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Conservation inside out

What if we have reached “peak impact?” What if the clamoring about the destruction of the world’s natural resources, at least as it concerns agriculture, begins to trail off because we have gotten good enough at what we do that we don’t need more land.

That is one concept floating around, and it’s worth considering. But let’s put it in context. You’ve probably heard of “peak oil,” the theory that suggests the supply of economically extractable crude reaches a zenith moment and from that level goes into terminal decline and eventual depletion.

The term was coined by geologist Marrion King Hubbert, a geologist who worked for Shell Oil Company in the 1950s. He predicted the peak in oil production for the United States would begin around 1970. The trouble with predicting future realities in the light of current realities, though, is that realities change. King Hubbert made the peak oil before technology had made it possible to find huge extractable oil deposits in places like Dakota’s Bakken fields, the Eagle Ford fields in Texas and the recent massive find in the Permian fields of Texas. New technology and large oil finds keep pushing peak oil forward in time. And if you push something far enough in the timeline, it can become irrelevant—in a good way. Think whale oil giving way to kerosene. Or think about the predictions of starvation in the late 20th century that never materialized.

I came across the idea of “peak impact” while reading a report from Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation at the Breakthrough Institute. Blomqvist reported that even as humankind’s environmental impacts have grown in absolute terms, certain aspects of human impact have begun to flatten out or even decline, mostly due to advances in technology. An example that hit close to home was agriculture. Blomqvist reported:“While global farmland area has increased by about 10 percent since 1960—causing widespread habitat loss—it has barely grown since the early 1990s. During that period, the global population rose by more than 20 percent and GDP per capita nearly doubled.”

Blomqvist failed to point out that a glut of grain is currently awash across the globe. Commodity prices reflect that agriculture has gotten good at what it does. This bolsters his argument.

How does such a shift happen? We have more people. Why didn’t we need more land to feed them? Blomqvist boils it down to two mechanisms: substitution and intensification. Then he re-tells the story of agricultural mechanization.

“The substitution of tractors for horses eliminated the need to dedicate about one-quarter of all U.S. farmland to feed draft animals. The introduction of synthetic nitrogen meant farmers no longer needed to keep as much as half of their cropland in fallow to replenish soil nutrients. Together with agricultural intensification in the forms of rising crop yields and greater efficiencies in meat production, these technological advances have allowed the area of farmland per capita to fall by half over the last half-century, even as diets have gotten richer.” The same goes for woodlands. As synthetic and renewable energies reached the market, the need for fuel wood declined. Demand for biomass has remained constant for more than a century.

If you extend that trend, and retain the ability to find the energy (both finite and renewable) that drives it, Blomqvist might be right.

As intensification and substitution reach modern standards in developing countries, pressure on the environment will mimic the evolution of land use in industrialized countries. Marginal land once farmed returns to other use. You could think of it as precision agriculture writ large. You push the good acres. Stop wasting resources on the marginal acres.

That’s one of the things I’ve been banging on about on this page lately. As intensification of agriculture increases in fertile areas across the globe, supply will push marginal cropland out of service. That’s a good thing, unless you made a living off that marginal farmland—whether that’s a clay nob in northeast Missouri or pasture in Kenya.

As I mentioned above, there is trouble predicting the future with current realities. Blomqvist makes a rational argument as things looked in the first part of the 21st century. But we humans have a way of injecting irrationality into the system.

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