Half the Earth ?

by John Quiggin on May 11, 2021

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced.

Thought of this way, The Ministry for the Future is like an all-you-can-eat buffet with more possibilities, both dystopian and utopian than it’s possible to digest in one sitting. I’m just going to pick out one morsel – the idea of returning half the earth to a more or less wild state. The Half Earth idea isn’t Robinson’s invention – there’s an active society promoting it. But Robinson’s presentation makes it seem more real than an advocacy organization.

Once I’m captured by an idea like this, I tend to go back the analytical mode, and ask whether this is really a possibility. The first thought that occurred to me is was a memory from high school,. One of my friends was a keen conservationists (he was later responsible for management of environmental water allocations in Australia) who pushed the idea that 5 per cent of Australia’s land area should be national park.

That proposal seemed radical at the time, but we now have a ‘National Reserve System’ covering nearly 20 per cent of the country. It encompasses national, state and territory reserves, indigenous lands and protected areas run by non-profit conservation organisations and ecosystems protected by farmers on their private working properties. That National Reserve System is still growing, with a particular emphasis on the wildlife corridors central to Half Earth.

Australia is a big, sparsely populated country, much of which isn’t particularly well suited for any economic use, including food production. We can grow enough to feed ourselves, export lots of grain and meat, and still have plenty of land left over. But is it possible to feed, clothe and house the whole world using only half its land and oceans?

In large part that depends on how many people there are in the future. That in turn depends almost entirely on what happens to birth rates in Africa, since most of the world is already near, or below, replacement levels of fertility. In Robinson’s Future, net births per woman fall rapidly to around 1.8, so population is already declining in the second half of the 20th century. That’s partly optimism and partly a predictable outcome of the climatic disasters that destroy much of our existing social order in the opening chapters of the book.

I’m an agricultural economist by training, so I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking at food production. We are already producing more than enough to feed the entire population of the world. 800 million people are undernourished simply because they don’t have enough money to buy food; they are outnumbered three to one by the obese, many of whom also lack the resources and education needed for a healthier diet.

It will however, be difficult to feed a growing population if everyone is to eat the amounts of meat and fish typical of the diets of high-income countries. Conversely, if we are to return lots of land to a wild state, everyone will have to eat a largely plant-based diet. Whether meat animals are fed on grain or on grass, it takes a lot more land to produce animal protein than to do produce the same quantity of plant-based food.

As well as farmland, we would need to reduce the area of land we live on, moving from small towns and suburbs into cities. The scene in Future where the residents of a declining country town agree to sell en masse and move to the city makes this seem like a realistic, if emotionally challenging, possibility. But as the narrator says, with a much smaller population, it might be possible to move back to village life further in the future.

We are, suddenly and surprisingly, at a point in history when radical change seems not just possible but likely. Whether it is change for the better or for the worse is in our collective hands. The Ministry for the Future gives us hope that, out of disaster, we may build something much better.

{ 23 comments }

1

Brett 05.11.21 at 4:12 pm

I like the idea as well of setting aside great tracts of land and sea as nature preserves, managed for biodiversity and sustainability. The actual land we have to physically live on is a quite small percentage of land area (about 3% of Earth’s land area is urban), and we could do with much less if we had to – much of that urban density is rather low. It’s all about the land we have to use for resource production, food, water, etc, and we could do that with much less land and sea required as well.

Whether meat animals are fed on grain or on grass, it takes a lot more land to produce animal protein than to do produce the same quantity of plant-based food.

It does, but a lot of land is poorly suited for agriculture, and might more climate-friendly if turned back into grassland that could be sustained by grass-eating herbivores. Prairies are a good way to capture CO2 emissions, and we would need to manage the herds on such lands to some degree.

Agriculture production itself also produces “waste” in the form of the inedible parts of plants, and these often can be fermented and turned into “silage” to be fed to livestock animals, who then conveniently turn it into waste that can be reused more directly as fertilizer.

2

Bob 05.11.21 at 6:58 pm

I did a little calculation, and I think my math is correct, that if we lived with the population density of Manhattan, which, after all includes Central Park and a lot of other green space, then the entire population of the planet could fit into a space the size of New Mexico or Poland. I find that re-assuring somehow. Not, of course, that such an extreme would ever be necessary.

3

Ray Vinmad 05.11.21 at 9:09 pm

I hate putting an unrelated comment here and try never to do this here…but since you discussed food production in the future I cannot resist asking–do you have anything published on this or is there any short reasonable accessible recent article on this?

I offer the possibility to my students that we can produce enough food for everyone now and for some time to come (with the caveats about eating animals increasing the burdens and that we solve the topsoil issue) and they are skeptical of my sources. 5 years is a long time to them and they aren’t always convinced by things from the UN, etc.

If I had something from a bona fide economist it might be more persuasive but I cannot come across a recent article that is also by an economist or someone they would be less skeptical of.

I have yet to read this book but if it is what you say then I think I must. Like many people I fret about these questions concerning the future constantly and also fret that some young people are embracing eco-fascism or a set of presumptions that seems amenable to eco-fascism. (My students are never eco-fascist as far as I can tell but they seem influenced by assumptions that are too close for comfort.)

4

Brett 05.11.21 at 9:33 pm

@Bob

If we wanted to go really wild, Kowloon Walled City had a population density that averaged out to the equivalent of 1.93 million people per square kilometer. You could fit the entire population of the world into the New York metro area three times over.

5

Ronald 05.12.21 at 3:12 am

Should we micro-manage animal life? If mountain lions were chipped so they couldn’t attack humans or eat Mister Tibbles people might be more comfortable having them around. If brown snakes were ushered away by little drones when people walked near and robot insects caught ticks before they fell on humans then, rather than being a “wild”, the wild would be a beautiful garden. Humans might like to hang out there and animals would regard humans as a strange and inedible feature of the environment. Sort of like a mobile rock, but slightly smarter.

6

Tim Dymond 05.12.21 at 4:33 am

I thought the title of this post might be a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s statement about the French Revolution: “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.” Not a very Quiggin sentiment, but maybe a Children of Kali one.

7

Adam Roberts 05.12.21 at 5:26 am

Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun is set in a near-future where large tracts of the Earth are being rewilded. The novel works on the assumption that this could never be achieved by any larger consensus, so the dominant power (in McAuley’s future this is Brazil) is forcing the programme on mostly unwilling populations.

8

Tim Worstall 05.12.21 at 9:21 am

This is an interesting one:

“the idea of returning half the earth to a more or less wild state.”

Because dependent upon how you define matters that’s less than we’ve got today.

https://ourworldindata.org/land-use

50% of habitable land is used for agriculture, there’s another 29% of total land surface that is barren or glacier (well, for a few years yet). The urban areas are, as above, small in relation to these numbers.

So, what are we including as 50% of what? Further, what do we mean more or less wild state? A mild spattering of hunter gatherers walking lightly – after eating the megafauna that is. Or the absence of serried rows of monocrop whether that be maize or terraced housing?

There’s also the question of at what level of granularity. Does half of Mayfair need to be wild? Half of Surrey? Europe? Or can we offset that really very wild and untamed nature of the Sahara against Europe’s need to be wild – or Africa’s, Mali’s or Timbucktoo’s?

Dependent upon the definitions we could be well over this target or nowhere near it. Making the definitions a pretty important part of the target. The Andaman Islands are populated with humans – are they wild, the islands, or not in the definition to be used?

9

Johnny 05.12.21 at 10:23 am

‘The China Study’ proved conclusively that meat and dairy are deleterious to good health.
A combination of Permaculture and Veganism could make this scenario possible.
Capitalschism is the Dinosaur in the room.

10

Jahi 05.12.21 at 12:09 pm

@Ray: unfortunately not a short paper, but much of my 2018 book’s introsuction is expressly about this. (I’m also not an economist, but I’m fairly well read in the relevant economic literature, and heavily influenced by Nobel winning economist Amartya Sen).

See my website (btehbook.com) ; the first chapter of the book is available as an excerpt at my publisher, U. Of California Press (https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520293090/beginning-to-end-hunger) and a classic piece by Sen is here: https://u.demog.berkeley.edu/~jrw/Biblio/Eprints/%20P-S/sen.1994_NYRev_delusion.reality.pdf

Also instructive is anthropologist Chris Smaje’s writing – https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/ – and this recent article – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350400524_Higher_yields_and_more_biodiversity_on_smaller_farms.

11

Tm 05.12.21 at 12:30 pm

Some of this depends on the definition of “wild state”. It’s unlikely that large territories will simply be abandoned by humans. Approaches to conservation that do not exclude humans may be more realistic.
https://www.vox.com/2021/5/7/22423139/biden-30-by-30-conservation-initiative-historic

12

Omega Centauri 05.12.21 at 3:26 pm

A way to reduce perceived negative impact on humans of such a re-wilding policy, might be to allow partial credit for partially wild land. One instances could be, a windfarm where a couple percent of the land is used to support the wind turbines, but the rest is allowed to be the province of nature. That way the sacrifice to society is at least partly offset. Then we could have large regions, like for example Arctic and subarctic Canada, where occasional mines for highvalue minerals are allowed, but the vast spaces in between are wild.

We might also maintain near-wild spaces, that we apply some management to, perhaps interventions to increase carbon storage and/or increase albedo are allowed.

Of course one issue is that the wild and almost wild spaces are unlikely to be evenly distributed across ecosystem types, but rather will mainly be those places that are of little direct value to humans.

13

Shishnarfne 05.12.21 at 4:15 pm

@Brett

There are some fantastic cross-section drawings of what that was like:
https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/11/an-illustrated-cross-section-of-hong-kongs-infamous-kowloon-walled-city/

14

John Quiggin 05.12.21 at 7:19 pm

15

Brett 05.12.21 at 7:34 pm

@ Shishnarfne #13

Really cool!

Obviously I don’t think we need to go that far in terms of urban density, but it was good food for thought (and the people who lived in Kowloon Walled City liked it, and fought to try and preserve it several times before it was finally torn down).

Just getting us to a dense suburb’s density (5000 to 8000 people/square kilometer) would be a huge improvement. It would greatly enable public transit, reduce heating and electricity costs, and free up tons of land in the process. Do enough of that, and the newly greened land itself will start drawing down a lot of CO2.

16

Stephen Frug 05.12.21 at 9:23 pm

It’s worth mentioning that half-Earth isn’t KSR’s idea. (Many of the ideas in TMFTF aren’t original to KSR, which isn’t a criticism at all.) It was, I believe, first proposed by E. O. Wilson in his book Half-Earth (2016). KSR mentions “Wilson’s great books” at the end of chapter 72, but it’s a bit oblique. He has been more explicit about crediting Wilson with the idea in interviews, however, and that’s clearly where he got it.

17

Moz of Yarramulla 05.13.21 at 2:06 am

I think there is a lot of room to improve digestive efficiency in humans as well. Not by giving us microflora that can digest cellulose or lignin, but just by tweaking it so that more people get more nutrient value from what they already eat.

I eat more, often significantly more, than comparable people around me. This is most noticeable when I’m bushwalking and cycle touring, but it is more generally true. My digestive system is defective in other ways too, I’ve got more food sensitivities than is convenient.

I think that taking people like me and giving us the same food absorbing capacity as the average person would knock 30% or more off our food requirements. Doing a selection process to identify people who are noticeably better than average and see if we can copy their setup to others could well knock 10% or more off total food consumption.

18

reason 05.13.21 at 9:44 am

I am convinced that possibly within my lifetime (I’m 65), probably in the lifetime of my children – that as it is called laboratory meat (will in fact be factory grown meat) – will be feasible and affordable. There are heaps of reasons for doing this beyond environmental impact (to do with the effect on humans of not having to be cruel to animals and to do with antibiotics for instance).

I’m surprised this hasn’t been mentioned so far.

I don’t think super high density mega cities are either necessary or desirable (I live in the Rhein-Main-Gebiet and wouldn’t want to change it. I think it is the way to go – networks of medium sized compact cities and towns.)

We can do this – all it takes is will.

19

Matt 05.13.21 at 10:47 am

the idea of returning half the earth to a more or less wild state. The Half Earth idea isn’t Robinson’s invention – there’s an active society promoting it. But Robinson’s presentation makes it seem more real than an advocacy organization.

I’ve recently been reading the very good, if largely ignored by most philosophers, book Displaced by Development, by Peter Penz, Jay Drydyk, and Pablo Bose. One thing that comes out in it is the way that ideas like the above would face very serious issues with, almost certainly, forced displacement of people. (A very large number of nature preserves and attempts to promote ecological preservation have already involved significant cases of forced displacement, and these have been done on a much smaller scale.) This doesn’t mean these things shouldn’t be considered. Maybe they are the best options, and maybe they will be the only options. But, in my experience, the fact that they will almost certainly require forced displacement of people is often not given as much attention as should be given.

20

Mark Pontin 05.13.21 at 11:14 pm

reason: “I am convinced that possibly within my lifetime (I’m 65), probably in the lifetime of my children – that as it is called laboratory meat (will in fact be factory grown meat)”

Sooner, I suspect.

21

Raven Onthill 05.14.21 at 12:26 am

(in passing.) I proposed leaving half the world wild something like 35 years ago. (“If it were up to me, half the world would be left wild.”) It just seemed like an obvious idea. (Didn’t write about it, though.) Another fictional treatment of rewilding may be found in Brenda Cooper’s Wilders and Keepers.

22

KT2 05.14.21 at 4:37 am

On queue, Nature newsletter “makes it seem more real…”

“Nature-based solutions can help cool the planet — if we act now
12 May 2021

https://media.nature.com/lw800/magazine-assets/d41586-021-01241-2/d41586-021-01241-2_19149538.jpg

“To model this, we consider an ambitious but realistic scenario — an update to previous estimates by one of our co-authors (B.W.G)4,8,9. This scenario considers only those projects for nature-based solutions that are constrained by many factors: they are cost-effective (costing less than US$100 per tonne of CO2 equivalent); ensure adequate global production of food and wood-based products; and involve sufficient biodiversity conservation. They also respect land tenure rights and don’t change the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth, or albedo (see SI). In our scenario, nature-based solutions that avoid emissions ramp up quickly — by 2025 — and absorb carbon while avoiding emissions at a rate of 10 gigatonnes of CO2 per year (Gt CO2 yr−1). This rises to 20 Gt CO2 yr−1 in the most ambitious scenario (peak warming of 1.5 °C by 2055), in which we assume a higher price of carbon. The 10-Gt value is cost-contained. But we also account for 30 years of higher-priced nature-based solutions in the 1.5 °C scenario (up to $200 per tonne of CO2 equivalent; see SI). For comparison, 10 Gt CO2 yr−1 is more than the emissions from the entire global transportation sector.

Achieving 10 Gt CO2 yr−1 of mitigation in this way would involve stopping the destruction of ecosystems worldwide (including 270 million hectares of deforestation); restoring 678 million hectares of ecosystems (more than twice the size of India); and improving the management of around 2.5 billion hectares of land by mid-century4. This is ambitious, but it is important to note that the bulk of land required (85%) comes from improving management of existing lands for agriculture, grazing and production forest without displacing yields of food, wood-based products or fuel (see ‘Three steps to natural cooling’).

“These estimates come with caveats (see SI). “…

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01241-2
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01241-2

23

Ronald 05.15.21 at 2:32 am

Wild animals suffer a lot of pain and suffering. If we were capable of preventing this it would be like eating chocolate while human beings were starving or vaccinating Australians against COVID while people are dying of it in India.

Rather than rewilding the planet, maybe we should fix the wild? Obviously, we’ll have to stop destroying the planet for this goal to make any sense, but assuming that’s done, we should engage in animal welfare. If we can breed gazelles to be chill and feed lions 3D printed fake meat gazelles made from plant products, we’d be arseholes not to.

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