Dr. Whatsforlunch or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chemicals

Some rationally optimistic thoughts from Matt Ridley are in this video.

Consider this: when we compare the farm yields of the 1960s to the yields at the end of the 1990s, we find that conventional (aka intensive) farming has, in effect, saved 44% of earth’s land from going under the plow.

 

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The Food-Miles Dilemma

English: Over Farm produce The vegetables and ...

Produce with labels listing their food miles. Image via Wikipedia

In Michael Pollan’s New York Times essay, The Food Issue – An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief , he says, “[W]hen we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

It would seem to be a no-brainer that local produce needs less fuel to get to market than something that had to be carted halfway around the world, but cargo trucks and railcars carry more than pickups and vans can, so their fuel cost per pound is often less. Farm-to-market fuel is a small piece of the farm-to-table energy pie with transportation accounting for a small slice of the energy pie.

Household storage and preparation of food uses more than twice the farm-to-market energy (32 percent). Thankfully, we don’t hear pleas for us to give up refrigeration and eat only raw foods to eliminate the energy costs of storage and preparation. Oh, wait. We do hear that.

It is fashionable these days to decry “food miles.” The longer food has spent traveling to your plate, the more oil has been burnt and the more peace has been shattered along the way. But why single out food? Should we not protest against T-shirt miles, too, and laptop miles? After all, fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries, so singling out food imports for special discrimination means singling out poor countries for sanctions. Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is a “profoundly flawed sustainability indicator.” Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4% of all its lifetime emissions…A New Zealand lamb, shipped to England, requires one-quarter as much carbon to get on to a London plate as a Welsh lamb; a Dutch rose, grown in a heated greenhouse and sold in London, has six times the carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose grown under the sun using water recycled through a fish farm, using geothermal electricity and providing employment to Kenyan women. – The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley

Tyler Cowen points out that Pollan (in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) also “argues against free trade in agriculture, on the grounds that the economics will bankrupt family farms and destabilize the market; Pollan fears centralization and the industrial mode of production. He does not note, however, that New Zealand has moved to free agricultural markets—virtually no subsidies or tariffs—and its farms, including family farms, have flourished. Nor should we forget that farm protectionism, as practiced in the EU and elsewhere, costs billions and damages economic development in poorer countries that might otherwise ship foodstuffs to the wealthier West.”

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Fried Green Sustainability

 

English: The cover of the second edition of Th...

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In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Cathy Bates waits for a parking space only to have it taken by two female twenty-somethings who blow her off with, “Face it lady, we’re younger and faster.” She rams her tank of a car into their tinier VW convertible. Bates’ parting shot is, “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.”

If one lives long enough, one can gain perspective from living and observing. It may boil down to “been there, done that, and I have more insurance.”

I was eighteen when the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon and photographed an earthrise.

Their iconic photo taken from the moon, with the earth looking like a blue-green spaceship, galvanized my Boomer generation around the environmentalist cause.

That photo shows how finite the world is, and it sounds counter-intuitive to argue that anything on it is limitless. Resources and energy need to be conserved if we are to survive on this small orb spinning in the vastness of space, do they not?

What cannot be seen in that photo is the unlimited collective intelligence of the people that inhabit that amazingly beautiful place.

“The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that,” Matt Ridley points out in The Rational Optimist. “This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before.”

The counter-argument says our resources are part of a zero-sum game, if we humans become better off, other species are worse off—this is the “Environmentalist’s Paradox.”

Bear with me; I’m going to argue that the trend Dr. Ridley extols will continue, and our non-renewable resources are nearly limitless. As a result, I am not a “live simply, so others can simply live” kind of guy. Not that I am against living simply or witty aphorisms, but that it is wide of the mark. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, our resources are not like a pizza, if I eat too many slices you won’t have to eat the Domino’s box.

The end of our resources has been foretold before. In 1865, the British economist, Stanley Jevons predicted the end of coal. In his book, The Coal Question, he wrote that Britain’s easy ride was over and soon coal, which, powered their industrial revolution, would be gone. It was “physically impossible” to continue. Therefore Britain needed to decide “between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.” William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, found Jevons’ argument so compelling he begged Parliament to pay down their national debt while they still could.

The ink had barely dried on Jevons’ book when the output of coal rose and the price fell. The first oil well was sunk in Pennsylvania six years later. Today, Britain still produces coal.

Jevons assumed it was coal that was needed to fuel their industrial revolution, rather it was energy, and because the human mind knows no limits, there’s a lot of energy in the world. For instance, right now, in the United States, natural gas in shale deposits holds the promise of energy for another 250 years at present consumption levels. Each year, the world will “use about 450 exajoules (about 1250 billion kilowatt-hours of energy) of fossil fuel,” Matt Ridley wrote in the Times of London, “Total oil, gas and coal resources in the Earth’s crust are estimated at more than 570,000 exajoules.” In other words, we have over a millennium’s worth of energy left in just fossil fuels.

I may not change your mind to believe that the world will continue to have enough energy and resources. As the late Julian Simon said, “First, humanity’s condition will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.”

But for me, not only is the glass half-full, there’s evidence that it’s fuller than ever before and everyone will have more to drink soon. Think about that the next time you hear someone say, “Our current rate of consumption is unsustainable.”

Trust me; I’m older and have more insurance.

Footnotes


[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coal_Question

[iii] According to “The Shale Gas Shock” by Ridley, “World energy consumption is less than 500 exajoules per year, equivalent to approximately 500 TCF (trillion cubic feet of natural gas). Thus recoverable shale gas resources of, say, 8,000 Tcf (i.e., 20-30% of in-place resources) would last at least a century if their consumption displaced half of conventional gas use (which is 23% of total energy use). In January 2011 the International Energy Agency raised its estimate of how long world gas reserves will actually last to quarter of a millennium.”

[iv] Ridley, Matt. Wrong about running out. http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/wrong-about-running-out

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