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posted by martyb on Tuesday January 11, @04:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the Betteridge-says-"No" dept.

Can We Feed Billions of Ourselves Without Wrecking the Planet?

We are now producing more food more efficiently than ever, and there is plenty to go around for a human population of 7 billion. But it is coming at a drastic cost in environmental degradation, and the bounty is not reaching many people.

Sustainable Food Production, a new Earth Institute primer from Columbia University Press, explores how modern agriculture can be made more environmentally benign, and economically just. With population going to maybe 10 billion within 30 years, the time to start is now, the authors say.

The lead author is ecologist Shahid Naeem, director of the Earth Institute for Environmental Sustainability. He coauthored the book with former Columbia colleagues Suzanne Lipton and Tiff van Huysen.

This is an interesting interview with the author. Do you agree (or disagree) with his conclusions?

Columbia Climate School

[Also Covered By]: Phys.org


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  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday January 13, @01:49AM (2 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday January 13, @01:49AM (#1212280) Journal

    >With higher income inequality. The ability to move to where things are doing well is a huge part of the reason the developed world exists in the first place. And I find it bizarre that you complain of urbanization while praising a form of it (the above multi-generational household).

    Inequality predominately has to do with the organization of the economy and polity. Loads of anthropological work has shown us there is a huge spectrum by which society can organize itself in long-running civilizations, it's a enlightenment-era fallacy built on uninformed induction that lead us to the current means. But even given the inequality, if your family were to own a household, and if the land was capable of subsistence or better, is inequality particularly relevant? If we didn't socialize people into consumerists? The real outcome here is independence, resilience, and austerity - anti-consumerist. And you've misdefined urban.

    Are you really going to claim that mobility of participants isn't part of the organization of the economy and polity? Because it is. And thus, I neatly sidestep your argument that we have to ignore some of the most important factors in reducing inequality.

    But even given the inequality, if your family were to own a household, and if the land was capable of subsistence or better, is inequality particularly relevant?

    Of course it is. You won't have equal access to the benefits of society, particularly education, economic opportunity, and economic expression. For example, I'm reading through a book on SpaceX's early years, Liftoff. Several of the earliest employees came from rural environments. The first engine designer, Tom Mueller [wikipedia.org] was son of a lumberjack in north Idaho, for example.

    We adopt this multi-generational house thing, then this guy is rotting in North Idaho with whatever paltry education he can get and maybe cutting trees for a living instead of helping create the biggest change in space development since man landed on the Moon. This is the cost - lack of mobility. And all so that you can claim some sort of meager food positive position for people who don't need it. The next sentence is instructive:

    If we didn't socialize people into consumerists? The real outcome here is independence, resilience, and austerity - anti-consumerist. And you've misdefined urban.

    We aren't socializing anything. The "consumerist" is what people want. As to the real outcome, I think this is just Orwellian doublespeak. Subsidence farming is barely surviving. You have nothing outside of your local group to support you. A disaster hits your region and all that is gone. That's the "independence and resilience". As to the "austerity"? Why would we want that? My take is that in practice it's something imposed externally rather than a useful choice to make.

    As for urban, I now grant that multi-generational homes can be rural and that it's an ancient habitation system that predates urbanization altogether.

    With a poorer, larger population - because they wouldn't be in a better place. The developed world appears to be the place you're referring to, perhaps even the US specifically. That part of the world has licked the population growth problem. Without importing high fertility immigrants, the entire developed world would be negative population growth. And of course, it's got the highest distribution of income and wealth too. So sounds like it's solving these problems just fine.

    Poor is relative; in the earliest eras of the new world, and in a more recent example, people inducted into what would commonly be defined as "tribal" societies - even when presented the option - opted to remain with them. I suspect neither you, and I'm certain that I, have never been presented with the option to integrate into a civilization that eschews materialism and in lieu offers the real humanitarian aspects, effectively, what we're evolved for. Instead the "developed world" exchanges these human aspects with abstraction into economic units.

    I've heard the "poor is relative" line before. Sorry, I don't buy that or that tribes work better. For the former, you are poor in an absolute sense, if you can barely feed yourself. As to tribes, where are most of them again? This is where I refer to the concept of economic expression. It's akin to genetic expression. If a gene doesn't have an effect on the world, particularly the organism it's part of, then it will eventually disappear. It doesn't have to have a common or frequent effect, even one that manifests every generation. But if the gene isn't affecting the world, its days are numbered.

    Similarly, if people barely exist economically and politically, then they're at the whim of the powerful forces of the world that have stronger impact.

    >I challenge you to find a place that actually works. Making kids is pretty easy for poor people to do even in crowded slums (with ad hoc production of everything).

    No evidence of instance is not an instance of no presence. For one we can look at the Spartans, a truly austere people. They deployed a wide variety of especially draconian methods to structure their society. One of these policies is well known, which ultimately lead to infanticide but there was also late marriages (30y), and Spartan girls weren't available until they were 18, to contrast with the more common 14 years.

    I don't see your alleged example. Spartan women were high fertility just like their neighbors. If you were talking Spartan women not getting married till they were 30, then you would have an interesting point. Four years is not that significant, particularly given the lethality of childbirth at that time. You're not losing much by starting pregnancies four years later.

    And we're still stuck with that no evidence for your assertion problem.

    As to the "developed world" there's a running theme wherein every nation touched by European imperialism has been classed in the modern era as "developing" or "underdeveloped" which begs a line of questioning I can't satisfy that is deserving of nuanced research as not only is it a question of material theft, but the interplay of diverse cultures and poisoning of the indigenous mind and society. Moreover, in recent times especially, we've only been able to sustain our quality of life through offshoring, which is to say exploiting the poverty that imperialism is likely directly linked to. And this includes immigration, and this I reckon is a hazard, because it's adjusting against a naturally occurring declination for the sake of maintaining the status quo, which would be much improved over the long run for the majority otherwise, and is effectively a continuation of the impoverishment of the masses.

    The begging can be ended by noting that every region almost universally is heading to wealthier, healthier, lower fertility people with societies growing developed world characteristics. The world is developing in the real sense of the world with a growing number of countries on the edge of that development - hence the natural division of the world into developed and developing (with a few undeveloping holdouts that are universally disasters, presently North Korea and Venezuela), with the developed world part growing in a very interesting way.

    As to imperialism and colonialism, we're past most of the 19th century stuff by now. Not much point to complaining about century or longer theft at this point.

    If we took Jared Diamond's thesis into account, wherein Europe was the best-suited continent for the emergence of successful agriculture due to the favorable geography, the biodiversity, thus accessibility of viable cultivars and cultivation - and the further cascading effects that necessarily conditioned them to such a lifestyle wherein land could be made more productive and generating in excess, which ultimately leads to increases in birth, then population density, and evolves into specializations netting a positive feedback loop, and thus displacing the HG populations worldwide through a process of recruitment or extinction. But also this culminates into a system of private property enforced by the state and exploited by those possessed of multi-generational wealth. Which is to say in most cases, a monopoly is enforced by the state to maintain the status quo. Quite a bit of state and federal land is minimally, if at all, meaningfully productive but occupation would be illegal. Ironically the murder and extinction of indigenous Americans was justified on the basis of their disuse of the land.

    This is a great big so what? Some place had to be first. And some place will be last (likely Africa or the undeveloped holdouts). The talk about property, multi-generational wealth (which incidentally your advocacy above doesn't create), old population displacements, and crimes of the distant past really doesn't add anything to our conversation. I'll note that the dynamic of this narrative isn't working now with agriculture improving globally and population growth rates declining globally - that positive feedback is gone.

    Your crowded slums thesis is based on modern era consumer-capitalism wherein systems exist to buffer both the offspring and the parents from being excised, plenty of baffles to prevent them from spilling, including highly processed foods that are nutritionally bereft and have indefinite shelf lives as a product of preservative techne. Foods which very apparently are designed to feed the cattle-esque caricature that is rendered to modernity as the economic unit "human" sold at low cost. My thesis is that had we been allowed to elect a better culture, had we not been goaded by naive and uninformed enlightenment ideology, that slums wouldn't exist.

    Rather my crowded slum thesis is based on the zillion slums out there. And the observation that developed world slums are smaller and less harmful than the ones in the developing world. And the correlation between poverty and higher birth rates.

    As to the "better culture", that sounds a lot like a participation award. I'm not seeing all these great cultures which theoretically work great on a few dozen to a few hundred people, working on a few billion. They just don't scale, even if they do work as advertised. And frankly the "naive and uninformed" "enlightenment ideology" is the best game out there. I don't see anything comparable that would capable of improving billions of peoples' lives over a few decades like the capitalism/democracy mix that we have going on.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 13, @06:40AM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 13, @06:40AM (#1212349)

    I think you've ran astray of the point, friend. We're talking about a model of humanity that would've been far better suited to maintaining real independence while dually controlling the population expansion with a natural scarcity. That is to say reigning in the polity, offering equitable opportunity, and ultimately flattening the wealth distribution through better acculturation. Instead we've just enshrined a noveau aristocracy which pulls the strings of the masses of millions in plain sight, the masses of whom you are no doubt counted given your wont to argue for the sake of the supposed "elite". But do go fellate monsignor Musk I'm sure he'll appreciate your capacity for flagrant handwaving in the process.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday January 17, @07:22AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 17, @07:22AM (#1213351) Journal
      Sorry, I forgot to reply earlier. So this is a bit late.

      I think you've ran astray of the point, friend. We're talking about a model of humanity that would've been far better suited to maintaining real independence while dually controlling the population expansion with a natural scarcity.

      A key scientific principle is that if a model doesn't describe a system very well, then you look for something better - you don't try to shoehorn reality into the model. It holds whether you're speaking of dark matter/energy or models of economics/politics.

      Here, my concern is not coming up with some ideal of human dynamics, but reducing overpopulation and the many harmful effects that come with that. The multi-generational family unit just doesn't explain human behavior well - particularly what is needed to reduce human fertility. A model of human behavior that correlates lower human fertility with empowerment of women and increasing wealth of individuals and families does. Further, that latter model has no need for this "natural scarcity" to control human population growth!

      That is to say reigning in the polity, offering equitable opportunity, and ultimately flattening the wealth distribution through better acculturation. Instead we've just enshrined a noveau aristocracy which pulls the strings of the masses of millions in plain sight, the masses of whom you are no doubt counted given your wont to argue for the sake of the supposed "elite".

      I'm not seeing the point of this part. First, we're just too populous to reign in the polity. Second, we already see that this approach doesn't offer equitable opportunity since the approach creates a stickiness that encourages people to stay in regions with less opportunity. Third, why should we desire to flatten wealth distribution. Sorry, because of that wealth inequality, Musk got to radically change humanity's development of space to the better. I doubt a slightly better wealth equality would have improved your contribution to society beyond this theory. Thus, it seems to me that wealth, while not distributed equally, is distributed better.

      Finally, the bit about "enshrined a noveau aristocracy" is a typically outcome of having a lot of people in a society, just like reigning in the polity. Mass media and elite control is a natural outcome.

      But do go fellate monsignor Musk I'm sure he'll appreciate your capacity for flagrant handwaving in the process.

      Funny how defending someone reasonably is "fellating". I see him instead as a huge proof of the negation of your model. Perhaps you ought to as well.