Tony Grift 2015-02-23 23:25:15
Feed the World in 2050 Does Hans Stand a Chance? The November/December 2014 issue of Resource, “Feed the World in 2050—Part I” was intriguing. I thought I knew what poverty meant until I read Robert Zeigler’s article. I was thrilled to see Ken Quinn’s tribute to a true American hero—Norm Borlaug. And I was honored that World Food Prize winner Mary Dell Chilton contributed to the first issue of this two-part series. This second issue has a variety of outstanding contributors as well, among them Deputy U.S.Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden. We are in great debt to our contributors. In 2014, NASA funded a study to develop the Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY) model, which claims that “the process of rise-and-collapse [of societies] is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” It turns out that “advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.” The HANDY model asserts that resources, as they run out, become more expensive (as we are well aware), which devastates the poor but merely annoys the rich, thereby dividing the haves and the have-nots (nothing new there either). Furthermore— “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion”—if only the model would tell us how to do that. This is where I thank Otto Doering for his insights in Part 1 on “A Truly Wicked Problem,” meaning a problem that is not amenable to solution by scientific methods. Given that we have volumes of data, powerful computers, elaborate software models, and satellites beaming down more data all the time, what renders any problem truly wicked? I’m pretty sure it has to do with the way we evolved. Humans, like every other land animal, evolved from fish. The next time you hiccup, remember that it’s essentially an atavistic amphibian mechanism for controlling the motion of gills. Similarly, the human brain started with the brain stem, a primitive neural cord that guided the behavior of our reptilian ancestors. Not much thinking goes on there, as it mainly serves low-level functions such as breathing, swallowing, and sneezing. Later, the limbic system evolved, literally on top of the brain stem, giving us emotions such as lust, anger, fear, and jealousy. Subsequently, a large mammalian feature developed, called the neocortex, which is particularly large in Homo sapiens—the “wise man” (let’s call him Hans). We like to think that our behavior is mainly controlled by our three pounds of neocortex, but that’s true only when we’re not starving or freezing, or being chased by a bear, or confronting a burglar. With the neocortex, cultural evolution began. We developed feelings of connectedness and community (watch my kid while I go gather some tubers), and soon we had learning, language, marriage, lawyers, economists, politicians, and armies. Now in 2015, we must ask our twittering Hans, together with his seven billion H. sapiens friends, to solve the problem of feeding themselves in 2050. What is the probability of Hans succeeding? Otto Doering is quite right to imply that the problem of feeding nine billion people is tangled up with perceived values, biases, culture, and politics, rendering it impossible to solve with traditional scientific methods. Does that mean we should just let the future happen? That seems to be exactly what we’re doing. We may have a threepound neocortex, but our deeply rooted limbic system makes us bigoted, capricious, irrational, petty, and sometimes just stupid. Europeans started two world wars that killed 80 million people and left entire cities in ruins. Yet historians are still trying to figure out why World War I happened, and WWI was the main motivation behind Hitler’s WWII. On this side of the pond, scientists like me still have to be careful with the word “evolution” because it might offend someone. Recently, Australia imposed a CO2 tax that actually reduced emissions, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott repealed it. In addition, Maurice Newman, chair of Abbott’s business advisory council, claimed that Australia is ill prepared for global cooling! Perhaps Ronald Reagan was right when he said: “The nine scariest words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Unfortunately, government doesn’t have a monopoly on ignorance. Yes, we can feed the world in 2050 by doing more of the same, but in doing so we will destroy any chance of long-term sustainability. We will see a gradual but persistent increase in food prices due to depletion of resources and declining crop yields, and the poor will slowly become poorer, to the point of widespread famine. Saying that we would leave Earth a mess for future generations would be a misnomer; we would leave her in a nearly ruined condition. We will have exhausted all fossil fuels, polluted our soils with nitrogen sucked from the sky, raised atmospheric CO2 to over 500 ppm (it increased from about 300 to 400 ppm in the first half of the Age of Oil), raised sea levels enough to drown coastal ecosystems, and depleted the aquifers. A few centuries from now, after a long slow decline punctuated by sudden shifts and outbreaks of violence, we will reach equilibrium of probably one billion people. Those survivors will look back at the 21st century the way we look at the Roman Empire. “What on earth happened?” they will ask. What happened is that Homo myopicus could not rise above its limbic brain; our doom is written in our DNA. Eventually, future archeologists will uncover a CD by R.E.M. with the song “It’s the end of the world as we know it (And I feel fine).” Then maybe they’ll understand. Top photo courtesy of NASA GSFC.
Published by ASABE. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://bt.e-ditionsbyfry.com/article/first+word/1937457/247419/article.html.