Can a future population of 9bn enjoy the stuff, space and speed that is the preserve of today's rich without crippling the global environment? Despite the claims of the "austerity school," it is possible with technology only slightly more advanced than we now possess. Sometimes there really are technical fixesby Michael Lind / July 24, 2004 / Leave a comment
Can everyone on earth be rich? Not rich in relative terms – in a world of billionaires, millionaires would feel poor – but in terms of the lifestyle choices that today only the rich enjoy: in particular, in stuff (personal technology), space (low-density living in proximity to nature), and speed (geographic mobility). The world’s population is expected to stabilise at around 9bn and then decline. Can 9bn people enjoy stuff, space and speed?
The austerity school says no. The earth’s environment will be devastated if 9bn human beings attempt to enjoy the average standard of living of a middle-class individual – much less a rich person – in Europe, North America or Japan. Not only should the majority of the world’s people resign themselves to poverty forever, but rich nations must also revert to simpler lifestyles in order to save the planet.
But the pessimism of the austerity school is unfounded. There may be political or social barriers to achieving a rich world. But there seems to be no insuperable physical or ecological reason why 9bn people should not achieve something like the lifestyle of today’s rich, with technology only slightly more advanced than that which we now possess.
In the advanced countries, ever since the industrial revolution the personal technologies of the wealthy, including telephones, dishwashers and cars, have become symbols of the middle class and then necessities of the poor within a generation or two.
As the economist Paul Romer pointed out in the magazine Reason (December 2001) US per capita income in 2000 was around $36,000. If real income per American grew by 1.8 per cent per year, by 2050 it would increase to $88,000 (in purchasing power of 2000 dollars), while 2.3 per cent annual growth would increase the average American’s income to roughly $113,000 per year. Romer observed that in the second scenario, “in 50 years we can get extra income per person equal to what in 1984 it had taken us all of human history to achieve.”
Obviously it will take a long time for the majority of people to attain the living standard of contemporary North Americans and western Europeans. But framing progress in terms of income growth in the less developed countries may make us unduly pessimistic. Falling prices may be more important than rising incomes. Increasing productivity that results in decreasing costs for goods and services has been responsible for the greatest gains in the standard of living. There is every reason to believe that invention and productivity growth will continue.
As machines get ever cheaper, more people will be able to afford more of them. Today the combined mass of all machines, at more than a gigaton (Gt), exceeds the combined mass of human beings, about 1 megaton. The total amount of carbon, 5Gt, required to power and construct machines and electric utilities greatly exceeds the 1.3Gt global consumption of carbon by human beings, mostly in the form of food. As affluence grows, the amount of energy and raw materials “consumed” by machinery will escalate even more rapidly than human consumption. But this need not mean an end to the machine age. If manufacturing processes were to imitate the recycling that takes place in the biosphere, then most machine materials might be recycled to make new machines, rather than thrown away. And long before all fossil fuels were exhausted, their rising prices would compel industrial society not only to become more energy efficient but also to find alternative energy sources sufficient for the demands of an advanced technological civilisation – nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, solar energy, chemical photosynthesis, geothermal, biomass or some yet unknown source of energy.
For the foreseeable future, industrial civilisation will depend on the burning of fossil fuels. Global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions is a serious problem, but it is a problem created by technology for which there are technological solutions. If petroleum, gas and coal are burned in centralised locations, to generate electricity or to create hydrogen as a fuel for cars, then carbon dioxide can be captured and “sequestered” by artificial means (reforestation can also help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, though not quickly enough to avert global warming). An energy system which combines fossil fuel use with sequestration of carbon dioxide is not ideal and will be costly in the short term. But it is more practicable than the alternatives – including the highly unlikely large-scale renunciation of the use of cars, trucks and tractors. Nor must sequestration await a global consensus on measures like the Kyoto protocol. The small number of affluent nations that are responsible for about half of CO2 emissions can take unilateral steps that would drastically reduce the global warming problem right now.
Low-density housing in proximity to nature is another feature of the lifestyle of the rich. Medieval warlords, top communist party functionaries and big capitalists have all enjoyed country homes. This cross-cultural phenomenon suggests that the biologist EO Wilson is correct in saying that “biophilia” is part of pre-cultural human behaviour. Even rich urbanites in London or New York spend much of their time in leafy retreats in the Cotswolds or the Hamptons, a fact that makes the disdain of many urban intellectuals for tree-filled suburbia look hypocritical.
The propaganda of the austerity school would have us believe that suburban “sprawl” is a terrible threat to nature, and that 9bn people cannot be spread out in single-family homes without destroying the last remaining wilderness. This is nonsense.
The total land area of the earth, about 30 per cent of the earth’s surface, is roughly 57m square miles (148m sq km), of which the glaciated area is roughly 5.8m square miles. Between 30 and 55 per cent, or 27m square miles, of ice-free land has been significantly altered directly or indirectly by human activity, chiefly in the temperate regions. All urbanised areas together add up to only about 2m square miles, with an additional 200,000 sq km devoted to reservoirs. The vast majority of human land use involves permanent pastures (13m square miles), permanent cropland (5.8m square miles) and tree plantations and logged forests (2.5m square miles). Thus agriculture, including logging, accounts for about 21m square miles, or ten times as much land as that occupied by urban areas and reservoirs.
Cutting urban land use by half would free only 1m square miles or 2 per cent of the ice-free land surface, while cutting agricultural land use by half would free ten times as much land – 10.6m square miles, or 21 per cent of the earth’s non-glaciated surface.
Those who argue that farmland and wilderness must be preserved against low-density housing are confused. Every farm and pasture on earth has been created by the destruction of wilderness. Farm sprawl is a far greater threat to the environment than urban sprawl. Stopping the growth of land- consuming farms and ranches is the best way to preserve many of the world’s remaining wild areas. And the retirement of farmland can permit the global wilderness to expand, which benefits the biosphere and frees space for low-density housing.
Is a dramatic downsizing of agricultural land use possible? Thanks to the growth of agricultural productivity, reforestation and “rewilding” has been under way in the industrial countries for generations. Since 1950 the equivalent of Texas and Oklahoma combined have been retired from agricultural use. And since 1950 more land in the US has been set aside in parks than has been occupied by urban and suburban growth. Much of what was farmland in the 19th century is now forest again. In his essay, “The Liberation of the Environment,” in Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment (1997) Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University pointed out: “If the world’s farmers can lift the global average yield about 1.5 per cent per year over the next six or seven decades to the level of today’s European wheat, 10bn people can enjoy a 6,000-calorie diet and still spare close to a quarter of the present 1.4bn hectares of cropland… equivalent to the area of India.” Taking the best Iowa maize growers as the norm for world agriculture, Paul E Waggoner, in an essay in the same book, “How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?,” calculated that less than a tenth of present cropland could support a population of 10bn.
The high agricultural productivity of industrialised nations has come at a price – the use of environmentally harmful fertilisers and pesticides. Biotechnology holds out the promise that new strains of crops can be more resistant to pests and require few or no fertilisers. Those who object to “frankenfood” strains created in petri dishes can relax: “smart breeding,” a kind of traditional breeding aided by computer analysis, can accomplish many of the same results as more direct genetic engineering. In the words of the environmental scholar Martin W Lewis: “As advances in biotechnology make agriculture more efficient, large tracts of land can be progressively returned to nature.”
There is one potential problem: as affluence increases, so does demand for meat in the diet. Today carbohydrates provide three quarters of the food energy in poor countries, but less than half in the richest nations. The agrarian-era peasant diet of cereal grains is unhealthy and unnatural. Our palaeolithic ancestors included few or no cereal grains in their diet based on meat, fruit and vegetables. Modern hunter-gatherers obtain two-thirds of their energy from animal foods, including fish and shellfish, and only one-third from plants. Cereal grains did not become an important part of the human diet until the development of agriculture. And in agrarian societies, the upper classes continued to eat as their hunter-gatherer ancestors had, loading their tables with game, vegetables and fruit, while their serfs, slaves and peasants were forced to subsist like livestock on wheat, rice, and corn. The cereal-grain diet literally stunted the growth of the lower classes in agrarian societies; it is only now, in affluent nations, that people are regaining the stature of their ice age ancestors.
The environmentalists who argue that the affluent countries should revert to the unhealthy peasant diet are wrong. Ensuring that all people on earth enjoy the nutritional benefits of the meat-rich palaeolithic diet that upper classes in all parts of the world have enjoyed is a moral imperative.
But increasing the proportion of meat in the global diet creates a dilemma. If growing numbers of livestock are fed cereal grains, then the amount of the earth’s land area occupied by cropland would have to increase, at the expense of wilderness. Like other technological problems, this might have technological solutions. Factory-synthesised livestock feed has been available for almost half a century. In The Environment Game (1967), a vision of a utopia that would be at once high-tech and environmentalist, Nigel Calder suggested that “nourishing but unpalatable primary food produced by industrial techniques – like yeast from petroleum – may be fed to animals, so that we can continue to eat our customary meat, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese – and so that people in underdeveloped countries can have adequate supplies of animal protein for the first time.”
Unfortunately, in the foreseeable future, artificial feed is likely to be delivered to cows, pigs and chickens living in squalid pens. In the long run, why not use tissue-cloning techniques to grow desired portions of meat by themselves? As the owner of a small ranch in Texas, I can attest that a pasture and a cow is an extremely inefficient way to convert soil, water and sunlight into a steak. I would rather eat a nutritious pork chop from a clean laboratory test tube than from a pig which had spent its life drugged in a tiny cage caked with its own waste.
The food snobs who insist on free range chicken are enemies of the biosphere. Anyone who cares about restoring farmland to wilderness should ask, “Was this food made entirely from raw materials and artificial energy in a subterranean food factory that did not compete for surface area with wilderness?” True greens should insist on labels: “No chickens were used in the manufacture of these drumsticks.”
The diet of the rich has often been supplemented by wild game, which will be ever more abundant as farms and ranches revert to wilderness. Already in North America, thanks to the reforestation of agricultural land and the elimination of predators like wolves, bears and mountain lions, there is a population explosion among deer. The solution is obvious: eat them. Venison and other wild game could supplement the laboratory-grown meat in the diets of tomorrow’s affluent.
Once their DNA has been extracted to create cowless steaks and chickenless drumsticks, domesticated livestock, bred for millennia to be stupid or to have grotesquely enhanced traits, should be allowed to become extinct, except for a few specimens in zoos. Those worried that genetic engineering will create biological monsters should be reminded that it already has: just look at the degraded creatures that haunt any farm or ranch. Compared to their wild ancestors, domestic animals, wrote the late ecologist Paul Shepard, are “well-padded drudges, insulated by blunted minds and coarsened bodies against the uniformity of the barnyard.”
Advanced technology, in the realm of agriculture and other areas, is the ally rather than the enemy of an environmentalist ethic. “A decoupled future” is how IG Simmons described this possibility in Changing the Earth: Culture, Environment, History (1989). “High technology is used to decouple the ecosphere and the ‘econosphere’… The outside world would be used partly for food production but largely allowed to remain in a little-manipulated state.” In Green Delusions (1992), Martin W Lewis contrasted “Arcadian environmentalism” with “Promethean environmentalism,” which he followed Simmons in describing as “the decoupling of humanity and nature.” Lewis concludes: “A society based on the principles of Promethean environmentalism will cease as much as possible to provision itself through the killing of living beings, be they animal or plant. Instead, it will strive to rely on nonliving resources, whether formed of long-dead matter, like oil and coal, or simple inorganic substances, like silicon.” If people rejected the use of wood in their houses for brick, glass and metal, tree farms could be replaced by wild forests. (Or wood could be grown in factories too).
In The Environment Game, Calder envisioned a farmless future in which towns are separated not by pastures and cropland, but by restored wilderness: “To be sure, the environment will be kept under extensive human control. But the aim of such activities will be to maximise diversity and natural productivity. All direct evidence of past human activity… excepting only the recent footfall and man’s ancient and more precious monuments will be gone.” The forests of Europe and China might rise again where today fields stretch as far as the eye can see. And the shores of the Mediterranean from Lebanon to Greece might once more be shaded by majestic pines.
Let us be less radical than Calder and assume that half of today’s agricultural land continues to be dedicated to the same purpose. Suppose that after cutting agricultural land use by 50 per cent, we reserve half of the former cultivated land for newly restored wilderness and the other half for low-density housing. This gives us 5.4m square miles for residential use. Adding this to the existing urbanised area of 2m square miles gives us about 7.5m square miles for the world’s population to spread out in. If we assume a population of 9bn people and an average three-person household, this gives us about 400 households per square mile, which translates into about 1.6 acres per household. To put this into perspective, Levittown, the archetypal postwar US suburb, had a density of 15 people per acre, while today’s average US suburb has ten people per acre.
This is a crude thought experiment, of course. Scenic areas will attract denser settlement. And even in the most decentralised civilisation a substantial number of people would choose to live in villages, towns and the occasional big city, so the remainder would be able to enjoy substantial suburban or rural estates. Like many aristocrats of the past and plutocrats of the present, the majority in a world of rich people might prefer to have two homes, a country seat and a pied-?-terre or townhouse, exercising one of the benefits of the palaeolithic lifestyle that wealth and power have permitted elites to preserve throughout civilised history – seasonal changes of residence.
The voluntary decentralisation of populations on retired farmland need not take the form of laissez-faire sprawl. Thoughtful “green plans” as part of regional, national and global zoning make sense. In an ideal world, the flood plains of rivers would be public parks, off-limits to development, which would be confined to higher altitudes. Periodic flooding could be allowed with no harm to homes or businesses. The interconnected greenways could serve both as parks for people and as wildlife corridors.
A new term has entered American English – “wildscape.” A wildscape is a large garden or property using only native plants and designed to imitate a natural habitat. An exurban community of wildscapes represents a blend of housing and wilderness quite unlike a conventional suburb. From an ecological perspective, the problem with suburbs is that they are too densely populated. Their lots are too small, not too large. A suburb with quarter-acre lots is a sea of concrete and asphalt with patches of vegetation embedded in it like tiles. Native plants are treated as “weeds” to be exterminated by pesticides, which run down drains and accumulate. By contrast, an exurb with estates of 10-100 acres is a woodland or savannah, with houses and roads and driveways that present few obstacles to most wildlife.
The variables in the thought experiment can be changed. The point is that, even in a world of 9bn people, there is plenty of land that can be used not only for low-density habitation but also for restoring vast regions to their pre-agricultural condition.
With rising personal incomes come rising personal speeds. Mobility is another luxury of today’s rich that could become a necessity of tomorrow’s global middle class – particularly if its members choose to live widely dispersed in a post-agrarian wilderness. The rich can fly in planes that they own or charter on their own schedules, while most air travellers must queue in line for crowded aircraft at crowded airports. Meanwhile, billions of people have never flown and cannot afford to.
The dream of personal air mobility for the masses, a dream as old as the aeroplane, has not died. The personal “hovercars” of science fiction will not replace automobiles any time soon. But in his recent book Free Flight (2001), James Fallows, a pilot as well as a writer, describes serious attempts by both Nasa and private entrepreneurs to promote an “air taxi” system within the price range of today’s middle class – and perhaps tomorrow’s global middle class.
The chief obstacles to the science fiction fantasy of the personal plane or hovercar are price, danger, emissions and noise. Technological improvements are driving prices down. Piloting an aircraft in three dimensions is more difficult than driving a car in two, and pilot error causes more fatalities than driver error. But before long our aircraft and cars will be piloted by computers which are never tired or drunk.
Nasa, Boeing and other public and private entities are developing electric aircraft which, like automobiles, can be powered by fuel cells. In addition to emitting only water vapour, fuel-cell-powered aircraft would be far quieter than today’s noisy jets. (If the noise of buzzing personal aircraft is still a problem Calder proposed to bring back the dirigible.) In addition, solar energy might play at least some role, if wings doubled as solar panels.
To the question, “How do you herd buffalo?” the foreman of media mogul Ted Turner’s ranch is said to have replied: “First you find out where the buffalo want to go.” In thinking about the future of civilisation, we ought to start by asking what people want. The evidence demonstrates that as people get richer they want a greater range of personal technology, they want lots of room (preferably near or in natural surroundings) and they want greater speed in travel. More stuff, more space, more speed.
Providing stuff, space and speed to 9bn people without putting serious strains on the global environment is possible, but not inevitable. A planet of crowded slums, extreme inequality, devastated ecosystems and rising atmospheric temperatures is a frightening possibility. To avert such a future, campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology – no argument there. But political and moral campaigns should take the preferences of people into account and they should be based on sound reasoning. It makes no sense to counsel individuals and nations to adopt austerity in cases in which there are technological solutions to problems created by technology. Sometimes there really are technical fixes.