Planet Could Be ‘Unrecognizable’ By 2050: Doom Just Around The Corner

If you are in your 40s now, as yours truly is (am?), then by 2050 you and the rest of our cohort will be dead or in our 80s. If we last this long, this will be the age during which we will regularly misplace our glasses. Either way, then, pushing up marigolds (prettier than daisies) or tottering about on our canes, the world will look very different to us than it does now.

This, however, does not appear to be what a group of exceptionally nervous scientists meant when they said Mother Earth will be “Unrecognizable” by 2050. They claim that if we don’t actually see at least one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then, as the saying goes, we will at least hear the approaching of his hoofbeats.

According to a news report, always a dangerous source upon which to rely, gatherants at the American Association for the Advancement of Science were concerned—deeply concerned—about the frequency of sexual intercourse of non-scientists. Specifically, they think there is too much of it. Breeding, that is, and subsequent births resulting from that oh-so-natural habit.

The guess is that by 2050 there will be 9 billion humans roaming to and fro across the surface of the Earth. Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, a non-partisan, ideology-free scientific organization estimates that to feed the newcomers, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000.” His conclusion is thus, “By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable.”

Food for the next 40 years will feed roughly 320 billion mouth years (summing the population through each year until 2050, figuring in a smooth growth trend). Now last year we fed just under 7 billion, the year before it was just under that, and the year before that it was a little lower and so on.. Progressing back to 1800, when there were only about 1 billion Johns and Janes, and to our present date shows that we have already produced enough food to feed 560 billion mouth years (approximately, of course).

Taking it back 8,000 years, the figure the uninterested Mr Clay provided, gives us about 4,200 billion mouth years of food that we have, as a race, so far provided for ourselves. Mr Clay, whose number is not just wrong, but wildly wrong, is thus either lying, exaggerating, or under the sway of theory. I don’t care to say which. (The fourth possibility is the reporter who questioned him mistranslated Mr Clay’s “8 years” to “8,000 years.”)

Mr Clay and his compatriots also appear to have forgotten a basic fact in biology (and here the possibility of misreporting is larger): we cannot have more humans alive than we can produce food for. That is, if there really will be 9 billion souls in 2050, then, ipso facto, we will have produced enough food to support 9 billion. Unlike our dear and caring governments, we cannot deficit spend in mouth years. If the food is not present, breeding cannot occur.

And if we have produced just enough food so that 9 billion people can live yet some of that food subsequently disappears, then we will soon have fewer than 9 billion people. Some of the living will die earlier than they would have had their stomachs been constantly filled, but a more important variable will be those who are will not be born to replace those who die (it takes more food to sustain a pregnant female than a similarly matched non-pregnant female).

Now it is true that, ceteris paribus, and ignoring the odd act-of-God calamity, if we “use up” a particular resource necessary in the production of food, then we might find ourselves being unable to sustain food production at current levels. This has often happened locally in human history. Land cannot be one of these resources, however, for we have always been stuck with what we have.

But things have never been ceteris paribus, and thus it is rational to suppose that they will not remain so. It was innovation that allowed us to produce more food, and it was this cheap food which led to an increase in the “surplus population” (the WWF and their ilk always write with more than a hint that many are undesirable). If we cease innovating, we slow or stop our increase in food supply, and we thus naturally reduce population. If we continue to innovate, then etc.

Plus we have the empirical fact, not predicted by evolutionary psychology, that as people do better materially the fewer children they produce (the selfish genes of the rich are money mad!). Thus, innovation will not only feed the poor, but it will distract the rich. Missing in the doomsday pronunciations were the demographic forecasts (frequently good) which show a diminishing world population after, say, 2100. The world really be unrecognizable, but probably from a surfeit in hedonism, not population.

Thanks to 49erDweet for today’s tip.


  1. I think Human beings will continue to adapt and survive.

    What does it meant that Mother Earth will be “Unrecognizable”? Will it become a prism-like shape? Will we all live underground? Will we have purple hair and blue face? Anyway, I need to be prepared to survive 2012 first!

  2. My car accelerates from 0-60 in around 10 seconds. Given that, it could reach the speed of light rather quickly.

    Why do people tend to extrapolate it straight lines? You would think scientists would know better. Has it never occurred to anyone that the population will grow to meet the food supply then stop growing? It happens with every other species so I wonder why we are the exception. Making food also uses land so effectively both food and land control the population size.. Sheesh

  3. But… but… Ehrlich (and his then-student Hansen) told us that we would run out of mined/pumped resources AND have too many people in the near future! Oh, wait – they said those things would happen by the late 1980s…

    Besides, surely we can use “renewable” resources – like biomass fuel for power?

    The UK, for example, is building one power plant to burn wood. Too bad it will have to import the wood from Africa and South America: Britain stopped being able to rely on its own wood supply in the late 1600s and “discovered” cheaper more-burn-for-the-pound coal. Windmills? The “Domesday Boke” listed over a thousand. But by the 1980s, with a far larger population, there were about fifty operating windnills in England – wonder why something both renewable and “free” died out?

  4. This foolishness of the geometric succession always floors me. The end result is an infinitely expanding condition approaching at an ever-increasing rate. Who in their right mind could imagine that that could happen without some sort of feedback mechanism short-circuiting it before the calamitious end point. Especially in a natural world.

  5. From a 1982 debate between Simon and the UC Santa Barbara biologist Hardin.

    Julian Simon: The facts are fundamental.
    Garrett Hardin: The facts are not fundamental. The theory is fundamental.

    Speaks for itself doesn’t It? Believe the theory, don’t believe what you see with your own eyes.

  6. Isn’t this just a trivial truth. Check out this split image of Shanghai, 1990 and 2010:

    If you had taken someone away in 1990 and brought them back in 2010, wouldn’t the Pudong area (across the river in the images) of Shanghai be ‘unrecognizable’? I am sure this would be the same for almost every place, especially if you do the split at 40 or 50 years.

  7. I like DAV’s observation, and along that line ponder endlessly why a nominally well-motivated [assuming facts not in evidence] science major would allow oneself to deviate from the world of scientific observation and research, and take on the mantle of an enviro-huckster? Is the money and career path in pseudo-scientific doom-saying really that great?

    Or are there too many scientific-like Elmer Gantry’s out there today? Or are their silver-tongued doomsday pitches too compelling for embryonic scientists to resist? Or is it a variant of the natural urge to feel important and needed? Questions. And that’s not even mentioning that so many lay-persons see right through the lack of logic tied into all this. Passing strange.

    But IF these “exceptionally nervous scientists” are on to something about not recognizing our global orb in 2050, are they taking requests? Cause I’d sure like to see the Salton Sea reconnected to the Sea of California again.

  8. It is possible to have a population overshoot in the short run. We see this in a number of organisms. However, that is more likely to occur when an organism has one limiting factor. Humans are remarkable in that they’re the ultimate generalists.

    I don’t worry too much about these doomsday things on a grand scale, but there is something to be said about local scale population overshoots. Because many people in the not-so-developing world (Africa, mostly) don’t have reliable access to grain markets or reliable agricultural infrastructure, there are cases where populations might go beyond their local carrying capacity and be culled by bad crop. Unfortunately, telling people to “STOP THIS NOW” from the comfort of your nice seat in an office in a university building isn’t going to change that.

  9. “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” – John Stuart Mill.

  10. “If you are in your 40s now, as yours truly is (am?)”

    ‘Yours truly’ is a reference to yourself in the third person singular so – “… as yours truly is”. However had you referred to yourself in the first person, it would be – “… as I am”.

    Also correct would be – “… as I, yours truly, am” -clearly a reference to yourself in the first person.

    Hope that clears it up.

    I believe it is suggested by some that referring to oneself in the third person is somewhat schizophrenic – but opinion is spit.

  11. More useful than a string for our glasses might be a remotely activated locating beacon for our cellphone blue-tooth earpieces, IMO. I must have purchased six of them by now.

  12. Even the part of this report that seems to make some sense – that as people get richer they increasingly consume “richer” (in terms of resources required to produce it) food – like meat – it fails to address basic economics. To wit – if we have trouble producing enough meat to feed the increasingly upscale appetites of an increasing and increasingly prosperous population, then the price of meat will rise, inducing people to eat less resource-intensive food.

  13. Morgan,

    “…eat less resource-intensive food”

    You mean like wheat or corn? Do you know how much land is needed to produce those.? Ever been to a farm? Cattle and sheep eat grasses that humans can’t and concentrate them into something humans can. Are you aware that most of a wheat or corn plant is discarded? Can you say “hay”? We only eat the seeds. Cattle can eat the rest. Which is more wasteful? Eating the seeds and discarding the rest (which you seem for be favoring) or eating the seeds plus the things that eat the rest?

  14. This idea is not new.

    Malthus wrote “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. He was right in his forecast of population growth and wrong in his forecast for resource growth.

  15. DAV,

    I was under the impression that most “factory farmed” cows today were being fed corn, and not corn by-products.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, as I’m not terribly well-versed in animal husbandry at the farm level.

  16. Most factory farmed cattle are finished on corn or barley. But that may be the last few hundred pounds. They get to that stage on some kind of grass.

  17. Ari,

    You need to feed them some corn anyway if only to increase their value. I’ll bet some of those farmers are fed corn as well. Not all corn produced is marketable or edible. Guess where it goes. Corn is not something thrown away. It’s a higher paying crop than wheat and not just because of recent subsidies. Growing corn requires at least one year of growing something else like wheat. Farmers really hate wasting that field for that year but can’t really get around it if they want to stay in business. There are also periods when a field must lie fallow (that’s a fancy term for growing weeds). Cattle, sheep and goats help to make those productive.

    In the long run though it doesn’t make sense to use those fields to only produce seeds. People who think being vegan is somehow more sensible economically are usually people whose only contact with farm life has been some combination of Farmer in the Dell , Dr. Seuss and animations of Elmer Fudd.

    Sure people could eat more of the plant but most of it is indigestible by humans. We could grow other things but there are reasons why grains are preferred. I have heard though that the state bird of California (the blond airhead) sometimes ingests alfalfa along with bean sprouts.

  18. Yikes, Matt! Misplacing your reading glasses? Monovision my friend. Monovision.

    Since I began undercorrecting my left (non-dominant) eye seven years ago, I’ve lost all my reading glasses, because I haven’t needed them.

    My opthamologist finally talked me into it after two years of trying. I’d never go back now.

  19. “Has it never occurred to anyone that the population will grow to meet the food supply then stop growing? It happens with every other species so I wonder why we are the exception.”

    We’re different from other species in that we don’t necessarily reproduce simply because we can. In countries where the poor lack social security, pensions or good health care having many children is a good survival strategy, and reproduction rates are high.

    For the affluent, reproduction is not a good survival strategy, and people generally do not have as many children as they can afford to feed.

  20. Jeremy Das,

    Does that mean the population will stop growing if the world becomes uniformly affluent — assuming such a thing is possible? Are you saying that if resources are spread more thinly the population will increase in response? Wouldn’t that be the same situation as uniform affluence?

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