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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John V. Wright

Fine paper, Willis – yet again. Sad that in some universities the inmates are now in charge of the asylum.
I like your paper even though it associates academic “dishonesty” with the title of a wonderfully honest album (and title track).
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=oJYRtOPUonA&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DoJYRtOPUonA
Gotta love this album…

Mark Bofill

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.

Merovign

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.

Reblogged this on Climate Ponderings and commented:
GOOD READ!

George LeS

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

jorgekafkazar

“…In other words, how do they calculate the forty percent…?”
How? They’re New Age liberals. They just make it up.

daveburton

Plus, as CO2 levels go up, so does agricultural productivity:
http://www.co2science.org/data/plant_growth/plantgrowth.php
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that we can ever get CO2 levels much above 600 ppm.

tobias

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

Richard G

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

starzmom

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!!

3x2

Forget Plants – Al Beeb has the answer to the impending crisis …
http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/can-eating-insects-save-world-1770976

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.

dp

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.

Robert Wykoff

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

thisisnotgoodtogo

Isn’t Stephen the Nobel Dys-Laureate that Michael Mann uncovered?

Fred Harwood

Progress and Poverty (George 1879)

BioBob

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

Harvey Harrison

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.

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.

AndyL

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!!

Lars P.

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.

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?

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.

Dodgy Geezer

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….

alf

So ants use another 40 percent, so whats left for the other animals on this planet?

Willis Eschenbach

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.

Mike

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.

I seem to remember a few years back there was talk by enviros that humans were consuming five planets’ worth of materials. That seems to have gone quiet of late.

Willis Eschenbach

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.

lurker, passing through laughing

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

cartoonasaur

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

Dennis York

“• 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.

Lew Skannen

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

phlogiston

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.

Pamela Gray

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.

D.B. Stealey

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.

Alex the optimist

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

Bruce Cobb

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

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”).

thelastdemocrat

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.

Gary Hladik

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.

Willis Eschenbach

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.

Louis Hooffstetter

Willis rocks the house! Again!

RiHo08

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.

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!!

RockyRoad

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.

Mac the Knife

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
http://youtu.be/jC-pkV1s0Zc

Gary Hladik

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. 🙂

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.

LamontT

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.