Chapter II - Physical Sustainability Factors and Limitations - 2
The ecological limit Edit
Pre agricultural man lived "off the land," consuming only the bounty of nature, which could sustain a global population of about 2 20 million human beings. (3/10 % of the present population)
Per the CIA World Factbook, of the world land area 13.31% is arable land, (4,898,576,237 acre) with permanent crops planted on 4.71% (1,733,455,603 acre) of the overall land area.
Use whatever crop selection and per person use you like for nutrition, materials, animal feed, and energy, and divide it into the above numbers.
There are estimates that humans may already be diverting 40% to 50% of the productive life of the planet to essentially exclusive human use, this in a time when energy and technology permit food growth on marginal land, and processing for storage and long distance shipping. Absent improvements in for example food productivity per acre, we are therefore within one population doubling of ecological disaster.
But we are not poised for such productivity improvements. We are more likely facing the loss of significant areas of existing farmland, estimates range from 20% to 50%, which has been "overworked" and no longer viable. We are also facing reduction in the level of crops from remaining farmland, perhaps to production that is only 25% of the present, absent chemical fertilizers.
To calculate the maximum possible supply of food for an Earthbound solar civilization, let's use the same 5,000 mile disk as with solar power above (food is, after all, a chemical store of solar energy.)
If the same swath as with solar power was instead turned into an 7,500 mile wide biointensive garden, completely surrounding the Earth, 50% clouds, it would intercept in BTUs:
Converted to calories, it's:
Shaded 50% by clouds, 2000 calorie per person per day, 365 days per year, given overall photosynthesis efficiency of 1/10% as observed in food crops today, it could provide food for 115,912,090,505 (115 billion) people. No other animals. No open place to walk. No fuel. No solar electricity. No ocean waves... Just feeding people.
Absent such sci-fi technology, the reality is we are already diverting around 50% of the productive life-force of the Earth for human purposes, and that with the additional input of fertilizers, pesticides, and green revolution crops.
Agricultural man could produce about 10 calories of energy with the expenditure of about one calorie of energy. This meant that a single man could produce enough food for his immediate family, and still have a surplus to sell, or be "taxed" to support nonagricultural urban civilization and a total global population of 200 300 million.
Remember though, early agriculture was set up on farmland selected from the best produced by God's natural processes. Compare the "Fertile Crescent" of 5,000 to 10,000 years ago to the conditions in the area today. Farming techniques may have contributed significantly to the effective death of the environment in that area.
Industrial man probably uses over ten calories of energy to produce a single calorie of food, which is completely unsustainable. Most of what you see in the industrial world is a transitory illusion made possible by a one time windfall supply of energy from fossil fuels that were accumulated over millions of years. When the fossil fuel reserves deplete in 50 years OR LESS, the modern food system will simply disappear along with them.
Unfortunately, in the U. S. and many other nations farming is dependent on several key unsustainable factors:
Oil, for machines and fertilizers
Hybrid plants, specially bred, consuming artificial fertilizers
Ground water, massive pumping, exceeding "recharge" rates that will take tens of thousands of years, or more to refill once we cease pumping.
Without oil 2% of Americans working in our present industrial farming CAN NOT feed the remaining 98%, let alone any type of surplus to help the rest of the world. And there are many nations who are, or will, be far worse off then the U. S. Absent input of oil based fertilizers, it could take up to three times as much land to produce the same amount of food. If the irrigation cannot be indefinitely sustained, then don't count on the food produced from use of the water.
The population surge of the industrial age has passed 6 BILLION, and has not yet leveled off, but it will, very soon, whether by voluntary action, war, or starvation.
The only practical source of sustainable food is that grown close to the consumers, recycling natural wastes into fertilizers. The most practical source of fertilizer for the crops is recycling in as small and closed a loop, as meets with health and safety, the humanure and urine. Returning to manual labor is not practical for huge farms that are isolated from the human population they feed, and the labor necessary to tend the farm.
During the last 40 years, perhaps 30 percent of total world arable land was abandoned because it was no longer productive. Potentially, half of the current arable land now in cultivation will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the twenty first century, further lowering sustainable population.
When crops produced are consumed elsewhere, (i.e. farm goods are shipped to the city, or overseas) non chemical agricultural practices can not completely make up for the massive withdrawal of nutrients from the soil. While artificial fertilizers can, as in hydroponics, literally allow plants to grow on lifeless rock, the plant cannot contain what is not in its fertilizer. And the fertilizers used do not contain the full spectrum of minerals that the plants, and humans, need.
The U.S., with the heavy application of fertilizers, has around 2% of the population working in farming, and uses just over 1 acre per person to maintain our present diet. (It was just in 1998 that the U.S. food demand first exceeded its production capacity, with a net importation of food) China manages to keep its starvation level population alive with just .2 acre (8736) per person. But these production levels are based on fossil fuel dependent fertilizers.
Expect 5/6 food production loss Edit
What happens when, as oil supplies dwindle, and prices rise, that farmers cannot afford them? It is projected that absent the chemicals if the same farm fields are continued to be worked (say by extensive manual labor) that production would probably be 1/3 of the present yield. Without the ability to pump deep groundwater sources (which will themselves be depleted shortly anyway) up to 1/2 of the present farmland may simply be unworkable. There is the possibility that the food factor may limit us to only 1/6 of the present population, or a total global population of 1 billion. This does not however mean every nation will necessarily experience a loss of a little over 80% of it’s population. There are locations which are at this time at what appears to be at a sustainable population for food.
All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.
- Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
There are locations which are at far more than six times the sustainable population. While an initial reaction to population density is to “correct” it by redistributing from the crowded to the less crowded, this punishes those who have been limiting their own numbers, and rewards those who have been careless.
Absent a store of fossil fuels, if we want to continue to operate any type of combustion engine (including for these purposes fuel cells) we may need to divert food production land to fuel production
This would further reduce the practical standing population.
Reaching a sustainable population Edit
Exploring a population of 1 billion for a few moments (the size which can at least be fed)…
Assume an average lifespan of 80 years. If the ages of the 1 billion residents are spread across 80 years, there would be 12,500,000 of each age. We should expect about that many births each year, and that many deaths, keeping the population overall in balance. We have however 6+ billion.
Numerous estimates put the oil crash on or about 2020. Meaning, on or before 2020 we “need” to get the population down to no more than a billion or so. First, births must be no greater than the future sustainable level (12.5 million), preferably less until stability is clearly established. 5+ billion will, quite probably, die of untimely and unpleasant means by 2020.
If the crash started significantly now (2005), and progressed evenly and slowly over 15 years, we would be looking at 346.5 MILLION deaths per year (334 million population reduction + 12.5 million of birth balance), well beyond the present 75 million or so averaged deaths each year. It is not a pleasant topic, and one ignored by many. The deaths will not be randomly distributed, from any one cause, or all at once. Expect them to come in waves.
The genetic wildcard Edit
In our efforts to create more productive plants, and profits in the agricultural industry, we have bred and widely use hybrid plants. While in themselves producing more food material than their natural "cousins", the hybrids have little genetic diversity, and are subject to widespread crop failure when disease strikes.
In addition, the children of the plants, their seeds, may be sterile "mules", incapable of reproducing themselves, or at best multiple throwbacks vastly different from the sought crop. This makes it impossible to store up seed from your own crops, and forces farmers to return to the seed "manufacturers" every year for more seed. Not only does this entail unnecessary costs, but also failure of the hybrid production could lead to a sustained scarcity of crop seeds, and huge food production shortages.
I've read that NO hybrid corn will pick up cobalt, a necessary micronutrient for vitamin B12 formation. Don't you wonder what we're doing to ourselves?
Beyond hybrids problems, agribusiness has also begun to specifically add a "TERMINATOR" gene (their own wording) to crops, to guarantee no seeds produced can grow. They cannot however guarantee what will happen when pollen from these "TERMINATOR" crops is spread to natural plants.
A greater yet opportunity/threat is inter species genetic transfer. Until genetic splicing entered the scene, "new" plants or animals were limited to products of those entities which could breed with each other. The new technology allows splicing animal and insect genes into plants; i.e. fish genes for production of oil have been spliced into tomatoes to help protect them from cold. These products are not mere unique breedings, but virtually a new life form.
Of the 10's of thousands of species man lives with, only cattle, sheep, pigs and goats are globally employed as livestock, and only the chicken is a true global contributor among the birds. And of the 20,000 food plants, hardly more than 100 have been properly domesticated, with a mere dozen or so bearing the bulk of the burden of feeding humanity. Perhaps we should work with this resource on a natural level and keep the genetic transfers to the lab.
Most of the civilized world has for decades been conducting a widespread program which has dramatically increased the numbers of those least capable of contributing to society, (whether from actual or pretended disabilities), and DEGRADES the overall quality of humans as breeding stock for future generations.
The water limit Edit
The only naturally sustainable source of fresh water is that which is naturally replenished by precipitation. A large part of America's cropland is watered by pumping from deep underground ancient stores, which are being pumped dry. When the underground water runs out, the crops stop. For example, there is little doubt that when the Ogallala Aquifer is depleted, the 12 million acres it irrigates, (perhaps 1/3 of the U. S. cropland) will be out of service. The Ogallala overdraft as far back as 1975 was 14 million acre/feet per year, the flow of the Colorado River, and about 1/2 of the total U.S. groundwater overdraft. The situation is similar in other nations. This not only affects the food supply, as discussed above, but the greater priority of clean drinking water.
Desalinization of ocean water is possible, but known technology does not make it a viable source for enough freshwater to feed, and quench the thirst of the present population.
The author has read data which indicates the global water evaporation rate is around 92,000 cubic miles, with the rainfall returning to the land amounting to around 25,000 cubic miles of water. If we could collect every drop of rain that falls on land, it would amount to around just over 27,000 trillion gallons. If we collected just 1/10 and used it without re-evaporation losses for just biointensive gardens, it would provide for a population of around 42 billion.
The toxic limit Edit
Mankind's hazardous wastes cannot be handled by the natural ecosystem, where energy is obtained from the sun each day, and continuously converted by living creatures into waste that is completely consumed by other living creatures. Mankind however produces waste that cannot be consumed by living creatures.
For industrial society to be sustainable, ALL waste of industrial activity must be recycled. This increases the amount of energy that must be used for any given process, further reducing the sustainable population. Despite progress in the past few decades, accurate information is not yet available to determine the energy needs for such recycling. It is in the best interest of all to simply avoid, or minimize those processes that produce hazardous wastes.
The disease factor Edit
Diseases have found our towns and cities where human populations are dense to make great incubators. Our remedies for epidemics of diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, flu, cholera, and polio, are being undermined by new strains of diseases that are resistant.
Mismanaged concentrations and mixes of human and animal wastes, and mutigenic substances are ideal for the propagation and mutation of pathogens.
If the overall health of humanity is eroded by decreased living conditions, disease will run rampant. Swift, worldwide transportation of people and goods is quite an achievement. But diseases also benefit from our transportation systems. Viruses that were once isolated in a small pocket of the world can now travel anywhere, and spread before they can be noticed. Even our miracle drugs, which once seemed on the verge of wiping out diseases, are now themselves responsible for new mutations.
We've introduced "air tightness" in buildings (in the name of energy efficiency) and air conditioning (and, incidentally, the reduced rate of airflow in the cabins of modern jet airliners, also in the name of energy efficiency). Keeping people breathing the same re circulated air makes the transmission of airborne pathogens all the easier. It also leads to new environments to concentrate and multiply deadly bacterium that otherwise were kept in check by natural means, i.e. the occupant of air conditioning systems: Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of often fatal Legionnaire's disease, is in it's natural state a minor soil component kept in check by the micro ecosystem of healthy soil.
The conflict factor Edit
Warfare is the historical response to the pressure of local needs, or greed, or the perceived unfairness of better off neighbors, or those who refuse to strip their own resources and join the death of a failed society. Leaders will need to shift the responsibility and blame for failure elsewhere. America, with the highest standard of living on Earth, the greatest purchaser of oil, and producer of food, is the most visible, most likely target of this redirected anger. The accumulation of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons has spread dramatically, and they are now in the hands of many small nations, who have long histories of conflicts with neighboring nations, and short tempers.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The U.N. and those behind the scenes control the world, with agendas probably contrary to your personal freedom and achievement.
If we can’t sustain the present population, what are you suggestions for avoiding such conflicts and their spread? How do we avoid further destruction of the natural ecosystem, the human life support ecosystem, and the artifacts and knowledge of civilization and manage the least painful and damaging way out from our self imposed crisis? (Reminder: Excess food, viable currency, and industrial products are not available in the emergency.)
Please forgive the flippant analogy, but we are in a horror show game of “Musical Chairs”. Whenever the music (essential aspect) stops, anyone who does not have a safe chair, dies.
People will fight to get into chairs, and pull others off, killing each other and others around them. Chairs will be destroyed in the process, making each round worse.
Finite minerals and metals Edit
We cannot be dependent on a one-way thru put of any finite resource. Expect present garbage dumps to be future small-scale "mining" sites to seek pre-processed materials such as metals, glass, and plastics.
Quality of life Edit
Is humanity as a whole, and the citizens as individuals, better off in a world with some maximum population existing at a starvation level, unable to maintain a sane organized civilization with teaching, medicine, etc., or with much lower numbers, well fed and healthy, with reserves of food, the ability to produce biofuels, etc.? With the globe covered by human sprawl & refuge, or with distinct human enclaves isolated from a protected greater volume of natural environment? With a long-lived educated and experienced population, or short-lived neophytes who must reinvent the wheel each generation? The future will be what we make it by the accumulation of our individual decisions and actions.
Earlier crashes Edit
Starving frightened people do not care about sustainability. If sustainability is to be achieved, people who are not starving must supply the necessary leadership and resources. There must therefore be someone who retains a viable society, when all else fall into chaos.
"In the end," says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's parable, "in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, make us your slaves, but feed us."
Human societies as far apart in space and time as Rome, Mayans, and Easter Islanders came to ruin by expanding beyond the capacity of their environments to sustain them. They depleted their local habitats, and had to disburse. Humanity as a whole survived, however, because there were always places elsewhere on Earth capable of supporting people.
Today, of course, humankind has become a global culture, one increasingly driven by a philosophy of competitive expansionism, one that is subduing and consuming the Earth. The numbers are simple, the present population cannot be sustained. When the present infrastructure fails, the population will crash, potentially destroying all that we have accomplished so far. The problem is that dulring the crash, and once demolished, there is place to hide while the worst passes, and the tries to heal itself.
Do not harbor a belief that the end of cheap fuel will end war. Long before modern weapons or equipment wars went on for decades, with each side stripping the countryside bare for miles. No fortress, means of concealment, ability to offer bribes, is as effective a defense as the ability and the will if required to crush an attacker.
Coming soon Edit
In many ways, the next hundred years may be the inverse of the last hundred. As fossil fuels dwindle, supply lines collapse, and societies disintegrate, muscle will gradually replace machinery. "Home grown" will replace "imported". Cities as we know them may be impossible to sustain.
Activists from both the Left and Right armed with selected facts and ideologies but devoid of logic -- will form political agendas, select the best liars for leaders, and take to the streets demanding that government take us back to "the good old days". The worse our problems become, the more they will act instead of think. The less they think, the worse our problems will become. Social order will disintegrate, and Roadside Warriors will go mad, killing, raping, torturing, and burning...
There are various locations, ranging from islands, remote valleys, selected cities, and nations, that may still have enough arable land per person, economic and natural capital per citizen to actually make a rapid and functional transition to a sustainable yet technological society, even in a post-peak scenarios with declining supplies, IF we focus our efforts, and our resources, on that goal. We must immediately cease wasting our resources, time, and money, and cease subsidizing unproductive consumption.
The future development of agriculture must be directed toward closed loop ecological yet economically viable solutions. It may be highly mechanized, or it may be hands-on. But we must recognize it requires a greatly reduced population. It is important to keep the productivity of farmers' labor high enough to avoid a heavy burden on the economy in the form of government subsidies and unstable agriculture. For a society to continue to develop each farmer must be capable of feeding a significant serviced population.
The practicality of achieving self sufficiency in food production requires a stable population. The American public must understand the issues of immigration and population growth and their implications for future food security in their country now while there is still time to make adjustments. Self sufficiency in food production and other basic resources should be viewed as a strategy to guarantee a continued high standard of living and national security to U.S. citizens in the face of turbulence that can be expected around the world in the next decades. There is no time for delay, choosing not to change the current pattern of high immigration and population growth is a suicidal trap.
The bulk of the population of the world does not live at the American standard of living, nor can they.
There is not enough water.
There is not enough food.
There is not enough energy.
The world is finite. The resources within the boundaries of every homestead, neighborhood, city, and nation are finite. We must all, as individuals and nations, live within our resources.
Within our finite resources there is some level of population and per person resource use that is sustainable. More specifically, there is some minimum level for a population which if in isolation could continue to produce healthy new generations. There is some density level where conditions are optimized for ongoing interactions among the neighborhood residents, and the beginnings of specialization to provide the root for greater specialization, production and research beyond mere hand to mouth existence.
Chapter II - Physical Sustainability Factors and Limitations - 2