Sunday, November 24, 2013

People, People Everywhere!

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the maximum sustainable human population, given current technology and land forms. But what if we got rid of those constraints and made some plausible guesses about future technology? How high can we go from 25 billion?

The biggest improvement would come from increasing crop yields. Yesterday's assumptions were a mostly vegetarian diet produced with modern organic yields. However, crop yields are slowly and steadily increasing, including organic at places like Rodale Intitute, a leading organic research farm. Additionally, if you combined organic with genetically modified organisms and otherwise got rid of some of the anti-scientific elements of the organic movement, it is easy to imagine increasing crop yields significantly.

There are other potential tricks up our sleeve as well. For example, climate change will have a mixed effect on crop yields, as CO2 fertilization battles it out with water stress and desertification. If we can mitigate the latter, crop yields for many staples could increase by 10-15%. Or we could get more wild, and used space-based reflectors to alter seasons, cooling the equatorial regions and warming the arctic areas in particular, perhaps by lengthening the evenings in the cooler half of the year. This would result in longer growing seasons (or multiple seasons) than is the current case, increasing yields. We could also engage in cloud seeding and increase rainfall in areas that are water-constrained. All in all, we might be able to increase crop yields by a third or half relative to modern organic practice, feeding an extra 8-12 billion, on current land.

Also, fungi are a possible food source that I did not mention yesterday. They can be grown underground using forest waste as their food source, providing us with just a bit more food. Another trick we might use is ocean fertilization, to increase the productivity of the oceans by seeding the relatively dead areas with the minerals that are constraining biological activity. Of course, land reclamation from the ocean is also possible in some places. This land could be used either for farming directly or more likely, used for living space, freeing up interior lands for farming. Synthetic foods are another real possibility, and may beat out photosynthesis on a total energy basis. If this were ever successful, the maximum population could be substantially higher. It is almost impossible to estimate at this point, however.

If solar PV efficiency increases (and it will), naturally less land will be used. So yesterday's land use assumptions were unnecessarily pessimistic, and the reality would be that some of the land assigned to PV could be reassigned to food production. Also note that we can (and do) get some of our energy from other renewable sources such as hydro, wind, tidal, and geothermal, which are more space efficient. Ignoring these made yesterday's estimates too high. Likewise, I assumed that the new population would live on the same land as we are currently using, but if we wanted to, we could go even higher density than that. It is certainly possible, and this would reclaim more land - often prime farm land - for food production. On top of all this, wide-scale terraforming is possible. Much of the marginal land that was assigned as "Other" or meadows or unfarmable forest is unfarmable precisely because it is hilly. We have bulldozers, and lots of time, making it possible to reclaim some of this land for productive use.

Oh, and there is no reason we cannot change ourselves. Using genetic engineering, we could make ourselves smaller and select for the most energy efficient among us, cutting our caloric needs dramatically.

Combining all this, I can certainly imagine something like 40 or even 50 billion people living on earth, in a sustainable manner, with a level of comfort similar to that of the citizens of modern industrial economies.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

To 25 Billion...and beyond!

What is the maximum number of people that could live in reasonable comfort on earth in a sustainable manner? It really depends on how you frame the question and the assumptions you make, but for the moment, my assumptions are current technology applied optimally (in other words, ignoring political restraints). The answer is probably a lot higher than you think.

Fundamentally, it boils down to land, food production, and energy production. The current distribution of our 32.4 billion acres of land looks something like this:

Over a third of the world is still covered in forest. Only a ninth is actively farmed. Our buildings, roads, and other human features only physically occupy a bit over one percent. Over 40% is covered with grasslands, scrub, or meadows of various quality, much of which is used for grazing. The remaining 16% is mountains, rocks, and ice. This land currently supports our population of 7.1 billion, but most certainly not in a sustainable manner. Can we do better?

Let's assume a world of 25 billion people. This article finds that crops based around a balanced, various and healthy vegetarian diet yield a combined yield of 2.4 million calories per acre using mostly organic techniques. Assuming 3000 calories per day per person (2000-2500 actually consumed, plus waste and spoilage), an increase in cropland from 11% to 35% (11.4 billion acres) would be required. Is this possible? Yes it is. In fact, only a fraction of the world's farmable land is actually farmed. This source indicates that there are actually 10.3 billion arable acres available, close to our 25 billion person target of 11.4 billion. It is fair to assume that we can grow, raise, or harvest 10% of our crops on non-arable land. For example, greenhouses for raising vegetables, or sustainably raised meat. Most of this new farm land would be found in the currently forested parts of the world, with smaller amounts coming from the grasslands, scrublands, pastures and meadows.

As for meat, we could no longer consume as we currently do, as we spend several calories of grain to make one calorie of meat. Obviously, in the 25 billion person world, every calorie counts. However, if we were to use half of the grasslands, scrublands, meadows and pastures for grazing, we could raise about half a billion head of grass-fed cattle (or equivalent weights of sheep or other animals), enough to provide each person with about 35 lbs of meat per year. Additionally, with diligent attention and management, we probably can harvest about ten pounds of fish per person each year. This would represent only about 80% of current production, which is clearly unsustainable.

What about energy? Assuming an entirely solar photovoltaic system, energy production averages 5-20 W/m2 depending on location. To provide everyone with 200 GJ per year (above the average Japanese, below the average American), and assuming we can average 15 W/m2 by placing most of our solar panels in the sunny deserts, it would require 2.6 billion acres to provide power to all 25 billion people. This is about 8% of the world's surface, the majority of which would come from the "other" wasteland category, scrub lands, or even piggy-backing on rooftops on developed land.

How about wood, cotton, and other fibers? For wood, the average American consume 1900 kg per person per year. Assuming we can cut that down to 700 kg of bamboo and 500 kg of hardwood, at 44000 kg and 6600 kg of wood/acre/year respectively, we would have to intensively tree farm about 2.3 billion acres, or 7% of the world's surface. Likewise, at current American cotton consumption of 3.3 kg per year and production rates of 700 kg per acre, about 100 million acres would need to be diverted to cotton production. Another 100 million would be required for other fiber or industrial crops. This amounts to 0.6% of the world's surface, which we can include in the cropland category.

So what does the distribution of land use look like after we make these changes?

Obviously, there are some things not to like. Half of the world's forest cover would be gone, and nearly half of what remains would be intensively managed. Somewhere between a quarter and a half of the other natural land types would be consumed as well, and half of the remaining lands potentially useful for grazing would be used as such. Less than a third of the world would be unused. However, that is more than you might think: only around 10-15% of the earth's land is currently protected as parks, national forests, or the like, so if this unused third was distributed intelligently, there would be plenty of natural areas accessible to people for recreation and at least a bare minimum for wildlife to continue to exist. This is obviously sub-optimal from this respect, but there is no way to achieve a high human population that doesn't demand sacrifices.

So yes, there is nothing stopping us from having a dramatically higher population than we currently do, or are ever projected to have, other than our own stupidity. Unfortunately, that is a vast mountain to climb.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Gerrymandering...

Gerrymandering - the process of drawing political districts in such a manner as to favor your political party - is an abhorrent abomination and its existence representative of a major flaw in our Constitution. At the US Congressional level, it has become so bad that Republicans were able to capture a solid majority of seats while getting fewer votes than Democrats. One question that came to my mind was to ask how common such an occurrence was, so I dug up the data going back to the WWII era (via Wikipedia), and combined it below.

In the 34 election cycles represented, only three times - 1952, 1996, and 2012, did a party win a majority of seats without winning the two-party vote. All three times favored Republicans. On only three other occasions (1994, 2008, 2010) did the party that won the two-party vote receive a smaller share of seats than share of votes (1994 pro-Democrat, 2008/10 pro-Republican). You would expect this to be rare in a winner-take-all districting system. Indeed, if people were distributed homogenously with respect to partisanship, 50.1% of the vote would be enough to capture every seat! Clearly, we are not distributed homogenously, so the minority party still receives substantial representation. However, in 28/34 elections, they have won fewer seats than their share of the vote.

So is there evidence of gerrymandering in that data? Yes, substantially evidence in fact, with a huge turning point coming in 1994. I have plotted share of vote versus share of seats below, split before and after the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

Prior to 1994, there was clearly a pro-Democratic bias to the data, with Democrats receiving approximately 24 more seats than Republicans for the same share of votes. However, Democrats were winning those elections by substantial margins and basically this amounted to padding their already formidable lead. At no point did they ever steal control of the House. In fact during this stretch, Republicans managed to swipe one election.

In contrast, a sea change occurred in 1994. Not only did Republicans start winning elections, but the gerrymandering flipped in their favor, with an approximate 14 seat advantage since that time. A careful look at the data reveals something else as well: the slopes of the lines have changed significantly. Prior to 1994, a 1% change in the vote resulted in a shift of about 7.9 seats. Post 1994, this has shifted to only 3.7 seats, implying that incumbents are much more heavily protected than they used to be. This also implies that Republican's 14 seat advantage is actually harder to dislodge than the old 24-seat Democratic advantage, because the latter could be beaten with a 3% vote advantage while the current Republican advantage would take a 4% victory to defeat. In fact, it is likely worse than that now. The 2012 election, which occurred after very favorable redistricting for Republicans, resulted in Republicans capturing 234 seats vs a predicted 214 for the model, an over-performance of 20 seats. This districting, which is largely fixed until the 2022 elections, could be giving Republicans as much as a 6% advantage in the vote, implying Democrats would need to capture around 53% of the total vote just to win a bare majority. At no time in our modern history has such a wide gap existed.

I find it ironic that the Founder's will has been flipped on its head. Originally, Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, and Representatives, in accordance with the Constitution, were chosen by the people. The 17th amendment resulted in direct election of Senators by the people, but gerrymandering has largely caused the House election to be controlled by the state legislatures who draw the districts!

I call on all my fellow citizens to help end the practice of gerrymandering, by taking districting out of patently partisan hands and moving it to a commission-based model that has been successful in a number of states with respect to drawing more compact, fairer, and more competitive districts.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

How to Destroy a Planet

Relativistic Kill Vehicles

Seriously, if you are doing it any other way, you are doing it wrong. That includes Death Stars, Imperial Fleets, transphasic red matter quantum torpedoes, or any other silly nonsense normally found in the sci-fi canon. You just need to accelerate two ten-ton blocks of steel to 0.99 times the speed of light, aim them at your target planet such that they approach from opposite sides nearly simultaneously, detonate them a ways out so that they hit your target like birdshot, and then sit back and wait a few years for the dust to settle. Each 1 kilogram fragment (of which you just sent 20,000) would release an amount of energy similar to the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated.  Virtually all advanced life would be wiped out, and a few years you can move in and take over your fresh new planet.

I bet you thought this post was going to be political, didn't you?