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Can we resolve the ‘peak everything’ problem?

With world population exceeding seven billion, there is renewed interest in the limits to growth concept first articulated by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. How can a growing population with growing affluence…

We have plenty of resources that could stop us falling off the edge. Chris Philavanh

With world population exceeding seven billion, there is renewed interest in the limits to growth concept first articulated by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. How can a growing population with growing affluence sustain itself on a finite planet without wreaking havoc on nature and civilisation?

The potential for major economic and political shocks from the world’s energy, food, and water systems, with their vulnerability to climate change, is concentrating attention on food, water and energy security and their interdependence.

Is it reasonable to assume that the human population is on an inevitable and catastrophic collision course with the planet? Or will human ingenuity and innovation inspire successful adaptations that achieve an historic decoupling between economic growth and the depletion and degradation of natural resources?

Rather than rehashing a polarised debate between Malthusian determinists and technological optimists, we’d rather focus on what’s not “peak” and how we can make better use of resources that are abundant. These abundant resources include human creativity and capacity, global genetic resources, design solutions at all scales, and technological, policy and institutional innovations.

Human creativity and capacity

Problems created by humans are, by definition, amenable to human solutions.

People, their creativity and intellectual capacity, are among the most abundant resources on the planet. In the latter part of the 20th century, high population countries, including China and India, succeeded in bringing many of their people out of grinding poverty. Much of this population is young and increasingly well educated, with huge potential to contribute to global solutions. Unleashing this potential and using it to work out how to live within planetary means will be a major challenge of this century.

An ambitious, cooperative global innovation program focused on addressing the converging insecurities of food, energy and water could mobilise this potential. The world needs a 21st century “greener green revolution” that mobilises international global cooperation in developing integrated solutions to human energy, water and urban systems.

Global genetic resources

The FAO estimates that more than 10,000 species of plants have been used by humans for food since agriculture started approximately 10,000 years ago, of which a much smaller number have been domesticated.

Today, we rely on a handful of species for human food. The FAO states that just 12 crops provide 80% of food energy. Of these, just four (wheat, rice, maize and potato) provide 60% of global food energy.

Four crops make up 60% of the energy we get from food: it’s time to diversify. Howard Rawson

Yet the world is a treasure trove of genetic resources. Estimates of plant species used for wild harvests for food, fibre and medicines can exceed 40,000. Humanity now has unprecedented capabilities to systematically research the potential for new and improved economic crops drawn from the world’s genetic cornucopia.

This does not necessarily mean genetic modification to develop new crops. There are significant opportunities through traditional selection and plant breeding, and broadening the genetic basis of agriculture.

For example, Australia has over 1,000 species of eucalypts and approximately 1,500 species of acacia. These and other distinctive genera are yet to be systematically profiled, selected or bred for wood, tannins or nutrient-rich seed production. On the authors' farms in Victoria, we have planted over 100 species of trees that produce food, fibre, fuel and fodder from temperate zones across the world.

A 21st century “greener revolution” would also focus on energy and biodiversity conservation, community economic development, improving nutrition and building local resilience and sustainability. Urban farms are one expression of the burgeoning interest in local and diverse food systems.

Design solutions – from agro-ecosystems to global institutions

Australia has already made significant contributions to global thinking on future agricultural systems through pioneering concepts such as Keyline, Permaculture and Landcare, which has now been taken up in more than 20 countries.

Integrating multiple complementary components to create systems that work is a generic design challenge. We see it at scales from households and village production systems through to the design of global institutions. Through good design, we can bring discrete elements together into systems that work more efficiently and effectively, hopefully resolving “peak everything” dilemmas.

For example, the same materials can be used to build energy-efficient, passive solar houses and offices, or poorly-oriented McMansions and “sick buildings”, hot in summer and cold in winter, requiring expensive, energy-intensive heating and cooling for the life of the building.

We need to step out of our silos. Michele Massetani

The best new systems of irrigated dairy farming use one-third as much water without compromising yields and profits. But such radical improvements require a redesign approach, reassessing the plant production system and matching a new one to the climate and conditions.

Technological, policy and institutional innovations

At a workshop in Thailand on water governance among the six countries that share the Mekong River, a local water official defined governance as “how society shares power, benefit and risk”.

Rethinking governance and innovation systems so that they can deliver large-scale, resilient solutions requires wide-ranging reform. This includes the way R&D is funded, delivered and evaluated.

Agriculture, like other sectors, needs to decouple production from energy and resource use and pollution intensity. Moreover, because biodiversity conservation, water and land use, energy production, carbon intensity, disaster management and global food supplies are all intimately linked, the 21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues.

For example, this means a much more integrated approach to land use planning, involving all tiers of government working together, with industry and the community. It may sound tedious and expensive, but the alternatives — staying in our silos, then wringing our hands after big shocks — are much worse.

Our innovation system (R&D, extension and education) needs to drive the rapid development of globally relevant solutions: scalable, integrated and appropriate to the constraints of a finite world.

Currently, our rural research is organised and funded around agricultural commodities: meat, wool, grains, cotton, dairy, sugar and so on. This worked well in the 20th Century, but as the Productivity Commission found, we now need much more effective cross-commodity mechanisms that redress the Rudd Government’s strategic blunder in abolishing Land & Water Australia in 2009.

As proposed recently by the Chief Scientist, Australia can play an important role in global R&D on sustainable land and water management, and innovative food systems that increase energy and water productivity while conserving biodiversity and restoring degraded landscapes.

Our most valuable export commodity, and our most renewable resource, is between our ears.

Join the conversation

86 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    Jason and Andrew you have added NOTHING to this debate!

    Your article reads like an EMPTY political pep talk and it is not half obvious that both of you are technological optimists!

    Thanks for nothing!

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    1. Greg Edeson

      PhD candidate at School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      I think the authors were trying to walk the line between the ideal state of everyone waking up tomorrow and behaving 'sustainably' and the more realistic pathways towards reducing the impacts of population and consumption to a level where we can survive the peaks in pollution, consumption, production and population that are running up against planetary and ecosystem limits.

      It would be great if we could capture the benefits of the expansion while doing away with the negatives. One of the subtle…

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Greg Edeson

      I'd reckon the authors' primary contention, also seemed to have been missed by your other namesake but not this one is underlined by the bottom line of the article and yet what is between the ears of many and how they use it in applications is always going to be one of the great difficulties facing the planet as we use and pollute more and more.

      Just a simple exercise that people could do is to visit some building sites to see what goes into dumper bins and then follow them to dump sites and see what we waste as land fill all because of how we are driven economically in western developed nations at least.

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  2. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    What is the following supposed to add to the discussion????

    The creativity of better average educated humans in the realms of genetic engineering will mean little if nations are engaged in major wars over access to water!

    And what about a rational assessment of third world access to genetically modified crops. Western companies and governments aint going to give it to them that technology and third world nations aint going to have much discretionary cash to pay for it as their populations and…

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    1. In reply to Greg Boyles

      Comment removed by moderator.

  3. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    "For example, the same materials can be used to build energy-efficient, passive solar houses and offices, or poorly-oriented McMansions and “sick buildings”, hot in summer and cold in winter, requiring expensive, energy-intensive heating and cooling for the life of the building."

    Except that net wages are going down as the cost of living increases with our rising population for most Australians.

    Most can't afford the loan required to pay for the premium costs of such ecohousing solutions!

    So most will continue to opt for the cheaper mass produced McMansions.

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    1. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Only for as long as people make those choices Greg. Ecohousing (as you refer to it) doesn't have to be premium cost. Choosing a smaller home and choosing to orient it thoughtfully are two ways to improve the environmental performance of housing without increasing costs.

      Unfortunately, many people prefer convenience and automated life choices. Many of our governance structures enable that sort of behaviour and those structures should be changed but people still need to take personal responsibility for their choices. Blaming 'the system' and declaring it all to be too hard is where the problems of humanity's making start (ie, with us as individuals).

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    2. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Anna Young

      DDT was the result of humans trying to solve the problem of insect attack on crops!

      Global warming was the result of humans trying to improve personal transport options and increase agricultural output.

      Superbugs were the result of humans trying to solve the problem of wound infection.

      I could go on!

      Human ingenuity and creativity creates as many or more long term problems than it solves short term ones.

      Our problems will NOT be solved by human ingenuity and creativity. Ultimately they can only be solved by us collectively refraining from behaving like the lowly beasts by breeding ourselves into a oblivion.

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    3. Alan Stenhouse

      Chief Monkey

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Greg - your last sentence hits the nail on the head (at least in part). But that also involves intelligence - to recognise that our current systems are incorrect and that we need to adapt them - and to refrain from "bad" behaviours! (Credit to my Dad - David Stenhouse - and his life's work on Intelligence and behaviour here).

      The authors here are pointing out that our current systems are very problematic (as you are) and that we need to change. Great that we realise these things and that we can hopefully change them over time (and *in* time)... Systemic changes are difficult but doable... and we have to start now.

      BTW - though I'm not sure quite who you mean with "lowly beasts" I'd often argue that it is us humans that behave more like lowly beasts than other beings... Perhaps much in part due to our so-called "intelligence" but I think a large part due to our disconnected "intelligence"...

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  4. Peter Boyd Lane

    geologist

    "Problems created by humans are, by definition, amenable to human solutions." What a load of codswallop. I could list hundreds problems we have created (countless species extinction comes to mind ... or is that just a problem for them?), but just one will do: the oceans are full of plastic which is killing millions of animals .. solve that one.

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    1. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Fair point that extinctions are irreversible at present (notwithstanding the research that pops up from time to time about bringing species back) but let's not confuse difficult problems with impossibility.

      Yes, oceans full of plastic are a big problem and the bigger problem is that there is no will (at present) to clean them up (or prevent the problem in the first place). It might (currently) be impractical or politico-economically too hard but it's not technically impossible.

      I think the…

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    2. Peter Boyd Lane

      geologist

      In reply to Anna Young

      Perhaps I'm really just a pessimist, but I don't think we are nearly as smart as we think we are. We are not a very intelligent species. We can't even see that we have fouled our own nest, let alone come up with solutions. Cleaning the ocean of plastic (add a cocktail of chemicals)? not only impractical, politically too hard .... add too costly, from a time/impact view totally ineffective, and almost certainly from a pure scientific aspect, impossible.
      (and yes, I'm a miserable old bugger to live with)

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Peter, as a fellow miserable old bugger, I share a lot of your concerns - but I still think Anna is also significantly right (as are the authors, for that matter, despite the fact that the article is a tad dewy-eyed-optimistic and vague) that there are few things humans can't do if they really set their minds (and resources) to the task - and that includes inventing new ways of doing things that are currently impossible. We've seen too many examples of radical innivation in areas like space exploration…

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    4. Michael Guy

      Clinical Psychologist

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      "... our political/economic systems are rigid and stupid" ... until there is a crisis (usually). The problem is if the crisis is an extinction event and we've already painted ourselves into a corner.

      Unfortunately when we run out of phosphate to dig up and the world's finite supplies have ended up in the ocean then options for innovation are probably limited ... Easter Island here we come unless we do overcome that rigidity. Oops I've ended up ..." rehashing a polarised debate between Malthusian determinists and technological optimists"!

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Michael Guy

      Yeah - that's the problem, isn't it, Michael? - will we 'wake up' before it's too late? We could. We might. If we did, we could turn things around quickly enough to come through the century damaged but basicaly intact with fairly bright hopes for the future...if we haven't already gone past the tipping points...

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    6. Peter Boyd Lane

      geologist

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix,
      only wish I could agree, but I just can't accept that we are special enough to avoid the fate of the millions of species that have gone before us

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    7. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Peter - don't have much to say about the article but I am curious about the extinctions you mentioned. Can you name species that have gone extinct, as opposed to being on endangered lists, in say the last 20 years? I know one bird expert who could point to about four species of birds that have become extinct..

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    8. Brad Farrant

      Adjunct Research Fellow in Early Childhood Development at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark,

      Perhaps the following quote from an article in the journal Nature will help clarify the situation we currently face -

      "there are clear indications that losing species now in the ‘critically endangered’ category would propel the world to a state of mass extinction that has previously been seen only five times in about 540 million years. Additional losses of species in the ‘endangered’ and ‘vulnerable’ categories could accomplish the sixth mass extinction in just a few centuries. It may…

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    9. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad - I think what you reference says is that if all the species on the endangered list became extinct than we would have a mass extinction event.. considering the number of species cited as endangered I'm sure you can make a case for that.. but the original post talked about extinctions that have occurred.. I can only think of one species that has been declared extinct in recent years. I'm sure there are more but how many?
      Projections and forecasts in this area have a very limited value, even when they appear in Nature

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    10. Brad Farrant

      Adjunct Research Fellow in Early Childhood Development at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark,

      The most important point is that if we continue with a business as usual approach it will cause an acceleration in the number of species that we push to extinction and will eventually produce a mass extinction event. Hence we need start reducing our environmental footprint with the aim of living within the limits of what the planet can sustainably provide. We need to start adopting policies in this area that are grounded in the best available science. Journals like Nature provide the best peer reviewed science.

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    11. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Your kidding, right?

      Have you not looked at CITES and its regular updates on what has become extinct, what is endangered and what is borderline? Have you not bothered to type this request into Google? Off the top of my head there are at least two frog species, a couple of mammals, some worms, a couple of birds and that is just in Australia since 1990 (we lost a lot in the 1970-90s period).

      Because your question smacks of the loaded question fallacy.

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    12. Peter Boyd Lane

      geologist

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark, 20 yrs is a very short time frame. Since 12,000 yrs ago (about) 22 mammals have become extinct in UK, 150 in N America (including the Eastern Cougar in 2011), since 900 yrs ago 40 in NZ. Plus other countries, plus countless bird and other species. Not an enviable record.

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    13. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      OK, I can't resist. From a quick search, these are species that have become extinct since 1990: Pyrenean Ibex; St Helena Olive (extinct in the wild; I'm not prepared to swear it's extinct in cultivated form); Baiji Dolphin; Liverpool Pigeon; Saudi Gazelle; Alaotra Grebe; the eastern subspecies of the Cougar (could be argued to not be a species extinction); Western Black Rhinoceros (again, a subspecies); Japanese River Otter; Pinta Island Giant Tortoise (https://theconversation.com/the-death-of-lonesome-george-a-eulogy-that-should-be-in-tortoise-7937

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    14. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      It's not that I think we're special, so much as my huge respect for our rat cunning and the intensity of our survival instinct...

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    15. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Jane - excellent. I asked for a few species to be named and finally someone has managed to find a few. I did say I was sure that ther were some. But its hardly an extensive list is it? Well short of a mass die off.. How does it compare to background and how is the calculation made? We have very frequently been told there are mass die-offs but I think that if you count the number of species you cite and compare them with the number of existing species, you come up with a tiny proportion, right..

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    16. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Oh I agree its s short time frame and earlier people of earlier centuries were very exploitive.. most of the deforestation in Europe occurred before industrialisation.. but we are repeatedly been told of mass die-offs and mass extinctions that are happening now and its all accelerating, presumably due to global warming.. Well where is this mass die off.. I have no particular concern about whether it exists or not. I just wish people would find it or stop talking about it..

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    17. James Patterson

      PhD Candidate in water governance at University of Queensland

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark, if you are genuinely interested in these issues, I suggest that you read the following paper on 'Planetary Boundaries' which synthesises issues of global biodiversity loss with a range of other critical global-scale sustainability issues:

      http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

      That would provide a great start and many more opportunities to look into this further.

      From a wider perspective, I would say that it is important to be aware that:

      1) Just because you may not…

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    18. Peter Boyd Lane

      geologist

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      I guess economists and geologists simply talk a different language. Anything that can't be shown to have an impact on say a 20 year discounted cash flow, well it just doesnt have an impact. The greatest mass extinction, some 250 million years ago, and which wiped out over 90% of marine animals and 70% of terrestials lasted anything from 10,000 yrs to well over 1 million ... but it was still a mass extinction event.
      It's a bit like weather versus climate ... one cold day and the sceptics claim global warming is a greenie hoax.

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    19. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      I listed a dozen species in Australia alone. Jane named another dozen or more. Exactly how many do you consider to be "extensive"?

      I thought you were using the loaded question fallacy, and lo, it be so.

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    20. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      It's an interesting question, Mark: I'm no expert, but I know many experts. I'll see if I can commission a story.

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    21. Trevor McGrath

      uneducated twit

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Wrong... Please answer me this... Is It AFR policy that its employees keep themselves wilfully ignorant of even the most basic knowledge of the current ecological status of the planet? I know that the purpose of your paper is to report on the activities and profits of the companies who are destroying it, So how about taking an interest of the consequences of the actions of the companies that you report on. Cheers

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  5. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Brilliant article, I recently read the follow up to the limits to growth, "2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years" such a great read

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  6. John Newlands

    tree changer

    We may not have long to wait to test these theories. I suspect the Australian and possibly the world grain crop will be well down this year. That's based on the dry autumn so far in SE and SW Australia and the US drought. That will affect not only the price of bread but finger lickin' chicken fed on grain. Meanwhile we'll export 300 Mt of coal, a nonrenewable and polluting commodity.

    Thus Australia could join most of Europe as a developed country fallen on lean times. If so our present smugness could evaporate by this time next year. Oddly we'll probably have a government that doesn't see climate change as a problem. Answer; dig more coal.

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    1. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to John Newlands

      Grain output is down because of the drought in WA but overall Ag output for Australia is up, or was last time I looked, particularly in comparison with the big drought of a few years back .. have an idea that international food prices have passed their peak, but I'll check when I have the time. The peak in food prices never had much to do with supply but was due to demand from lots of Chinese and Indians being lifted out of desperate poverty. But part of the problem was a lot of US farm land being locked up producing bio-fuels of all things. Time to dump the bio-fuel fad..

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Wrong. Grain yields have been in decline across Australia since 2000. This is primarily climate change and also nutrient usage and climate variability. Some lessening of climate variability in Queensland has led to more steady production. Animal production (from memory) have been in a general decline for the last 5 years, with a slight (1-2%) increase in the last 2-3 quarters.

      And good to see you actually acknowledging drought and climate has an impact on agriculture. Pity you didn't mention its impact on world supply, especially given last year's drought in America, and the long term increase in droughts in key farming areas world wide due to climate change.

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  7. charles nason

    farmer

    This was a very visionary and thought provoking article but overlooks one important emerging issue . Australia has led the world in many agricultural initiatives and innovations but is now in the position where our RD&E capacity is stagnating and many farmers are in acute financial stress . W.A. farmers are in a position where many are struggling to finance the coming winter crop and the northern beef industry is also in a precarious position . Other primary industries such as dairy , fruit and vegetables seem to be in a similar position
    Overseas interests are rapidly investing in many sectors of our economy ( especially food ) as Australia apparently sees no strategic value in these sectors.
    Maybe before we preach to the world , we should get our own house in order and make it truely sustainable
    Charity begins at home
    Maybe there are not enough sets of ears in agriculture

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    1. Michael Santhanam-Martin

      PhD Candidate in the Rural Innovation Research Group, Melbourne School of Land and Environment at University of Melbourne

      In reply to charles nason

      I share your concern regarding the challenges many farmers are currently facing Charles. My own research is in the Victorian dairy industry, and is focusing on the question of governance. I think the definition of governance quoted in this article "how society shares power, benefit and risk" is quite useful, and can readily be applied to agriculture. At the moment perhaps farmers are being asked to shoulder too much of the risk, consumers are getting too much benefit at too little cost, and retailers have too much power! So the next question is, how to innovate the governance processes to get the balance better?

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  8. Andrew Smith

    Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

    Good article, but it's not just about peak, it's also about what happens when peaks decline e.g. population? We as people have to change how we do things.

    Just today news from Turkey where the industry minister is asking Germany to encourage Turkish guest workers to return due to skill shortages and ageing population in Turkey.

    There are solutions to issues as opposed to those who simply think stopping immigration and population growth (in Australia) will solve the world's problems (or their own personal issues).

    In addition to the Malthusian fear factors which leads to the preserving the status quo, Australia may need to look at longer term planning versus next short term issue and opinion poll.....

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  9. Michael Lardelli

    logged in via Facebook

    Yet another meaningless article from Planet Economics. The line, "Agriculture, like other sectors, needs to decouple production from energy and resource use" shows just how out of touch with reality these authors are. Humans can innovate their way around some problems but the extent of their action will always be limited by the resources available. These authors do not seem to understand our current energy supply predicament or how energy return on investment limits our future ability to act.

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    1. Peter Yard

      Software Developer / Technnical Writer

      In reply to Andrew Smith

      You can't adapt around energy shortage. Not all energy sources are the same. When oil goes, coal will not be a substitute. Without oil as feedstock there will be no fertiliser, the combine harvesters will stop, the refrigerated trucks will not run ... every calorie we eat requires 10 calories of energy invested, mostly from fossil fuel. Solar just wont cut it.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Yard

      Check out Linc Energy, cars and planes driven and flown across the continent and back on fuel synthesised from coal.

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    3. Peter Yard

      Software Developer / Technnical Writer

      In reply to James Hill

      Synthesising liquid fuel from coal is an old technology but it is also extremely energy inefficient. As I recall there is one major coal liquefaction plant in the world, in South Africa, no way to scale that up in time and you would need massive amounts of coal because the process is not very efficient.

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Yard

      Yes, but further inquiry will reveal that the plant is modular and easily upscalable and is intended for "stranded" coal seams in diverse locations. Underground Coal Seam Gasification.
      So the efficiency of using coal that otherwise is unusable is moot as a basis of comparison with other coal.
      Further inquiry, it really is quite necessary, if only to avoid misinforming other posters with outdated information.

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  10. John James

    eExtension Team Leader at DAFF, Qld Govt

    Andrew I agree that we need to redesign the way we approach solving today's challenges. In agriculture we need to move away from the linear approach of R,D&E (Research, Development and Extension) and more fully embrace an Agricultural Innovation System approach. This doesn't just include 'R&D, extension and education' as you mention, but all the key players in the value chain, including suppliers, consultants, wholesalers and end-users.

    It is only by working with all the key players from the beginning…

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  11. Jack Lindsay

    Consultant

    I agree with Greg, this is an empty pep talk. Clearly many of the commenters were hoping for something considerably more about actual solutions. Well, there's a free download of a book that provides real solutions to these issues. And it's about current technologies that can actually scale, not dreamy fantasies about windmills and bunny rabbits. You can download it here:
    tinyurl.com/9992kma

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  12. bill parker

    editor

    I agree with Greg Boyle. Nothing added here. No mention at all of phosphate!

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  13. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    Sadly I agree with many of the commentators, too much empty optimism in the article and reliance on "education" of consumers to come around to a different way of thinking.

    What is also missing is the dangers presented by Big Ag solutions through GMO industry manipulation of gene sources and control of seed (already at over 90% in the US for some crops and being pushed outwards on the rest of us) and locking in of herbicide/pesticide regimes (owned by the same groups) which also restrict options for people to do something different due to the feral contamination then legal impoundment through patent enforcement of cross pollinated crops. When the "adaption" is purely profit driven the outcomes are unlikely to be entirely benign.

    Decoupling of agriculture from FOSSIL energy is relatively straightforward, the barriers here are not technical or even financial, but do require strong support networks, new industry development and supportive public policy structures.

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Dangers? Control of seed? Chemicals? No fossil fuels?

      Breeding companies already control seed, through end point royalities and trade permissions.

      GM is just a breeding technique. It is a targeted trait transfer as opposed to random mutation generation or random trait identification. Suggesting otherwise is to not understand plant and animal breeding.

      Chemicals are not locked in, they are a management tool. The choice of what to use, from what company, for what application, is the decision…

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    2. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      As a multi generational farmer understanding of animal and plant breeding probably escapes me. I don't recall saying GMO's are dangerous in themselves, in fact there was a time when I was quite excited by the technology. That's largely worn off now in the light of additional learning.

      How it is applied is fundamentally more important than how the basic techniques are understood. Most GM crops are engineered for herbicide resistance and this is the main direction to achieve higher yields. This…

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    3. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Well, looks like my reply is going to just be correcting your statements.

      Don Huber's claims are rubbish. He has as much credibility as his yogic flying acolyte, Jeffrey Smith. Here are the responses to Huber's claims from Purdue University: http://gmopundit.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/pudue-extension-comments-on-recent.html

      CCD is not linked to GM nor any one thing. CCD is related to a mix of many pressures, including, but not limited to, low level toxicity from broad spectrum insecticides (nicotinamides…

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    4. bill parker

      editor

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      I wouldn't dismiss the biodiesel figures. And a " few years ago" is definitely out of date. Let's be sensible about this, the usage of large areas of land to grow canola to make diesel is just mad. Canola is not the easiest crop to grow and in areas of diminishing or erratic rainfall it is commercially dubious.

      The most promising way of generating biodiesel is to grow brine tolerant algae. Dunaliella is an example but there are others. The north west coast of Australia has one functional…

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    5. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to bill parker

      I wasn't dismissing it, I was saying that it is not commercially viable yet.

      And I agree, canola (or crop biomass, or any of those other crazy ideas) are just stupid ways to produce biofuels. The newer options are far better, but aren't available to individual businesses in the wheatbelts of Australia in any meaningful way.

      And by how green, I mean that biomass and the like still require inputs of fossil fuel derived fertilisers and the like. So, the biomass is not really carbon neutral. But that also raises the other issue, if livestock are an emission, then biofuels of this sort definitely are emissions. The carbon accounting is roughly the same.

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    6. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to bill parker

      Yes I would tend to agree, although there are still more than a few obstacles to overcome, but there are determined people as well. One of my engineering friends in the Netherlands has just successfully developed a lower cost commercial oil extraction method for algae at scale (under contract to an algal company). The spent algal biomass can also be densified and put through the gasifer to produce more fuel.

      Not sure why Tyson was arguing about this, I never mentioned making biodiesel from canola…

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    7. bill parker

      editor

      In reply to bill parker

      I was referring to energy rather than carbon. I do not have a feel for N and P but they surely do require some. I suspect less than grain crops.

      Also the commerciality is subject of course to the price of black diesel which yo-yos about. My latest reading was "not far off". Its the production volume that is the real issue.

      And also. about the wheatbelt. I can only speak about WA but anyone who has flown over WA during the day on the usual track from Esperance will have see coloured lakes - that's algae. Not so very far from settlements.

      Here indeed is a synergy between wastewater and algal growth in salt prone/destroyed lands. No fossil derived N at least. P as I said here earlier is the elephant ITR.

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    8. bill parker

      editor

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      And never forget what Heinrich Diesel was onto. His patented engine of 1893 ran on peanut oil. And they still can. No need for transesterification.

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    9. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Tyson, you seem such a touchy fellow. No one is asking you to hold your breath and don't worry we are spending our own resources not those of anyone else so the risks are entirely ours. Farmers are like that.

      We are also as a group quite slow to change, not fickle as you imply. Often testing new things on small areas after observing results of our more adventurous (or desperate) neighbors before dumping our country music for techno. Reliable cultivars are often prized and kept in production…

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    10. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to bill parker

      Yeah, the problem is how much biomass is removed and what the source of nutrition that replaces that removal is coming from. That's why it pays to be careful about biofuels, as there is an element of greenwashing (either deliberately or idealistically) that can occur.

      But as I said before, these are all things that are on the horizon, not here now. It was almost ten years ago now that on farm biofuels was spoken of as "not far off" from being commercially viable. There have been some big developments…

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    11. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Not touchy, that would just be you deflecting.

      I was talking industry level, as in the majority of farmers having access, not cottage industry level like you are talking about. That seems to be your confusion.

      I never implied fickle. It is quite clear that farmers are very savvy and will drop any new variety that doesn't work. There are some recent adoption curves that show Mace was a winner and (from memory) Magenta wasn't, that was over only a few seasons. So your assertion that there won't…

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    12. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to bill parker

      Fossil derived N?

      Fossil fuels contain carbon and hydrogen, not nitrogen.

      Ammonia synthesis requires hydrogen, reaction heat, and energy for gas separation, refrigeration, compression etc., as well as atmospheric nitrogen of course. There's no intrinsic involvement of fossil fuels here.

      None of those things have to come from fossil fuels at all, although hydrogen is a free byproduct of petrochemistry, eg. condensation of ethane to ethene as a precursor to the ethene-derived polymers.

      A high-temperature fission reactor for process heat and sulfur-iodine separation of hydrogen could quite easily supply plenty of agricultural ammonia (or nitrates, whatever form you want the fixed N fertilizer in, it all starts with ammonia.)

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    13. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Peter Davies

      "locking in of herbicide/pesticide regimes"

      This seems to be a persistent and bizzare anti-biotechnology meme... it just doesn't exist, and there's not even any mechanism by which it could possibly exist.

      Can you please show me any example of any recombinant crop product that creates any kind of lock-in to a particular herbicide or pesticide product, especially an agrochemical product which is patented and/or only sold by the same company selling the seed?

      Furthermore, by what biochemical…

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    14. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Bill, well done, there's that between the ears stuff in action!

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    15. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Alan Stenhouse

      It's a huge leap from engineered glyphosate resistance (which applies to glyphosate from any generic manufacturer, not just Monsanto glyphosate products) to saying that GMO seeds create a lock-in to specific herbicides (and especially insecticides!) from a certain manufacturer.

      Glyphosate resistant crops don't stop you from using the same herbicide regimen you'd otherwise use on a non-resistant crop, but it gives you the added option of using glyphosate, which is a cheap, generically available herbicide which is cheaper and safer than selective herbicides instead of using selective herbicides.

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    16. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Luke Weston

      I agree that fertilisers can have their production and transport methods changed in the medium to long term and their carbon footprint drops. This isn't true for all agrichemicals, but alternatives are being looked at with some success. Once again, this comes back to making sure we pay the full cost of fossil fuels so that other sources become competitive.

      For more it is worth reading the FAO: http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/programmes/en/lead/toolbox/Indust/PIncfofu.htm

      Just on another point…

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  14. William Hughes-Games

    Garden weed puller

    The obvious first step is to stop the increase in the population and this is happening regardless, wherever a sufficient level of prosperity has made contraception affordable and in the hands of women or when contraception has been subsidized to be affordable (and in the hands of women). In fact, in many countries the number of live births per woman is less than replacement and governments are fighting this tooth and nail. Finally we have the possibility of turning some land back into wilderness…

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  15. James Patterson

    PhD Candidate in water governance at University of Queensland

    Wow, what an interesting barrage of feedback to what seems to me to be a thought-provoking article.

    My interpretation was that this article is basically saying: "we acknowledge that there are enormous biophysical challenges and we are not going to repeat that here, but what we focus on instead is highlighting how 'thinking differently' can provide new opportunities for engaging with these challenges to avoid being paralysed by saying that 'it's all doomed' ".

    This is extremely important for building new ways of engaging 'everyone' in addressing the tremendous sustainability challenges that we face, particularly so we can move beyond the increasingly fierce polarisation of views on almost 'everything' to do with the environment.

    The authors didn't set out to provide 'simple solutions', but instead seemed to be inviting us to reflect on what capacity we do have for change, instead of all the reasons why we are screwed.

    That's a great topic for conversation.

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    1. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to James Patterson

      The problem with giving up is that you, those of you who care anyway, have given up ....and where will that get us...people in general I mean? I think the original article does have merit, especially if people who are not already committed read it...faint hope though that may be. Some of the ideas mooted by commentators are interesting too.

      Sorry to bring in politics here ...but the key is cooperative R&D and innovation efforts supported by governments. I believe that finding ways to be optimistic…

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    2. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Georgina Byrne

      I'd be lucky if a Greens candidate even stood in my conservative voting electorate, mostly they don't bother, and direct their energies to where they will have some chance of winning the seat.

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  16. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    i've heard these we can feed the world stories for nigh on 50+ years.

    yeah sure we COULD.....but will we.

    before you know it the west is eating more and throwing much more away......what we waste could feed millions.

    the u.n. has had dozens of programs over the decades, and still there are people starving, and corporations raping third world countries of resources and creating environmental disasters........

    i dont think we have the intelligence or we would be far ahead of where we actually are...........

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, I have to agree with your second line.

      Maybe I'm just old and cynical, but there seems to be little political will to do anything that will upset the money makers. Short term greed reigns supreme, and bugger the planet and the rest of the worlds population of people and the environment.

      The "I've got mine and bugger the rest of yous" is about how I see the situation at the moment as far as the majority of people's attitudes in Australia.

      Its nice to know there are others who care…

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    2. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Not entirely compassionless, Judith...just very mis-directed, in a lot of cases. How to get more people to read the Conversation rather than their facebook pages,
      Twitter accounts or even worse, the Murdoch press, is a problem to be overcome.

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    3. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Georgina Byrne

      True Georgina, not entirely compassionless, just mostly. This article is not depressing, but watching the ways of the majority of the world, sure is.

      I have come to the conclusion that its up to each of us to change what we can, and I've certainly over-hauled my own life so my way of living reflects my own desires for the planet, and as much as possible I have lessened my impact, consumption, and footprint.

      I don't have the power to do anymore, except encourage others to do the same.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Judith Olney

      hi judith

      i've never been an optimist - saves disappointment.

      but i'm a relatively happy pessimist.

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  17. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Where to start?

    I was involved in developing a company policy of zero injuries and zero waste, and while both policies are worth pursuing, zero injuries was very difficult to achieve, and zero waste was very, very difficult to achieve.

    Basically, trying to recycle waste increases energy consumption, which then produces more waste, even though we were operating with cogeneration.

    Similar for a country, and if the country builds its population, it has no hope in developing a sustainable society, as the country is always chasing its tail.

    In Australia we will need to build a city bigger than Hobart each and every year to accommodate our increasing population.

    To implement any of the proposals contained in this article may take 10 to 50 years, during which time there will be no land left on the east coastline of Australia.

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  18. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    As long as people imagine that they can buy solutions to sustainablity in a free market they are going to be disappointed.
    This is no freemarket only a fixed market resistant to the competition a free-market would supply for the benefit of consumers.
    This has been going on eve rsince people built walls aroung their towns and controlled who and what went in and out of their gates.
    Innovation is simply not welcome in the present fixed markets.
    This is where we need to use what is between the ears.

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  19. Garry Baker

    researcher

    The short answer to the article headline is "no". As much as the content is very constructive, any large scale approach to tackling 'peak everything' will be way too late - given that slow but sure degradation processes won't drive governments in the least (these are the folk who have to find the will and the money for our fixes). More to the point, human conceit thinks we can engineer our way out of anything, so there's plenty of time - and money really needs to be spent on business-as-usual…

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  20. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Or we agree on limiting the amount of children for some generations :)
    That one would solve it.

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  21. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues". The single underlying issue is total human footprint: our population may, barely, be sustainable now, but our population growth is not. There are too many of us, consuming resources and creating waste. Vale humanity.

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  22. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Thanks Jason and Andrew for helping build our vision of what we need to move forward.

    Horrifying things are happening at a pace that can be overwhelming but allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by what is going wrong prevents us from getting things right.

    We cannot simply run away. We need something to run towards, and you are contributing to that - even if my view differs from yours in detail.

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