|ecoglobe news (24 August 1999)|
The author of the below article makes some very true observations
about the state of our world and the dark perspectives for the near
future. The proposed solution "... new technology is the only
alternative ...", however, is highly questionable,
for ecological and sustainability reasons.
Will Save our Planet
Unless we find better ways to grow food, we'll need to find another planet, warns the CEO of the Monsanto Company.
Without radical change, the kind of world implied by those numbers is unthinkable. It's a world of mass migrations and environmental degradation on an unimaginable scale. At best, it means the preservation of a few islands of privilege and prosperity in a sea of misery and violence.
Simply doing better what we've done in the past won't work. In industrialized countries, the economic system evolved in an era of cheap energy and careless waste disposal, when limits seemed irrelevant. None of us today, whether we're managing a house or running a business, is living in a sustainable way. It's not a question of good guys and bad guys. The whole system has to change, and there's a huge opportunity for reinvention.
Facing the implications of what sustainability requires is no easy task, but we can't avoid it. Here's why.
In the twentieth century, we have been able to feed people by bringing more acreage into production and by increasing productivity through fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. But current agricultural practice isn't sustainable. We've lost something on the order of 15% of our topsoil over the last 20 years, irrigation is increasing the salinity of soil, and the petrochemicals we rely on aren't renewable.
Most arable land is already under cultivation. Attempts to create new farmland are causing severe ecological damage. So in the best case, we have the same amount of land to work with and billions more people to feed. It comes down to resource productivity. We have to get significantly more yield from every acre of land just to maintain current levels of poverty and malnutrition.
Producing these foods places an even heavier burden on the world's farming resources and uses up more land. For instance, cattle not only need space for themselves, but land is also needed for the bay, corn, and feed to get them ready for market. Producing a caloric of cooking oil takes twice as many resources as a calorie of cereals; a calorie of meat takes three to five times as many.
This is why, if the world's population goes up by 75%, the demand for food won't simply go up by the same amount. Some estimate that rising standards of living, fueled by growing personal incomes, will cause it to triple.
Now, even if we wanted to boost food production in an unsustainable way, no technology today would let us double, let alone triple, productivity. With current best practices applied to all the acreage in the world, we'd get about a third of the way toward feeding the whole population. The conclusion is that new technology is the only alternative to one of two disasters: not feeding people - letting the Malthusian process work its magic on the population - or ecological catastrophe.
We all know the effects of starvation. Here's a sense of the ecological implications: Since virtually all the world's good farmland already is under cultivation, most of the new acreage that will be converted to agriculture will be of marginal quality-and consequently crop yields will be lower. This marginal land is often fragile or erodible or supports animals and plants that are part of the earth's rich biodiversity.
Technology will be needed to make sure the yields on all agricultural lands are as high as they can be. The experience of recent decades shows its potential. It's estimated that if we tried to produce the food we grow today using 1960s agricultural techniques, our planet would lose to farming nearly 10 million square miles of wildlife habitat.
Using information is one of the ways to increase productivity without abusing nature. A closed system like the earth's can't withstand a systematic increase of material things, but it can support exponential increases of information and knowledge. If economic development means using more stuff, then those who argue that growth and environmental sustainability are incompatible are right. And if we grow by using more stuff, I'm afraid we'd better start looking for a new planet.
But sustainability and development might be compatible if we create value and satisfy people's needs by increasing the information component of what's produced and, in so doing, diminish the amount of stuff.
Here's an example of how this can work.
With biotechnology, we know how to genetically code a plant to repel or destroy harmful insects. This means we don't have to spray the plant with pesticides - with stuff. Up to 90% of what's sprayed on crops today is wasted. Most of it ends up on the soil. If we put the right genetic information in the plant at the outset, we waste less stuff and increase productivity. It's not that chemicals are inherently bad, but they are less efficient than biology because of the raw materials and energy it takes to make, distribute, and apply them.
I offer a prediction: The early twenty-first century is going to see a struggle between information technology (including blotechnology) on one hand and, environmental degradation on the other. Information technology is going to be our most powerful tool.
The substitution of information for stuff is essential to sustainability.
If we want to avert the total depletion and toxification of our planet, we must reject the growth paradigm. Dramatic reductions of resource use and waste production are possible if we reorganise our ways of living. Regionally organised small scale democratic communities will only require a fraction of the present resources used for transportation, high speed, and all sorts of environmentally and socially harmful activities. We have no other choice than to live more harmoneously with the natural environment. We must again become "organically" integrated in the web of life on which we depend.
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