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What forces account for the great shift toward “rewilding” now taking place in our world? Is it green activism and government action? Not from the looks of the photo above, which shows a giant field of solar panels powering an airport in India. Hailed as a great accomplishment by greens, the view from above provides a clue to the absurdity of absorbing vast resources to replace cheap, traditional power sources with politically-favored solar for just a few buildings. Fry the birds, burn the taxpayers! That’s certainly not rewilding, nor will it get us there. Neither will a cluttered landscape of giant, noisy windmills that slice up avian life, provide only intermittent power, and are left to decay once taxpayer subsidies go away.

Rather, the world is returning to nature via many forms of technology, resource productivity and capitalism. How is that possible? Here is a monograph by Jesse H. Ausubel on “rewilding”, the rebound of nature taking place around the globe. It might make you feel more optimistic about prospects for human prosperity and the joint survival of mankind and planet Earth. There is no question that the changes he describes are primarily driven by powerful private incentives. However, Ausubel’s positions are largely technical, not oriented toward a particular social or economic philosophy. He presents compelling graphical evidence and references to support his technical claims. In what follows, I’ll try to summarize some of the most salient points he makes in the report. Some [bracketed comments] in the bullet points are my own thoughts:

  • Land once used in agriculture is being returned to nature as “acreage and yield [have] decoupled. Since about 1940 American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land.” The same is true in other parts of the world. “The great reversal of land use that I am describing is not only a forecast, it is a present reality in Russia and Poland as well as Pennsylvania and Michigan.” Moreover, there is no cap in sight for farm yields. He credits “precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons.
  • Even more impressive is the fact that “rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen, not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water.
  • A tremendous quantity of food is wasted, but Ausubel cites new web-enabled initiatives such as Food Cowboy and CropMobster that hold great promise in rerouting wasted surplus to areas of need. “The 800 million or so hungry humans worldwide are not hungry because of inadequate production.” [Well, production might be inadequate in their vicinity. And “waste” is relative, so to speak. It is typically uneconomic to avoid all wastage, and social pockets of hunger exist for many reasons unrelated to the operation of markets in food. But improvements in technology can make it feasible to reduce wastage at little cost.]
  • If we keep lifting average yields toward the demonstrated levels …, stop feeding corn to cars [corn ethanol – another activity subsidized by government], restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or the USA east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so.
  • Land released from agriculture contributes to reforestation, a process that is underway in a number of countries. “In the USA, the forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.
  • Our demand for forest products is in decline, which also contributes to reforestation. Forest plantations (accounting for about 1/3 of wood production) are much more productive than harvesting wood from natural forests. Land devoted to wood plantations can displace the harvesting of a much larger area of natural forest. 
  • Carbon dioxide (as well as nitrogen) is adding to “global greening“, which according to Ausubel is “the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more.” [Importantly, this greening provides an important offset to any tendency for human greenhouse gas emissions to warm the environment.]
  • “Dematerialization”: After the 1970s “…a surprising thing happened, even as our population kept growing. The intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before.” Ausubel and some colleagues studied the use of 100 commodities in the U.S. over time. “ we found that 36 have peaked in absolute use; … Good riddance to asbestos and cadmium. … 53 commodities we consider poised to fall. These include not only cropland and nitrogen, … but even electricity and water…. Only 11 of the 100 commodities are still growing in both relative and absolute use in America.
  • Ausubel shows that certain emissions in the U.S. have decreased in relative terms, and sometimes in absolute terms. [The latter were mostly induced by public demands for pollution control regulation, but relative declines also reflect the ability of the private economy to generate growth. However, the value of certain regulations is questionable from both a public finance and a public health perspective.]
  • He is very high on maglev technology and especially the “hyperloop”, Elon Musk’s proposed tube for high-speed maglev travel between LA and San Francisco. [I do not share his enthusiasm for some of the reasons discussed in “High-Speed Third Rail For Taxpayers“. Large-scale, publicly-subsidized infrastructure projects often fail in terms of costs vs. benefits. However, the economics of the hyperloop might prove more compelling.]
  • Fertility has been in decline throughout the world for decades. Slower population growth obviously complements technological advance in providing for material human welfare.
  • Oceans and aquatic life are an area of real concern, in Ausubel’s view. “Fish biomass in intensively exploited fisheries appears to be about one-tenth the level of the fish in those seas a few decades or hundred [of] years ago.” [This is a classic tragedy of the commons in which no property rights are defined until the catch is in.] Fish farming is a promising alternative that can reduce the strain on wild fish populations. 
  • A final section on potential changes in the human diet is provocative. Ausubel discusses the promise of hydrogen supplies in creating proteins for our diet. A single spherical fermenter of 100 yards diameter could produce the primary food for the 30 million inhabitants of Mexico City. The foods would, of course, be formatted before arriving at the consumer. Grimacing gourmets should observe that our most sophisticated foods, such as cheese and wine, are the product of sophisticated elaboration by microorganisms of simple feedstocks such as milk and grape juice. … Globally, such a food system would allow humanity to release 90 percent of the land and sea now exploited for food.

In concluding his monograph, Ausubel addresses whether his optimism is misplaced, having focused so much on positive trends in the developed world and relatively little on less developed countries. Here is his response:

My view is that the patterns described are not exceptional to the US and that within a few decades, the same patterns, already evident in Europe and Japan, will be evident in many more places.

None of this is to deny the existence of external costs and benefits to the natural environment, which private parties might ignore in cases of ill-defined property rights or difficulties in litigating damages. Regulation may be a reasonable alternative for internalizing obvious external costs and benefits, but even then, markets can play a valuable role in fashioning the most efficient regulatory approach. In fact, with advances in environmental consciousness, private parties often find it in their best interest to internalize obvious external costs.

Having achieved a sufficient level of prosperity, a society may decide to convert some of the gains into public benefits through various forms of regulation or other public initiatives. In essence, these may be characterized as “luxury public goods”. The danger lies in the mistakes government often makes in the imposition of costly measures, and in allowing excessive taxes and regulation to subvert the very market processes giving rise to prosperity. This is particularly dangerous to welfare and growth in the underdeveloped world, as illustrated by opposition from environmentalists to efficient fossil fuels. That leaves the poor no alternative but to continue to burn wood indoors for heating and cooking.

It’s worth emphasizing that the nature rebound already taking place in the developed world is largely a product of free market capitalism and the growth in wealth and technology they have made possible. A great benefit of secure property rights for society, and for the environment, is that owners have powerful incentives to husband their resources. Likewise, the profit motive gives producers strong incentives to reduce waste and improve productivity. As economic development becomes more widespread, these incentives are promoting a healthier balance between man and nature. Greenies: capitalism can be your friend!