How can clever people be so stupid?

He says he\’s a scientist and not an actor – that will become obvious – but that the set is a \”depressingly accurate\” reproduction of his office in Cambridge. His name is Stephen Emmott. He\’s head of computational science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and professor of computational science at Oxford, and what he wants to tell us about is the future of life, particularly human life, on Earth.

Definitely a clever person.

Rarely can a lay audience have heard their implications spelled out so clearly and informally: a global population that was 1 billion in 1800 and 4 billion in 1980 will probably have grown to 10 billion by the end of this century; the demand for food will have doubled by 2050; food production already accounts for 30% of greenhouse gases – more than manufacturing or transport; more food needs more land, especially when the food is meat; more fields mean fewer forests, which means even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which means an even less stable climate, which means less reliable agriculture – witness the present grain crisis in the US.

On and on he goes, remorselessly. It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a burger and the UK eats 10bn burgers a year. A world population of 10 billion will need 960 new dams, each of them the size of the world\’s largest in China\’s Three Gorges, plus 15,000 nuclear power stations and/or (my note-taking in the dark isn\’t up to his speed) 11m wind farms. The great objective of intergovernmental action, such as it is, has been to restrict the rise in average global temperature to no more than 2C, but a growing body of research suggests a warming by 6C is becoming more and more likely. In which case, Emmott says, the world will become \”a complete hellhole\” riven by conflict, famine, flood and drought.

And definitely very stupid.

Ian Jack, for the first time I\’ve read him, manages to frame the review well: this is very much part of an eschatological religion, the coming of the end times.

And it\’s pure bollocks as well.

I agree entirely that there are limits to the population that the Earth can support. At the most obvious, there\’s a limited (even if very large) number of atoms of the planet from which to make human beings. Before we get there there\’s dumping the waste heat generated by mammallian physiology and before we get there there\’s enough surface area for everyone to stand on and so on.

That there are real physical limits does not mean that we\’re going to get anywhere close to them. Which is where our computer scientist needs to have a little look at economics.

The first is that the great expansion of the population is over. Those who are going to have the grandchildren which lead to the peak population of 10 billion or so already exist. And it\’s not really the increase in children that\’s going to lead to that 10 billion anyway: it\’s the failure of people to die before old age that is. What\’s left of this last surge of population, from tiday\’s 7 billion to that 10 billion or so peak is much more about the demographic transition than it is out of control birth rates.

That rural peasantry is stopping dying at 40 and living to 60, 70. That\’s the real underlying story of the blow out.

And what is it that is reducing the number of children being born? It\’s wealth: we can see this, we know this to be true in fact. Get incomes past a certain level (and it\’s not all that high a one either, $6,000 to $8,000 GDP per capita, around the current global average in fact, seems to do it) and fertility declines precipitately. As it has done everywhere it has happened, starting oddly enough in France and that was long before effective artificial contraception was known of (various natural forms long being known of of course, from rhythm through buggery to to acidic vaginal douches like a sponge soaked in vinegar).

The population problem is done and dusted.

His numbers on resources required are also very odd indeed. 3,000 litres of water to make a burger? I\’ll bet that\’s based upon US feedlot operations for beef cattle. Simply not relevant to pasture operations. But more than that, 10 billion burgers in the UK a year…..what? We\’re each eating, among the 60 million of us, 166 burgers a year? Don\’t think so really. But even then, 30 billion tonnes of water required. What\’s UK rainfall then?

Hmm, looks like 500 ml per year….meaning 500 kg per m2, with 130,000 km2 that\’s 500 kg x 1 million x 130,000 erm, 65 trillion tonnes of water that falls free from the skies each year.

Dear God, we\’re such bastards for turning 0.05% of our water into burgers.

As I say, there are indeed limits to how many people we can have doing what but they\’re not obviously limits that are relevant to anything that we\’re doing now.

I\’m willing to agree that climate change might be but we know how to deal with that. A carbon tax in a globalised market economy.

And usefully, it\’s exactly that globalised market economy which is going to reduce that population growth that our Professor is so frightened of.

Which leads to the obvious question. Why is it that these very clever people, when they step out of their knowledge base, never quite grasp that there are other very clever people in other fields who have already considered the questions they are asking? And come up with answers to them too?

After all, economists, geographers, agronomists, they\’re not writing their own compilers or constructing logic chips, are they?

28 thoughts on “How can clever people be so stupid?”

  1. As the very clever scientist Richard Feynman said ” I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.”

  2. The problem is that clever people know a lot about their specialist subject and from that they assume that they know a lot more than the general population about everything else on the world too. In fact that know just as much as the general population. That’s what makes them dangerous.

  3. ‘3000 litres to make a burger’
    He seems to think that those 3000 litres are destroyed in the process. Or somehow contained within each burger. Odd.

  4. Regarding the burger, it’s quite likely that synthetic meat will be used for most burgers and other “meat” products within 10-20 years. Cheaper, just as tasty, and less likely to give you BSE.

  5. Don’t go confusing climate scientists with numbers and statistics. He just ‘knows’ that man is destroying the planet. He doesn’t need facts and figures to prove it.

  6. “Definitely a clever person.” …

    “…but we know how to deal with that. A carbon tax in a globalised market economy.”

    Tim, you are making a firm statement there with regards to carbon. Are you actually sure about that? Previously, I have seen you quite sensibly qualify that statement with “if x, y and z, then a carbon tax” (which I understand, and particularly given the problems with genuine consensus over some aspects of the science, especially with regard to feedbacks), but this time?

  7. Phil Hunt, how can a human get Bovine SE? Assuming you meant variant CJD, I’m not sure a change in probability from zero to zero really constitutes making something “less likely”.

  8. What’s annoying about analysis like this guy’s is that they always make it seem the the resources used to make a product are gone for ever.

    that 30 billion mt of water doesn’t just disappear – it can be cleaned and reused, farmland does double duty producing food and oxygen, etc.

    And they tend to ignore the very real evidence around us – land use for food production as a percentage of population is decreasing – we’re getting more efficient at prodicing food or other indicators like the US having as much if not more forest cover now than we did at the beginning of the european colonization effort.

  9. Sadbutmadlad:

    “The problem is that clever people know a lot about their specialist subject and from that they assume that they know a lot more than the general population about everything else on the world too.”

    There’s also the issue that many people in areas like academia never get challenged. They’re used to always being right, or the local expert, on a set subject and this drifts over into reluctance to believe they may be wholly wrong on other subjects.

  10. Why accept that what he is writing is merely stupid rather than actively wicked?. Eco-twaddle is peddled to justify their “solution” ie all power to the scum of the State.

  11. Off topic, but out of interest how many burgers do we eat? Is 3 a week implausible?

    Let’s start with the anecdatum that an effete metropolitan Guardian reader like me eats between 2 and four a month. I’m guessing I’m below average, even allowing for veggies and people of more refined taste.

    Second piece of anecdata, from someone who coached an U13 football team in the Cotswolds. Towns with a McDonalds invariably beat those without. The physical differences were apparently overwhelming. Was this due to mass burger consumption, or being bigger towns? He reckoned that burgers had something to to with it. Skill differences were less marked.

    And if include burger equivalents, is it so implausible? I’ve no idea. (No bearing on point made.)

  12. @Luke

    And if you eat burgers at McDonalds or Burger King you’ll be often technically eating two per meal.

    A quarter pounder is one 4oz burger, but a Big Mac is two 2oz burgers.

  13. When somebody says that he wants the world population to shrink, he should be asked to identify the people he wants to die.

  14. Shinsei, I hadn’t realised that my query raises the important question – what is a burger? Ps regarding your earlier post, I have a professional interest in people messing things up. Doing things outside your area of expertise is a fairly major cause (anecdata alert). I’m not sure if it’s for the reason you cite, or the assumption that what other people do is really very simple and basic and anyone can do it. See Richie on economics, or telegraph readers on climate change – obviously both know far more than academic economists or scientists.

  15. Cost benefit analysis anyone?
    World population predicted to grow 30%

    Double the amount of CO2 in the air and you get a smallish temperature rise (about 1C if you discount the forcing about water vapour), the migration of some nasty tropical diseases to temperate climes etc.

    Double the amount of CO2 and most crops (millet is the exception, if I recall) grow 30% better, thus solving starvation problem, land use, etc

    Your choice as to whether you think this scenario is a disaster or a blessing.

  16. Most of the comments in this thread are depressingly predictable. In ecology a population that exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment is said to be in overshoot. Once the resources that have allowed it to temporarily exceed this number are exhausted the population will suffer a die back, often to numbers below the long term carrying capacity. Sometimes the species even goes extinct. People should not be so arrogant to assume it cannot happen to humans, because it has happened in human history several times. While any one of the individual issues facing humans is serious on its own, when taken together they represent a challenge on an altogether different scale. So far we are demonstrating we are in fact no smarter than yeast.

  17. Well then, if there is enough water for everyone, why has the Swouthwest of the UK water problems? Well, there isn’t only meteorology, but also geology, oceanology, economy, agricultural limits, path dependency, nutritional value, taste…. you get the picture. And treating the water? Takes work and energy or (natural) space and time, pick one pair. Sigh.

    Oh, and btw, how much of the fertilizers are produced domestically and how much has to be imported? Especially phosphorous? Especially soy beans that grow not in a unsustainable manner overseas? How about corn that – due to this years drought – should be eaten directly to avoid another year of riots all over the world?

    Most commenters here confuse growing output with expanding efficiency. WRONG. And blokeinfrance: Go read about the Law of the Minimum. We then write again on the Internet, do we?

    Tim adds: “Oh, and btw, how much of the fertilizers are produced domestically and how much has to be imported?”

    Why does that matter a damn? We’ve this wonderful invention that predates our species: trade. Means we don’t have to produce things domestically.

    “Especially phosphorous?”

    Current best guesses are3 500 years’ worth just in Western Sahara alone. Quite a lot has happened in agriculture since 1512 and we tend to think that quite a lot will happen between now and 2512. A half millennia supply is enough to be going on with really.

    “Most commenters here confuse growing output with expanding efficiency. ”

    Agricultural efficiency has been growing though. 1%-2% a year for a century or so…..

  18. @21
    Only a true Deep Green would find optimism about the long term future of humanity depressing.

  19. sadbutmadlad @ 2:

    “The problem is that clever people know a lot about their specialist subject and from that they assume that they know a lot more than the general population about everything else on the world too. ”

    Yes, it’s known as the Dunning–Kruger effect:

    “In fact that know just as much as the general population. That’s what makes them dangerous.”

    Why dangerous? In a free and open society, ignorance will be exposed and error will be refuted – and in the process knowledge shared more widely. Moreover, occasionally, a non-expert in a given field can enlighten experts in that field. So venturing outside one’s field of competence is at worst harmless and at best contructive.

  20. Tim, from your and other comments about Stephen Emmott talks and figures, it pretty clear that you have no ecological systems background.

    I suggest before you and other criticise what he’s saying you read William Cattons Overshoot, Limits to Growth (30 year update), Prof Bill Rees (Ecological Footprinting), Prof Charles Hall on EROEI, Donnella Meadows on Systems Thinking. I could go on and on.

    Ecosystems are clearly collapsing at present so you could try reading
    And you can go into denial about that too, these are only the experts in their respective fields. Clearly the comments on here know something they don’t!

    I guess many of you won’t read anything outside your own expertise. I’ve no idea what it is reading these comments!

    Tim adds: Hmm, EROEI…..piece of total tosh that is. Ecological footprinting: is that that nonsense from Matthias Wackernagle?

    The major fault with all of such writing being that they simply do not understand economics. Thus they do not understand what economic growth is.

    Just to make it very clear: infinite economic growth on a finite planet is not just possible it is virtually assured.

  21. If wealth produces a decrease in fertility rates, what does poverty produce? An increase in fertility rates? And what direction have most countries been going in lately? The world economy has stalled, and in terms of real wealth to the common citizen, has probably gone backwards. So will this increase in poverty trigger populations to expand?

    If overpopulation leads to poverty, and poverty leads to expanding population rates, is there a tipping point where this all explodes?

    Tim adds: It’s a threshold thing. Get incomes above a certain (quite low) level and fertility falls. In hte current problems it has been the rich countries, all well above this threshold, which have been getting slightly poorer. The poor countries have continued to grow and get to/surpass that threshold.

  22. Hi Tim, if you feel so confident about your economic knowledge why don’t you challenge Professor Charles Hall who has given a number of lectures to economists.

    Perhaps then you could explain why he is wrong about energy return on energy invested, this would also be a good time to state why the First law of thermodynamics is exempt from economists modelling of the world.

    If you’re extracting energy and you’re putting one energy of unit in and getting the same out, clearly its not much value to society. And please don’t give the example of batteries – we don’t run modern society exclusively on AAA batteries.

    So, EROI clearly needs a surplus for doing more than just extracting more energy, for instance, going to the theatre to watch a scientist.

    Oh, in case you think all economist think we’re not hitting ecological limits how about taking apart Steve Keen ideas.

    Just in case you think I’m a born again environmentalist, if you read Overshoot I think you would be surprised to find a lot of so called Green/Environmental ideas are complete BS. However, it will also make you realise the misunderstanding people seem to be making for example on the water use analysis with the hamburger. When you ‘water’ crosses boarders in other products (crops/grains for example) we consume water from a distant place t(he guy you reference built on Prof Rees’s work) one can appreciate ecological footprinting, ie, the concept that our needs are met from very far afield.

    For example, if you look at Spain, Portugal and many other countries they are drawing down water often from fossil aquifers, the recharge rate of these is very slow. When these are depleted what do we turn to?

    Economics works within a biophysical reality not the other way round.

    I hope you get a chance to read Overshoot by Catton, it doesn’t support what you are saying economically, BUT neither does it support a lot of the thinking by the Environmental/Green movement. You will find many Green technologies have very low EROI and poor substitution qualities. Will let you look that one up, try Valclav Smil if you get stuck. Its also a good primer on how energy fits into the economy.

    Clearly for precious metals, that is your interest, a potential reserve does not make all of it economically viable. At what grade does the energy consumed so much that it is not not economically viable.

    If you really want to be provocative just give people you’ve written off a read. I think you’ll find many so called Green proposals don’t hold up to their analysis either.

    Thanks for the reply anyway.

    Tim adds: rare earth metals, not precious metals for me. Small detail I know.

    But let’s take this idea:

    “If you’re extracting energy and you’re putting one energy of unit in and getting the same out, clearly its not much value to society.”

    In a general sense this is nonsense because we do it all the time. In several specific senses it makes good sense. Using a gallon of petrol to make a gallon of petrol doesn’t get us very far. But when we generalise this to energy then it becomes nonsense.

    For example, it takes 35 times as many joules of energy to grow wheat as we get from eating wheat. That’s just the energy that goes into evaporating the water that then falls as rain and irrigates our crop.

    So, we clearly do have activities where we put more energy in that we get out and we do in fact find them quite useful to society.

    We are, in this process, turning a very large source of energy (insolation) into a much more interesting usable one (food) through a very inefficient process. And there’s plenty of that insolation to go around too.

    I’m afraid that EROEI just isn’t a useful general concept even though it has, as above, some local applications.

  23. Interestingly enough, you’ve hit the nail on the head with what I’m trying to get to with EROI. Essentially, we are using fossil fuels to grow agriculture, but human civilization has used relatively cheap sources.

    Historically, oil EROI was 100+ to 1, now it is much lower. Think free flowing Saudi oil.

    The more surplus energy a society can produce, the more it allow for complexity.
    Prof Hall explains it here

    The energy you mention going into wheat is from the sun. You’d probably agree this is both sustainable and renewable within a human time frame of thousands of years.

    Fossil fuel inputs are neither sustainable or renewable and have an energy cost for extraction.

    From the Economist

    And this is a link from experts who think Stephen Emmott as a point!

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