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George Porter

In an attempt to record scientific evidence that the concept of sustained economic growth is an impossibility theorem and a cruel hoax, the Pacific Institute of Resource Management (PIRM) has completed a major research project recorded in a 54-page report titled "Why Sustained Economic Growth Is Not Possible - a Study Based on the World Food Situation". The report is available from PIRM. A summary follows.

The paper presents the findings of twelve scientific enquiries relevant to the validity of the concept of sustained economic growth, the major force driving the world economy.

The first four chapters present scientific knowledge concerning the physical nature of the planet, referred to by its proper name "Earth". Earth consists of a finite mass of minerals that has been adapted on its surface by the prolonged effects of solar energy to produce biomass - the sum total of all life - both plants and animals. The amount of biomass that can be created is limited by the small proportion of the sun's rays that can be harnessed by the process of photosynthesis.

Humans already appropriate an undue proportion of Earth's total biomass to their own use, leaving little room for population growth, increased consumption or other forms of life. The supply of minerals vital to human and animal sustenance - the production of food in particular - is now close to overall limits. Other limits, particularly sinks for the absorption of human waste, have already been passed - the atmosphere being the most critical example.

If urgent, concerted actions were taken without delay, the most dire effects of resource shortages and damage to human health and the environment, could at least be abated. But present efforts are leading in the opposite direction.

The paper also analyses the findings of eight scientific studies of the world food situation to show how the above factors influence production in relation to future population scenarios. Each study approaches the subject from a different angle but uses the same data. Together they reveal a more serious situation than currently appreciated.

In short, the opportunities for increasing food production are severely limited and insufficient to feed future population numbers. In fact, opportunities to increase food production volumes are already close to their limits.

The studies analyse and assess the opportunities to increase production and factors that will cause loss of productivity. They reveal that little unused land is suitable for food production without disturbing other vital functions. Limits to irrigation are close because of growing water shortages, high costs, and dangers of salinisation and waterlogging. Technology seems to have reached the limits, though opportunities still exist to improve quality and product range. Soil erosion continues at a massive rate of eight billion tonnes a year, accompanied by a loss of natural soil fertility, the effects of which are masked by increasing application of chemicals.

Other factors considered are the effects of urbanisation and industrial development; biotic stresses; climatic change; freshwater inputs; conservation practices; precipitation patterns; acidification; pests and diseases; UV radiation; fertiliser use; biotechnology; water and wind erosion and nutrient loss.

Taking the most favourable scenarios, the potential for increased production can only marginally increase food volume. To feed the ten billion predicted in the UN medium scenario for 2050, a 300 percent increase would be needed to feed everyone an adequate diet. On average, 0.5 hectares of productive land per capita is needed for a balanced diet. At present 0.27 hectares is available. A doubling of world population would reduce the figure to half this again or about one quarter of that needed.

Actions essential to minimise growing mass starvation from early in the 21st century would be to slow, and eventually reverse population growth; to increase efficiencies; to harness solar energy; to phase out chemical use and industrialised food production and processing; ensure equitable distribution, and reverse linear carbon and nutrient flows.

Maintaining soil productivity on a sustainable basis is dependent on reversing mineral nutrient loss.

Sustainability is dependent on returning minerals used in production processes to the land, for these elements are essential to continued viable food production.

The report points to the type of scientific research needed to move in this direction.

The conclusions summarised are:

  1. There is overwhelming evidence that the current scale of human activity is making unsustainable demands on the resources of Earth.
  2. As the total stock of resources is limited, the permanent loss of non-renewable elements, especially carbon and nutrients, permanently reduces natural capital stocks.
  3. World food production is being maintained by the application of chemicals. This destroys the natural fertility of the soil and the soil itself through continual erosion.
  4. To meet current needs, world food production needs to increase by 50% and to meet needs by 2050 by up to 300% if widespread starvation is to be avoided. Supply cannot approach this level.
  5. Even these unfavourable conclusions are based on the best-case scenarios. The reality is likely to be more adverse.
  6. Essential remedial measures are to:
    • Minimise urgently the growth in human numbers.
    • Increase efficiencies and minimise human demands for scarce resources.
    • Convert food production methods to sustainable regimes.
    • Reverse negative carbon and mineral nutrient flows.
    • Ensure equitable distribution of food supplies as the first step in alleviating poverty.
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