Human population is often overlooked when we think about climate change. Yes, industrialization brings the greenhouse gases now warming the Earth, but it also affects world population, the proportions of young and old, where people live, what they consume and how their food is grown. Today, technology- intensive industrial agriculture is producing the food for many of Earth’s billions.
The link between industrialization and climate change is well known. The shift from muscle power to energy from combustion of fossil fuels releases vast amounts of carbon that living organisms took from the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago. Energy stored in the coal, oil and gas of Earth’s crust powers large-scale industrialization, while the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions warm Earth’s climate.
The relationship between industrialization and demographic changes in the developed world is less widely known. As Western Europe, North America and Japan industrialized, farmers were pushed off their lands and moved to cities. Large families became problematic, particularly with the passage of child labor laws and as women went to work outside the home. Education and the ability to control fertility have combined with these societal changes to cut fertility rates markedly in the developed world.
Yet in many developing countries today, women commonly have more than five children. Many of these will be among the 2 billion additional people at the global dinner table by mid-century — most too poor to buy enough food should prices rise.
At the same time, rapidly developing populous countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria, and many smaller countries such as Rwanda, Ghana and Botswana, have burgeoning middle classes desirous of more animal protein, which requires three to 15 times its weight in feed.
We faced similar challenges before. During the 20th century, global population increased from about 2 billion to 6 billion people and global food production kept up thanks to the industrialization of agriculture, often called the Green Revolution. Increased mechanization, new plant varieties, refrigeration, long-distance transportation and agrochemicals, including petrochemical fertilizers, made possible enormous gains in food production. But there’s a catch. Each of these technologies increases emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — the very greenhouse gases that hasten climate change and threaten agricultural productivity with drought, flood and soil loss.
Across the tropics, poverty and devastating environmental degradation are the results of industrialized agriculture. Many small-farm families have been forced onto marginal lands where they face greater threats from floods, drought, erosion, and extreme weather events. As a result, these small family farms yield less food, causing more poverty and more social insecurity. The plight of farmers working marginal lands is highly significant because one-half the global food supply still is produced by small farmers.
And there’s more: decreasing snowfalls in all the world’s high mountain ranges threaten the water supplies essential for production on long-established lands and those newly brought into production by the Green Revolution. Higher temperatures in the tropics, where the majority of humanity lives, are expected to reduce crop production by up to 50 percent by 2080.
Woe and more woe. We’ve heard similar stories before, and studies find that such knowledge tends to paralyze us.
However, we cannot afford paralysis in face of population growth and climate change that already affect life in local communities — including Sonoma County — and globally. There is reason to hope for success ahead.