Sunday, March 23, 2014

malthus interrruptus

Here is something I wrote a while back in response to an article link that was sent to me.

Here is the article, and my response follows.

I’ll start off by presuming this article is serious, and not an onion rip off.

Assuming that, this guy is a cretin and wrong on so many levels. BTW- Casey you shit- getting us riled up at random intervals gratifies what twisted urge?

First, Malthus was mostly wrong, but not entirely. A key issue he did not consider, or even know about, was the multiplier effect of fossil fuels in man’s ability to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The coal fired Industrial Revolution was just getting going when he wrote, so its effect in agriculture and human logistics was still in its infancy.

Taking this in to account, the Malthusian trap is not eliminated, but merely delayed and made worse by much greater population overshoot. (Google St. Matthew Island reindeer for an extreme example of what population overshoot can look like)

Here are a few logic and factual problems with the article.

Extrapolation of trends without justifying that the trend will stay linear.

Extrapolation of trends without understanding the relationship of all the dependent and independent variables.

Ignoring or not defining or not understanding boundary conditions in establishing the status and future state of the system.

Here is a good one from his article:

"The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet."

Ummm- His logic would make one think that since individually, physics, chemistry and biology can’t explain human sustenance, we must rely on social science to do so. No, we must take ALL OF THEM in to account. And by the way, add one more- ecology. While the word “Ecology” has been politicized, oversimplified and overused, it really is one of the sciences, and the principle one to use in understanding just how much of the biomass pie we humans can get away with taking without crashing the system.

An implicit assumption of his is that the ecosystem can be modified and shifted to man’s ends without potential for upsetting its stability. On a small level, there is plenty of resiliency in the system so that we can acquire a large fraction of the biomass  with reasonable sustainability . However, the ecosystem is a SYSTEM, and the constituent parts work together in a mutually beneficial balance that has taken millions of years to develop. Changing the entire planet to a vast single acreage of corn, to exaggerate, would cause collapse. Where that line is beyond which the tipping point occurs we do not know. To continue in that direction without knowing is one definition of hubris.

He takes a simple observation, that man has been able to leverage his intelligence to get more biomass for his use than would otherwise naturally occur, and tries to use this as justification that this trend can continue indefinitely and he can therefore completely “delink” from the dependency on the energy flows of the natural world. Good luck with that.

OK, so let’s examine some evidence. Granted that crop production has trended up for decades, and the increased population is evidence that sufficient energy is being harvested that populations continue to climb. However, many indicators are flashing red, and no solutions I know of are in the pipeline. Here are a few.
World fisheries are in collapse. This source of protein is declining.
Irrigated cropland has depleted many aquifers, resulting in less production, and in some cases, desertification. Many more are nearing depletion, including here in the U.S.
Topsoil continues to be lost throughout the world, even in many areas of the U.S. that have switched to no till methods.
                Phosphorus, a key fertilizer, is nearing depletion in the next 20-40 years at current rates of use.
                ALL modern high production agriculture is fossil fuel dependent. Crude has been bouncing around the $100/barrel range for over two years, and that price signal has not brought enough oil in to the market. This is an indicator that oil is not likely to go down to past prices without prior massive demand destruction. This means that the cost of food most probably has a new, higher basement level, with attendant disruption (Arab Spring, anyone?) It also means that we are most probably at peak oil, meaning that food production cannot continue to climb through increased fuel use, but only through improved fuel efficiency. Political winds aren’t blowing in that direction here in the U.S. these days.

                There are multiple sources listing other key indicators that are trending in bad directions. I won’t chase any more down for now. The point is, this guy was able to put a shit opinion article in “the newspaper of record”, and apparently the editors were ok with it.

Coincidentally, the latest entry on the “Do the Math” website is rather timely, and gives lie to the notion that overpopulation is a third world problem.
(ya gotta read the whole thing.)

OK, rant off.