Population and the Limits of Earth’s Biomass

Categorize this under things I thought about as a kid.

When I was a boy I thought I might be a scientist.  I probably imagined myself in all the cliché roles for boys.  (For the record, however, being a fireman never interested me, but being a railroad engineer did.)

Malthus cautioned law makers on the effects of...

Among the questions that got into my head at a young age and stuck with me for years was how overpopulation could work.  I reasoned that the planet could only support a certain level of biomass and that the natural order of things would maximize that biomass.  So I wondered…how can we ever overpopulate ourselves to death?

If you start to think about the question from this perspective, the importance of conservation makes a lot of sense.  So does the business of food production and politics of allocation.

I learned later that Thomas Malthus warned if population outgrew resources, disease, death, and disorder would plague the world.  But Malthus also thought there some inherent self-regulation existed in the system to control population.

For centuries disease and famine simply fulfilled a role in the natural order of things.

In 1970 Norman Borlaug — distinguished agronomist and University of Minnesota graduate — won the Noble Prize for his work in developing disease resistant wheat which was said to have helped save a quarter of the world’s population from starvation.  Growing up in the 1970s some people started talking less about the danger of overpopulation.  Science would save the day.

Norman Borlaug 1

Norman Borlaug

Of course smarter people than a 10 year old kid thought about this, too, and still do, but maybe enough of us don’t think about this to make a difference.  Isn’t it the case that even with increased productivity there can only be so much living biomass on the planet at any given time on net?  If less wheat dies of disease and helps support more people, somewhere else something else has to lose, right?

And today we see it.  With more and more people on the planet, there is less of other things.  Think about it.  From the passenger pigeon to depleted oceans, on balance there is less of other living things as there becomes more of us.

So I read this past Sunday about a scientist who has bio-engineered artificial beef, one cell at a time, in a  lab.  He suggests that developing his process to be economically efficient on an industrial scale could satisfy the growing demand for meat as the world become more prosperous.  But can we really?  Where would this bio-material come from that creates the manufactured meat?

Maybe there is a limit to the number of people the planet can support, but it is less of a question about people outstripping the ability to produce the food to support a population than it is a matter of consuming too much of the overall biological resources that exist on the planet.

It seems to me that the “stuff” that can be living things on the planet must always have been allocated to its maximum potential.  We’re just reworking how it is allocated.  That might be where limits exist.  Looking at where we are today, for example, one might not conclude that there is an association between more wheat in the fields and fewer fish in the ocean, but maybe a relationship exists.

It is worth thinking about.


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