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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Paul Ehrlich had written in The Population Bomb (1968) that it was “a fantasy” that India would “ever” feed itself. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.

–Gregg Easterbrook, in a 1997 profile of Green Revolution hero Norman Borlaug in the Atlantic Monthly. (Go read the whole article. It’s good).

(Link via Instapundit).

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18 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Nowadays super market shelves groan under the weight of exported Indian basmati rice.

    So much for the pessimists.

  • Percy Dovetonsils

    Ahh, Paul Ehrlich – an important player in my road to being a hard-core skeptic and anti-environmentalist.

    Funny, though, how the media never brings his name and theories up anymore. Gaia forbid that people start wondering who else might be an eco-charlatan.

  • I unfortunately tried to watch Soylent Green a few weeks ago, a movie based on this absurd premise that world population would explode into unmanagable volumes. I quit watching after about 15 minutes.

  • Doug Collins

    I recommend anyone even slightly interested read (or at least scan) the profile of Norman Borlaug that is linked in the post. I learned several interesting things from it:

    1. Improving food production by using fertilizers does NOT degrade the environment. To the contrary, it allows more food to be produced on less land so slash and burn agriculture is decreased. There has actually been a certain amount of reforestation where it has been applied. (The same thing could be predicted from economics – as the price of a thing like food goes up, or its abundance goes down, more and more marginal resources are used in its production. As crop prices rise, more and more poor land is planted. As prices fall, farming on poor land becomes unprofitable and it is abandoned. Which may be one reason Borlaug is less than popular among various moneyed groups.)

    2. When he tried to apply his approach to Africa to avert massive starvation, he was blocked by a number of holier-than-thou foundations and environmental groups. Their motivations appear to be partly ignorance and partly something more sinister. I get the strong impression from reading this that there are modern Lord Lucans around who see starvation in Africa as not just an inevitable thing but a desirable one. When there are alternatives that are being deliberately avoided, I have to hope that there is a sizzlingly hot spot or two in Hell waiting for these people.

    3. I am going to have to grudgingly revise my opinion that Jimmy Carter is an idiot. There appears to be some good sense in the man after all.

  • Borlaug’s Alma Mater, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities sponsors an annual Essay Contest. I go to the same school as many of the winners. Neat, huh?

  • Borlaug’s Alma Mater, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities sponsors an annual Essay Contest. I go to the same school as many of the winners. Neat, huh?

  • Percy, I’d argue that his theories are still very much with us. Read Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist if you want a thorough sample.

  • Jake

    Paul Ehrlich has a perfect record as a visionary. He is always wrong.

    What ever he predicts you can know with absolute certainty that it will not happen. That is his service to humanity.

    Now if he would only predict the direction of the stock market, we could all become millionaires.

  • “green revolution” high input-high yield crops
    actually have negative yield:
    they require more Joules of cheap oil than they produce.

    The last remaining hand-tended multi-species crops and the few permaculture plots won’t be enough for all you
    spiffy self congratulatiing young fogies after Hubbert’s peak (look that one up)

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Uhm, hate to break this to you, but we’re not very worried about how much energy(fossil fuel or otherwise) is required to grow that much amount of food, as long as we can get enough food to feed everybody. The value of human lives now is more important than a nebulous fear of running out of energy. Malthus has been proven wrong long ago.

    The very concept of ‘high yield’ for crops is not in terms of thermodynamic properties like energy levels and entropy states, but rather the amount of nutrition available from a given piece of land. If it takes a massive infusion of energy(solar energy, fertilizer, research) to achieve that high yield, so what? What is your price on human life, Mr Bruno?

    In fact, once we get fusion power going, all the fertilizer we want we can synthesize on our own, no matter how energy consuming the exact chemical processes are.

  • Fogey? Young?

    Don’t think so, and I wish..

  • Bruno, there’s no requirement at any stage in the production of crops that only petroleum products be used. Today petroleum is the cheapest and most convenient source of energy for transportation and energy, but that does not make it the only such source. We can run Haber process plants off nuclear, coal, or solar power plants. We can create steel and other metals for farm tools using electric arc furnaces. We can use battery powered tractors and combines in the fields. Or, we can just make syngas out of our coal, tar sands, or shale for use in existing internal combustion engines, given us enough fuel to run them for thousands of years at the rate we’re going now.

  • ed

    Ummm.

    One correction. Soylent Green was made from a book called “Make Room, Make Room”.

  • When I went to hear Lomborg speak a few weeks back, he pointed out that estimates of the total amount of available oil (including presently undiscovered resources) suggest that there is enough extractable oil to last for another 150 years at the current rate of consumption. If you include shale oils extractable using current technology you get another century or so, and if you assume some technological improvement in our ability to extract shale oils, there is enough oil in the world for another 5000 years.

    If you fail to believe any of this, and assume that we are going to run out of oil more or less immediately, it turns out that we don’t actually need to devlop fusion or anything like that. The one renewable source that can produce substantial amounts of energy using current technology is solar via electrical cells. As it happens, the entire world’s energy consumption could be obtained by covering an area the size of 2.6% of the Sahara desert with current generation solar cells. This hasn’t been done because fossil fuels and other sources that we do use are cheaper and more convenient, but if the choice was something like this or mass starvation and civilizational collapse, it woudn’t actually be hard to do.

    And of course, efficiency of solar cells is increasing and the cost is dropping. At some point we likely will substitute solar energy for a good proportion of our fossil fuel research. (In actual fact, allocating resources in this area would be a vastly more effective way of fighting global warming than would be the Kyoto accord). However, I am digressing somewhat.

    In short, we really aren’t running out of either oil or energy in general. Indeed we are so far from doing so that the question is ridiculous. And this really doesn’t affect our agricultural capabilities, in either the developed or developing world.

  • Wild Pegasus

    Where did Lomborg get the numbers on oil?

    – Josh

  • Guy Herbert

    He rather heavily relies on Julian Simon. It is his weakest topic.

    As Shell shareholders have recently discovered estimates of reserves vary wildly, sometimes because of geological uncertainty, sometimes because what’s recoverable depends on what you are willing to pay to get it. Current oil prices being low by historical standards–and only propped up now by the US buying for strategic reserve, according to this week’s Economist–nobody’s thinking very hard about shales yet and most offshore exploration looks a bit sad.

  • Well, “what you are willing to pay to get it” is the key issue. There is one very important fact which affects all investment decisions in this regard, which is that there are huge reserves in Saudi Arabia and in other places nearby for which the extraction cost is negligible. The Saudis can sell oil and still make money over their extraction costs at prices that would send most other oil producers in the world out of business. When prices go up they do not do so because of a genuine shortage but because of an artificial shortage (ie price fixing) from these producers. Even if the price goes up to a level that would make development and extraction in more marginal places appear to be viable, there is great reluctance to actually carry this out because the oil companies know that they can be sent out of business if at any time the Saudis choose to send them out of business, and this is not a good position to be in. As in reality we will not genuinely know how much oil there is that can be extracted elsewhere at higher prices until we genuinely look for it, and we will not really know the cost of extraction until we try it, there is indeed a great deal of uncertainty here. All that said, we genuinely are not going to run out any time soon.

    I do think that Lomborg is on much firmer ground when he talks about the potential substitutability of solar power, however. While such substitution is only going to happen slowly, the argument is a very powerful refutation of the “We are going to run out of oil and hence energy, so civilization will collapse” argument.

  • Guy Herbert

    Sorry Michael, that’s the point I thought I was making. The narrowness of Lomborg’s sources on oil is probably because no one is publishing very useful figures for commercial reasons, it doesn’t imply his argument is bad. (I’m going to have to learn to write longer, less eliptical, comments.)