Excerpted from The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet (2013) by Ramez Naam. Published by permission of University Press of New England.

Doom Avoided

“The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

With those words, biologist Paul Ehrlich opened his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Alarmed by the incredible growth of human population in the 20th century, Ehrlich predicted that food supplies could not keep up.

Others did as well, including agronomist William Paddock and diplomat Paul Paddock, whose Famine 1975! similarly forecast widespread starvation and mass death as humanity found itself unable to grow enough food. Four years later, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which even more broadly forecast that a massively expanding population was on the brink of exceeding the supply of natural resources that could be grown, extracted, mined and harvested. The computer models the book was based on forecast widespread collapse by 1992.

The authors of these books had reasons to be concerned. There were 1.6 billion people on Earth in 1900, compared to 1 billion in 1800. By 1965, there were 3.3 billion. Population was rising, and the rise was accelerating.

In 1965, agriculture already covered one-third of the Earth’s land surface. Much of the rest was covered with cities, or precious and vital forests, or was not useful for agriculture. Yet population was set to soar over the century by 300 percent. In the absence of rapid and strict population control, humanity was poised to far outstrip its ability to generate its most essential resource, food. The logic was difficult to argue with.

We are the invention species. Our ancient ancestors learned to create fire. They learned to create axes. They learned to fashion spears and bows. And in all of those ways, they increased the value of inert matter by infusing it with their ideas.

It was also wrong. The famines and the massive collapse of ecology and human industrial civilization didn’t occur. In the 1970s, the fraction of the world suffering malnutrition and starvation dropped. The number of calories in the world food supply rose faster than the population did. The world didn’t run out of oil, steel or other essential resources.

Perhaps the best known of all “limits to growth” predictions are those of Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, he reasoned that populations grow exponentially, increasing by a certain percentage each year, while food production grows only arithmetically, growing by a fixed and ever-more-insufficient amount. Thus, he reasoned, population growth would outstrip our ability to grow food, resulting in massive famines and death in the early 1800s.

Malthus proved to be quite wrong. Since the publication of his book, worldwide life expectancy has gone from just over 30 years to today’s 69 years. Food production has grown exponentially, staying consistently ahead of population growth, which has in turn slowed down.

I highlight these past incorrect predictions of doom not to instill any complacency. Just because we’ve heard false cries of “wolf!” in the past doesn’t assure us that there aren’t wolves at the door today. The threats to our civilization and our planet are real. We have to address them. We need not fall into despair at their size, but we can’t afford to ignore them, either.

I highlight these predictions for a slightly different reason. It’s not that they were all wrong. It’s that they were all wrong in the same way, and for the same reason. They all ignored or underestimated the most critical human faculty that exists, and the most important source of our prosperity.

Innovation.

Malthus, Ehrlich and the Club of Rome all dramatically underestimated the extent to which human ingenuity could lift the production of food. They made the mistake of looking at the physical resource — land — as the most important determiner of future output. They assumed that the invisible resource — our knowledge of how to maximize yields from that land — would have only a small effect on overall productivity.

What we’ve seen is that the opposite is true. Physical resources matter. But the change in our knowledge resources — our science, our technology, our continual generation of new useful ideas — has made far more impact over the course of history. Knowledge acts as a multiplier of physical resources, allowing us to extract more value (whether it be food, steel, living space, health, longevity or something else) from the same physical resource (land, energy, materials, etc.).

Information is fundamentally different than physical resources. The more people who make use of a piece of knowledge, the more total impact it has on the world.

That’s what has driven human history. And the continuation, willful direction and acceleration of global innovation is our best hope of overcoming peak oil, climate change and the whole panoply of resource limitations and environmental risks that we face.

Sibudu Cave

On the eastern coast of South Africa lies Sibudu Cave, one of the richest archaeological sites in the world for early human tools. Sibudu is a nearly 200-foot-long, 60-foot-wide natural cavity set in one of the steep limestone cliffs that dot the area. At least six times over the past 70,000 years, bands of humans made this cave their home. In doing so, they left us ample evidence as to who they were and the lives they lived.

Sibudu was first discovered in 1929, but virtually ignored until 1998, when researchers from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg began regular excavations. In 2010 a team from the university found stone points dating back to 64,000 years ago — arrowheads, the oldest ever found.

We are the invention species. Our ancient ancestors learned to create fire. They learned to create axes. They learned to fashion spears and bows. And in all of those ways, they increased the value of inert matter by infusing it with their ideas.

The bow and arrow, for example, allowed humans to do more with less. By killing from a distance, hunters could kill game that might otherwise be beyond their abilities to bring down safely. The bow brought in more meat with less risk, more calories with fewer expended. It increased the efficiency with which humans could gather the energy most vital to survival.

A bow and arrow is a powerful tool made from crude, mundane materials that were abundant for our Stone Age ancestors, and an amount of labor small in comparison to what the bow and arrow saves. The real value is in the design. Its utility comes not primarily from its parts or from the labor to construct it, but from the precise way in which those pieces fit together and work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. The key ingredient that adds the value to the pieces and the labor is the human knowledge, which transforms the inert matter into a powerful tool.

And that knowledge spreads. The first bow was copied millions of times and improved upon along the way. The value of a single bow is significant. The value of the idea of the bow is tremendously greater.

Knowledge, in the language of economists, is non-rival. Rival goods can only be used by one person, or a set number of people, at a given time. A non-rival good is something of value that any number of people can enjoy the benefits of. It is, in another way of thinking, non-zero sum. In a zero sum system, one person’s gain is another’s loss. In a non-zero sum system, both parties can benefit.

Only information works this way. Everything else in nature is diluted or depleted by increased use. A bow itself can only be used by one hunter at a time, and eventually it will break. But the design for a bow can be used again and again. It’s software, not hardware.

The story of humanity is one of becoming more and more adept at harvesting that solar energy — turning more of the energy that hits the ground into food. As hunter-gatherers, it took an average of almost 3,000 acres to feed one person. Today it takes around a third of an acre.

Information is fundamentally different than physical resources. The more people who make use of a piece of knowledge, the more total impact it has on the world. It not only adds more value to everything it touches, it does so a potentially infinite number of times.

The key turning point in human evolution was the day we achieved the ability to create sophisticated ideas and to communicate them clearly to one another — to tap into this non-rival resource. We were no longer bound by the same constraints of population, food and scarce resources that we and all other creatures on Earth always had been. Nothing has been the same since. Nothing ever will be again.

The First Energy Technology — Agriculture

The innovations of early humans centered around the acquisition of the energy source that all human life depends on: food. Without adequate food, human civilizations can’t maintain their populations. Starvation and famine kill off surplus population. Warfare may arise as people fight over the last scraps. Order in society breaks down.

Over the last 12,000 years, human population has increased from roughly 5 million to 7 billion, a factor of more than 1,000. At every step of the way, that’s only been possible because we’ve found ways to acquire more food.

Most of that gain has had little to do with increasing the amount of land we acquire the food from. By 10,000 B.C., humans had already spread to most of the habitable corners of the planet and were ranging over most of that territory hunting, fishing and foraging. The more than thousandfold increase in human population and human food supply has come instead from increasing the efficiency with which we acquire food from the land.

Food, in essence, is concentrated solar energy. Plants turn the energy of the sun, plus generally abundant water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, into carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Animals consume that energy and use some of it to build muscle and fat. When you bite into an apple or a steak, what you’re consuming is stored-up solar energy.

We’ve shrunk the “land for food” footprint of a single person by a factor of nearly 10,000 over the course of human history.

The story of humanity is one of becoming more and more adept at harvesting that solar energy — turning more of the energy that hits the ground into food. As hunter-gatherers, it took an average of almost 3,000 acres to feed one person. Today it takes around a third of an acre.

That roughly 10,000-fold increase in the amount of solar energy we capture per acre has come from a steady stream of innovations. First, agriculture itself — the idea that we could intentionally plant seeds of plants and harvest them later. Almost overnight, that increased the amount of food our ancestors could grow by at least a factor of 10, and in some cases a factor of 100. Following the basic idea of agriculture came a host of improvements. Irrigation, hoes and digging sticks, harnessing oxen and horses to pull plows, soil aeration, crop rotation, and more, so that by the end of the so-called Dark Ages, farms produced twice as much food per acre as they had at the height of the Roman Empire.

There’s a saying that “you can’t eat information.” That may be so, but the food we eat today is the fruit of thousands of years of increasingly high-quality information. The energy the Earth receives from the sun each year has remained more or less constant through all of human civilization. What’s allowed us to flourish is our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of how to capture an ever-growing but still tiny fraction of that energy in a form that can fuel our bodies.

The Population Bomb and the Green Revolution

Greater food production and productivity of fields led to larger populations, packed more densely, with more people freed from the burden of growing food, which in turn led to faster rates of innovation. Among those innovations were sanitation, vaccination and penicillin, which dramatically reduced the impact of disease that had kept populations down. And so, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the world’s population boomed. And in 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb.

While Ehrlich was writing that the battle to feed humanity had already been lost, it was in fact being vigorously fought. In Mexico, a young plant scientist named Norman Borlaug led an effort, funded by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, to develop new strains of wheat that could be planted more often, that would produce more and bigger seeds, and that could resist common wheat diseases.

On similar-sized plots of land, Borlaug’s wheat varieties produced an astounding three times as much grain as conventional breeds, and could be planted twice a year. By 1963, more than 90 percent of Mexico’s wheat crop was planted using Borlaug’s seeds. The total wheat harvest that year was six times what it had been in 1944, the year Borlaug started his work. Mexico had become a wheat exporter. Not long after, Borlaug’s new wheat varieties were being planted around the world, staving off forecasted famines and saving billions of lives, which led to Borlaug receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug wasn’t the only one working on higher yield crops in the 1960s. Inspired in part by his success, researchers in other parts of the world created dwarf, disease-resistant, high-yield varieties of rice, corn and other crops. Crop yields in the developing world more than tripled overall.

Largely because of what William Gaud, former U.S. Agency for International Development director, coined the green revolution, the massive famines predicted in the late 1960s never happened. Decade over decade, the fraction of humanity that is hungry has dropped since Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb. In late 2011, world population crossed the 7 billion mark, twice the number of people who were alive when The Population Bomb was written. Population has indeed exploded, increasing by a factor of two. Food supplies have increased faster, by a factor of almost 2.5.

The Ever-Shrinking Footprint

Before agriculture, a square mile could feed roughly a quarter of a person. Today a square mile of cropland producing average yields feeds almost 1,300 people. The productivity of farms in the developed world is roughly twice that of the world average, feeding 2,600 people. Our innovation in farming technology has multiplied the value of a plot of land by nearly 10,000.

Naam-graph

Agriculture innovations have increased the number of people fed by the same amount of land drastically and continually through human history. Data compiled from Marcus J. Hamilton, Bruce T. Milne, Robert S. Walker and James H. Brown; B.H. Slicher Van Bath; and Food and Agriculture Organization.

The converse of this is that, by increasing the amount of food that a plot of land produces, we’ve reduced the amount of agricultural land needed. We’ve shrunk the “land for food” footprint of a single person by a factor of nearly 10,000 over the course of human history.

The green revolution, with its pesticides, its chemical fertilizer, its massive irrigation and its mechanization has been the greatest savior of the world’s forests.

And here we diverge from the expectations of the IPAT equation. Because if Impact (the amount of land we use, for instance) = Population x Affluence x Technology, then we should expect to see far more land used for agriculture now, given that our population is higher, our affluence is higher, and our technology is higher. But the “technology” term in the IPAT equation is working in a direction opposite the one originally expected by Ehrlich and others. Better agricultural technology is working to reduce the land use impact of each person. Innovation and the accumulation of knowledge are substituting for land, a physical resource.

Our Planet’s Rising Carrying Capacity

That also means that the carrying capacity of the planet has been increased. The carrying capacity of the planet using the farming techniques of 1900 was perhaps 2 billion. The carrying capacity of the planet when we were hunter-gatherers was in single-digit millions. Carrying capacity isn’t fixed, it seems. The answer to the question “How many people can the planet support?” depends on both their behavior (how much those people consume) and on the effectiveness and efficiency of the technology they use to tap into the resources they need. Our technology is a physical manifestation of our knowledge base. As we’ve innovated, and improve on that knowledge base, our technology has reduced the amount of land we need to feed a person, and thus increased the carrying capacity of the planet.

Reducing the land needed to grow food has other positive impacts. Agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation. To feed the number of mouths on the planet today at the yields we knew in the 1960s, we would have had to cut down roughly half the remaining forests of the world, with disastrous impacts for climate, the water cycle and biodiversity. The green revolution, with its pesticides, its chemical fertilizer, its massive irrigation and its mechanization has been the greatest savior of the world’s forests.

The trend, then, is towards increasing the amount of food we can grow per acre, the amount of food we can grow per gallon of water, the amount of food we can grow per watt of power. We’re far from done with the green revolution. Even now, innovations in labs point the way to potential yield increases, drought- or flood-resistant crops, fertilizer and water efficiency, and more. Ten thousand years of innovating in agriculture suggest that at least some of these new ideas will bear proverbial — and actual — fruit.

Meanwhile, today the average yields in rich countries like the United States and Australia are around twice the overall average of the world. Lifting yields in the rest of the world to developed-world nations would, by itself, double the amount of food production, meeting or exceeding the demand expected in 2050. The additional energy required to do so, in fertilizer, fuel, equipment and so on, would be around 3 percent of the world’s total. If we can address energy concerns, we can lift yields.

Even that is far short of what’s allowed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. The majority of the energy in food, even in the heavily mechanized agriculture of developed nations, is that provided by the sun. Yet an acre of corn or wheat in the U.S. captures less than a tenth of a percent of the solar energy that strikes it. Photosynthesis, in principle, can capture as much as 13 percent of the energy that strikes a plant. That means that, in theory, on the same land we could be growing a hundred times as much food as we are today.

Over the last few decades, innovation has reduced the amount of energy, water, insecticide and most dangerous herbicides necessary to feed one person. With the right incentives, right rules and right innovation in new technologies, there’s no reason to believe that we can’t fix those problems.

We already know how to achieve some of that gain. For example, plant scientists at the University of Florida’s Protected Agriculture Project have shown that they can boost crop yield of many vegetables by a factor of 10 by growing them in low-cost plastic greenhouses. Purdue University scientists have shown that they can double the yield of corn by growing it in passive greenhouses, and nearly triple yields by growing corn underground with artificial lights. Even in traditional open fields above ground, the farmers who win the Iowa Master Farmer contest each year typically get twice the average yields of the U.S. as a whole. There’s plenty of headroom to boost food production further.

Solutions, Problems, Solutions

This is not to say that modern agriculture is without negative impacts. Cows excrete methane that warms the planet. The energy used to run farm equipment and to manufacture fertilizer produces CO2 that further warms the planet. Together the two produce around 15 percent of the warming effect created by humans. Nitrogen fertilizer runs off of soil and creates ocean dead zones. Modern farming uses water drawn from aquifers and rivers. Pesticides used to protect crops from disease, weeds and insects kill other plants and animals and spread into water supplies.

As is often the case, the solutions to one problem have created new problems. But, had we not boosted yields through the green revolution, we either would have had billions starving or would have been forced to chop down the world’s remaining forests to feed the world. Either of those would be a worse result than the side effects we face now. That doesn’t mean that the problems of agriculture aren’t real, though. All things being equal, we’d like to feed the world and eliminate the problems of ocean dead zones, freshwater depletion and CO2 emissions from the energy that agriculture uses.

Our continual process of innovation has multiplied the value of the finite amount of land we have again and again.

There are certainly signs that this is possible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over the last several decades advances in farming technology have cut the amount of energy used per calorie of farm output in the U.S. roughly in half. That energy figure includes the energy used to create nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, pump water for irrigation, and operate mechanical farm equipment. The green revolution didn’t result in the use of more energy for farming. The sharp rise in population did (by increasing the amount of food needed). The green revolution advances in crop breeds, pesticides, fertilizer, irrigation and farming techniques reduced the amount of water, energy and land needed for every calorie of food we grow.

Most of this is a result of better crop yields from more advanced strains. Part of this, though, is the result of more efficient ways of creating nitrogen fertilizer. Creating fertilizer today takes roughly an eighth of the energy required when the first chemical fertilizer process was created in the early 1900s, and roughly a third less energy than the processes used in the 1960s.

We’ve also become more efficient in our use of water to grow food. While the amount of water we use in farming has risen over the course of the last half-century, it’s risen slower than population and slower than farm output. In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that agricultural water use per capita shrank by roughly half in the 40 years between 1961 and 2001. Water productivity, as it’s called, has continued to rise since then.

Similarly, the total amount of insecticide used in the United States has dropped by a factor of three over the past few decades. And while herbicide use has remained roughly flat, use of the herbicides the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies as most toxic has dropped by a factor of 10, and concentrations of those herbicides in rivers in the U.S. Midwest have dropped by a factor of 30.

None of this is to say that agriculture’s problems have been completely solved. They haven’t. But over the last few decades, innovation has reduced the amount of energy, water, insecticide and most dangerous herbicides necessary to feed one person. With the right incentives, right rules and right innovation in new technologies, there’s no reason to believe that we can’t fix those problems. They’ll require, at minimum, that we give farmers a reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and runoffs of pesticides and nitrogen. But if we decide, collectively, to do that, then the technology can be developed to make it happen.

Agriculture is an amazing example of the power of ideas to multiply our resources. Our continual process of innovation has multiplied the value of the finite amount of land we have again and again. And the right knowledge has multiplied the value of nearly every other resource we’ve ever encountered. The most valuable resource we have isn’t energy or minerals or land. It’s our ever-increasing store of ways to put those physical things together in new and more inventive forms that give us greater and greater value. View Ensia homepage

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