Dec 8th 2015

After a 400-year population boom, we need to reconnect with the sun

by Tony Ryan

Pro-vice Chancellor for Science and Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield

For almost all of our species’ 200,000-year history, man’s relationship with the Earth was no different to that of any other animal. All their energy was provided directly by the sun. Sunlight captured by plants using photosynthesis was converted into food and fuel. They ate roots, fruits and grains (and animals that also ate roots, fruits and grains) to provide their bodies with energy. They burned wood to keep themselves warm and fat to provide light at night.

It was a successful strategy for survival and over tens of thousands of years the human population spread across six continents.

However, locked in to this natural solar cycle, there was a limit to how many people their lifestyle could support, and the total number of inhabitants fluctuated below 500m depending on disease, wars and food supply.

Then, 350 years ago, everything changed. We began to supplement our energy needs with coal and oil (humans had been using coal since pre-historic times but not on a large scale). This was still energy from sunshine, but this time millions of years old. In less than two centuries the human population exploded, doubling in size to 1 billion people. It has continued to grow ever since, but the rate of change has increased significantly. It took 100,000 years to reach the first billion people: today we are adding a further billion every 12 years. The result is a huge squeeze on all natural resources. Over the next two decades we will witness huge increases in demand for energy, food and water – a perfect storm.

Comparison of world population estimates. Growth has slowed – but it’s still not sustainable. Max Roser / OurWorldInData, CC BY-SA

This is our fourth century of exponential population growth. In the past, humans coped by burning more fossilised sunshine in the form of coal, oil and gas, and expanding the amount of land under cultivation or using more artificially-produced fertiliser. But those solutions simply won’t work any more, not least because of anthropomorphic climate change caused by the release of carbon dioxide from the combustion of those fossil fuels. Our remaining stocks of fossilised sunshine are harder to get at and we are running out of fresh water and new places we can farm. A new study by colleagues of mine found that one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to pollution and erosion over the past 40 years.

Looking to the future, the key question is not simply: “How many people are there going to be?” but rather: “How are they all going to live?”

In 2012, the Royal Society sought to address this issue in a publication called People and the Planet. This report’s frank conclusion was that in the developed and emerging economies, consumption has reached unsustainable levels and must be reduced immediately. It claims that the increase in population will “entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. This change is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for all.”

We have been here many times before. The whole of human history is essentially the story – albeit usually on a local scale – of population growth and increasing competition for resources. Since ancient times wars have been fought over land, water, food, fuel, metals and other natural capital, while many civilisations have also faced destruction as a result of disease, famine and shortages.

Researchers analysed 2,000 years of Chinese climate data and found turbulent periods matched up with drought years. The Battle of Oroi-Jalatu, 1756

Where we have overcome these challenges in the past it is invariably ingenuity and innovation that have provided the solution. And we will require those same qualities in abundance, because we have never had to tackle problems of this magnitude before, nor on a global scale.

Achieving this goal is possible and realistic, but it will not be easy.

It will not happen by accident and it will bring changes for all of us, both in the way that we live and in what we consume. It is without doubt the biggest challenge of our age.

This statement is not intended to belittle the impact of climate change, but the repercussions of global warming will play out over decades; we have some time to adapt and respond to the consequences. In contrast we are already living with the results of explosive population growth: rising fuel and food prices, wars, immigration, famine, energy shortages and economic uncertainty.

These issues affect us all today and all are a direct consequence of adding one million people to the population of the world every five days.

Big problems usually require radical solutions, but there are genuine grounds for optimism. Fundamentally, we need to reconnect the global economy with the sun and live within our means, just as we did in the past. Capturing a single hour of the sunlight that reaches the Earth – a tiny fraction of our star’s output – would meet our global energy needs for a whole year.

Harnessing the power of the sun will allow us to meet the increasing food and energy needs of the world’s population in the context of an uncertain climate and global environment change.

Sustainable routes to food and energy security can be found, but time is of the essence and the clock is ticking.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "