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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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The planetary impact of people

Why are governments so keen on increasing the human footprint in the name of the environment?

I have written a longish piece about the human footprint on the earth, avaliable as a `ChangeThis' manifesto here

Here are a few extracts:

 

I am going to argue that the ecological footprint of human activity is probably shrinking at an accelerating rate and that we are getting more sustainable, not less, in the way we use the planet. In a nutshell, the most sustainable thing we can do, and the best for the planet, is to accelerate technological change and economic growth.

...

In fact, coming back to my lifestyle, every item that I use today takes less land to produce it than it did in times past. My fleece came out of an oil well, whereas the wool sweater I used to wear on a cold day like this came from a sheep farm. The footprint of the fleece system-well, refinery, factory and shop-is minuscule compared with the land needed for sheep farming. My socks, shoes, shirt and breakfast each take roughly half as many acres to produce as they did before synthetic fertiliser

...

Even semi-luxuries like artificial lighting are experiencing the acreage decline. To keep your home lit with candles of tallow, beeswax or spermaceti oil from whales, or with ancient Babylonian lamps burning sesame oil, would have required many acres of pasture, flowers or seabed. Now it requires a hole in the ground: a surface coal mine produces roughly as much electricity per acre as a field of corn would produce in 2,000 years.

...


So my point is simply this: human land needs-as measured in acres to produce food, acres to produce fibre, fuel, shelter or lighting-are all getting smaller and smaller and have been doing so for a very long time. How then is it possible to argue that we are increasingly and unsustainably overdrawn at the planetary ecological bank?

...

So it is with incredulity that I watch the governments of the world, urged on by greens, assiduously trying to increase the human ecological footprint in the name of saving the planet. They praise organic farming, which means a massive increase in land taken for agriculture. (Don't get me wrong: I don't object to people buying organic; I just object to them telling me it is ethical to do so.) And almost every measure espoused for fighting climate change-wind, waves, solar, tide, hydro and above all biofuels-would increase the acreage required to support a human lifestyle.


If America were to grow all its own transport fuel as biofuel, for example, it would need 30 percent more farmland than it currently uses to grow food. Where would it then grow food? The biofuel boondoggle is a truly awful mistake, a "crime against humanity" in the words of Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. Between 2004 and 2007, the world maize harvest increased by 51 million tonnes, but 50 million tonnes went into ethanol, leaving nothing to meet the increase of demand: hence the spike in food prices in 2008, which caused riots andhunger. In effect, American car drivers were taking carbohydrates out of the mouths of the poor to fill their tanks.

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But in western Europe and eastern Asia-and here's the crucial point-people increase the productivity of the land so much that they actually increase the flow of energy into nature, even while they purloin half of the productivity for themselves. Thanks to the Haber process, in Europe both people and wildlife have more to eat.


This actually gives great cause for optimism, because it implies that intensifying agriculture throughout Africa and central Asia could feed more people and still support more other species, too. [Helmut] Haberl [of the university of Vienna] says: " These findings suggest that, on a global scale, there may be a considerable potential to raise agricultural output without necessarily increasing HANPP."