Green Abundance, the Future of Sustainable Living

As the cleantech revolution gathers momentum and environmentalist values command unprecedented influence on policy, it is more important than ever to have a vigorous global dialogue as to what constitutes clean technology, and what constitutes a legitimate continuum of environmentalist values.

How these questions are answered will have profound impact on the nature and speed of economic growth, as well as the quality of our lives and the quantity of our individual rights and freedoms.

There are two fundamental assumptions that govern environmental values today:

  1. The use of fossil fuels should be phased out as soon as possible
  2. Resource scarcity is an inevitable reality will not be escaped for generations.

To this end, massive reallocations of wealth are being enacted to subsidize alternatives to fossil fuel, and rationing of resource use is becoming policy in the areas of energy, water and land. But what if both of these assumptions are completely wrong?

Tomorrow’s leaders today, children
at the slopes to Kilimanjaro.

There is a case to be made that resource abundance, not scarcity, is the immediate destiny of the human race, and that scientific innovation combined with free markets are the keys to realizing this optimistic scenario. In every fundamental area, energy, water and land, there are promising trends – unfolding with breathtaking speed – that provide humanity with the opportunity to realize global wealth and prosperity within a generation.

Probably the most difficult notion to intuitively fathom is that land will become abundant again, but for several important reasons, that is precisely what is going to happen. The primary reason for this is that human population growth is finally leveling off. From today’s total of 6.7 billion people, projections now indicate human population will peak at somewhat less than 9.0 billion around 2050, an increase of only another 30 percent. While this seems like a lot, it is important to remember that in 1970, the world population was only 3.7 billion, meaning the last 40 years has registered a human population increase of 80%. We have already seen the dramatic growth in population, and are now in the leveling off phase.

The reason this slowdown and leveling of human population will result in more abundant land is because as human population increase slows, human migration to cities continues to accelerate. In 1970 only 1.3 billion people lived in cities, 35% of the world’s population. Today over half the world’s population live in cities, 3.4 billion people. Over the past 40 years overall population has increased 80%, but urban population has increased by 160%. Urbanization is accelerating, and is depopulating rural areas far more quickly than projected remaining overall population growth will fill them. Forty years from now, there will be more open land in the world than there is today. And these twin phenomenon, urbanization and population stabilization, are completely voluntary, inexorable, and are occurring at rates that are, if anything, underestimated.

If land abundance on planet earth is going to be achieved by a stabilized population living mostly in megacities, how will we build these cities? How will we transform our cities, already swarming with far more people than they were originally designed to hold, into 21st century magnets for humanity, offering economic and cultural opportunities instead of merely a last destination for the destitute? Here is where Malthusian assumptions, combined with an overweening environmentalist ideology that condemns development, have conspired to stifle the building of next generation infrastructure. The good news is these delays have also allowed us the time to develop better-than-ever technology.

High-rise agriculture has the potential to greatly
reduce the amount of land required for agriculture.
(Photo: Vertical Farms LLC)

From high-rise agriculture to high-speed rail, from advanced water recycling to ultra-efficient energy conduits and appliances, from cars that are clean, smart and safe, to wide new roads that convert pavement heat into utility-scale electricity and convey luxurious mass transit busses that offer wi-fi and drive themselves, cities of the future can be built today – but not if the wealth we need to pour concrete and smelt steel is spent instead on environmentalist lawsuits, and not if the market incentives that animate billions of construction entrepreneurs are squelched because instead we gave the work to government bureaucrats. Creating abundance is human nature – but only individual liberty, property rights, and free markets will enable this nature to be realized. Governments enforce the rules, but only a free people can play the game.

Abundant water is just around the corner because of several interrelated technological opportunities. The most promising of all is the potential of smart irrigation. Primarily this means using drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation, but this also refers to no-till farming, new crops that consume less water, inter-cropping, and advanced irrigation management, where irrigation timing and volume are precisely coordinated with weather conditions. Smart irrigation techniques could reduce the volume of water required for global agriculture by 40-50%.

Other means to create water abundance span the gamut from traditional methods – contour berms to catch and percolate runoff, urban cisterns to harvest rainwater, or where necessary, massive new infrastructure projects to move large volumes of water from water rich areas to water poor areas. To save ecosystems and restore fisheries, why not build a gravity-fed canal connecting the Volga River to the Aral Basin, if the Caspian Sea is rising anyway? Diverting only 10% of the Volga’s 250 cubic kilometer annual flow would make a decisive contribution to restoring the Aral Sea. Why not divert a small percentage of the Ubangi River north to refill Lake Chad?

Finally, water reuse and desalination will guarantee water abundance in urban areas. High-rise agriculture, for example, can use gray water to irrigate hydroponic gardens at a commercial scale, and the transpiration these plants emit within these enclosed spaces can be harvested to yield pristine drinking water. Desalination is no longer a technology reserved for energy rich nations – it now only takes 2.0 kilowatt-hours to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater. Desalination already provides over 1% of the fresh water used world wide, over 30 km3 per year, and this total is rising fast. But water reuse is the most promising source of urban water of all – technologies now exist to create essentially a closed loop in urban areas. Water is used for drinking, then treated and piped back to use for irrigation and to refill reservoirs, then after percolating and filtering back into aquifers, is pumped up, treated, and used again for drinking.

Water abundance will enable us to grow all the food we want, using new strains of crops and new agricultural techniques that are enabling another revolution in yields, guaranteeing abundant food. Water abundance will allow us to finally begin refilling our depleted aquifers, restore our vanished lakes, and never have to wonder whether or not the next war might be fought to quench a nation’s thirst.

To create water abundance, however, and to build megacities, to create 21st century civil infrastructure, and to deploy advanced technologies, we will need wealth and prosperity, and more than anything else, the enabler of wealth and prosperity is energy production. Today global civilization produces about 500 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year, which equals an average per person of 75 million BTUs per year. But this energy consumption is not evenly distributed. In the European Union, per capita energy consumption is about 250 million BTUs per year; in the USA, the average is closer to 350 million BTUs per year. But energy consumption equals wealth. Even with extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency, say, twice what we enjoy today, for 9.0 billion people to average only half the per capita energy consumption of residents of the EU, i.e., 125 million BTUs per year, global energy production would have to more than double, to 1,125 quadrillion BTUs per year. And this is what needs to happen by 2050.

The challenge to achieve resource abundance is not impossible; it is within our grasp. Despite heartbreaking examples of lingering poverty all over the planet, the fact is the overall condition of humanity is remarkably better now than it was 40 years ago, 400 years ago, 4,000 years ago. Disease and starvation remain endemic, but by all objective measures, they are on the retreat; and this is the trend the future holds, if we seize the opportunity. But to achieve this bright future, we must ask these questions: What is clean technology, and what are legitimate environmentalist values?

To create prosperity, for example, given 80% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuel, and given there is a staggering abundance of remaining fossil fuel reserves in the form of heavy oil, coal, and natural gas, do we really want to stop using fossil fuel? What if clean technology stopped at the point where harmful pollutants were reduced to parts per billion through advanced filtration and efficient burning, instead of having to make that gigantic leap beyond simply making emissions healthy, and requiring zero emissions of CO2? Given the certain and devastating price humanity will pay in the form of ongoing poverty and escalating tensions over resources – especially if we precipitously abandon developing new sources of fossil fuel – do we really want to stop emitting CO2? What if solar cycles indeed are all there is causing climate change? What if climate change isn’t anything but normal fluctuations? What if rainforest destruction and aquifer depletion, dried up lakes and misused lands are the reasons for regional climate change? What if we can’t do anything at all about climate change anyway? If you believe the worst scenarios, it is too late anyway – but what if the models are simply wrong? If they’re right, it’s too late, and if they’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. So why on earth would we consign humanity to much higher probabilities of poverty and war, instead of developing clean fossil fuel, at the same time as we systematically develop advanced, alternative sources of energy?

The challenge to achieve resource abundance in the world hinges on the role environmentalists play in influencing policy. There are vital environmentalist values that everyone should embrace, such as practicing sustainability, eliminating genuine pollution, and taking reasonable steps to protect species and ecosystems. But without the energy, without the mines, without the steel mills, without the paved roads and poured concrete and power plants and pumping stations and water treatment plants and countless other ecologically disruptive activities, humanity will struggle to realize their destiny of prosperity; humanity will struggle to find peace.

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6 Responses to “Green Abundance, the Future of Sustainable Living”
  1. Roger Brown says:

    Ed Ring writes:

    Today over half the world’s population live in cities, 3.4 billion people. Over the past 40 years overall population has increased 80%, but urban population has increased by 160%. Urbanization is accelerating, and is depopulating rural areas far more quickly than projected remaining overall population growth will fill them. Forty years from now, there will be more open land in the world than there is today. And these twin phenomenon, urbanization and population stabilization, are completely voluntary, inexorable, and are occurring at rates that are, if anything, underestimated.

    Urbanization can free up land only if the the total land area used by human beings for non agricultural purposes (e.g. houses, shopping centers, office buildings, roads, parking lots, etc.) shrinks. As far as I know the trend towards urbanization and the emergerence of a global middle class is taking more land out of agricultural use rather than the reverse. In my home state of Ohio more and more exurban developments of large houses with large lawns are being plunked down on some of the finest agricultural land in the world. You may claim that we already have more land than we need so what the heck, but new land is not being freed up. If in the era of ‘universal abundance’ which you claim is about to emerge, the American, suburban, automobile centric model takes over the whole world then this tendency to eat up agricultral land will exapand on a global scale. I am assuming that you are not such a gigantic hypocrite that you are planning on the rest of the world adopting the dense urban infill, public transportation model, that you regard with such horror here in the United States. Having giant machines reduce the number of workers required in agricultrual production is more labor efficient, but it creates new land only if the poor farmers leaving the countryside are jammed into dense urban high rises that occupy less land than the farm houses and huts which they are abandoning.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Roger: My point is that dense urban infill and public transportation should occur in a voluntary manner, and the discussion regarding them should tolerate differing points of view. A lot of exurban development is occurring because regional planners enforce an urban service boundary on the perimeter of metropolitan areas which, ironically, stimulates mega-leapfrog exurban developments.

    In the coming decades as global population stablizes and ages, I believe the prevailing preference, especially for elderly people, will be to live in urban areas where they can be closest to quality health care and other amenities. As for food production, don’t underestimate the potential of higher yielding crops and high-rise agriculture to have a huge impact on the amount of farmland required worldwide.

    Our position isn’t that high density and mass transit is bad, only that mandating them based on projections of scarcity are short sighted, particularly when these policies are systematically destroying the ambiance of rural suburbs. People shouldn’t have to be rich to be able to have a decent-sized piece of land to live on, particularly since evidence suggests this is not the choice most people would make anyway.

  3. Roger Brown says:


    You write:

    My point is that dense urban infill and public transportation should occur in a voluntary manner, and the discussion regarding them should tolerate differing points of view.

    I agree. I am a big believer in democracy. However, you ignored the central point of my comment; Your claim that urbanziation is helping to make land abundant is incorrect. China is losing arable land, not gaining it.

  4. Ed Ring says:

    Roger: Fair enough – but the idea of land abundance isn’t necessarily how much land we’ve got, but how much land we need. If global crop yields increase and urban agriculture realizes its potential, we will have surplus farmland even if the total farmland available in the future is less than it is today. We are preparing a report currently on the potential to increase crop yields, and the data is surprising. There is still a huge gap between what global crop yields currently average, and what is possible. And high rise agriculture is just beginning to be pioneered.

  5. Roger Brown says:

    I hope that you are right about the potential for increased crop yields, because I think we will need it. I remain skeptical about high rise agriculture. You cannot increase the amount of sunlight, soil and water available simply by building highrise green houses. Indoor agriculture already exists in the form of green houses. Green house vegetables have found a market niche because people like fresh vegetables in the winter and are willing to pay extra money to obtain them. However, as far as I know no commercial operations exist using multistory green houses, and greenhouse production is not taking over the market because it is substantially more expensive (and energy intensive) than traditional agriculture.

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