Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population: follow-up responses to readers’ comments

Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.

Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF

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By Russell Hopfenberg: Farmland

I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.

Trinifar: For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.

RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.

Trinifar: Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?

RH: The populations of the US, Canada, Europe and Japan are still growing. They are really not in stage 4. Even in theory, Stage 3 of the DT includes population growth. See Pan Earth for a narrated slide show that includes a discussion of the DT.

Comments pasted here to provide background for RH’s next response:

Trinifar: It would be easy to read Russ and take away the message that we should not send food aid to these countries as it only encourages more growth. I’m not sure that’s the message he intends to send.

Steve said, “The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.”

That’s true and Nigeria is the poster child. The question is what to do? Emphasizing this piece of Russ’s research can lead to what I think is a misguided notion that we have but one lever which which to address the problem: limiting food supply. To me that is not a humane response. Neither is it humane to “help” developing countries by getting them to do agriculture in an unsustainable way or by ignoring our own unsustainable, fossil fuel, pesticide and fertilizer driven agriculture.

Steven Earl Salmony: It seems to me that Hopfenberg’s science is suggesting several things to us:

1. Free, immediate and universal access to contraception is required;

2. Open access to family and health planning education is made available to everyone;

3. The time for the economic and social empowerment of women is now.

4. As a means of accelerating the present downward movement in birth rates in some countries, a VOLUNTARY policy of one child per family would be initiated worldwide.

5. The many human beings who are suffering the unhealthy effects of obesity will share their over-abundant resources with many too many people who are starving.

6. Every effort to conserve energy and scarce material resources will be implemented, beginning now.

7. Substanitial economic incentives are necessary for the development of energy resources as alternatives to fossil fuels.

8. Overhaul national tax systems so that conspicuous per human over- consumption of limited resources is meaningfully put at a disadvantage.

9. Humanity needs a new economic system, one that is subordinated to democratic principles and more adequately meets the basic needs of a majority of humanity who could choose to live better lives with lesser amounts of energy and natural resources.

9. Overall, what is to be accomplished is a fair, more equitable and evolutionarily sustainable distribution of the world’s tangible (e.g., food) and intangible (e.g., education) resources, as soon as possible.

Trinifar: I appreciate your point of view, Steve, and I’m on board with your proposals. That’s a good list.

Russ, however, says things like this: ‘To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”’

So I’d like to know if Russ is on board with your proposals too.

RH: All of these proposals seem quite admirable. I’m sure there are many, many more that are equally admirable. However, these do not address the direct bio-behavioral reality that the population size of any species is a function of its food supply. This includes the human. Therefore, each proposal (numbered above) has its own set of problems. For proposal #: (1) Who will pay for universal contraception? Will the Pope approve of this? Also, we’re much more likely to see commercials for Viagra than for Trojans. The culture is simply not on board with the idea of limits. (2) Same points as proposal #1. (3) Civilization is a worldwide patriarchal culture. This proposal seems to be a way that men can abdicate responsibility and women can be held accountable. Also, think about the “empowerment of women” in a fundamentalist Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Hindu) society. How would that work? Will they tell their husbands – “it’s not good for the planet to have more children”? This is near absurdity. (4) The world already has a voluntary policy of 0 children per family. (5) Which ones? I bet that if you ask obese people, they would all say that they would rather not be obese. The bio-behavioral reality is that all creatures turn excess food availability into themselves or their progeny. Also, who will pay for this distribution? (6) In word, we are making every effort to conserve. (7) Who will supply these economic incentives? (8) Our economy is based on growth and consumption. We seem to have a worldwide goal of “use it all up until it’s all gone.” (9) This is quite possibly true, but the culture’s response to shortages is to look for / make more (food production, oil drilling, coal mining, etc.) (10) Again, who will pay?

These proposals are worthy of further discussion and each contains valuable elements. However, the proposals above are what my wife calls “the house.” And, in order to build a solid house, we need a firm foundation. The foundation that needs to underlie any course of action is the understanding of the relationship between human food production and population size. Only then can we proceed toward solutions. For more on this, see the slide show at Pan Earth.

Magne Karlsen: Now: here’s where I’m arriving at my most basic point. Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.

Mother Nature has a way of teaching us things. But are we ready to respond to the knowledge?

RH: Good point!

Magne Karlsen: Now: I’d also like to hear Russ’ views on the “peak oil and agriculture” dilemma, as posed to us here by Paul C. – — a very compelling analysis, to say the least.

Thank you.

RH: I think it is very likely that the peak oil issues will extremely negatively affect agricultural production. Just as the steep increase in food production, i.e., carrying capacity, has precipitated a steep increase in population growth, a sudden sharp decrease in food production will precipitate a sharp decrease in the population (funny, nobody seems to have a problem understanding this side of the equation). Some predict, using compelling evidence, that we are already at the beginning stages of a die-off. I hope they’re wrong.

John Feeney: The data Russ uses (from the FAO) show annual food production enough to feed over 20 billion people. If I understand correctly, every year that we increase food production, we do feed more people, and at the same time the number of people starving goes up. But what of the gap between the people fed and the amount of food produced? Clearly, there’s a serious distribution problem. But what is it about that problem that allows us to feed more people each year, but keeps the percentage of starving people the same (I assume)? It’s like the obstacles to distribution are working on a percentage basis or something, allowing x% of food produced each year to get through to people. Something about that seems strange. I guess I’m just uninformed on how food distribution works. It’s as if someone were knowingly keeping the lid on what’s distributed at a very precisely controlled level.

RH: First, by some estimates, the percentage of starving and malnourished actually continues to go up. Others have reported that the percentage is hovering or slightly declining. In either case, the number of starving and malnourished seems to make little sense in light of the huge annual increases in global food production, leading to the next point… Second, there is only one simple barrier to equitable distribution. Ladies and gentlemen, the barrier is (drum roll please) … MONEY!! Who wants to pay for equitable distribution? The agricultural businesses are in it FOR THE $$. Governments are in it FOR THE $$. Why would they pay for distribution to poor, starving people? Who’s going to foot the bill? The food goes to consumers who then turn the food into themselves or their progeny.

John Feeney: Beyond that, one thing is clear — that according to Russ’s findings we should stop the worldwide increase in food production as that is causing the increase in population. Is there any implied suggestion beyond that? I’m thinking about Trinifar’s question concerning withholding food aid. But now the more I think about it, the more I think it is instead just a matter of capping overall food production. Is that right?

RH: In fact, there is no reasonable action that can be taken until the people of the world in general understand that continually expanding food production is ultimately going to lead, not to a well-fed human race but to an extinct human race. Why “people of the world in general?” It’s for the same reason that people of the world in general had to understand that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and all heavenly bodies do not orbit it in order to have a successful space program. Capping increases in food production might be a good start, but it’s not possible unless people in general understand the relationship between food production and population growth. The action that we need to take, and can take right now, is to educate people. That’s why this blog and other endeavors are so important!! We have to build a strong foundation (understanding) before we start on our house (solutions).

John Feeney:
Related to my first comment above, a simple, albeit tangential question: What happens to that huge amount of food every year that doesn’t reach people? If we’re producing enough food for 20 billion, then over 2/3 of all food produced is not reaching people, right? What happens to it. (Or does that account for people or countries which receive excessive food, such as the US with its high levels of obesity? If so, then maybe a much smaller amount is actually not reaching people.)

RH: Thrown out (for example, check out the fast food industry’s food practices). Obesity too, as you mentioned. Here’s another way to think about it. If we had 500 chickens and produced enough chicken feed for 40 million chickens, we wouldn’t see 40 million chickens in the next year, or even the year after that. What would happen to the excess feed each year until we reached 40 million chickens? Here’s a figure similar to ones presented at Pan Earth:

World agriculture production

This figure, from FAO data (artificially) sets world (and region) food production equal to 100 for the year 1961. Food production is presented as carrying capacity, or, the number of people that the amount of available food can support. You can see that, relative to the population, food production has increased even since 1961.

Again, notice that the data for the year 1961 are set to equal an index of 100. Based on the trajectory, if this were really the case, there would have been a vast famine in the year 1950, and all the years before that!! The amount of food produced in the world, relative to the population, was certainly much higher in the year 1961 than indicated here. Therefore, the amount of food produced in the world in 1999, relative to the population was far greater than indicated here.

John Feeney: If, as Steve S. has mentioned here, most scientists are unwilling to discuss Russ’s (and Pimentel’s…) work, I’m wondering why that is.

RH: The idea of a “cultural defense mechanism” comes to mind. Notice how we in this discussion group are struggling with this relatively simple concept. It’s like an abused person who can’t say “no.” It seems simple enough, but not for someone with a personal history of abuse. We have a history of being taught that humans don’t follow the same bio-behavioral rules as other creatures. We’re special. Scientists are not immune from cultural influences.

Alan McCrindle: To confer with your “response 4″ – China has just released data that shows that their population growth is accelerating despite the “one child policy”.

RH: I agree. This issue is addressed in the slideshow at (have I mentioned?), Pan Earth.

John Feeney: There’s something just bizarre about war in the 21st century. Over thousands of years, we’ve made so much technological progress, but apparently none socially. Where Neanderthals may have settled disputes by bashing in an adversary’s head with a rock, today we do the same with a cruise missile. Well, the US does anyway. Many other countries seem to have evolved a little more than that.”

RH: Regarding war, maybe this Wendy’s & NC State University placemat from the first gulf war will help shed light on the real reason we keep increasing food production — power & conquest.

Thanks again to all of you for your time, thoughtful questions and responses.

Wendys ad
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Image sources: Farmland: Djof’s photostream, flicker.com, Creative Commons License. Other images courtesy of Russell Hopfenberg from sources as indicated.


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19 responses to “Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population: follow-up responses to readers’ comments

  1. Dear Russell Hopfenberg, Colleagues and Friends,

    Thanks are due Dr. Russell Hopfenberg for providing us with one of the most naturally persuasive and revealing discussions I have seen on the “Growth is Madness” blog.

    I would like to note that John Feeney, Al Bartlett, Stuart Pimm, Werner Fornos, Walter Kistler, Mickey Glantz, Peter Salonius, Magne Karlsen, Keith Wilde, Clive Spash, Trinifar, David Pimentel, Rajendra Pachauri, Krishnaraj Rao, Dave Foreman, Glen barry, Dave Gardner, Melissa K. Nelson, Jim Lydecker, Ken Smail, Emily Spence, Kent Welton, Chris Rapley, David Wasdell, Jack Alpert, Mathis Wackernagel, E.O. Wilson, John McRuer, Jean Gilbertson, Mohan Munasinghe, Dick Grossman, Ambassador Richard Benedick, Lester Brown, Alan Thornhill, Alex de Sherbinin, Peter Vitousek, David Roberts, Peter Saundry, Andy Revkin, John Francois Rischard, Zotlynn Zsurgot, David Blockstein, Ernst von Weizsaecker, Tony Cassils, Ed Weick, David Delaney, John Verdon, Joseph Baker, Humam Ghgassib, Talat Halman, Tony McMichael, Bill Ryerson, Gretchen Daily, Martin Rees, Anne and Paul Ehrlich, Bill Rees, among many others, are doing different work and doing it equally well.

    We have some truly capable thinkers and scientists being assembled now, and John F. is to be thanked for that.

    But, in this moment, I want to pay tribute to Dr. Russ Hopfenberg for being an outstanding scientist. If I may be bold here, I want to say that Galileo Galilei would acknowledge with pride this man’s contribution to science.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  2. Pingback: is world population determined by food supply? « Trinifar

  3. Many thanks to Russ for coming back with this set of responses and to John for being the host & moderator. Russ is clearly one of the “good guys” trying to understand our predicament and provide useful analysis.

    In the “big picture” sense it’s meaningful to treat global human population as a function of global food supply (and emphasize that humans generally behave in this regard like other organisms). It’s a reasonable place to start in a rough-and-ready sort of way, but, once understood and acknowledged, it begs for further analysis.

    This equation:

    globalPopulation = f(globalFoodSupply)

    where “f” is a particular logistics function only applies to the planet as a whole (and is quite interesting in light of economic globalization). But it’s not something to guide policy formation or planning except in the most general way, because it doesn’t shed light regional differences. Some regions with plenty of food have low or negative growth (Japan, for example, has a negative growth rate in 2007 according to the CIA; the US with all its food has a fertility rate of only 2.1) while others with relatively little food have high growth (pick any number of African countries). Understanding what’s going on the the regional level is, I think, the key to policy creation and planning.

    So I agree with this:

    RH: “The foundation that needs to underlie any course of action is the understanding of the relationship between human food production and population size. Only then can we proceed toward solutions.”

    But because I think we do generally understand the global picture of population being a function of food supply, I’d like to see Russ’s work extended to address regions smaller than the whole globe.

    It’s rather like coming to see global climate change as a function of atmospheric CO2 concentration — another rough-and-ready approximation. Once you nod your head to that, you want to know a lot more about how to change course.

  4. Pingback: Population: is it about food supply or food distribution? « wochansphere

  5. Pingback: Growth is Madness hosts Hopfenberg « The Wild Green Yonder

  6. A couple of quick comments:

    Magne said,

    Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.

    It’s interesting (well, sad really) to consider that the growth of our population may lead before long to a decrease in food production being forced upon us before we would ever have the chance to consider anything like a purposeful cap on global food production.

    On another tack, one place where I would view part of this slightly differently from Russ concerns carrying capacity and overshoot. It’s not a disagreement so much as a different way of looking at it. But to me it’s an interesting topic:

    As I understand it, Russ would say food supply sets carrying capacity. On the other hand, I would say it’s been a large factor in allowing us to overshoot carrying capacity. Overshoot is indicated by our degrading the global ecosystem. So I think our learning to grow the food supply to such huge levels has really created a kind of “phantom carrying capacity” as Catton terms it.

    That is, our present and growing numbers, enabled (or caused) in large part by the growing food supply, cannot be sustained because they’ve led to ecological degradation which will pull some of our life support out from under us. That’s overshoot.

  7. By the way, I’d wanted to work in a comment about the food supply/population link in my recent radio interview, but as it happened I only managed to get to the more “mainstream” views (concerning how to address population).

    I wonder as well, BTW, about the issue of regional differences Trinifar mentions. It does seem, though, that the food supply/population link must be brought into the discussion on an international level, if only because we have heretofore been acting on what is in a sense probably the opposite of the truth of that link (i.e., that food supply must be increased to keep up with population rather than that it actually drives population).

  8. I’m wondering if this isn’t mostly a globalization/localization issue. That’s why I’m pushing the regional differences idea.

    I’ve forgotten the source now but was reading about the origins of the World Food Bank in something Hardin wrote. His objection to such a thing was that it would allow countries (and their dictators) to ignore the need the stockpile food during good years against needs in bad years. Naturally he talked of this in terms of the tragedy of the commons and how much of the benefit of a World Food Bank goes directly to the food producers who, in the USA, are paid market rate for their contributions out of tax dollars. And the affect of the distribution is to obviate the need of the receiving countries to take their own steps to mitigate the problem. Thus, the problem occurs again and again.

    China and India shouldn’t be importing food. China only began to import grain relatively recently; I don’t know about India. Similarly, to my mind, the USA shouldn’t be importing cheap goods from China which only supports that country’s draconian human rights, labor, and environmental policies.

    Africa seems a special case. They have little to trade with except for raw natural resources. My sense is we need a massive humanitarian effort to provide education, family planning, and capital for them to become self-sustaining — as opposed to our current policy of taking their raw materials, sending in grain when starvation becomes too obvious, and looking the other way as dictators rape their own nations.

  9. Thanks John,

    Interestingly enough, you are following a recent example from Magne in another thread. On that occasion he saved his very best words for last. I think you have the same thing above.

    Recognizing that human population numbers are a function primarily of food supply and NOT that food supply must be increased to feed a growing population has profound implications, I believe. This misperception, or preternatural misunderstanding, or faulty reasoning, or contrived logic for political convenience, or magical thinking or specious idea that we widely share and consensually validate today (and ironically shared from the time of the establishment of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population) may one day be seen as one of the greatest mistakes ever to have occurred and thereafter to have gained virtually universal acceptance.

    This astonishing failure in human thought both of common sense and reasoning will soon be looked at as a colossal error, compared to ones like we remember when our ancestors were certain that the Sun revolved around the celestial orb we inhabit and that the Earth was at the center of the Universe .

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  10. Here are a few tentative comments.

    I disagree with Russ’ exclusive focus on food as the arbiter of carrying capacity. The concept of carrying capacity at the very least needs to incorporate the role of waste. The demonstration of this is trivial. Take a container of sugar water, add yeast, then as they yeast begins to multiply start adding more sugar mixed with ethyl alcohol. If you titrate the solution properly this addition will keep the food supply of the environment constant while introducing additional wastes. When the alcohol concentration reaches 10% or so yeast multiplication will cease. It will stop even though the sugar percentage in the solution (the food supply) remains unchanged, and with the yeast population well below what it would have been if the alcohol had come solely from the fermentation of the yeast.

    Like others, I disagree with the world-level aggregation of population and food in Russ’ analysis. I tried that as well in earlier articles, and ended up feeling that while it presents a picture that’s technically valid and pedagogically useful, it is unhelpful for the purposes of understanding the system dynamics in depth and determining where and how we might intervene to alter its behaviour – especially when the system is composed of intransigent human beings and sovereign nations.

    On the question of whether food drives or follows population, I don’t know if answering that question does us a lot of good. I think of it more like a feedback loop. When animals reproduce the offspring will need food to survive. The parents then go out looking for it (food follows population). If they find it the offspring survive and go on to reproduce in turn (food drives population). What is undeniable, and is more important to our current predicament is that a limited food supply will cap population growth.

    Finally, IMO any analysis of human carrying capacity that ignores exosomatic energy is fatally flawed. How you address its role (by saying that energy inputs make the carrying capacity variable, or by characterizing the overshoot created by the one-time gift of fossil fuels) is less important than the basic recognition of the role of energy in supporting human numbers.

  11. Here’s one further comment. I would be happier with a discussion of carrying capacity that explicitly recognized that we share our niche with other life forms that have an intrinsic right to exist.

    While that consideration may be more of a factor in a discussion of the meaning of “sustainability”, to we ignore it at our peril even when talking about carrying capacity. All complex dynamic systems will have inter-element support mechanisms that are not obvious at first blush. As a result, in our effort to maximize the purely human-food element of the niche we might inadvertently break a link that turns out to be a lot more important than we assumed. We may be on the verge of doing this with the bees…

    Ascribing some importance to the maintenance of pre-existing life inhabiting the niche, even if doing that reduces the carrying capacity for our species somewhat, seems sensible and responsible as well as ethical.

  12. Why is food-supply being linked here with agriculture? Is food not essentially a commodity like any other that can be produced in myriad ways? Would anyone here explicitly disagree with James Lovelock’s stated-position that food-supply need not be absolutely linked with agriculture?
    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22james+lovelock%22+food

  13. NucBuddy — While synthesizing food food on a large scale in the manner Lovelock suggests may be part of the future, I’ll venture that (a) it isn’t really germane to Russ’s thesis one way or the other, and (b) that any linkages between food and agriculture are with regard to possible impacts of oil depletion, assuming any transition won’t happen completely smoothly.

    Also, something being a commodity doesn’t mean it can be produced in myriad ways. Many commodities can only be produced in one or very few ways.

    BTW, I think your comments might produce more productive discussion if you’d just present your ideas rather than acting confrontational. The latter seems to lead to missing the point much of the time anyway.

  14. I believe that Hopfenberg’s, and your, thesis can be presented as weak and strong versions. The weak (more-easily proved) thesis would be that in any given closed system with finite resources, growth cannot continue forever. The strong-thesis would be that society, if it continues to grow, will run into this fundamental constraint soon. I believe the strong thesis can be demonstrated now to be false. The reasoning I would give for this is:

    * It can be accepted as axiomatic that all resources (e.g. commodities) can be produced in any of myriad ways as long as there is energy available. I.e. energy can be transformed into anything else — including the resource of space to grow. There is nothing that cannot be made from energy, except for additional energy.

    * There is enough energy available that a limit to society’s growth would not necessarily occur soon.

    something being a commodity doesn’t mean it can be produced in myriad ways. Many commodities can only be produced in one or very few ways.

    A believe that your strong-thesis depends upon that being true. My corresponding thesis –that growth can occur indefinitely, regardless of non-energy resource availability, as long as there is sufficient energy available in any usable form — can be falsified by citing even a single verifiable example of a commodity that can only be produced in one or very few ways, regardless of the amount of energy available.

    (Regarding the resources coal, petrolium, and natural gas, they are not simply energy resources. They are composed of energy and, in addition, special packaging. The total energy within a system that contains these resources cannot be replaced, but the special packaging can be replaced — by energy.)

  15. I believe that Hopfenberg’s, and your, thesis can be presented as weak and strong versions.

    Hold on. I don’t think there is any particular thesis associated with both Russ and me. His thesis is that population grows in accordance with food supply. I think it’s an interesting thesis with some merit, worth discussion, leaving some difficult questions.

    The rest of your comment is the ol’ Julian Simon argument. While it may or may not come to pass that humans will develop new ways to produce things like, say, copper, economically (versus the cost of something like nuclear transmutation… what are the myriad other ways?), we’re talking about a crisis unfolding as we speak, with major changes developing in just decades (e.g., see your Lovelock references). We need to look at the today’s reality.

    The application of sci-fi ideas to the problems now at hand is fun and interesting but does not have a lot of practical relevance to the problem at hand. (Similarly, some folks like to argue population growth isn’t a problem as we can just populate the rest of the universe. Somehow I think they don’t appreciate the time line we’re dealing with.)

    Much more importantly
    , though, it appears you’re again overlooking my whole point on this site. If we do develop the means of continued growth, that’s a huge problem! The current convergence of mass extinction, climate change, aquifer depletion, and many related environmental problems is enough to make that clear. In fact, mass extinction is enough by itself.

    Finally, and just as important, why the intense compulsion to grow? We can just stop. No big deal. 🙄

    At any rate, as I suggested before, if you want to debate energy, try one of the energy sites.

  16. Regarding who has what theses, I’ll examine and reorganize my thoughts about that. Thanks for the comment. My apologies if I misrepresented you or Hopfenberg.

    Regarding mass extinction, climate change, aquifer depletion, etc., I am considering those resources, and hence I consider those to be things that can be conserved or created through the application of energy. I would say that the more energy society uses, the more ability it has to steward its other resources. It’s a counterintuitive statement, and we might call it my strong thesis. I would predict that if society were to drop its energy consumption rate to the level it was in the medieval era, but kept its population at 6.6 billion, the biosphere would soon be trashed. Therefore, energy availablity is necessary — but not sufficient — for the preservation of the environmental resources of a population.

    More energy, like more food, might encourage more population growth — as Edward Abbey complained through the voices of the characters in his novel The Monkeywrench Gang — but that might also be remediable through culture modification. However, with enough energy available, the biosphere might be able to contain a much-larger human population. (I have estimated that at least 500 trillion humans could be comfortably sustained in the biosphere, assuming one horizontal square meter for each, and vertical depth of a kilometer. Perhaps sustaining a mere 100-billion persons would not be a hardship.)

    Regarding minable elements (copper, etc.): yes, they can be — and, in fact, presently are — created through fusion and fission. However, more-immediately important is the fact that they are easier to mine, conserve and recycle when more energy is available. In that way, more copper is available when more energy is available. Also important is the fact that functional substitutes for minerals can be, and today frequently are, made — and this, again, is easier when more energy is available. One example of the latter would be the fact that steel has largely been substituted over the past few decades with synthetic polymers (“plastics”).

  17. why the intense compulsion to grow?

    There is no need to grow. At the moment, since society has vast energy resources at hand, growth is less risky — e.g. trashes less resources, and creates more new ones — than stasis. To not grow would be to squander resources, and to squander an opportunity for responsible stewardship.

  18. Nucbuddy — Your argument is more or less a variant of the cornucopian notions popularized by Julian Simon. It’s old ground. Hardly anyone agrees with it aside from a few libertarians on the Web. So I’ve little desire to debate it these days. Therefore I’ll be brief.

    You rely on a faith based notion that because something may ultimately turn out to be possible (e.g., to produce elements economically through nuclear transmutation) it will solve our immediate and growing problems.

    You fail to address the time line issue I mentioned.

    You ignore the historically massive destruction wrought so far by increases in energy.

    Some of your statements are, in my view, patently absurd, so much so that I don’t feel a need to respond to them. Any rational reader will spot their flaws.

    Maybe someone else will want to debate the details. But again, if you really want to debate this stuff, try a site like The Oil Drum where there are hundreds of posters who know energy well and would love to debate you. Or maybe go back and debate IQ on Grist. I have other things to do. I have to say, as well, that I was turned off to discussing things with you from our first interaction on Grist. Having looked at some of your other interactions there, that’s not likely to change. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s the case. Really, just go please.

  19. Pingback: Special guest: Dr. Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population « Growth is Madness!