Angela Kelechi Eluwa is a graduate of Geology from Nigeria, and is currently a Master of Science Student in the Energy and Earth Resources Department at UT Austin.
The human species has been growing exponentially since the World War II. Any population of living creatures is constrained by the availability of food, water, land, or other important resources. Once those resources are depleted, a population won't continue to grow exponentially. It will plateau, or decline, as a result of disease or malnutrition.
The major driver of technology is fossil power (energy/over time). The accumulation of fossil fuels is a slow process that took hundreds of millions of years, yet in just the last few hundred years we have depleted a large percentage of their total accessible endowment.
It can be argued that technological advancement has made a major positive impact on our living conditions like access to clean drinking water, toilet systems, antibiotics, etc. However, technology cannot advance without the use of Earth’s resources. Both renewable and conventional sources of energy are needed to help technology function and grow. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons or coal. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more coal and hydrocarbons for smelting and refining. In turn, without metals and electricity, there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons and coal.
The world’s deserts have an area of about 47 million of square kilometers, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 EJ, which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ.
Annual global energy consumption in 2010 was approximately 665 EJ. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 665/33,000 x 47 million sq km, which is about 947,000 sq km - a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.
In the entire world there are 15,749,300 square kilometers of arable land, this is 11 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population is over 7 billion. Dividing the human population by the area of arable land, we see that there are 444 people per square km of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 4 people per hectare. Less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries are actually within that ratio. In other words, too many people are already supported by non-mechanized agriculture.
With the inevitable depletion of the readily available biotic and abiotic components of the Earth's ecosystems, technology - and all it has to offer - will be available only at a cost, and in that case technology will become the “survival of the richest”. This may be described as the Earth check-mating the greed and excesses of humans. The exploding cost of living in the developing countries serves as a clear indicator.
Ryan Kelkar was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a senior student of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin.
The author of the article “Over Population is Not a Problem” perpetuates the same cognitive dissonance that many people have towards the very large (pun intended) problem of over population. The author of the article makes the fatal flaw of assuming technological advances will always be capable of being ahead of the population reaching its carrying capacity. The flaw associated with this line of thinking is that these technological advances require the depletion of natural resources, and without these resources no technological advances will be able to save us.
For instance, the Haber-Bosch process uses natural gas (or coal in the old days) to create ammonia for fertilizer. This technological advancement had a dramatic effect on the carrying capacity of the earth, as agriculture was able to become more efficient and humans overwhelmed the natural nitrogen cycle by a factor of several. Some estimates are that more than half of the earth’s population would not exist today if it wasn’t for this technological advancement. The author of the article would like the reader to believe that the Haber-Bosch process is another example of a technological advancement staying a head of any impending population problems. However, the flaw in that line of thinking is that the Haber process, while ingenious, requires the use of a finite resource, natural gas. Without natural gas or coal and lots of water, the Haber-Bosch process simply can not work. You may appreciate this circular reasoning of the author: Without fossil fuels and clean water, the Haber-Bosch process can not create fertilizer to sustain the population it itself created. Technological advances are not independent of the fact that they are dependent on resources from earth to sustain them.
The author also ignores the direct correlation that the access to cheap hydrocarbons has had on the earth’s population. At the beginning of the 20th century the global population was around 1.5 billion people and now the population is approximately 7.1 billion people. That is nearly a five-fold increase in the global population. If the author’s assumption that technological advances and human ingenuity alone were the reason for increasing the earth’s carrying capacity then why is it that only in the last century has the population increased so dramatically? Human ingenuity didn’t only begin at the start of the 20th century. The truth is that without the large-scale production of cheap hydrocarbons the population today would be much closer to what it was at the begging of the century (around 2 billion people).
All of this would be perfectly fine if we were able to produce cheap energy forever. Unfortunately, reality is rarely what we would like it to be. The reality is that hydrocarbons are a finite resource that takes millions of years to create, and according to some estimates we have already reached the peak oil production for the world in 2005 and it will only decrease into the future.
Our current population growth comes from humans taking out more and more loans from Mother Earth's natural resources. Nearly half of the people on earth today owe their existence to fossil fuels in some way. Unfortunately, our line of credit with Mother Earth is running out, and eventually she will request the repayment of our giant debt.
Haber and Bosch, 29 july 1999. Web. 25 Sep 2013.
Clark, Josh. "Have We Reached Peak Oil." How Stuff Works, 2110 9 Decemnber 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.
Julio Leva is Ph.D. student of geology at UT Austin, where he came after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in his native Spain. He has lived for short periods of time in several other countries, giving him a good idea on how things change when you are in different places.
Technology, as a key for an improved future, is a recurring topic of science-fiction novels; this is so because history shows that we now have things, we could not have even imagined a generation ago. This experience gives Dr. Ellis the notion that there is no “environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future” since we will certainly find a technological breakthrough that will allow an unceasing expansion of human population, until, I guess, the earth is completely covered with human bodies.
But there are several limitations to the “increased land productivity.” First, in typical crop plants photosynthesis has an abysmal 1-2% efficiency, which limits the maximum amount of food we can produce. Second, modern farming relies on fertilizers. About 50% of our crops are due to commercial fertilizers, which are taking a big toll on our ecosystems. For example, about half of lakes in the U.S. are now eutrophic, meaning that they do not contain enough oxygen to support life. Our dependency on fertilizers, especially inorganic fertilizers, is staggering; this is a direct result of the increasing demand for food for an increasing world population. But in addition to nitrates from natural gas, inorganic fertilizers require large amounts of potash and phosphate rocks which are mined and concentrated. These are not “clean” activities. They require large amounts of energy. According to Dr. Ellis, this is not a problem if we use our technology to mitigate the pollution derived from fertilizer use. Unfortunately, with or without technology, mitigation of agricultural pollution consumes more energy than the energy produced by growing crops in the first place.
Another issue that Dr. Ellis completely overlooks is wealth distribution. The claim that the earth system can sustain an ever-expanding population has to be met with this important question: Sustained with what living standard? Technology is wonderful; our phones are super-smart, our cars very fast, our planes convenient, our electric supply extremely reliable, and our TVs are gigantic. But how are those items in, let’s say, Kalo, a small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with the world’s lowest GDP. Probably not that smart, fast, convenient, reliable or large; in fact these items are not there at all. This is because even today, with our wonderful advanced technology, it is impossible to give all of our toys to everyone in the world. We can look at conditions in Beijing, where people might have the same size TVs but their children must be kept indoors because of air pollution. Is this the life that the planet is going to be able to sustain? Is it worth it?
A third problem is assuming, as Dr. Ellis does, that in fact we can obtain unlimited energy resources. This is lunacy. Humans have extracted energy from plants and animals, which ultimately are solar energy, with increasing efficiency, as Dr. Ellis points out. Then, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans switched to extracting the solar energy concealed in fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, and finally natural gas. The problem is that the amount of recoverable fossil fuels is finite. The rate at which we can extract them is limited, and more importantly it takes more and more energy in the form of fossil fuels to get new fossil fuels. It is not a never-ending, ever-expanding resource; this is an unavoidable fact no matter what technological marvels we might devise. But it may be possible to find a new source of energy; we have after all harnessed (to some extent) the power of the atom and we have built nuclear power plants. These future energy sources are again the stuff of science fiction. The truth is that nuclear power requires fissionable materials that are energetically costly to produce, nuclear fuel mining and refining is highly polluting and leaves behind radioactive waste, and so far we do not know what to do with this waste. It is piling up and becoming more and more expensive to keep in safe conditions. The energy that arrives on earth in the form of solar energy is finite and the amount of energy stored as fossil fuels is finite; these are, unfortunately, facts.
Another important reason why technology cannot support an ever-increasing population is that to create our technological marvels we need to extract materials from the environment and refine them, which will unavoidably create waste in the form of pollution. And no matter what technology we use, including recycling, carbon dioxide sequestration, or increased efficiency, waste materials will be produced. The larger the population of the world, the larger the amount of waste materials and their pernicious effects on our environment will be.
Finite energy and waste creation are two factors that technology cannot overcome. We are thus left with two options: (1) reduce our living standards and allow population to keep growing until living standards are so low that they cannot support life or (2) find a method of population control that results in a manageable population. Either way the result is the same: An ever-increasing population is impossible.