Everywhere I turn these days, I hear folks saying that our modern food production system is leading to some kind of environmental, health, or social Armageddon. Just to give one example, Mark Bittman, food writer for the New York Times, began a 2007 TED talk showing a picture of a cow followed by a picture of an atomic bomb exploding. The implication? If we keep eating meat the way we are, we'll experience Hiroshima-like consequences.
The answer to the problem? We need to adopt ever-so-vague "sustainable" production systems. I'm all for sustaining our standard of living but I'm not so sure the typical set of prescriptions are going to do it.
The next time you hear such pronouncements of agricultural Armageddon, I encourage you to take a look at the article by Matt Ridley in Wired a few weeks ago. Here is an excerpt:
Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years.
So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.
All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years. Gas reserves took an enormous leap upward after 2007, as engineers learned how to exploit abundant shale gas. In 2011 the International Energy Agency estimated that global gas resources would last 250 years. Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price. Once again, obstacles have materialized, but the apocalypse has not. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus, doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation. In reality, driven by price increases, people simply developed new technologies . . .