Because I grew up on a farm and have written for and about farmers most of my life, I probably zeroed in one on comment more than others in the audience did when Hans van der Loo delivered his keynote address at the Rural Talks to Rural conference in Blyth in October.
In his talk called “Wake Up – This is (Y)Our Only Home” van der Loo, a former vice-president of Royal Dutch Shell and EU Ambassador for the EU STEM Coalition, looked back at the millions of years of the earth’s history and the relatively short period of human history and examined the huge challenges we face dealing with climate change.
That’s where he made his statement that made me take notice. He noted that in the days when humans depended on the solar energy that fell on the earth each year, ownership of land was one of the key indicators of how well people did. But with the discovery of fossil fuels – 500 million years of the land’s stored solar energy harvested by plants – people were able to leverage land for a better life that allowed people to develop cities and businesses not tied to the land. As well as the solar power that falls on earth each year we also use 4.3 million years worth of solar energy stored up in oil, natural gas and coal.
Fossil fuels have made exponential growth possible, van der Loo said. It took the entire history of man until the 1840s for the human population to reach one billion. In the 170 years since the human population is now seven billion! Each one of those people uses more of the earth’s resources than each individual in 1840.
Over and over, exponential growth was a key component in van der Loo’s presentation. We expect our economy to grow each year, but years of two per cent or five per cent growth soon results in a doubling of our output.
Most world leaders realize the fossil fuel economy can’t continue, he said, but they put their faith in the electrification of our society as a way to keep things growing. They overlook one key necessity for that to happen. Electrification requires copper for wire. Already the ore we’re digging from the earth has one-quarter as much copper as the ore mined in 1900. The exponential growth required for massive electrification will require more copper than we can mine. “It’s biophysically impossible to electrify the world,” he said.
While world leaders predict continued two per cent growth each year, based on their lived reality of the last 30-40 years, van der Loo sees our economy shrinking by 50 per cent. But here exponential growth works backwards, he says. For instance if our economy was to be turned back 30 per cent, our standard of living would slip back to the early 1990s, not exactly a time of hardship.
I managed to catch up with van der Loo over lunch on the last day of the conference and asked him if land was more important before we began using fossil fuels, if it will become more important when fossil fuels fade in importance due to climate change. It will, he said, but the problem is that farmers won’t be able to multiply production by using fossil fuels to power their equipment or create fertilizers as they do now.
But that’s where two of van der Loo’s keys to the future come from, I argued. The two resources he sees that are not limited are education and innovation. Today’s educated farmers know, or at least have the ability to know, more about maximizing the natural capabilities of the soil than any previous generation.
If we put our education and innovation toward making the most of our land in a post-fossil-fuel era, we can go a long way toward helping humanity cope with the changes van der Loo sees as inevitable.◊