Synthetic Abundance

Overcoming Nature's Scarcity

We often talk about how bountiful nature is. But in reality, without engineering and enhancement by humans, natural ecosystems are very sparse in their supply of material goods.

For centuries and millennia, humans have innovated and adopted new technologies in an effort to overcome nature’s scarcity, and to create more abundant material welfare. This has so far been accompanied by an ever greater footprint on the environment, causing great loss of nonhuman life. Yet the means by which humans create abundance also hold the key to shrinking the footprint. Creating abundance and sparing nature, often seen as clashing values, are in fact two sides of the same coin.

Before the invention of agriculture, Earth was only able to support a few million people. It didn’t take long for our Pleistocene ancestors to find out that the supply of meat from wild animals was very limited. Ever since, humans have repeatedly faced constraints to nature’s supplies of material goods. The amount of nitrogen fertilizer one can get from natural processes, such as through slash and burn or planting legumes, is restricted by the amount of land available. The same is true for energy from fuelwood, and draft power from horses. Relying on whales for lighting fuel, like people did in the 19th century, meant relatively high prices and limited amounts of lighting. Today, we’re coming up against the limits of how much fish we can get from wild stocks.

Two processes have been essential to overcoming this scarcity: substitution and intensification.

Substitution tends to go in the direction of increasingly artificial means of providing material goods. This often happens in three stages. It starts with harvesting wild plants and animals, like bushmeat, capture fisheries, fuelwood from unmanaged forests, or lamp oil from whales. The second stage we might call farming, where things are grown in engineered ecosystems, like crops, tree plantations, pastured meat, and extensive aquaculture in coastal or inland waters. The third and final stage is the factory, where we produce goods in closed systems, often using non-renewable resources. Examples of factory production are synthetic fertilizer, nuclear power, closed-loop aquaculture, LED-powered vertical greenhouses, and in-vitro meat.

Along with these cases of substitution, food production has intensified, in order to grow more food on less land. Over centuries, farmers have gone from one harvest every 10 years to two or three harvests per year, using up to 30 times less land to produce the same amount of food. New seed varieties, together with fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation allowed cereal yields to triple in the last 50 years even as the land area remained stable.

As intensification and substitution created abundance for humans, they also vastly reduced the amount of environmental harm of producing a given good.

Agricultural intensification often comes at the expense of farmland biodiversity, but this tends to be more than offset by the reduced need to convert new land to farms and the attendant habitat loss. The technologies associated with the Green Revolution cut global farmland expansion by half since the 1960s, sparing an area the size of Western Europe from conversion.

Synthetic fertilizer allows farmers to grow crops without land-intensive legume cultivation to fix nitrogen. With kerosene, we could get lighting without killing whales. Synthetic rubber and fiber allow for abundant supplies of these materials with a minimal land footprint. While we are coming up against limits of how much fish we can catch in the wild, aquaculture, which now supplies more than half of fish for human consumption, can continue to increase supply while taking pressure off the oceans.

There is a pattern to these instances of substitution. Going from harvesting to farming allows us to stop killing the things we’re trying to save, like whales, wild fish, and terrestrial mammals. Going from farming to factory production tends to radically reduce the amount of land needed to produce any given good. In these cases, humans have spared nature not by using it sustainably or more efficiently, but by relying less on it for our material welfare. Bioenergy can be produced sustainably, strictly speaking – harvesting no more than the annual regeneration – from crop-based biofuels or woody biomass. But if covering a very large area, the biodiversity and habitat loss would be devastating.

To date, the savings associated with greater land use and resource efficiency have been overwhelmed by increases in population and consumption, in part enabled by those very efficiencies. But there is good reason to believe that we are now at an inflection point. At a certain level of material abundance, people’s consumption of material goods starts saturating. And greater material abundance and security – associated with well-paying jobs in services and manufacturing, as well as the education and healthcare that wealthier societies can afford – tends to result in lower fertility rates, further lessening aggregate long-term demand for land and resources.

Of course, technology can be a double-edged sword. More powerful equipment made whaling a ruthlessly efficient industry in the 20th century, capable of killing tens of thousands of whales per year, even as substitutes eventually made whaling unprofitable. Agricultural intensification in the tropics spares land globally but can lead to farmland expansion locally. Most forms of substitution have required large amounts of energy, which, as long as it comes from fossil fuels, contributes to climate change. The direction and nature of substitution, and technological change more broadly, matter. Nor do substitution and intensification eliminate all environmental impacts. As a rule, they spare nature by trading more benign impacts for worse ones.

A world where environmental impacts peak and decline doesn’t have to be a world entirely devoid of organic farming, grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, or wood stoves. Communities and societies will continue to choose to rely in part on these more natural goods, sometimes for biodiversity reasons, and sometimes to preserve cultural landscapes or because they enjoy the taste and feeling of wild foods. Nor will everyone live in high-density cities. 

But with 7 going on 9 or 10 billion people, striving towards higher material standards of living, if we are to leave space for nonhuman species, most of our food, energy, and materials will have to come from more artificial and concentrated sources. Intensive farming, feedlots, fish grown in tanks, nuclear power, and cities are the way to environmental salvation, not damnation. Substitution and intensification may finally break the bonds between human welfare and environmental destruction, ushering in abundance for humans as well as nature.