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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Room for all

I published this article in the Ottawa Citizen today:

The world now has almost seven billion people and rising. The population may surpass nine billion by 2050. We, together with our 20 billion chickens and four billion cattle, sheep and pigs, will utterly dominate the planet. Can the planet take it? Can we take it?

 

Yes. Not only is such a huge population going to prove indefinitely "sustainable"; it is actually likely that the ecological impact of nine billion in 2050 will be lighter, not heavier: there will be less pollution and more space left over for nature than there is today.

Consider three startling facts. The world population quadrupled in the 20th century, but the calories available per person went up, not down. The world population doubled in the second half of the century, but the total forest area on the planet went up slightly, not down. The world population increased by a billion in the last 13 years, but the number living in absolute poverty (less than a dollar a day, adjusted for inflation) fell by around a third.

Clearly it is possible at least for a while to escape the fate forecast by Robert Malthus, the pessimistic mathematical cleric, in 1798. We've been proving Malthus wrong for more than 200 years. And now the population explosion is fading. Fertility rates are falling all over the world: in Bangladesh down from 6.8 children per woman in 1955 to 2.7 today; China - 5.6 to 1.7; Iran - 7 to 1.7; Nigeria - 6.5 to 5.2; Brazil 6.1 to 1.8; Yemen - 8.3 to 5.1.

The rate of growth of world population has halved since the 1960s; the absolute number added to the population each year has been falling for more than 20 years. According to the United Nations, population will probably cease growing altogether by 2070. This miraculous collapse of fertility has not been caused by Malthusian misery, or coercion (except in China), but by the very opposite: enrichment, urbanization, female emancipation, education and above all the defeat of child mortality - which means that women start to plan families rather than continue breeding.

Increasing prosperity means eating more food, though. Can we really feed today's let alone tomorrow's billions? In 60 years we have trebled the total harvest of the three biggest crops, wheat, rice and corn. Yet the acreage devoted to growing these crops has barely changed. This is because fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides and new varieties have greatly increased yields.

They continue to do so. Growth regulators boost the yield of wheat. Genetic modification boosts the yield of cotton (while increasing the biodiversity in fields). New enzymes promise to cut the phosphate output and increase weight gain of pigs. These technologies save rain forest, by sparing land from the plow. If we went back to organic farming, the world would have to cultivate more than twice as much land as we do.

Already huge swaths of the world are being released from farming and reforested. New England is now 80 per cent woodland, where it was once 70 per cent farm land. Italy and England have more woodland than for many centuries. Moose, coyotes, beavers and bears are back in places where they have not been for centuries. France has a wolf problem; Scotland a deer problem. It is the poor countries, not the affluent ones, that are losing forest. Haiti, with its near total dependence on renewable power (wood), is 98-percent deforested and counting.

Human beings currently appropriate for themselves and their animals about 24 per cent of the foliage that grows upon the Earth. That is a lot. But in much of the world they increase the quantity of that foliage by fertilizer and irrigation, so the net amount left for nature is about what it would be if we did not exist.

That is why I predict that by the second half of this century nine billion human beings will be living mostly prosperous lives, eating chickens and pigs and cattle while coexisting with about as much nature as was there before we even came on the scene. We will be steadily decreasing the footprint of each human life by moving to cities, getting our food from intensive fields fertilized with nitrogen fixed from the air, our energy from natural gas or nuclear reactors, rather than horse hay or dammed rivers, and our buildings from steel and glass from beneath the ground, rather than forest timber.

Imagine: a falling population and a falling land requirement per person plus a rising income per head; a grand re-wilding of great parts of Africa, Australia and Canada; endangered species back from the brink; even some extinct ones, thanks to genetic engineers - my money's on the mammoth first.

What could possibly prevent this golden vision? Running out of fossil fuels? Not a chance: the discovery of how to extract shale gas has just given the world a quarter of a millennium's worth of cheap fossil fuel. Running out of water? No: far more frugal uses of water are already in play where price and technology combine. Climate change? Hardly. Rising carbon dioxide is already measurably boosting yields of crops and the slow and small warming we have had so far - roughly half a degree in 50 years - has probably boosted rainfall slightly. Even the UN's own models predict that a big warming by 2050 from here is unlikely.

There is only one thing I fear that could derail my dream: politics. The world now devotes 5 per cent of its grain crop into making motor fuel, in the mistaken belief that this somehow cuts carbon emissions. It does not: it displaces just 0.6 per cent of the world's oil use, uses just about as much oil in cultivation, and encourages the destruction of rain forest, releasing greenhouse gases. And it starves people.

If there are three things I fear, as a passionate environmentalist who wants to see wild habitats restored all over the world, they are biofuels, renewable electricity and organic farming. Each would demand much, much more land from nature.