution to CO2 in the global atmosphere amounted to one 300 millionth of a quarter of an inch on a graph that was 10 KILOMETERS long. It wasn’t even necessary to point out that their personal CF was probably much smaller than that, since the one 300 millionth represented a national average which was elevated considerably by Algore and his celebutard buddies with their limos, Gulfstreams, multiple mansions, who each have CFs equivalent to a small city full of those of us who were expected to shoulder the vast majority of the costs of “saving the planet”,
    But these folks are the most gifted propagandists the world has ever seen, so when CF fizzled we are presented with “Ecological Footprint”, just as worthless, but much more complex to rebut. Thanks Willis for providing that rebuttal in a cogent form. I must admit that even the most ardent believers in CAGW seem less inclined to press the issue nowadays, at least the ones I know, and I haven’t personally encountered anyone pushing this meme, but its nice to have the ammunition in hand if it ever comes up.

  76. John F. Hultquist says (August 26, 2010 at 1:38 pm): “I wonder where and how a “hot-house” fits into my footprint calculation.”

    Yikes! The greenhouses use (gasp!) fossil fuel for heat and to generate (gasp!) carbon dioxide to increase yields! Biggest “environmental footprint” EVAH!!! :-)

    Oh wait, what if we build a ten-level “greenhouse” and use artificial light to grow stuff 24/7 on all ten levels? I can just imagine the resulting mass heart attacks at GFN.

  77. Geoff Alder – 2050 9.35 Billion…?

    Geoff, consider the population density of England. If the Earth had that population density, there would be around 75 Billion people on the Earth.

    I’ve been to England. Rather nice I’d say. Outside of the “big” cities, suprizingly rural.

    Last: Actual population demographics these days give LIE to the 9.35 Billion in 2050.

    Probably more like 7.5 and leveled…

    Max

  78. mjk says:
    August 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    My point is that we have reached (or are fast approaching) carrying capcity.

    Citation? If we had reached (or were fast approaching) carrying capacity, we’d be seeing the kinds of mass starvation that Paul Ehrlich has been predicting for years. We’d also be seeing decreases in the amount of food that people consume daily. In fact, we see none of those indicators, so we can conclude that we are neither at nor near carrying capacity.

    Why is this meme of impending population doom so hard to kill? I mean, it has been flogged since the days of Malthus, without a single scrap of evidence to support it in over 200 years. What keeps this nonsense alive?

  79. Take note of Figure 2, specifically the areas where plant growth is compromised due to temperature constrants. It clearly shows what I have been saying for years: there is no place on Earth too hot for plants to grow. There are, however, vast areas where it is too cold. If we are lucky, Earth will warm up, and there will be more green.

    However, if you show some environmentalists the possibility that, if man indeed warms the earth, it could solve the problem of feeding an ever increasing population, their minds will short-circuit.

  80. Gary Hladik says: “Heh. You can lead a horse to water…”

    Although I would posit it to be a more efficient use of your time to entice a herd of zebra to water; then eat them.

  81. mjk says: August 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm
    Doug in Dunedin says:
    August 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm
    My point is that we have reached (or are fast approaching) carrying capcity. Sadly it will be natural forces (e.g famine, drought, flood, disease, violence etc) that will eventaully stabalise/reduce population in this modern era as it has done throughout the ages.

    MJK Well, you are very pessimistic. We (humanity) have had famines, pestilence, wars, plagues and god knows what since time began and yet humanity has always survived and ADAPTED. The Europeans (including the Americans) are seemingly adapting even while they command most of the world’s resources at present. The Japanese – the same – why not the rest too? You are projecting a straight line into the future. We simply have no idea of what will happen in the future. But, judging from the past, we shall ADAPT. And stop this wringing of hands – you can’t do a blind thing about it anyway!
    Doug

  82. I agree with jtom, and I want to let you note how large is the land we could gain, if temperature increases….Siberia, Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland…how many more places where to grow roses and potatoes, and where to live !
    In my opinion.

  83. We are nowhere near limits on food production. Rice Intensification is good for about an order of magnitude more from rice. Hydroponics and greenhouses each good for about an order of magnitude. Then there are developments like the salt tolerant tomato that can be grown in brackish water (soon to be sea water) and simple things like the Tepary Bean that grows naturally in desert climates. (The hardest thing for me to do when growing them was to NOT water… I just really really wanted to…) I’ve got a farm magazine article about corn pointing out that shifting to a staggered planting for rows with standard 30 inch plantings was good for about 6% more gain and you could get 12% with staggered 15 inch plantings. (but it isn’t done much yet as you need to replace the planting and harvesting guides).

    In Saudi Arabia they have a giant greenhouse run on desalinated water. Sand, Water, Energy. And with nuclear power we have functionally unlimited energy.

    The basic notion that we ‘run out’ is simply wrong. When the amount of stuff being divided up is ever growing, the footprint just doesn’t matter.

  84. Willis Eschenbach says:
    August 26, 2010 at 5:31 pm
    Why is this meme of impending population doom so hard to kill? I mean, it has been flogged since the days of Malthus, without a single scrap of evidence to support it in over 200 years. What keeps this nonsense alive?
    Doomsterism seems to be a type of mass neurosis, as shown by the stubborn belief in CAGW/CC. Freud would probably say it had to do with a repressed sexuality. They do seem to be an unhappy, humorless lot.

  85. I agree with jtom, and I want to let you note how large is the land we could gain, if temperature increases….Siberia, Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland…how many more places where to grow roses and potatoes, and where to live !

    See page 150 of http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/Documents/RR-02-002.pdf to see a model projection of crop potential in a warmer world: the green far exceeds the red.

  86. I’ve got a farm magazine article about corn pointing out that shifting to a staggered planting for rows with standard 30 inch plantings was good for about 6% more gain and you could get 12% with staggered 15 inch plantings.

    While the calculation is probably good, decade of field experimentations have shown that width planting does not matter for crops productivity. As a farmer, I switched from a 11 cm width to a 22 cm width seeder some 10 years ago: productivity is the same.

    The basic notion that we ‘run out’ is simply wrong. When the amount of stuff being divided up is ever growing, the footprint just doesn’t matter.

    It is certainly true. But a resource is more than a stock of materials. As Ben Wattenberg put it (in The Wall Street Journal February 11, 1998):

    [Simon’s] central point is clear: Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource. Coal, oil and uranium were not resources at all until mixed well with human intellect.

  87. I’m still waiting for Dr. Gary Haq to show up on this comment thread. He conflated CAGW and overpopulation in the “Codger” post just prior to this post by Willis. I was hoping he’d drop by here to do a little arguin’ and refutin’, typing LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R for the benefit of any codgers, of course.

    Anybody seen him?

  88. Thank you, tmtisfree, for the link.
    I like the sentence of Ben Wattenberg.
    Something is a resource when men need it. Not before, not after.
    Oil was not a resource for Alexander the Great, who didn’t know what to do with it.
    So they put some oil on his friend Stephen (who offered himself willingly for this “experiment”), and they gave fire to the poor boy.
    Alexander had some buckets full of water for his next bath, and he saved the burning friend with those.
    Oil was not a resource, was something without value.
    In very ancient times they made points of arrow by flint-stone. They were very able to do them, they made 24 meters of blade out of one kg of flint-stone.
    Flint-stone points of arrow were a vital resource, at those times.
    Are they now ?
    Thus I agree with you, resources depend on human demand, on cost and on technology.
    All this is time-dependent. All people should avoid a static vision of the resources.
    More technology, for example, means less cost. More demand means that someone would accept to spend more money to get it.
    More money means more research, and more findings…that is, more resources.
    In my opinion.

  89. In the light of the 2008 footprint data, the evaluation of the following national cases could be interesting:

    Italy (largely negative footprint for 2008: more than 150% larger that biocapacity):
    1. agricultural products: unitary production of cereals (tons per hectare) was six-fold increased in the last 100 years (e.g.: the mean production of winter wheat was 1 ton per hectare in 1910 and now is about 6 tons per hectare). At the same time farm activities were dismissed in marginal mountain areas (Apennines, Alps) where forest shows a constant growth (the forest surface increased of 70% in 100 years). As consequence, Italy is close to the threshold of food self-sufficiency.
    2. energy: largely dependent from abroad for energy (75% of the total consumption is imported), and this represents the main result of 30 years of policies driven by ecologists and based on the total refuse of the nuclear energy.

    France (negative footprint for 2008: 50-100% larger that biocapacity):
    1. self-sufficiency for agricultural products
    2. self-sufficiency for energy (founded on nuclear reactors)

    Sudan and Chad (positive footprint for 2008):
    1. largely dependent from abroad for agricultural products
    2. largely dependent from abroad for energy.

    If economical indexes are tools useful to highlight objectives for world economies, what is the usefulness of a methodology that highlights as examples underdeveloped countries with strong problems of wars, health, food security, human life duration and so on? It is the roadmap towards a new middle age?

  90. Luigi Mariani,

    Excellent comments, thanks for posting. Thanks to Guido Botteri, too.

    Is WUWT getting popular in Repubblica Italia now?

  91. The “footprint” of the ecological footprint in Italy is rapidly increasing. The number of regions, provinces and towns that calculate their footprint is growing (see for example http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impronta_ecologica) and I think that policies in these areas will be increasingly defined on the base of this index. I don’t know what will be the final results of this, but two big paradoxes of this approach are evident:
    – CO2 (the main brick of the life on our planet) is seen as a pollutant and this is extremely negative by a cultural and anthropologic point of view (in my opinion it can be considered as a “cultural Hiroshima”, using a phrase of Enrico Fermi)
    – the role of agriculture as consumer of CO2 (which is necessary to produce food, clothes, combustibles and so on) is completely ignored; in other words only the forest is positive. Again, by a cultural and anthropologic point of view, this is an extremely negative message (in the past the main phases of regress of civilization – e.g.: decadence of Roman Empire, periods of crisis during Middle Ages – were always characterized by the expansion of forests and, by the way, the mith of forests was one of the bases of the nazist ideology… I apologize to use comparisons with nazism, but I follow the teachings of a Nobel price, Al Gore….).

  92. “Meanwhile, Mathis and the GFN claim that the Sudanese have no more land to farm. They say the Sudanese are farming almost 100% of the cropland available. By contrast, the FAO says that Sudan has 92,391,000 hectares of land suitable for rainfed agriculture, and it also says that they are farming 16,433, 000 hectares, or only 18%, of that land.”

    Increase of soil yield should be the main goal for environmentalists. It seem that they are fighting against high yields in the developed countries.

  93. Tim, your evaluation is right.

    Both natural and cultivated plants absorb CO2 from atmosphere giving as main product vegetal biomass (lignin, cellulose, starch, proteins and so on). The main difference between forests and crops is that the yearly unitary production of crops (ton/hectare) in advanced agricultures is substantially higher than that of forests. On the other hand it must be taken into account that humans don’t eat timber.

    Therefore I propose the definition of an alternative footprint indicator based on crops seen as the most effective CO2 absorbers. This indicator could be very useful, for example promoting the development of developing countries and the innovation in agriculture, that are absolutely necessary due to the future increase of world population.

  94. Interesting analysis. I do have one question about your statement that “there is more available rain-fed cropland sitting unused in South America than there is land under cultivation in North America”. When I look at the map, if I’m not much mistaken a big huge chunk of that green in S America is the Amazon rainforest. Given that as much CO2 is produced by deforestation worldwide as attributable to transportation, removing that rainforest is probably not a good idea. Same goes for a big chunk of the green in sub saharan africa. In any case, its my understanding that worldwide food shortages have less to do with insufficient cropland as with distributing it to people at prices they can afford. Multinationals often try to corner a market with things like terminator seeds and franken crops which of course is just their nasty little attempt to make a buck and get out as quickly as they can. Long term solutions involve finding organic ways of growing crops that don’t damage cropland, then we’ll have plenty to go around

  95. srinivas says:
    September 5, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Interesting analysis. I do have one question about your statement that “there is more available rain-fed cropland sitting unused in South America than there is land under cultivation in North America”. When I look at the map, if I’m not much mistaken a big huge chunk of that green in S America is the Amazon rainforest. Given that as much CO2 is produced by deforestation worldwide as attributable to transportation, removing that rainforest is probably not a good idea. Same goes for a big chunk of the green in sub saharan africa. In any case, its my understanding that worldwide food shortages have less to do with insufficient cropland as with distributing it to people at prices they can afford. Multinationals often try to corner a market with things like terminator seeds and franken crops which of course is just their nasty little attempt to make a buck and get out as quickly as they can. Long term solutions involve finding organic ways of growing crops that don’t damage cropland, then we’ll have plenty to go around

    Good question, srinivas. As I mentioned, my statement is from the GAEZ report. There, they give numbers for both the unused potential cropland that is currently covered by forest, and the unused cropland that is not covered by forest.

    The numbers that I quoted for available potential rain-fed cropland are for the cropland that is NOT currently forested. If we included the cropland which is currently forested, the numbers would be even larger.

    As I said before, everyone interested in this subject should read the GAEZ study. It contains a host of fascinating insights.

    w.

  96. I think it helps to create the concern and the awareness than any other tool..as evidenced from all the postings itself. Let it go on till there is a more acceptable one for all.

    sajen

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