05 Oct 2009: Opinion

The Other Inconvenient Truth:
The Crisis in Global Land Use

As the international community focuses on climate change as the great challenge of our era, it is ignoring another looming problem — the global crisis in land use. With agricultural practices already causing massive ecological impact, the world must now find new ways to feed its burgeoning population and launch a "Greener" Revolution.

by jonathan foley

It’s taken a long time, but the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. While enormous technical, policy, and economic issues remain to be solved, there is now widespread acceptance of the need to confront the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Collectively, we are beginning to acknowledge that our long addiction to fossil fuels — which has been harming our national security, our economy and our environment for decades — must end. The question today is no longer why, but how. The die is cast, and our relationship to energy will never be the same.

Unfortunately, this positive shift in the national zeitgeist has had an unintended downside. In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

Although I’m a climate scientist by training, I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting another, equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.

Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, feed, fiber, and, increasingly, biofuels. Without a highly efficient, productive, and resilient agricultural system, our society would collapse almost overnight.

But we are demanding more and more from our global agricultural systems, pushing them to their very limits. Continued population growth
The massive environmental impacts of our agricultural practices rival the impacts of climate change.
(adding more than 70 million people to the world every year), changing dietary preferences (including more meat and dairy consumption), rising energy prices, and increasing needs for bioenergy sources are putting tremendous pressure on the world’s resources. And, if we want any hope of keeping up with these demands, we’ll need to double, perhaps triple, the agricultural production of the planet in the next 30 to 40 years.

Meeting these huge new agricultural demands will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. At present, it is completely unclear how (and if) we can do it.

If this wasn’t enough, we must also address the massive environmental impacts of our current agricultural practices, which new evidence indicates rival the impacts of climate change. Consider the following:

Ecosystem degradation. Already, we have cleared or converted more than 35 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, whether for croplands, pastures or rangelands. In fact, the area used for agriculture is nearly 60 times larger than the area of all of the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystems than agriculture. What will happen to our remaining ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, if we need to double or triple world agricultural production, while simultaneously coping with climate change?

Freshwater decline. Across the globe, we already use a staggering 4,000 cubic kilometers of water per year, withdrawn from our streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. Of this, 70 percent is used for irrigation, the single biggest use of water, by far, on the globe. As a result, many large rivers
The use of agricultural fertilizers and chemicals has fundamentally upset the chemistry of the planet.
have greatly reduced flows and some routinely dry up. Just look at the Aral Sea, now turned to desert, or the mighty Colorado River, which no longer sends any water to the ocean, for living proof. And the extraction of water from deep groundwater reserves is almost universally unsustainable, and has resulted in rapidly declining water tables in many regions of the world. Future water demands from increasing population and agricultural consumption will likely climb between 4,500 and 6,200 cubic kilometers per year, hugely compounding the impacts of climate change, especially in arid regions.

Widespread pollution. Agriculture, particularly the use of industrial fertilizers and other chemicals, has fundamentally upset the chemistry of the entire planet. Already, the use of fertilizers has more than doubled the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in the environment, resulting in widespread water pollution and the massive degradation of lakes and rivers. Excess nutrient pollution is now so widespread, it is even contributing to the disruption of coastal oceans and fishing grounds by creating hypoxic “dead zones,” including one in the Gulf of Mexico. Given our current practices, future increases in food demand will dramatically increase water pollution and ecosystem destruction through agricultural effluent. Ironically, the fertilizer runoff from farmlands compromises another crucial source of food: coastal fishing grounds.

Greenhouse gas emissions. Last, but certainly not least, land use is also one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Of the three most important man-made greenhouse gasses — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — land use and agricultural practices, including tropical
Providing for the needs of 9 billion people, without ruining the biosphere, will be one of the greatest challenges we have ever faced.
deforestation, emit 30 percent of the total. That’s more than the emissions from all the world’s passenger cars, trucks, trains and planes, or the emissions from all electricity generation or manufacturing. Compared to any other human activity, land use and agriculture are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses. The vast majority comes from deforestation, methane emissions from animals and rice fields, and nitrous oxide emissions from heavily fertilized fields. Yet, for some reason, agriculture has been largely able to avoid the attention of emissions reductions policies.

The list of environmental impacts from agricultural land use goes on and on — and clearly threatens human well-being and the health of the biosphere as much as global warming. In fact, in a recent paper in Nature, a number of us documented “planetary boundaries" where large-scale environmental changes could result in catastrophic tipping points. Of those changes, an equal number were tied to climate change and CO2 emissions as were connected to land-use and agriculture.

From these newly revealed facts, it’s clear that we must consider multiple inconvenient truths. The future of our civilization and our planet requires that we simultaneously address the grand challenges of climate change and land use, ultimately finding new ways to meet the needs of our economy, our security and the environment. Anything less will be a complete catastrophe.

So, what are the solutions to the global land crisis? Here are just a few to start with:

First, acknowledge the problem. Even in circles of well-informed scientists and agricultural experts, the notion that our land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global environmental threat comes as a big surprise. Clearly we need to have a larger international conversation about this issue, on par with the recent efforts of the climate change community and Al Gore, to give it the attention it deserves.

Invest in revolutionary agricultural solutions. The Obama administration has invested billions of dollars into new energy technology, research and infrastructure, and aggressive plans for new climate mitigation policies are being developed. These strategies are important, but I wonder where the stimulus funding for new “out of the box” agricultural research is? Where are we investing public dollars in revolutionary approaches to feeding the world, while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture? These might include the development of new hybrid crops, designed to use water and nitrogen more efficiently, or the invention of perennial crops that don't need to be planted every year. Don’t such ideas count as national priorities, too? Can’t we afford to launch a “Greener” Revolution?

Bridge the artificial divide between production agriculture and environmental conservation. We cannot solve these problems by boosting agricultural production at the expense of the environment, nor can we ignore the growing need for food in the name of preserving natural

More from Yale e360

New Study Warns of
Crossing Planetary Boundaries

The Earth has nine biophysical thresholds beyond which it cannot be pushed without disastrous consequences, the authors of a paper in the journal Nature report. Ominously, these scientists say, we have already moved past three of these tipping points, Carl Zimmer writes.

Nature Report a Reminder
of the Limits to Growth

It has been more than 30 years since a groundbreaking book predicted that if growth continued unchecked, the Earth’s ecological systems would be overwhelmed within a century. Bill McKibben writes that the new Nature study should serve as an eleventh-hour warning that cannot be ignored.
ecosystems. Instead, we must find ways to simultaneously increase production of our agricultural systems while greatly reducing their environmental impacts. This is not going to be easy. Yet, drawing on the lessons from recent research, including the successes and failures of local organic practice, combined with the efficiency and scalability of commercial agriculture, will be crucial. In recent years, for example, U.S. farmers — working with agricultural experts — have dramatically improved practices in the corn and soybean belt, cutting down on erosion, nutrient loss, and groundwater pollution, even as yields have continued to increase. As a first step, advocates of environmental conservation, organic farming and commercial agriculture all need to put down their guns and work toward solving the problems of food security and the environment — with everyone at the table.

Providing for the basic needs of 9 billion-plus people, without ruining the biosphere in the process, will be one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from all over the world, embarked on one of the noblest causes in history.

But the first step is admitting we have more than one problem.

POSTED ON 05 Oct 2009 IN Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability Asia North America North America 

COMMENTS


Outstanding world view of evolving realities.

Thank you for helping to frame for consumption the truth that is pressing down on all of us.

In your analysis, please don't forget the overwhelming impact of natural gas extraction now spreading across the US and globe: open venting of mega-tons of methane as well as its depletion (millions of gallons per well) of fresh ground and surface water.

This website (my own) can offer more insight into true environmental impacts: journeyoftheforsaken.com

Posted by L. Bracken on 05 Oct 2009


Dr. Foley,

You've made some excellent points here, including your comment that we are faced with a multitude of converging problems, not just one.

However, I think the real inconvenient truth that everyone has denied, including Al Gore, is peripherally touched on by you: population growth. You noted that we are adding more than 70 million people to the world's population each year, but that number is really at or very close to 80 million. Since 2000 we've added more than 700 million people to the world, almost twice the population of the U.S.

You are correct to note that it is going to be difficult to feed 9 billion people in 2050, but there is NO reason why we need to have that many people. It is a projection, not a given or a rule.

It took all of human history and prehistory, up until about 1830, to reach a world population of one billion. We've added nearly 6 billion more since then and it now takes us, if nothing changes, only a dozen years or so to add each new billion.

Rather than trying to feed those additional billions, which may become ever harder as oil prices remain high and oil production increases slow or even turn into declines, we need to look at the demand side--people.

Aside from driving an economic system that assumes growth as a fundamental, why not contemplate modifications to our current, some might say insane, modern neoclassical economic model. Maximizing the number of humans on the planet seems an absurd goal for any system and those many problems that you mentioned all hint at the notion that human population growth may be reaching limits. In biological terms, our population may already have overshot Earth's carrying capacity, much to the detriment of the rest of Earth's living things.

I certainly realize that controlling our numbers is both an unpopular suggestion and a difficult row to hoe. Charles Galton Darwin wrote an essay about how difficult that might be in 1959 (when the population was just reaching 3 billion). He concluded that "I am very fully conscious that the views I have expressed run entirely counter to many of the optimistic hopes of the present age. I myself see little prospect of escape from the return to hard conditions of life...."

Oil production reached a peak in the U.S. in 1970, when our population was just over 200 million. Subsequently, oil production has declined steadily and we've added another 107 million people. The simple result is that we have had to import more and more oil to meet the demand of our growing population, rather than having adjusted our population size to our ability to produce oil. With respect to that resource, and many others as well, including our egregious production of greenhouse gases, the U.S. population is in serious and unsustainable overshoot. Rather than controlling our population, our response so far has been to scour the world for more petroleum, no matter what the social or environmental costs might be.

Because Americans are the worst offenders, with less than 5% of the world's population using 25% or more of the world's energy and other resources, the U.S. would be the best place to start a serious program to reduce its population. If each American female were allowed a single child, for example, our future population would gradually decline, as would our need for imported oil, food, water, etc.

We could set an example for the rest of the world. As Alan Weisman suggested in The World Without Us, "The intelligent solution [to the population growth problem] would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every female on Earth capable of bearing children to one." If started now, he noted, we would have about 1.6 billion people in 2100, about the number we had in 1900. That number would take considerable pressure off of the world's natural resources but it would make economists cringe.
Posted by Gary Peters on 06 Oct 2009


Just wanted to thank Gary Peters and second his views. It is extremely disheartening to hear, as I did a few days ago on an NPR report, Russia's declining population being described exclusively as a problem. Yes, there are social challenges that come with an aging workforce, but there are also creative solutions that don't involve bribing women to have more children (as Russia is currently doing). And there are definite gains in environmental quality and, I daresay, in the quality of human life that come with a non-precipitous decline in population.

As Peters says, until we address the "demand" side we won't get very far. Where I disagree with him, perhaps, is in the method of inducing fertility reduction (at least here in the US): rather than a Chinese-like ceiling on fertility, which is extremely unlikely within our system, a better course is tax reform that penalizes, or at least doesn't reward, having more children. Perhaps something like a tax break for 1 child, loss of that break with a second child, and graduated increases in taxes for all children after that.

It is already costly, on a personal financial basis, for parents to have lots of kids. Anything that accentuates that will help.
Posted by Dave Harmon on 07 Oct 2009


Dear Dave, Gary and L. Braken,

I just wanted to write a quick thank you note for your excellent comments on my essay. These are all excellent points.

Best Regards,

Jonathan Foley
University of Minnesota
Posted by Jonathan Foley on 07 Oct 2009


Dave,

I agree that serious changes in U.S. tax laws could be used to discourage the birth of many children. In addition to your suggestion, I would add tax benefits for couples without children and for single women who remain childless.

I remember a couple of years back when the population of the U.S. reached 300 million. The New York Times wrote an editorial not just celebrating that figure but also looking forward to the day when we would reach 400 million. Our absurd fascination with MORE has to cease, and the sooner the better.

These words from Garrett Hardin, an eminent ecologist, make the point as clearly as possible:

Don't speak to me of shortage. My world is vast
And has more than enough--for no more than enough.
There is a shortage of nothing, save will and wisdom;
But there is a longage of people.


Posted by Gary Peters on 07 Oct 2009


While I understand that it might be nice if the world had fewer people, I suspect one reason overpopulation has not been high on either the political or rhetorical agenda is because of the impossibility of restricting population growth without resorting to inconceivable means. What society would be capable of limiting each female to one child? It would require a military dictatorship perhaps worst than any seen for centuries.

Dave Harmon's solution is more modest (although perhaps politically unlikely) but I wonder if it would have any appreciable impact. Firstly, population growth is not a problem in the developed world, and "tax breaks" are a developed world solution. Second, tax breaks are going to be at best a marginal solution. Perhaps you could drop family size from 2.1 to 2.0. Keep in mind that many people do not pay any tax, and that the wealthy are unlikely to care so there is only a small set of the middle class who might be shifted slightly toward non-breeding.
Posted by daniel read on 08 Oct 2009


An excellent article. Your collaboration on the planetary boundaries is a much-needed broad-based wake up call.

But I'm astonished that nowhere in this article, or in all the thoughtful commentary, do we discuss consumption patterns. Yes, our current practice/technology needs improvement, and growing population is a problem, though it is looking like we will stabilize soon.

But nobody mentions that an intensive production meat-based diet uses an order of magnitude more resources than a vegetarian diet, whether the resource in question is water, fertilizers, pesticides, energy/GHGs -- pick your favourite variable. Not to mention waste local management problems.

The same blind spot predominates the climate debates, where our consumption patterns are simply not up for discussion. Poor nations like India and those in sub-Saharan Africa are blamed for population growth even as they emit something like 1/20th the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the average OECD citizen. Or we focus immediately on technology, assuming population and consumption are immutable.

The hard reality is that even if we reduce population and improve technology, the entire world cannot choose a Western meat-based diet - we don't have enough water or arable land, and the waste/pollution implications are untenable.

Why isn't this part of the discussion?
Posted by Aaron Cosbey on 08 Oct 2009


Daniel,

As I originally stated, confronting the issue of population growth is not easy. China's one-child policy, though not perfect, has helped it curb its population growth and probably helped it enter its modern era of rapid economic growth.

We won't do that here, but we could do more to discourage growth. You suggest that growth is not a problem in the developed countries, but I disagree. The U.S. population is currently growing by about 239,000 per month or 2.9 million per year, and we are the world's greatest consumer of resources. Evidence suggests that birth rates are also rising in some Western European nations, also huge resource consumers. Population growth in high-consumption nations is much more serious for environmental and resource issues than is population growth in the poorest nations.

Our chosen alternative, it seems to me, is to grow until we hit some kind of wall. Economists assure us that that is not a problem, but ecologists are far more concerned. Climate change, air pollution, shortages of water and food, deforestation and a long list of other problems will all be exacerbated by future population growth.

If we were to do nothing more right now than help every couple to achieve their desired family size, population growth would slow considerably. Some studies have shown that tens of millions of births annually are unwanted.

Aaron,

Right you are, and I at least hinted at this by noting the horrendous level of consumption in the U.S. and suggesting that population growth should be curtailed here first.

You suggested that "it is looking like we will stabilize [population] soon, but I don't know what makes you say that. The U.N. currently is projecting a population of around 9.2 billion by 2050 and growth for at least several decades after that. If that growth materializes, then we must deal with an additional 2.4 billion people in the next four decades.

All of these things, including population growth, should be on the table. It makes no sense to assume population will continue to grow then try to feed, cloth, house, educate, and find jobs for additional billions of residents, most of whom will be condemned to lives of poverty, hardship, and despair so long as we do not change our current neoclassical economic system.


Posted by Gary Peters on 08 Oct 2009


I agree with the many above comments... We do have to limit population AND consume less AND use less land for agriculture. HOW we limit population and HOW we use less in all areas of our lives is the biggest question. No one wants to give up their lifestyle in the USA; perhaps it will have to be forced upon us, shamed on us when we know what we are leaving to our children.

I would like to hear Dr. Foley's comments then on the work that Monsanto is doing to use less fertilizer, water, land, etc.
Posted by Barbara on 09 Oct 2009


Daniel,

Thanks for your comments. My idea about tax breaks (which Gary usefully extended in his reply to me) is, of course, not the whole of an answer. But as Gary responded to you, population growth is still very definitely a problem in the developed world, and it precisely because of Aaron's point about consumption that we need to start moving toward, not stabilization, but planned contraction.

This, in fact, is the solution that demographers and environmentalists and policymakers need to start talking about: how can we rationally induce a non-precipitous (I would bold that word if I could) decline to population levels of ... well, pick a year. 1950? 1960? 1980?

It is the same rationale as pushing to bring the climate back to 350 ppm.
Posted by Dave Harmon on 09 Oct 2009


I agree that agriculture is the key component to the environmental problems we face today. A lot of the solutions to our current agricultural system also will ease the burden of global warming. I wish they'd ban genetically engineered plants, pesticides and agricultural nano technology. I wish farmers would learn how to use water more effectively. I wish farmers would learn about soil conservation (wasnt the first dust bowl bad enough?) I wish we'd work with native plants more and I wish seed saving and homestead plant breeding was done more often. I live in a drought prone area so I plan on using the most sustainable land use strategies when I have a farm one day. I hope farmers can see the success of sustainable farming practices and walk away from expensive and destructive conventional agriculture before the food shortages start.
Posted by krissy on 11 Oct 2009


In the article, "Instead, we must find ways to simultaneously increase production of our agricultural systems while greatly reducing their environmental impacts."

Fortunately, we already have the technology: Permaculture. Permaculture is being used worldwide to create enormous food abundance by designing landscapes to mimic and integrate into natural systems. Permaculture techniques are even bringing life and productivity back to the Jordan desert after centuries of barrenness.

Combined with relocalization of food production, I believe Permaculture offers the best opportunity for food security and environmental restoration for the world's burgeoning population.

A summary here: http://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/2009/09/17/you-can-fix-all-the-worlds-problems-in-a-garden/
Posted by Dawn Gifford on 11 Oct 2009


The posters who discuss over-population as a primary problem are spot on. While populations of developing countries have low rates of emissions, they nevertheless destroy other resources in their efforts to feed themselves, which interlocks with land-use issues. Subsistence farming and grazing by an overly large population in a poor country is as detrimental as industrialized farming in richer countries. Thus controlling population seems to be a key strategy in all efforts to curb global warming and prevent and reverse environmental degradation, while--of course--reducing energy use and consumption and improving agricultural and land use practices.

Let's not forget that when women have unfettered, non-coercive access to education and to reproductive health care, including family planning and birth control, birth rates decline within a context of variably-sized family units. This has been shown over and over again.

There are plenty of positive ways to encourage smaller family sizes without forbidding each female to have more than one child. (Just to be provocative, why not target the men? How about only allowing each man to have one child, regardless of number of partners? We could check every child's paternity through DNA testing and men convicted of fathering more than one would face harsh penalties. Then we wouldn't have to "waste" money on women's health care and education. :) )

Seriously, the question should be: "how can we best improve land use while bringing about population reduction in a humane fashion so that earth systems can stabilize and eventually recover?"
Posted by Adrian on 12 Oct 2009


Interesting article, but it misses the 800 lb. gorilla issue. The increase in food production comes from a massive increase in the use of fossil fuels. At the turn of the 20th century, a farmer could produce 3 calories of food energy for every one calorie invested. Now that ratio is 10:1, THE OTHER WAY. Yes, 10 calories of energy are invested to produce one calorie of food. This massive deficit is backfilled through the use of fossil fuels. As economist Jeff Rubin points out, "..modern agriculture is nothing more than the massive conversion of fossil fuels to food."

The question needs to be rephrased as "how can we maintain this level of energy usage to feed the growing population?" There are plenty of reasons to conserve energy and use it wisely, but global warming is not one of them, as climate change is a natural part of the evolution of a dynamic planet.

Al Gore's pronouncements on climate change are those of a simpleton at best and a charlatan at worst. He was well aware that hard data undermined his slideshow and chose to present a distorted and misleading view that has now morphed and warped society. He is no scientist, and holding him up as one of your positive examples is equally misleading.

Time to drop politics and focus on science; you are behind the curve.


Posted by Shoshin on 12 Oct 2009


Consumption, overpopulation, unsustainable agriculture.

I am glad to hear people like Dr. Foley at least starting to talk about something that is a potential threat rather than the fabrication of fear that is the AGW phenomenon.

But even those fears are alarmist nonsense. Our population is leveling off, fossil fuel consumption is levelling off, and the fears of overpopulation and overconsumption are as foolish now as they were in the '70s. Please don't bring them back.

What we can do is suggested by Mr. Foley - agriculture research into a new "green" revolution - "greener" if you want because it is a good thing to protect the environment while producing our food, although the latter is of paramount import.

Posted by David Borth on 13 Oct 2009


David Borth,

You speak devoid of facts. World population growth is not leveling off--we currently add around 80 million people to our population each year.

World fossil fuel consumption is not leveling off either, though in the short run it has been cut back because of the worldwide recession. Though traditional oil production may now have leveled off, both coal and natural gas consumption figures are rising.

As Pat Moynihan suggested decades ago, you are welcome to your own opinion but not your own facts.
Posted by Gary Peters on 14 Oct 2009


I just wanted to say a quick thank you to everyone who wrote a comment on this article. Very interesting and thoughtful points.

Rather than respond to all of them here (that would take several pages!), I wanted to acknowledge these important ideas and say that I will be writing some follow-up essays in the coming months. The points raised about population versus consumption as the "elephant in the room" are especially interesting, and deserve more attention than I can give them here.

I think we'd all agree that the nexus of land use, agriculture, population and environment are critical to the future of our world, and need more attention.

Best Regards,

Jonathan Foley
University of Minnesota
Posted by Jonathan Foley on 14 Oct 2009


Article and comments are moving in a good direction. However, I have little faith in "reasonable solutions" alone. For the past 15 years, I've said, unreasonably, that land use determines the state of the environment. My conviction was based on intuition.

I appreciate Mr. Foley's reasonable corroboration, but I think we'll also have to use other parts of our being in order to steer the world into a messy and chaotic future that is nevertheless survivable for most.

One commenter advocates humane population reduction. Good. But that doesn't preclude extremely radical reduction. I think it can be achieved by a sea change, an evolutionary leap, in human consciousness. For one thing, more collective ways of doing things that ensure cradle-to grave sustenance for every human being makes the passion for reproduction (and the kinds of relationships that foster it) subside. For another, national consciousness must give way to global consciousness.

It should really be easy, but for some reason isn't, to think of the planet as a not-so-big ball that is best viewed, planned and governed as a seamless whole.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 17 Oct 2009


Thanks Jonathan
Two brief comments:

1. Consider also low tech options; such as managing herding animals to mirror nature - and in so doing naturally sequestering carbon (back) into our global rangeland soils

2. There is an epic battle underway 'down-under' in the Liverpool Plains region of New South Wales to save some of the best agricultural soils on the planet from being ripped apart for coal mines.
Posted by Phillip Diprose on 18 Oct 2009


Trevor Burrows wrote:
"For one thing, more collective ways of doing things that ensure cradle-to grave sustenance for every human being makes the passion for reproduction (and the kinds of relationships that foster it) subside."

Frankly, I have no clue what this means, but I do know that we need to find a way to curtail the infinite reproduction loop we're on. Trevor, can you get more specific? Can you tell me why people feel they need to have more than 2 children? Is it an ego thing?

And I would also like to respond to Gary Peters about Moynihan's quote re people not being entitled to facts. How do we convince the undereducated red states that climate change is a fact when those who seek to delude them refute the facts with impunity??
Posted by E Eddy on 22 Oct 2009


TO: E Eddy

Since I think everybody must be involved in the solutions, which will differ according to culture and geography, I don't claim to possess THE specific answer.

In the U.S., I'd suggest we need:

1) Universal health care with a healthy dose of preventive medicine.

2) Universal right to shelter. This does not mean living in a palace, but instead basic shelter.

3) Universal access to food production. Community gardens, if nothing else , and food-growing information.

4) Everyone to fall within the purview of a community-planning program that includes old-age assistance programming.

People feel the need to have children because they want to ensure that there is someone to look after them when they get old. There are many other reasons as well, ego needs among them, but I want to emphasize basic survival (addressed above) here.

As a society (state), we might also consider getting out of the marriage business. Let people marry whomever they please, but why sanction these unions through the state? The state might instead merely sanction civil unions among people, whatever their gender.

As a culture we can do a lot to support (physically and psychologically) childless unions.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 22 Oct 2009


"Let's not forget that when women have unfettered, non-coercive access to education and to reproductive health care, including family planning and birth control, birth rates decline within a context of variably-sized family units. This has been shown over and over again."

This is probably one of the comments most grounded in reality in relation to population growth. The idea of tax breaks seems likely to influence very few people, especially in the U.S., as most of the population growth is occurring in minority (soon to be majority) groups that are often undereducated. In addition to improved education, access to basic health care and especially low-cost birth control pills would have a much greater impact. For women have control over their reproductive ability at an affordable price - as the pill is much more affordable to those with health insurance - could have a greater impact on population issues than a mandate or a tax break that doesn't target the right population.
Posted by Faith on 23 Oct 2009


Another excellent article at Yale 360.

Let's try to tie together all the environmental problems and look at what a successful, sustainable worldwide society will look like now, and 100, 200, 1000 years down the road.

In the long run, you cannot have populations that exceed the carrying capacity of their specific locale. We can get away with it now because cheap fossil fuels allow us to transport food across the globe. This will have to end. The era of "food largely obtained from sources 1000 miles away" is just a flash in the pan, totally unsustainable in the long run. In the long-term, food will be obtained from within a relatively small radius from one's home. That's how it's always been done.

The same goes for water and all other crucial resources necessary to sustain life. Some things, like special tools and certain materials or goods, might well be transported greater distances like they have been historically. Food -- no. Water -- no. Building materials -- no.

That means no more Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, or vast LA megalopis. No more overpopulated Somalia and other poverty-stricken 3rd world countries that have become dependent on international aid.

The sooner we revert to local self-sustenance with a reasonable amount of international trade, the more death and suffering we will be able to avert. Populations must be capped at levels sustainable for the LOCAL ecosystem. Any effective measures -- no matter how politically incorrect and repugnant to our moral senses -- are better than no measures, allowing the population to continue to grow unchecked and thus endangering the entire civilization.

We should be funding vast population reduction programs in overpopulated countries, distributing contraceptives, pamphlets, etc. and making all foreign aid contingent upon the government fulfilling an obligation to cap population at a level such that the country can support itself sustainably within a few years.

I'm sorry, but feeding starving people and allowing them to reproduce in an overpopulated location is immoral. With food aid should come forced sterilization or its quantitative equivalent.

Within the U.S., energy and water prices need to be raised either by taxing consumers or by taxing producers. Money raised needs to be directed towards developing the infrastructure to replace our current wasteful infrastructure based on unsustainable individual consumption and automobile usage. People need to go back to sustainable living models -- that is, either living very compactly in dense towns (e.g. the center of any old European town) or living in a rural setting where one's resources come from the land one lives on.

We can easily consume 90% fewer resources without suffering a real loss of quality of life. Quantity of "stuff" -- yes. But research shows that happiness is largely independent of consumption levels.

Our current societal model is "economo-centric." It has seemed like a great model until the last 50 years or so. Now we clearly see its weaknesses -- we are technically "the land of the free," but in actuality free only in a certain way, while enjoying less of other types of freedom. To test the limits of freedom in the U.S., just try to obtain a small parcel of land within walking distance of your job, build a little shack with a garden in back, and work just enough to cover basic expenses for food, clothes, tools, and the occasional book or beer. Ludicrous! We are roped into an economical system that requires us constantly consume and produce. This must change.

Our _government_ may not be authoritarian, but our society is run by corporations, which govern us in more subtle ways. The whole rules of the economic 'game' need to change. No more focus on GDP!! Rather, "Gross Happiness Index" or something like that. Just think what we could achieve if happiness, not economic growth, were the focus of administrative policy.

Now, some will argue that we can continue our current lifestyle (why??) by harnessing alternate energy sources. This, too, has problems that I have never heard addressed. Suppose we cover vast areas of land with solar panels to try to maintain our current consumption levels. It'll affect the albedo of the Earth so as to perpetuate global warming. Doh!!! Even if we direct sunlight from space onto power plants on the Earth, we're essentually directing even more heat from the sun onto our planet, thus continuing to warm it up. Whoops!! Same with nuclear power -- it just converts potential energy into heat. Greenhouse gases are but one way to heat the Earth.

So, my point is... there is no way of escaping the reality that things cannot continue as they are now. The changes required go very deep -- even to the heart of our paradigms about what a good society should be like.

Posted by Rick DeLong on 13 Nov 2009


I enjoyed Rick DeLong's post. I would, however, caution against the uncritical promotion of population control in poor countries. Those are the countries that have the smallest global-warming footprint, after all. And what about their need for cheap drugs to ward of unnecessary diseases? Should poor people be allowed to die so as to reduce population?

What about the relationship of poverty to overpopulation? Well educated people with enough to eat, and where women are empowered, tend not to over procreate.

Poor Third World communities need the same land-use remedies as do rich countries: all the things Rick DeLong suggests, like locally procured food and shelter, or the ability to walk to work.

The main article suggests that we've overlooked land-use planning as a key determinant of environmental and social degradation. I'd wager that the upcoming global summit on climate change gives scant, if any, attention to land use planing.

In our current wired planet, Earth has become a village -- incredibly small. Why has there not been a global land-use survey that begins to explore the issues around land use planning as if the planet were a seamless whole?

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 13 Nov 2009


Dear Mr. Jonathan Foley:

In view of this central challenge that you addressed in the article and that is yet emerging to challenge humanity, what is your take regarding the specter of “land grab" that has been called "neo-colonial", and "agro imperialism" experts and commentators alike?. Middles eastern and Asian countries are scrambling for land in Africa as we speak; buying millions of hectares of land In Ethiopia, my home country, a land equivalent to the size of Belgium has been sold to these countries and their companies under dubious terms. Among the most serious challenge they pose is the negative implications for the environment as their agricultural practices are known to have a harmful impact on the environment not to mention many other negative consequences which are outlined in your illumination article.

Posted by Neamin Zeleke on 28 Dec 2009


The import of the claim that solar variations influenced climate was now reversed. Critics had used the claim to oppose regulation of greenhouse gases.

But what if the planet really did react with extreme sensitivity to almost imperceptible changes in the radiation arriving from the Sun?

The planet would surely also be sensitive to greenhouse gas interference with the radiation once it entered the atmosphere.

Posted by Lina on 07 Jan 2010


Another excellent article on Yale 360.

Excellent points raised by Gary about population control & pre-emptive action needed. I come from India, where the population is exploding and the pressure on land use is enormous.
Unlike China, India suffers from govt. apathy, illiteracy and is a democracy. The national birth rate is high & the resultant population explosion puts tremendous pressure on land!

I think, it would be more cost effective to educate people in developing countires about birth control & education in the long run. This would lessen the pressure on land resource's.

I disagree with Rick DeLong's view of forced sterilization of the developing world. It would be interesting to know what his views would be, if he were to undergo "forced sterilization".

Developing communities need the same land-use remedies as do rich countries: like locally procured food and shelter and access to education to all.

The way to tackle land mis-use is by education of communities, tackling birth control and stressing the importance of education of females in developing world and dissemination of health education by village elders & religious guru's to spread the message.

Communities are more likely to be influenced by local elders rather than by draconian measures (which never work in a democracy).

I agree with Trevor Burrowes comment that "Well educated people with enough to eat, and where women are empowered, tend not to over procreate."

Unfortunately, these are long term solutions and we should have addressed them many, many moons ago.

Posted by Abhishek Arora on 17 Jan 2010


Hi Jonathan,

What are your views on vertical farming and also the new proposed method of vertical farming with living space for workers? I hear they are trying to make these buildings 70% effective in terms of energy in to energy out in the 1st year. I think it puts 'living off the land' in a whole new term!

Posted by Gordon McNevin on 20 Jan 2010


Doubling or tripling the agricultural production of the planet in the next 30 to 40 years? So basically to keep up with the demand we would have to do the impossible because to even double hte agricultural production in that short period of time we would need a significant increase in production from countries that are to impoverished to do so.

So instead, should the focus be on lowering the demand?

Posted by John Crosley on 21 Jan 2010


If the recent meeting in Copenhagen regarding the global move to low-emission energy sources, the key overtone seemed to come down to money (profit). That by moving to alternate clean renewable energy, new industry would be a boost to the global economy. I see no difference in the research and development of alternative agricultural practices for the maximization of product grown per square foot (for lack of a better term). It would appear that this could be big business for many companies while producing a better future for our land as a happy bi-product.

Posted by Jim Caruso on 22 Jan 2010


World fossil fuel consumption is not leveling off either, though in the short run it has been cut back because of the worldwide recession. Though traditional oil production may now have leveled off, both coal and natural gas consumption figures are rising.

Mentioning devoid of facts. World population growth is not leveling off--we currently add around 80 million people to our population each year.

As Pat Moynihan suggested decades ago, you are welcome to your own opinion but not your
own facts.

Posted by Mike Piano on 26 Jan 2010


Whether there are other ways besides "We do have to limit population AND consume less AND use less land for agriculture"?

For some countries like Indonesia is difficult to limit the population, I live in Indonesia and I know how fast population growth, especially in Java. No one wants to change their lifestyle.

Posted by Adi on 26 Jan 2010


Global climate change and global warming has increased its awareness in the media the last year because of the assumptions about the criteria behind driving future emissions such as increased world population and the change and advancement with technology. There has not been any policy change to control this situation toward emmission reduction other than the highways signs that endorce carpooling because of ozone alerts. Its our duty to protect mother nature as she protects us. Something needs to be done about this on a world wide global scale, otherwise we will just sit here until we melt away.

Posted by Brian Marshall on 18 Feb 2010


Well, it is true Dan we are having problem in land use, especially for agriculture because the human population grow very quick. Nowadays, most of the land is used for house/apartment or business. This can't be like this, it is dangerous for the environment.

For me, one of the key solution is by managing the population itself, if we could control the population, at least to be the same like the previous year, we won't need additional land to build house, additional food needs, etc.

The other way to solve the food problem is by maximizing the technology so we could still produce enough food in a small farming area.

Posted by Frederik on 26 Mar 2010


It's taken a long time, but the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. While enormous technical, policy, and economic issues remain to be solved, there is now widespread acceptance of the need to confront the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Collectively, we are beginning to acknowledge that our long addiction to fossil fuels — which has been harming our national security, our economy and our environment for decades — must end. The question today is no longer why, but how. The die is cast, and our relationship to energy will never be the same.

Unfortunately, this positive shift in the national zeitgeist has had an unintended downside. In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

Posted by piluz on 01 Apr 2010


The Aral sea is a striking example of the freshwater decline mentioned in the article. Heavy irrigation of the two feeding rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, has led to the Aral sea's decline. The retreat of the sea has caused local climate change: summers to become longer and hotter and winter's are colder and longer.

Posted by John on 24 Apr 2010


Mr Foley,

I agree with the many above comments... We do have to limit population AND consume less AND use less land for agriculture. HOW we limit population and HOW we use less in all areas of our lives is the biggest question. No one wants to give up their lifestyle in North America; perhaps it will have to be forced upon us, shamed on us when we know what we are leaving to our children.

Posted by Al on 08 May 2010


Here in Holland, we have many inhabitants who live on only a small amount of land. This is the reason why we make very good use of our land. Still a large part we use for agricultural activitities. You should come the Netherlands to look how we are allocating our scarce square meter resources.

Posted by Liu Leren on 11 May 2010


You are right to stress that it will be difficult to feed 9 billion people by 2050, but there is no reason why we have so many people. It is a projection, not an act or a rule.

Posted by David Coleman on 02 Jun 2010


"Providing for the needs of 9 billion people, without ruining the biosphere, will be one of the greatest challenges we have ever faced." Especially if Beloved Petrol (BP) and other oil dozers choose "to find new fields" of oil--some people say there is enough food for 16 billion people, but more and more people go hungry because distribution is powered by oil.

How about green energy powered by oil?

Posted by Vorarlberger on 18 Jun 2010


The Aral sea is a striking example of the freshwater decline mentioned in the article. Heavy irrigation of the two feeding rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, has led to the Aral sea's decline. The retreat of the sea has caused local climate change: summers to become longer and hotter and winters are colder and longer.

Posted by ashmax on 10 Jul 2010


Thanks Jonathan
Two brief comments:

I agree with the many above comments... We do have to limit population AND consume less AND use less land for agriculture. HOW we limit population and HOW we use less in all areas of our lives is the biggest question. No one wants to give up their lifestyle in the USA; perhaps it will have to be forced upon us, shamed on us when we know what we are leaving to our children.

All of these things, including population growth, should be on the table. It makes no sense to assume population will continue to grow then try to feed, cloth, house, educate, and find jobs for additional billions of residents, most of whom will be condemned to lives of poverty, hardship, and despair so long as we do not change our current neoclassical economic system.

Posted by King on 31 Jul 2010


The problem of reduced agricultural output is further aggravated because the supply of fresh water for summer irrigation has diminished due to loss of mountain snowpacks and due to increased evaporation from open irrigation reservoirs. The resulting food shortage is further compounded by an increasing human population and by increasing use of agricultural products for biofuels as well as for food. Relatively few people in the industrialized countries realize that continuation of the present use of fossil fuels will result in world wide starvation.

Very few governments are taking this issue seriously. In most cases politicians neither grasp the underlying physics nor the full consequences of failing to promptly make the public policy changes that are necessary to avert a global warming disaster. The existing political responses are at best half measures that may temporarily deceive the public but will not solve the problem. The catastrophic consequences of these inadequate political responses will be born by our children.

Posted by ara @ http://www.arafashion.ro on 08 Aug 2010


I live in SE. Asia and there are very few countries in this vicinity where you cannot already see the devastaing consequences of over population. Those in Europe/USA/Australia have no concept of how populous and huge these countries are. It is rare if not impossible to find a spot where you are the only human being in eyesight, something the west still takes for granted.

Posted by James Trunature on 30 Sep 2010


Whether there are other ways besides "We do have to limit population AND consume less AND use less land for agriculture"?

For some countries like Indonesia is difficult to limit the population, I live in Indonesia and I know how fast population growth, especially in Java. No one wants to change their lifestyle.

Posted by Sattarmalik on 06 Oct 2010


I live in the Western Hemisphere, and although I agree, it's not a on global level that we are confronting over population, we are facing the issue. It's just not publicized the way it should be.....have you ever been to New York?

Posted by Science on 08 Oct 2010


'It's just not publicized the way it should be'

I completely agree, the issue is not been dealt with as effectively as it could be.

Jack

Posted by Jack Cooper on 04 Feb 2011


Climate change and agriculture are interrelated processes, both of which take place on a global scale. Global warming is projected to have significant impacts on conditions affecting agriculture, including temperature, carbon dioxide, glacial run-off, precipitation and the interaction of these elements. These conditions determine the carrying capacity of the biosphere to produce enough food for the human population and domesticated animals. The overall effect of climate change on agriculture will depend on the balance of these effects. Assessment of the effects of global climate changes on agriculture might help to properly anticipate and adapt farming to maximize agricultural production.

Posted by Ernestine Miller on 06 Mar 2011


I think No one wants to give up their lifestyle in North America; perhaps it will have to be forced upon us, shamed on us when we know what we are leaving to our children, thanks for the share....Thanks

Posted by deadbeat revolution on 21 Jul 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
jonathan foleyABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is also a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the institute's Global Landscapes Initiative, which focuses on the nexus of global land use, agriculture and the environment.

 
 

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