Can We Save Nature by Making It Economically Useless?

"Decoupling" human economy from ecology could render large areas of pastures, croplands, and managed forests too remote for exploitation.


"The way we will save nature is by rendering it economically worthless," declared Ted Nordhaus. Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, was speaking at "Making Nature Useless," a seminar sponsored by the D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future. With that one sentence, he summed up the entire session's theme.

The session kicked off Wednesday afternoon with a talk by Iddo Wernick, a researcher at Rockefeller University's Program for the Human Environment, who discussed trends in resource consumption. "Can improving efficiency and changing consumer preferences overwhelm rising population and affluence to reduce the tons of material that Americans use? The world?" Wernick asked.

Wernick and his colleagues collected consumption data on 100 materials that have long been used in the U.S. economy. The commodities were sorted into three categories: those in which both intensity of use (kilograms per dollar of GDP) and absolute consumption (kilograms overall) are falling; those in which intensity of use is falling but absolute consumption is still increasing; and those in which both intensity of use and absolute consumption are increasing.

Thirty-six of these materials fall into the first category, including chromium, iron ore, pig iron, copper, lead, and asbestos. Fifty-three fell into the second group, among them corn, electricity, nitrogen, beef, nickel, and petroleum. Wernick believes that many of these commodities will soon reach their absolute peak—that is, the point where an economy decreases its consumption of a material resource even as economic growth and increases in wealth continue to multiply. For example, nitrogen fertilizer use has been essentially flat since the 1980s even as crop yields have risen. U.S. population increased 80 million since the 1980, yet the country uses no more water than it did then.

Peak Materials

And then there are the 11 commodities for which both intensity of use and absolute amounts are still increasing. These include diamonds, gallium, rhenium, niobium, helium, garnets, and chicken. Wernick pointed out that while the absolute amounts of these 11 commodities are still increasing, the actual tonnage is quite small. Except for chicken, most of the commodities in this group function as technological "vitamins" that enhance the efficiency of many other industrial processes and technologies

Why chicken? In part, because Americans are substituting it for beef. Program for the Human Environment director Jesse Ausubel outlined an input productivity hierarchy of meats, analogizing beef to getting 12 miles per gallon, pigs 40 mpg, chicken 60 mpg, and tilapia and catfish 80 mpg.

How do the trends look in the rest of the world? Those data are much sparser, but Wernick was able to find reliable info in some cases. Japanese aluminum consumption, like U.S. aluminum consumption, peaked in the 1990s. Per capita petroleum consumption peaked in the U.S. around 1970 and in Japan and South Korea in the 1990s. China and India are both on the early part of their consumption curves for materials, yet Wernick argues that "while Asian countries are at different stages of development, they show similar patterns of eventual saturation." Ausubel added that Japan and the Europe are paralleling materials consumption patterns identified in the U.S. "I expect that in two or three decades that it will be the same story in China and India," he added.

Nordhaus spoke next. "Why are we using just half of the planet's ice-free land surface?" he asked the audience. Cropland only occupies about 12 percent; pasture, 24 percent; managed forests, 9 percent; cities, 3 percent. About 12 percent of the world's ice-free land, he noted, has been formally set aside for conservation and preservation. What makes that 12 percent different? His answer is that, for the most part, it is too high, too dry, too steep, and too remote. We have saved what we have saved, he suggested, largely because it is not worth anything economically. Most of the lands that are not legally protected but remain unexploited share the same economically off-putting characteristics.

Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, next suggested that the trends identified by Wernick could lead to the decoupling of the human economy from nature's ecology. This decoupling will be achieved by means of intensification, otherwise known as getting more from less, and substitution, using less environmentally damaging materials. In a sense, decoupling would render increasingly large areas of current pastures, croplands, and managed forests too remote for economic exploitation.

This is precisely the process that Wernick and Program for the Human Environment Director Jesse Ausubel described in their earlier work, in which they predicted that humanity is on the cusp of "peak farmland." If current land-use trends continue, an enormous amount of crop and pasture land will be abandoned and returned to nature by 2060, with the full amount falling somewhere between 146 million hectares (two and half times the size of France) and 400 million hectares (nearly double the size of the eastern U.S.). As an example of a working landscape that went fallow, Ausubel cited the vast Maine woods. Abandoned by the paper companies, those forests have been turned over to the state government, which is now trying to figure out what to do with them.

Urbanization contributes to the process of decoupling economy and ecology, since fewer hungry people engaged in low productivity subsistence farming mean more land for nature. Think of it this way: Right now, about half of the world's population of 7.2 billion still lives scattered across the landscape. By 2050, United Nations demographers estimate that cities could hold 70 percent of a population of 9 billion. World population would be higher, but the globe's rural population would fall from 3.6 billion to 2.7 billion.

During the question and answer session, several audience members expressed concern that none of the presenters had mentioned an explicit role for regulation in hurrying along these environmentally beneficial trends. Nordhaus argued that government research and development policy had played a big role in fostering the technologies that have led to the current fracking energy boom, because it funded horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing R&D as a response to the 1970's "oil crises."  Wernick noted that regulations can cut both ways. On one hand, government directives accelerated the demise of the use of toxics like cadmium, lead, and arsenic. On the other, government subsidies and mandates have led to environmentally damaging increases in the acres devoted to growing corn to burn as fuel in our automobiles.

Analysts with old-fashioned Malthusian mindsets are again decrying the imminent approach of "peak everything" followed by a collapse of civilization. The data presented at Wednesday's seminar points toward a much happier version of "peak everything," as humanity increasingly withdraws from the natural world during the rest of this century.