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A decade of discontinuity.

The 1980s may have been the last decade in which humankind could anticipate a future of ever-increasing productivity on all fronts. By one measure after another, the boom we have experienced since mid-century is coming to an end.

When the history of the late 20th century is written, the 1990s will be seen as a decade of discontinuity - a time when familiar trends that had seemed likely to go on forever, like smooth straight roads climbing toward an ever-receding horizon, came to abrupt bends or junctures and began descending abruptly. The world's production of steel, for example, had risen almost as reliably each year as the sun rises in the morning. The amount of coal extracted had risen almost uninterruptedly ever since the Industrial Revolution began. Since the middle of this century, the harvest of grain had grown even faster than population, steadily increasing the amount available both for direct consumption and for conversion into livestock products. The oceanic fish catch, likewise, had more than quadrupled during this period, doubling the consumption of seafood per person.

These rising curves were seen as basic measures of human progress; we expected them to rise. But now, within just a few years, these trends have reversed - and with consequences we have yet to grasp. Meanwhile, other trends that were going nowhere, or at most rising slowly, are suddenly soaring.

That such basic agricultural and industrial outputs should begin to decline, while population continues to grow, has engendered disquieting doubts about the future. These reversals, and others likely to follow, are dwarfing the discontinuities that occurred during the 1970s in the wake of the 1973 rise in oil prices. At that time, an overnight tripling of oil prices boosted energy prices across the board, slowed the growth in automobile production, and spurred investment in energy-efficient technologies, creating a whole new industry.

The discontinuities of the 1990s are far more profound, originating not with a handful of national political leaders as with the OPEC ministers of the 1970s, but in the collision between expanding human numbers and needs on the one hand and the constraints of the earth's natural systems on the other. Among these constraints are the capacity of the oceans to yield seafood, of grasslands to produce beef and mutton, of the hydrological cycle to produce fresh water, of crops to use fertilizer, of the atmosphere to absorb CFCs, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, of people to breathe polluted air, and of forests to withstand acid rain.

Though we may not have noticed them, these constraints drew dramatically closer between 1950 and 1990, as the global economy expanded nearly fivefold. Expansion on this scale inevitably put excessive pressure on the earth's natural systems, upsetting the natural balances that had lent some stability to historical economic trends. The trends were driven, in part by unprecedented population growth. Those of us born before 1950 have seen world population double. In 1950, 37 million people were added to the world's population. Last year, it was 91 million.

Against the Grain

The production of grain, perhaps the most basic economic measure of human well-being, increased 2.6 fold from 1950 to 1984. Expanding at nearly 3 percent per year, it outstripped population growth, raising per capita grain consumption by 40 percent over the 34-year period, improving nutrition and boosting consumption of livestock products - meat, milk, eggs, and cheese - throughout the world.

That period came to an end, ironically, around the time the United States withdrew its funding from the United Nations Population Fund. During the eight years since 1984, world grain output has expanded perhaps one percent per year. In per capita terms, this means grain production has shifted from its steady rise over the previous 34 years to a decline of one percent per year since then - a particularly troubling change both because grain is a basic source of human sustenance and because of the likely difficulty in reversing it (see Figure 1).

This faltering of basic foodstuffs was triggered by other, earlier discontinuities of growth - in the supply of cropland, irrigation water, and agricultural technologies. Cropland, measured in terms of grain harvested area, expanded more or less continuously from the beginning of agriculture until 1981. The spread of agriculture, initially from valley to valley and eventually from continent to continent, had come to a halt. Since 19 8 1, it has not increased. Gains of cropland in some countries have been offset by losses in others, as land is converted to nonfarm uses and abandoned because of erosion.

Irrigation, which set the stage for the emergence of early civilization, expanded gradually over a span of at least 5,000 years. After the middle of this century, the growth in irrigated area accelerated, averaging nearly 3 percent per year until 1978. Around that time, however, as the number of prime dam construction sites diminished and underground aquifers were depleted by overpumping, the growth of irrigated area fell behind that of population. Faced with a steady shrinkage of cropland area per person from mid-century onward, the world's farmers since 1978 have faced a shrinking irrigated area per person as well.

Although there was little new land to plow from mid-century onward, the world's farmers were able to achieve the largest expansion of food output in history by dramatically raising land productivity. The engine of growth was fertilizer use, which increased ninefold in three decades - from 14 million tons in 1950 to 126 million tons in 1984 - before starting to slow (see Figure 2).

In 1990, the rise in fertilizer use - what had been one of the most predictable trends in the world economy - was abruptly reversed. It has fallen some 10 percent during the three years since the 1989 peak of 146 million tons. Economic reforms in the former Soviet Union, which removed heavy fertilizer subsidies, account for most of the decline. Letting fertilizer prices move up to world market levels, combined with weakened demand for farm products, dropped fertilizer use in the former Soviet Union by exactly half between 1988 and 1992. This was an anomalous decline, from which there should eventually be at least a partial recovery.

More broadly, however, growth in world fertilizer use has slowed simply because existing grain varieties in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan cannot economically use much more fertilizer. U.S. farmers, matching applications more precisely to crop needs, actually used nearly one-tenth less fertilizer from 1990 to 1992 than they did a decade earlier. Using more fertilizer in agriculturally advanced countries does not have much effect on production with available varieties.

The backlog of unused agricultural technology that began to expand rapidly in the mid- 19th century now appears to be diminishing. In 1847, German agricultural chemist Justus von Leibig discovered that all the nutrients removed by plants could be returned to the soil in their pure form. A decade later, Gregor Mendel discovered the basic principles of genetics, setting the stage for the eventual development of high-yielding, fertilizer-responsive crop varieties. As the geographic frontiers of agricultural expansion disappeared in the mid-20th century, the adoption of high-yielding varieties and rapid growth in fertilizer use boosted land productivity dramatically. In the 1960s, an array of advanced technologies for both wheat and rice producers was introduced into the Third World - giving rise to a growth in grain output that was more rapid than anything that had occurred earlier, even in the industrial countries.

Although it cannot be precisely charted, the backlog of unused agricultural technology must have peaked at least a decade ago. Most of the know means of raising food output are in wide use. The highest-yielding rice variety available to farmers in Asia in 1993 was released in 1966 - more than a quarter-century ago. Today, the more progressive farmers are peering over the shoulders of agricultural scientists looking for new help in boosting production, only to find that not much is forth-coming. Agricultural scientists are worried that the rapid advance in technology characterizing the middle decades of this century may not be sustainable.

Less Meat and Less Fish

The growth in meat production, like that of grain, is slowing. Between 1950 and 1987, world meat production increased from 46 million tons to 161 million tons - boosting the amount per person from 18 kilograms in 1980 to 32 kilograms (about 70 pounds) in 1987. Since then, however, it has not increased at all. The one percent decline in per capita production in 1992 may be the beginning of a gradual world decline in per capita meat production, another major discontinuity.

Underlying this slowdown in overall meat production is a rather dramatic slowdown in the production of beef and mutton, resulting from the inability of grasslands to support more cattle and sheep. From 1950 to 1990, world beef output increased 2.5-fold. Now, with grasslands almost fully used - or overused - on every continent, this growth may be nearing an end. From 1990 to 1992, per capita beef production for the world fell 6 percent.

The supply of fish, like that of meat, no longer keeps pace with increases in human numbers. Here, too, there has been a reversal of the historic trend. Between 1950 and 1989, the global catch expanded from 22 million tons to 100 million tons. The per capita seafood supply increased from 9 to 19 kilograms during this period. Since 1989, the catch has actually declined slightly, totalling an estimated 97 million tons in 1992 (see Figure 3). United Nations marine biologists believe that the oceans have reached their limit and may not be able to sustain a yield of more than 100 million tons per year

Throughout this century, it has been possible to increase the fish take by sending out more ships, using more sophisticated fishing technologies, and going, literally, to the farthest reaches of the ocean. That expansion has now come to an end. The world's ocean catch per capita declined 7 percent from 1989 until 1992, and is likely to continue declining as long as population continues to grow. As a result, seafood prices are rising steadily.

Getting more animal protein, whether it be in the form of beef or farm-raised fish, now depends on feeding grain and soybean meal. Those desiring to maintain animal protein intake now compete with those trying to consume more grain directly.

Fossil Fuels: The Beginning of the End

While biological constraints are forcing discontinuities in agriculture and oceanic fisheries, it is atmospheric constraints - the mounting risks associated with pollution and global warming - that are altering energy trends. Throughout the world energy economy, there are signs that a major restructuring is imminent. On the broadest level, this will entail a shifting of investment from fossil fuels and nuclear power toward renewables - and toward greater energy efficiency in every human activity.

We cannot yet see the end of the fossil fuel age, but we can see the beginning of its decline. World oil production peaked in 1979 (see Table 1). Output in 1992 was four percent below that historical high. World coal production dropped in 1990, in 1991, and again in 1992 (partly because of the recession), interrupting a growth trend that had spanned two centuries. If strong global warming policies are implemented, this could be the beginning of a long-term decline in coal dependence.
Table 1. Growth and Decline
in Production of Fossil Fuels, 1950-92
 Growth Period Decline Period
Fossil Fuel Years Annual Rate Years Annual Rate
 (percent) (percent)
Oil 1950-79 + 6.4 1979-92 - 0.5
Coal 1950-89 + 2.2 1989-92 - 0.6
Natural Gas 1950-92 + 6.2


Of the three fossil fuels, only natural gas is expanding output rapidly and is assured of substantial future growth. Gas burns cleanly and produces less carbon dioxide than the others, and is therefore less likely to be constrained by stricter environmental policies. While oil production has fallen since 1979, gas production has risen by one-third.

With oil, it was the higher price that initially arrested growth. More recently, it has been the pall of automotive air pollution in cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City and Rome that has slowed the once-unrestrained growth in motor vehicle use and, therefore, in oil use. With coal, it was neither supply nor price (the world has at least a few centuries of coal reserves left), but the effects of air pollution on human health, of acid rain on forests and crops, and of rising [CO.sub.2] concentrations on the earth's climate that have sent the industry into decline. Several industrial countries have committed themselves to reducing carbon emissions. Germany, for example, plans to cut carbon emissions 25 percent by 2005. Switzerland is shooting for a 10 percent cut by 2000, and Australia for 20 percent by 2005. Others, including the United States, may soon join them.

With the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age in sight, what then will be used to power the world economy? Fifteen years ago, many would have said, with little hesitation, that nuclear power will. Once widely thought to be the energy source of the future, it has failed to live up to its promise (the problems of waste disposal and safety have proved expensive and intractable) and is being challenged on economic grounds in most of the countries where it is produced.

Nuclear generating capacity reached its historical peak in 1990. Though it has declined only slightly since then, it now seems unlikely that there will be much, if any, additional growth in nuclear generating capacity during this decade - and perhaps ever.

The Winds of Change

Even as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have faltered, three new technologies that harness energy directly or indirectly from the sun to produce electricity - solar thermal power plants, photovoltaic cells, and wind generators - are surging. In wind power, particularly, breakthroughs in turbine technology are setting the stage for rapid expansion in the years ahead. Wind electricity generated in California already produces enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Indeed, it now seems likely that during the 1990s, the growth in wind generating capacity will exceed that in nuclear generating capacity. Three countries - Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany - have plans to develop a minimum of a thousand megawatts of mind generating capacity by 2005. China aims to reach the same goal by 2000. Given the rapid advances in the efficiency of wind generating machines and the falling costs of wind generated electricity, the growth in wind power over the remainder of this decade could dwarf even current expectations.

The potential for wind power far exceeds that of hydropower, which currently supplies the world with one-fifth of its electricity. England and Scotland alone have enough wind generating potential to satisfy half of Europe's electricity needs. Two U.S. states - Montana and Texas - each have enough wind to satisfy the whole country's electricity needs. The upper Midwest (the Dakotas east through Ohio) could supply the country's electricity without siting any wind turbines in either densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas. And wind resource assessments by the government of China have documented 472,000 megawatts of wind generating potential, enough to raise China's electricity supply threefold.

For Third World villages not yet connected to a grid, a more practical source is photovoltaic arrays, which may already have a competitive advantage. With the World Bank beginning to support this technology, costs will fall fast, making photovoltaic cells even more competitive. Wind, photovoltaic cells, and solar thermal power plants all promise inexpensive electricity as the technologies continue to advance and as the economies of scale expand. Over the longer term, cheap solar electricity in various forms will permit the conversion of electricity into hydrogen, which mill offer an efficient means of energy transportation and storage.

Technological advances that increase the efficiency of energy use are in some ways even more dramatic than the advances in harnessing solar and wind resources. Striking gains have been made in the energy efficiency of electric lighting, electric motors, the thermal efficiency of windows, and cogenerating technologies that produce both electricity and heat. One of the most dramatic, as recently noted in World Watch (May/June 1993), is the new compact fluorescent light bulb - which can supply the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb while using only one-fourth as much electricity. The 134 million compact fluorescent bulbs sold worldwide in 1992 saved enough electricity to close 10 large coal-fired power plants.

The discontinuities that have wreaked havoc with once-reliable trends are not random, but reflect an escalating awareness of the need to transform the global economy into one that is sustainable. They reflect the unavoidable reality that we have entered an era in which satisfying the needs of the 91 million people being added each year depends on reducing consumption among those already here. At this rate, by the year 2010, this growth will amount to a net addition equal to nearly 200 cities the size of New York, or 100 countries the size of Iraq - dramatically reducing the per capita availability of cropland and irrigation water. At some point, as people begin to grasp the implications of this new reality, population policy will become a central concern national governments.

Economic Entropy

Whether in basic foodstuffs and fresh water, or in overall economic output, the decade of discontinuity has begun. Growth in the world economy reached its historical high at 5.2 percent per year during the 1960s (see Table 2). It then slowed to 3.4 percent per year in the 1970s, and 2.9 percent in the 1980s. Despite this slowdown, the per capita output of goods and services rose as overall economic growth stayed ahead of population growth. Now that, too, may be reversing.
Table 2. World Economic Growth by
Decade, 1950-93

 Annual Growth
 of World Annual Growth
Decade Economy Per Person
1950-60 4.9 3.1
1960-70 5.2 3.2
1970-80 3.4 1.6
1980-90 2.9 1.1
1990-93 (prel.) 0.9 -0.8


From 1990 to 1992, the world economy expanded at 0.6 percent per year. If the International Monetary Fund's recent projection of 2.2 percent in world economic growth for 1993 materializes, we will find ourselves three years into this decade with an income per person nearly 2 percent lower than it was when the decade began. Even using an economic accounting system that overstates progress because it omits environmental degradation and the depletion of natural capital, living standards are falling.

Evidence is accumulating that the world economy is not growing as easily in the 1990s as it once did. The conventional economic wisdom concerning the recession of the early 1990s attributes it to economic mismanagement in the advanced industrial countries (particularly the United States, Germany, and Japan) and to the disruption associated with economic reform in the centrally planned economies. These are obviously the dominant forces slowing world economic growth, but they are not the only ones. As noted above, growth in the fishing industry, which supplies much of the world's animal protein, may have stopped. Growth in the production of beef, mutton, and other livestock products from the world's rangelands may also be close to an end. The world grain harvest shows little prospect of being able to keep pace with population, much less to eliminate hunger. And scarcities of fresh water are limiting economic expansion in many countries. With constraints emerging in these primary economic sectors - sectors on which much of the Third World depends - we may be moving into an era of slower economic growth overall.

The popular question of "growth or no growth" now seems largely irrelevant. A more fundamental question is how to satisfy the basic needs of the world's people without further disrupting or destroying the economy's support systems. The real challenge for the 1990s is that of deciding how the basic needs of all people can be satisfied without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations.

Of all the discontinuities that have become apparent in the past few years, however, it is an upward shift in the population growth trend itself that may be most disturbing. The progress in slowing human population growth so evident in the 1970s has stalled - with alarming implications for the long-term population trajectory. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, declining fertility held out hope for getting the brakes on population growth before it began to undermine living standards. The 1980s, however, turned out to be a lost decade, one in which the United States not only abdicated its leadership role, but also withdrew all financial support from the U.N. Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This deprived millions of couples in the Third World of access to the family planning services needed to control the number or timing of their children.

The concern that population growth could undermine living standards has become a reality in this decade of discontinuity. There is now a distinct possibility that the grain supply per person will be lower at the end of this decade than at the beginning, that the amount of seafood per person will be substantially less, and that the amount of meat per person will also be far less than it is today.

The absence of any technology to reestablish the rapid growth in food production that existed from 1950 to 1984 is a matter of deepening concern. In early 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London together issued a report that warned: "If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world."

Later in the year, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement signed by nearly 1,600 of the world's leading scientists, including 96 Nobel Prize recipients, noting that the continuation of destructive human activities "may so alter the living world that it mill be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know." The statement warned: "A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

The discontinuities reshaping the global economy define the challenge facing humanity in the next few years. It is a challenge not to the survival of our species, but to civilization as we know it. The question we can no longer avoid asking is whether our social institutions are capable of quickly slowing and stabilizing population growth without infringing on human rights. Even as that effort gets underway, the same institutions face the complex issue of how to distribute those resources that are no longer expanding, among a population that is continuing to grow by record numbers each year.
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Author:Brown, Lester R.
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:3811
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