… their blueprints offer radically different answers to the question of survival… William Vogt and Norman Borlaug… "apocalyptic environmentalism" ... "techno-optimism"... 

 

 

Can this planet feed 10 billion people?

 

by Charles C. Mann, Australian Financial Review

Mar 9 2018

 

This article is adapted from Charles C. Mann's most recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet.

 

All parents remember the moment when they first held their children – the tiny crumpled face, an entire new person, emerging from the hospital blanket. I extended my hands and took my daughter in my arms. I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly think.

 

Afterward I wandered outside so that mother and child could rest. It was three in the morning, late February in New England. There was ice on the sidewalk and a cold drizzle in the air. As I stepped from the curb, a thought popped into my head: When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the Earth. I stopped midstride. I thought, How is that going to work?

 

In 1970, when I was in high school, about one out of every four people was hungry – "undernourished," to use the term preferred today by the United Nations. Today the proportion has fallen to roughly one out of 10. In those four-plus decades, the global average life span has, astoundingly, risen by more than 11 years; most of the increase occurred in poor places. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. This enrichment has not occurred evenly or equitably: Millions upon millions are not prosperous. Still, nothing like this surge of well-being has ever happened before. No one knows whether the rise can continue, or whether our current affluence can be sustained.

 

Today the world has about 7.6 billion inhabitants. Most demographers believe that by about 2050, that number will reach 10 billion or a bit less. Around this time, our population will probably begin to level off. As a species, we will be at about "replacement level": On average, each couple will have just enough children to replace themselves. All the while, economists say, the world's development should continue, however unevenly. The implication is that when my daughter is my age, a sizeable percentage of the world's 10 billion people will be middle-class.

 

Like other parents, I want my children to be comfortable in their adult lives. But in the hospital parking lot, this suddenly seemed unlikely. Ten billion mouths, I thought. Three billion more middle-class appetites. How can they possibly be satisfied? But that is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide for everyone without making the planet uninhabitable?

 

Bitter rivals

 

While my children were growing up, I took advantage of journalistic assignments to speak about these questions, from time to time, with experts in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As the conversations accumulated, the responses seemed to fall into two broad categories, each associated (at least in my mind) with one of two people, both of them Americans who lived in the 20th century. The two people were barely acquainted and had little regard for each other's work. But they were largely responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas. Unfortunately, their blueprints offer radically different answers to the question of survival.

 

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

 

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College population researcher Betsy Hartmann has called "apocalyptic environmentalism" – the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption and limits population, it will ravage global ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra.

 

Borlaug, born 12 years after Vogt, has become the emblem of "techno-optimism" – the view that science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament. He was the best-known figure in the research that in the 1960s created the Green Revolution, the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that increased grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was his cry.

 

Wizards and prophets ...

 

The roads to hell ...

 

The story of nitrogen ...

 

'Not one of evolution's finest efforts' ...

 

The Luddites' moonshot ...

 

The right way to live ...

 

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http://www.afr.com/business/agriculture/can-this-planet-feed-10-billion-people-20180219-h0waof