Monday, April 14, 2008

Lester Brown, Julian Simon, the UNFPA, Malthus, and, again, the Food

I heard Lester Brown on NPR this morning.

That took me back 27 years. Bear with me, there's a reason to start then.

Once upon a time I was a covert intern at the UNFPA officers in what was then Bangkok.

In those days we thought of the "FP" in "UNFPA" as "family planning", though I think it stood for "Fund and Population". The UNFPA was all about changing fertility behaviors and accelerating the transition in family size from agrarian to industrial norms. Thailand, Taiwan, and Bangladesh were success stories. Rwanda was a worrisome failure. Afghanistan was on the map because of its ecological collapse.

In those days Lester Brown, the Worldwatch Institute, and Malthus were in the ascendancy. My UNFPA mentor and I leaned towards Malthus, and so I wrote essays for him attacking the optimistic economist Julian Simon, whose views were well summarized in his NYT obit:

... The essence of Mr. Simon's view of man and the future is contained in two predictions for the next century and any century thereafter that are in ''The State of Humanity,'' a book he edited for the Cato Institute.

''First,'' he wrote, ''humanity's condition will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.''

He argued that mankind would rise to any challenges and problems by devising new technologies to not only cope, but thrive. ''Whatever the rate of population growth is, historically it has been that the food supply increases at least as fast, if not faster,'' he said in a profile published in Wired magazine last year.

Mr. Simon's views were widely contested by a large coterie of the academic and scientific community, many of whose members believe that more people create more problems, straining the earth and its resources in the process.

''Most biologists and ecologists look at population growth in terms of the carrying capacity of natural systems,'' said Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. ''Julian was not handicapped by being either. As an economist, he could see population growth in a much more optimistic light.''...

It's generally assumed now that Simon was right, but a pessimist would say it's too soon to tell. As DeLong and Krugman have pointed out, most of the human race was in a Malthusian trap from 6000 BCE until the time of Malthus himself. Rwanda, as feared in 1982, did experience a classic Malthusian collapse, though its subsequent recovery is much faster than the pre-industrial record. Afghanistan's fragile ecology collapsed in the 20th century, and we know how that story turned out.

Many things have happened since those days in Bangkok. Outside of Africa most of the world, especially China and India, followed the predictions of Simon rather than Malthus. On the other hand, world population growth has also followed the more optimistic projections of the 1982 UNFPA.

Given my historic roots, it's not surprising then that I would call the Simon vs. Brown battle a draw. On the one hand the Green Revolution worked, cheap energy meant cheap food, and worldwide trade combined with the kind of worldwide productivity growth Simon expected. On the other hand there were also near optimal changes in fertility behavior across many nations. The net effect was that a year or two ago we though that obesity might become a bigger public health problem problem than malnutrition in many once poor nations.

During this time the UNFPA, like all great bureaucracies, evolved to fill new niches. Now it's the "United Nations Population Fund - UNFPA" and all the links on the public page are about reproductive health and fighting HIV. The words "family planning" do appear, though they are a bit hidden.

Twenty-six years later, though, the wheel may have turned again. Simon died young at 65, but Lester Brown is still alive, and again on NPR. The reason, of course, is that classic collapse factors are again in play ...

Grains Gone Wild - Paul Krugman - New York Times

... Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the increase taking place just in the last few months...

There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries, from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things even worse in countries that need to import food.

... First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains...

Second, there’s the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive...

Third, there has been a run of bad weather in key growing areas. In particular, Australia, normally the world’s second-largest wheat exporter, has been suffering from an epic drought....

... Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels...

We need to dial way back on the biofuels experiment -- it's not working. Unless we figure out how to process cellulose it's an energy negative process. It should be a research project, not a production enterprise. Biofuel production happened prematurely because of US domestic politics (including, most shamefully, the actions of Minnesota's senators including the sainted Paul Wellstone).

The other problems are far less tractable, they'll persist even if we eliminate biofuels and lessen the direct competition between our mobility desires and food production.

So the EU, US, China and India could be simultaneously enlightened and decide to eat less meat, drive less, institute a carbon tax to fund research into alternative energy sources, and forswear biofuels. Or we could discover a something like "cold fusion", except it would have to work. Or we could ...

I'm out of ideas right now. Any suggestions?

It is worth remembering, in case anyone needs motivation for new ideas, that any local Malthusian collapse is likely to lead to the vengeful use of inexpensive weapons of mass havoc.

So we all have "skin in the game" -- beyond mere compassion.


Jed Rothwell said...

You wrote:

"Or we could discover a something like 'cold fusion', except it would have to work.

It does work. It was replicated by hundreds of laboratories such as Los Alamos and Mitsubishi, and these replications were published in about 1,000 peer-reviewed papers in leading journals. See:

By 1992, cold fusion produced power density and temperatures as high as a fission reactor core. The reaction cannot controlled at present, but experts in the Navy recently estimated that this problem could be solved for roughly $300 million based on their experience developing similar solid state devices.

If cold fusion can be controlled it will lower the cost of energy by a factor of 100 at first, and later 10,000 or so, and it will provide trillions of times more energy than fossil fuel and uranium reserves. It could be deployed quickly because it does not require an energy delivery infrastructure.

- Jed Rothwell

Jed Rothwell said...

By the way, I wrote an e-book showing how cold fusion, combined with other technologies, can solve problems such food production. Using present day Japanese food factory technology, we could grow all of the food consumed in the U.S. in an area the size of greater New York City, with virtually no impact on the environment and no depletion of resources.


This book was recommended by my late friend and mentor Arthur C. Clarke and by many distinguished professors, so have a look. It is fun to read.

You can see a photo of Clarke with his pet dinosaur in our News section.

- Jed Rothwell