Clean, Cheap, and Abundant Energy Will Decrease the Human Footprint
Tired of all the environmental gloom and doom? Well, here’s a reason to be optimistic about the Earth’s future…the prospects of clean, cheap, and abundant future energy (think renewables, and possibly fusion power) will likely increase fruit and vegetable hothouse farming, which will optimize agriculture and decrease the need for ag land use. The dominant mode of ag animal raising will become “free range” on marginal grasslands, also creating an environment enhancement. The combination will restore much of the world’s damaged habitat.
The world is trending towards a kind of semi-urban sensibility, in which some predict a world population peak of 9.5 billion by 2050, and a reduction to 9 billion by 2100 (then trending downward). This essentially reflects a change in agricultural efficiency from say 100 years ago, when many rural dwellers had large families in order to work relatively low-yield farms. Along with the trending away from rural family farms are further advances in agriculture (higher yields optimizing water and fertilizer use), and the awareness that more fruits/veggies/whole grain, less meat/dairy/cheap carbs are the optimal diet. All told, the world is trending away from intensive land use, and towards optimized indoor hothouses and aquaponics. The only thing holding this back is the energy expense of heating/lighting these hothouses, which in turn favors ag in arid (and frost free) regions. Meanwhile, less dependence on grain due to less meat and dairy (currently about 60% of grain grown is to feed animals) can further decrease the human footprint. (populationmatters.org, 2023),(Cobe,2022),(Strickler,2020)
POTENTIAL INCREASES IN CHEAP, ABUNDANT AND CLEAN ENERGY: Renewables will not provide this cheap and abundant clean energy overnight. Despite pledges of “all renewables by 2050”, they are badly in need of infrastructure and tech advances (mostly better batteries and grid capacities), and most reliable prognosticators believe that some combination of next generation nuclear, biofuels, hydrogen conversion, carbon capture, and renewable natural gas (RNG) will need to augment prior to a possibly all-renewable (or possibly fusion-powered) 2100 society. In any case, energy is due to become cleaner and cheaper (after some initial road bumps), which may make much better use of available water (through desalinization, drip and spray systems). More importantly, it may allow much higher yields in areas previously not conducive to fruit and vegetable crops, through hothouse farming. (iea.org,2021)
THE EFFECT ON THE AGRICULTURAL FOOTPRINT: All of this is EXTREMELY important, as in addition to the global warming problem, there is a parallel problem of habitat destruction, partially due to human habitation, and especially due to agriculture. Agriculture has always received a kind of environmental “free pass”, but it is actually quite a game-changer for native plants and animals. At its extremes, ag becomes Brazilians bulldozing rainforests to graze cattle for McDonalds, affecting untold varieties of plants and animals, also potentially destroying various potential medicinal cures. The thing is, all of this is rather unnecessary and inefficient given modern agricultural advances and the changing human diet. In row crops and even tree crops, flood irrigation and tillage are giving way to drip, non-tillage, and cover-crops, making much better use of land and resources. Whereas previously the nervous farmer would tend to overwater and overfertilize, they are now finding that computers and imaging systems that optimize water/fertilizer actually require much LESS of both. The trend away from pouring grain down the throats of feedlot cattle, pigs, and caged chickens, to grass-fed free ranging of all three, is not only more humane, but a much better use of land (less footprint, better for birds/insects, back to the way the Earth was in the first place). I’m not exactly one to believe the damage humans have done is irreversible either. I suspect that if these trends take hold, a 2150 Earth will likely be a few degrees hotter, but much like it was maybe 500 years ago. I should add so as to not be land-biased, aquaculture is also rapidly supplanting ocean fishing as knowledge of raising fish and crustaceans in captivity is improving quickly. Though challenges remain in aquaculture wastewater management, feed optimization, genetics, breeding, and antibiotic use, it may be reasonable to expect our oceans to have largely recovered by 2100. (McCoy, Ledur,2022),(Chu,2017),(globalsalmoninitiative.org,2023)
WHY DECREASING THE AG FOOTPRINT IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF DECREASING THE HUMAN FOOTPRINT: Much of this is implicit in the last paragraph, but the ability to grow food closer to market (think tomatoes and avocados grown in Saskatchewan hothouses, largely replacing grain belts), which are now able to revert back to the Great Plains grasslands (now used for free-range cattle, pigs, and chickens, much the way we found them), with native buffalo, feral pigs, and wild turkeys in the 1800s. Think also the recovery of rainforests (and perhaps even expansion of same, given the trend towards warming and higher rainfall), made possible by less dependence on cattle, and also the recovery of ocean fish populations, thanks to a largely farmed-fish diet. (Carrels,2017)
I’M NOT BLAMING AG, THEY ARE USING THE AVAILABLE TECH AND RESPONDING TO CONSUMER DEMAND: I am not blaming agriculture here. They are responding to new tech as it becomes available (chiefly computers, lidar, hyperspectral imaging, etc) and most importantly adapting to the rapidly changing diet of consumers. Once again, now that we’re closing in on “optimal farming”, the big hold up is cheap, clean energy, as currently the piping of natural gas to the chillier regions of the world is both expensive and dirty. This necessitates farming in the “frost-free” zones (the American Southwest, parts of Mexico, the Middle East, etc) which are also rather parched and desperate for water. As previously said, abundant, clean, and cheap energy will almost make water issues moot due to the ability to desal or cheaply treat wastewater, utilize atmospheric water generators (AWGs), not to mention the optimization of water (requiring less). This is important as ag is currently about 80% of all water use. (qualitywatertreatment.com,nd),(theberkey.com,nd)
HUMAN HABITATION: A corollary to all this may be a giant change in how humans live. With these tech advances, humans may be able to live in highly integrated ag-live environments by 2100, with integrated energy systems. These may look like giant biodomes, fed by solar energy and carbon-neutral, with inhabitants plying their trades close to home while perhaps growing their own food (which in the future may have become an automated, aquaponic kind of thing). Of course there will be wildcats living outside these systems, living off the land (sort of like the Road Warriors) or rich people living in large footprint villas (or even their own personal biodomes), and they will be free to do so, but the Earth may at last be able to breathe a sigh of relief from the great 20th Century onslaught of rampant dirty energy use, inefficient and land intensive ag use, and resultant habitat destruction. (Cornelius,2021)
CHALLENGES AND CONCLUSIONS: A big challenge to all of the above will be the huge increase in demand for this clean and cheap energy, at a time when we might have a hard time supplying the status quo to meet ambitious 2050 net zero goals. If natural gas and coal are to be phased out, there will be an enormous demand for 2050 renewable electricity (perhaps 3 times the current electrical capability). Scaling up to this level will be difficult without the help of next generation nuclear, and perhaps carbon captured coal or natural gas as “transitional fuels”. If we add the energy demands of hothouse or aquaponic farming, we’d better hope that some kind of clean energy breakthrough (fusion power?) is around the corner. In the interim, these technologies are taking hold, but not at the rate and scale to create the necessary reductions in the human footprint. Habitat protection by regulation is an option, but perhaps not a successful one in an era when the world is having a hard time feeding everyone. Let’s hope that future abundant clean energy tech will come to the rescue of not only our climate, but of native plants and animals.
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