Every now and again, it\’s bracing to read a bold essay that makes strong pronouncements with a minimum of hedging. If you\’d like an environmentalist essay along these lines, I recommend \”Nature Rebounds,\” by Jesse H. Ausubel, written for a January 2015 seminar presentation.
Here\’s Ausubel\’s overall perspective:
\”[A]bout 1970 a great reversal began in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature, first in relative and more recently in absolute amounts. A series of decouplings is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production. Changes in behavior and technology liberate the environment.\”
Ausubel on peak farmland (references to figures omitted):
\”Then, in America, in about 1940 acreage and yield decoupled. Since about 1940 American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land. Corn matters because it towers over other crops, totaling more tons than wheat, soy, rice, and potatoes together. Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen, not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water. … The story is precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons. Importantly, the average yield of American farmers is nowhere near a ceiling. …
\”Steadily, the conversion of crops, mostly corn, to meat, has also decoupled, because the meat game is also one in which efficiency matters. From humanity’s point of view, cattle, pigs, and chickens are machines to make meat. A steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60. Statistics for America and the world show that poultry, land’s efficient meat machines, are winning.
\”High grain and cereal yields and efficient meat machines combine to spare land for nature. In fact, we have argued that both the USA and the world are at peak farmland,not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories. … In America alone the total amount of corn fed to cars grows on an area equal to Iowa or Alabama, as mentioned. Think of organizations like the Long Now Foundation turning all those lands that are now pasture for cars into refuges for wildlife, carbon orchards, and parks. The area is about twice the area of all the US national parks outside Alaska. \”
Ausubel on peak forest:
\”Foresters refer to a “forest transition” when a nation goes from losing to gaining forested area. France recorded the first forest transition, about 1830. Since that time French forests have doubled while the French population has also doubled. Forest loss decoupled from population. Measured by growing stock, the USA enjoyed its forest transition around 1950,and measured by area, about 1990. In the USA, the forest transition began around 1900, hen states such as Connecticut had almost
no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.\”
Ausubel on the increase in global biomass:
\”[G]lobal greening … [is] the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more. Researchers are reporting the evidence weekly in papers ranging from arid Australia and Africa to moist Germany and the northernmost woods. Probably the most obvious reason is the increase of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In fact, farmers pump CO2 into greenhouses to make plants grow better. Carbon dioxide is what many plants inhale to feel good. It also enables plants to grow more while using the same or less water. Californians David Keeling and Ralph Keeling have kept superfine measurements of CO2 since 1958. The increasing size of the seasonal cycle from winter when the biosphere releases CO2 to the summer when it absorbs the gas proves there is greater growth on average each year. The increased CO2 is a global phenomenon, potentially enlarging the biosphere in many regions.\”
Ausubel on peak car travel and peak car:
\”[T]ravel in personal vehicles seems to have saturated. America may be at peak car travel. If you buy an extra car, it is probably for fashion or flexibility. You won’t spend more minutes per day driving or drive more miles. Unlike the car companies, I would not bet on selling a lot more cars either. The beginning of a plateau in the population of cars and light trucks on US roads suggests we are approaching peak car. The reason may be that drone taxis will win. The average personal vehicle motors about an hour per day, while a car shared like a Zip Car gets used eight or nine hours per day, and a taxi even more. As venture capitalists here know, driverless cars can work tirelessly and safely and accomplish the present mileage with fewer vehicles.\”
Ausubel on peak child:
\”[G]lobally it appears that Earth is passing peak child. Swedish statistician and physician Hans Rosling estimates that the absolute number of humans born reached about 130 million in 1990 and has stayed around that number since then. With fertility declining all over the world, the number of newcomers should soon fall. While momentum and greater longevity will keep the total population growing, technical progress can counter the likely mouths. A 2 percent annual gain in efficiency can dominate a growth of population at 1 percent or even less.\”
There\’s much more in this short essay, about peak commodity use, how to feed the future world population with fish farming and flavored microorganisms, and how the patterns described here are spreading around the world.
For the record, Ausubel is someone with the professional pedigree to make him worth listening to, even if you feel a need for a dollop of skepticism now and then. He is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, and his background includes being one of the main organizers of the first UN World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. As his bio page says in the report: \”In the late 1990s he helped initiate and then lead the Census of Marine Life, an international observational program to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. Beginning in 2002 he helped found the Barcode of Life Initiative, which provides short DNA sequences that identify animal, plant, and fungal species. During 2006–2007 he served as the founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life project to create a webpage for every species.\”
Homage: I ran across mention of this report at Arnold Kling\’s always interesting askblog website.