In the grand tradition of Malthus, Limits to Growth, Chicken Little and the Boy who cried wolf we have another spreadsheet and book that says we and the Earth are doomed.
Oxford Computer Science Professor Steven Emmott published a book Ten Billion and an article about it in The Guardian.
First are Steven’s claims of doom. It end where he basically suggests we give our kids guns to prepare for the chaos of collapse. I then rebutt the doomer garbage in and only garbage out model.
Steven Emmott says we are Doomed from not enough food, not enough water, temperature rise
We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system. Indeed, simply to feed ourselves in the next 40 years, we will need to produce more food than the entire agricultural output of the past 10,000 years combined. [NBF – a silly metric of 10,000 years – there was almost no agriculture and a tiny population for 9000 years. It would be good to increase food by 60% so 25% more people can eat 25% more. We can do it.] Yet food productivity is set to decline, possibly very sharply, over the coming decades due to: climate change; soil degradation and desertification
We are going to have to triple – at least – energy production by the end of this century to meet expected demand. To meet that demand, we will need to build, roughly speaking, something like: 1,800 of the world’s largest dams, or 23,000 nuclear power stations, 14m wind turbines, 36bn solar panels, or just keep going with predominantly oil, coal and gas – and build the 36,000 new power stations that means we will need.
It is now very likely that we are looking at a future global average rise of 4C – and we can’t rule out a rise of 6C. This will be absolutely catastrophic. It will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth will become a hellhole
Steven Emmott says We must all repent and consume radically less
The only solution left to us is to change our behaviour, radically and globally, on every level. In short, we urgently need to consume less. A lot less. Radically less. And we need to conserve more. A lot more. To accomplish such a radical change in behaviour would also need radical government action.
Steven Emmott says We are all fucked and should get guns for the coming Road Warrior planet
I spend my life trying to prove my work wrong or look for alternative explanations for my results. It’s called the Popperian condition of falsifiability. I hope I’m wrong. But the science points to my not being wrong. We can rightly call the situation we’re in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will. I think we’re fucked. I asked one of the most rational, brightest scientists I know – a scientist working in this area, a young scientist, a scientist in my lab – if there was just one thing he had to do about the situation we face, what would it be? His reply? “Teach my son how to use a gun.”
I say The doom will not happen. Steve does not have to hope he is wrong. Steve is wrong
A 28 page Synopsis of the Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is online here
Main flaws –
* increasing pollution does not have a tight correlation to massive increase in deaths. Pollution mitigation (especially for particulates is affordable)
* If resources dropped there would not be a massive increase in deaths (rationing can handle dropping to 4 times or more in food and water)
* Resources are not dropping because of large amounts of oil and gas in place and large sources of uranium and other resources that are not counted in official reserve calculations.
* Making poor people richer in the developing world will make them far more adaptable to rising temperatures and other hardships. Projects can be paid for to prevent flooding or pay to move coastal cities or have the electricity for air conditioning. Actual improvements in agriculture, water and energy do not track with the model.
The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update claims signs are everywhere around us [that the world is in overshoot of carrying capacity]:
• Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.
NBF – sea level rise is not causing civilization to collapse or causing the death of massive numbers of people. A few thousands deaths from flooding is no where near some kind of death of hundreds of millions in the standard run or other scenarios. Situations can be problems that justify mitigation while not signaling civilization doom.
• In 1998 more than 45 percent of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one-fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of the global GNP. And the gap between rich and poor is widening.
NBF Note – Brookings Institute analysis of poverty has better numbers than the World Bank. Brookings institute indicated the 2015 the extreme poverty should be down to 10% or less of the world’s population. Down from 47 per cent in 1990 and 24 percent in 2008. It seems that a goal of getting extreme poverty down below 5% is easily possible for 2025. This would leave about 350 million people living with less than $1.25/day mainly in Africa. Nigeria is actually doing pretty well economically and is expected to account for 90-100 million of the extremely poor in 2015. If Nigeria continues to do well then they could make a lot of progress against poverty by 2020. A reachable positive scenario is to have less than 200 million living with less than $1.25/day. An extreme poverty rate of 2.5%.
• In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
NBF Note – fish farming produced 66.5 million tons of fish in 2012.
• The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.
• Fifty-four nations experienced declines in per capita GDP for more than a decade during the period 1990–2001
So the 30 year update is saying that we are already in population and resource usage overshoot.
As in the original Limits to Growth, there a few paragraphs or pages where the researchers leave themselves an out by claiming that their model is imperfect and is not a prediction but then go on to hundreds of pages of doomer claims.
The study was based on a computer model developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and designed “to investigate five major trends of global concern—accelerating industrial development, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.” The goal was to use the model to explore the increasingly dire “predicament of mankind.” The researchers modestly acknowledged that their model was “like every other model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished.”
Yet even with this caveat, the MIT researchers concluded, “If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.” With considerable understatement, they added, “The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” In other words: a massive population crash in a starving, polluted, depleted world.
The standard run is showing that collapse happens starting in 2020 / 2030 and is clearly happening by 2050.
Australian physicist Graham Turner claims that the data of the last 30-40 years supports the standard run.
Graham Turner notes on page 28 that if breeder style nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, methane hydrates or a lot of solar energy is developed then the non-renewable resource base becomes for all intents and purposes unlimited.
Collapse will not happen
By 2030, the nine billion people living on earth will need 30% more water, 40% more energy and 50% more food. Note this is not to stave off collapse but to meet higher population and improved living standards. In the event of localized shortages rationing can reduce the demand needed to keep everyone alive by two to four times.
Desalination getting over two times cheaper, more energy efficient and desalinated fresh water growing by 15% per year
The water process purifies only a tiny fraction of the world’s water, less than 3%. But since 75% of the planet’s surface is covered by seawater, that has been more than enough — until recently.
Now agriculture, industry, energy production and sanitation consume vast quantities of the planet’s limited fresh water; pollution renders much of what’s left unfit for human consumption; and much of the rest is simply wasted. Already, nearly a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water.
For much of its history, the desalination industry has been limited by its massive need for energy. The two desalination technologies that currently dominate the field are both energy-intensive. Reverse osmosis (RO) uses electricity to generate the high pressure needed to force seawater through semi-permeable membranes, while thermal distillation uses energy both to heat seawater and to drive the system’s pumps.
But growing business investment in R&D produced innovations that have greatly reduced the industry’s energy requirements. Awerbuch points to significant advances in both RO and thermal desalination. For RO technology, one of the most significant developments has been isobaric energy recovery devices (ERD). The technology exploits the fact that very little of the pressure used to force seawater through the RO membranes is consumed in the process. ERD is able to recover 98% of this energy and use it to power the intake process, virtually cutting in half the amount of energy needed to run RO plants. To put this in context, a plant equipped with ERD technology can now produce six gallons of clean water with the same amount of energy a 100-watt light bulb uses in just one hour.
Advances have also significantly reduced energy use in thermal distillation. Both multi-effect distillation (MED) and the newer, and more widely used, multi-stage flash distillation (MSF) process represent sophisticated versions of the most ancient approach to desalination: the evaporation and condensation of seawater.
Efficiency in thermal distillation is measured in terms of gain output ratio (GOR), which in simple terms is the amount of clean water generated per volume of steam. The GOR has historically been about eight to one (one unit of steam has generated eight units of clean water). But Awerbuch says that some plants have already achieved a ratio of 15 to one and he foresees a 16 to one ratio in the near future
Combining reverse osmosis and thermal distillation in one hybrid plant increases energy efficiency still further. Thermal distillation produces distilled water, which exceeds drinking water standards. Since the RO water will be mixed with this ultra-pure distilled water, it can be of somewhat lower quality and still contribute to an end product that meets drinking water standards. As a result, the RO system can be run at lower pressure, saving energy and extending the life of the membrane. What’s more, heat from the thermal system is used to increase the temperature of the seawater in the RO part of the plant, further improving the efficiency of the membrane.
Membranes themselves have also been revolutionized. Over the past 25 years, improvements have increased the amount of salt extracted, extended the life of the membranes themselves and reduced costs. At the end of 2012, Dow Chemical announced a new membrane chemistry that reduces salt by 99.7% compared to traditional brackish water membranes, while also reducing energy consumption by 30%.
A desalination plant can increase the supply of drinking water without ever processing any seawater. It accomplishes this feat by using essentially the same technology to process brackish water (desalinating brackish water typically costs about one-quarter as much as desalinating seawater and uses much less energy).
Other challenges to the growth of desalination remain and are being addressed, including pollution caused by chemicals used in the process, thermal pollution from MED and MSF plants, and the potential of harming marine life. The bottom line is that the 15% annual growth rate that Bloomberg cited looks like a good bet.
Pronutria process is radically more efficient than current agriculture and livestock cultivation, and produces pure nutrition up to 1,000 times more efficiently, with minimal environmental impact and maximal nutrition quality. They can efficiently produce protein and various kinds of nutrition food additives.
Various precision farming programs in Asia are achieving success (30-50% yield boosts with reduced fertilizer) and more converts.
More food, less agricultural water usage and less pollution and more efficient use of land and less damage to topsoil.
The new estimates suggest that the increase in hunger during 2007–10 – the period characterized by food price and economic crises – was less severe than previously estimated. There are several reasons for this. First, the methodology estimates chronic undernourishment based on habitual consumption of dietary energy and does not fully capture the effects of price spikes, which are typically short-term. As a result, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) indicator should not be used to draw definitive conclusions about the effects of price spikes or other short-term shocks. Second, and most importantly, the transmission of economic shocks to many developing countries was less pronounced than initially thought. More recent GDP estimates suggest that the “great recession” of 2008–09 resulted in only a mild slowdown in GDP growth in many developing countries, and increases in domestic staple food prices were very small in China, India and Indonesia (the three largest developing countries).
About 870 million people are estimated to have been undernourished (in terms of dietary energy supply) in the period 2010–12. This figure represents 12.5 percent of the global population, or one in eight people. The vast majority of these, 852 million, live in developing countries, where the prevalence of undernourishment is now estimated at 14.9 percent of the population.
Improved undernourishment estimates, from 1990, suggest that progress in reducing hunger has been more pronounced than previously believed.
The revised results imply that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the prevalence of undernourishment in the developing world by 2015 is within reach, if appropriate actions are taken to reverse the slowdown since 2007–08
Fish farming provided 66.5 million tons of fish in 2012 which was more than the amount of world beef. World fish production is expected to rise to 172 million tons in 2021 and aquaculture (fish farming) will provide about half of that amount.
Basic and achievable management of agriculture can easily feed 15 billion people at 3000 calories per day by 2050
Agrimonde began with a goal – 3000 calories per day for everyone, including 500 from animal sources – then ran a global food model repeatedly, with and without environmental limits on farming. The aim was to see how the calorie goal could be achieved. The model suggested that realistic yield increases could feed everyone, even as farms take measures to protect the environment, such as preserving forests or cutting down on the use of fossil fuels. The key will be to tailor detailed solutions to different regions.
Resources unlimited and controlled pollution
Why does the horizon of mineral reserves never seem to go out further than a few decades? Basically because miners and technologists do not find it worthwhile to find new sources and develop new production techniques until markets signal that they are needed. How this process evolves is encapsulated by the USGS report which notes that in 1970 known world copper reserves stood at “about 280 million metric tons of copper. Since then, about 400 million metric tons of copper have been produced worldwide, but world copper reserves in 2011 were estimated to be 690 million metric tons of copper, more than double those in 1970, despite the depletion by mining of more than the original estimated reserves.”
The US has at least 7 to 9 trillion barrels of oil in place.
Deep burn fission reactors will use uranium 60 times more efficiently than todays reactors. There is 4.4 billion tons of uranium in seawater and we are if we lower extraction costs by two to three times then uranium from seawater will be competitive with mining on land. Those two very achievable goals (deep burn and uranium from seawater) would mean we would be able to produce 24,000 times more nuclear energy than current reactors and current on land known uranium reserves.
Environment: In most of the Limits model runs, the ultimate factor that does humanity in is pollution. In their model pollution directly increases human death rates and also dramatically reduces food production. In fact, as the world economy has grown, global average life expectancy has increased from 52 years in 1960 to 70 years now. It must be acknowledged that globally, pollution from industrial and agricultural production continues to rise. But the model assumed that pollution would increase at exponential rates. However, many pollution trends have not increased exponentially in advanced countries.
Consider that since 1970, the U.S. economy has grown by 200 percent, yet the levels of air pollutants regulated by the federal government have fallen by nearly 60 percent. For example, in both the U.S. and the European Union sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped by nearly 70 percent since 1990. Recent data suggests that sulfur dioxide emissions even from rapidly industrializing China peaked in 2006 and have begun declining. Earlier studies cite evidence for a pollution turning point income threshold (purchasing power parity) of around $10,000 for demands to reduce this form of air pollution.
Another pollution concern was world fertilizer consumption that by 1970 had increased five-fold since World War II to 50 million tons. The Limits analysts noted that fertilizer consumption was growing exponentially “with a doubling time of ten years.” The concern was the excess fertilizer running off of farms pollutes rivers, lakes, and the oceans. Presumably this doubling time suggests that since 1970, global fertilizer use should have increased to 400 million tons today. In fact, global fertilizer use is currently 150 million tons.
[Remember precision farming will reduce fertilizer usage and genetically modified crops can increase yield while reducing the need for fertilizer.]
A paper in the journal Science talks about the need to mobilize $100 billion per year to mitigate climate change. Preparing to Manage Climate Change Financing” in the journal Science. Soot mitigation would provide 50% of forty years of CO2 mitigation at ten times lower cost.
Soot mitigation is a far easier and faster method of reducing climate change than targeting CO2. The soot only stays in the air for a few weeks so once we reduce the generation of soot it will have immediate impacts.
Five hundred million Smoke free cookers could be acquired for $50 to 100 billion (one year of the budget your propose). This would save lives from reduced indoor air pollution and alleviate the equivalent of 9% of global CO2.
Under the IPCC’s highest growth scenario, by 2100 GDP per capita in poor countries will be double the U.S.’s 2006 level, even taking into account any negative impact of climate change. (By 2200, it will be triple.) Yet that very same scenario is also the one that leads to the greatest rise in temperature—and is the one that has been used to justify all sorts of scare stories about the impact of climate change on the poor.
Under this highest growth scenario (known as A1FI), the poor will logically have adopted, adapted and innovated all manner of new technololgies, making them far better able to adapt to the future climate. But these improvements in adaptive capacity are virtually ignored by most global warming impact assessments. Consequently, the IPCC’s “impacts” assessments systematically overestimate the negative impact of global warming, while underestimating the positive impact.
Moreover, in these “impacts” assessments, global warming is not expected for the most part to create new problems; rather, it is expected to exacerbate some existing problems of poverty (in particular, hunger, disease, extreme events), while relieving others (such as habitat loss and water shortages in some places).
Human well-being in poorer countries islikely to be advanced most effectively by sustained economic development and least by emission reductions. In addition, because of the inertia of the climate system, economic development is likely to bear fruit faster than any emission reductions.
For richer countries, too, net GDP per capita in the future is expected to be much higher than it is today despite any climate change. Thus, all countries should focus on generating sustained economic development. This approach would not only address all of the current problems that might get worse in the future but would also enable humanity to address more effectively any other future problems it encounters, whether climate-related or otherwise.
Collapse scenario assumes people remain poor and easy to kill or somehow become rich but stay as easy to kill as the poorest people today.
1. Efficiency, conservation and an energy plans can be enhanced beyond current levels with minimal strain. There has been partially voluntary reductions in energy demand during the credit crisis. 10% reductions with minimal effort and 20% reductions with more austerity.
2. Rationing of food, fuel and clothes was successfully maintained in many countries during World War 2. Any resource decline or environmental situation can have governments use rationing to buy time for a transition.
The UK had stricter rationing than the USA during and after the war.
Thus it shows that oil and food supplies can be greatly reduced while maintaining a war-level mobilization.
90% reductions can be handled in this way and possibly more.
3. Some simple and rapid transitions are possible. Ban or confiscate large gas guzzling vehicles and only allow light weight all electric or super-efficient vehicles other than freight trucks and heavy delivery trucks. In less than one year a mobilized effort with shifts in the weight of vehicles permitted and loosened safety and bureaucratic regulations to speed the changes.
4. Rapid switchover for the electricity generation infrastructure. A war-time level mobilized switchover for electricity generation could be achieved quickly. Lift regulatory restrictions on nuclear power. Weld together containment domes to get around production limitations on large forgings. Use the staff of coal plants for the new nuclear plants. The staff of early nuclear plants did come from the coal plants. Nuclear staffing levels were 200 or less originally.
5. In regards to global warming and environmental concerns:
* a rapid switchover to totally clean power would stop the air pollution of coal and most oil and would greatly reduce any additional CO2
* geoengineering can be used to reduce global temperatures if necessary
* if the beliefs of climate change being from man-made sources are right then we are already geoengineering by accident as a side effect of our industry. It will be cheaper and easier to geoengineer to cancel those accidental side effects with intentional reversal efforts
6. A real space age can be started right away with technology that we already have.
7. If there was a global war over resources. There would be clear winners. In all out war there would be clear losers. The US would not lose.
8. There is plenty of technology now and a lot more that will be available soon to innovate away doomer scenarios.
* biofuels and synthetic fuels are already at about 10% of total fuel levels. If there was a need to replace all oil tomorrow a combination of world war 2 level rationing and biofuels and synthetics would be sufficient (Germany invented to coal to liquid fuel technology back in World War 2.)
* There are significant levels of hydroelectric, wind, and nuclear power
* If any of the challenges can be staved off for ten years or so there will be significant transitions to new technology (electric and hybrid vehicles) and the availability of more new technology
9. Financial doom scenarios
* Mandated resets of debt forgiveness, re-issuing script etc… can be used to reboot a country or a financial system
* People and systems for production would still exist even if there was 1000 trillion in debt
10. All out nuclear war would kill less than 50% of the population. Current nuclear arsenals are reduced by ten times from the peak.
There are valid extinction risks and scenarios with several listed and discussed at the Lifeboat Foundation.
Generally the extinction effects have to be so rapid that their is no time to mitigate or adapt. Space based phenomena like massive asteroid or a nearby gamma ray burster are the kind of situation that we currently could not handle. This is why there is need to stop pissing around with penny ante crap and get serious about moving civilization to full Kardashev level II. At that level there is no known threat other than all out super-war that would be a risk to such a civilization. Even things like the sun going nova could be detected and handled as such a civilization would have its own highly efficient nuclear fusion and other power sources.
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Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
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