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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

George Ball: Stephen Hawking is wrong about our ability to survive on planet Earth

By George Ball Philadelphia Inquirer

Recently, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said we should colonize the moon and Mars as soon as possible. He predicts that, figuratively speaking, Mother Earth runs out of milk by 2117, and we should exit the planet before then.

Hawking’s prediction sounds more rhetorical than theoretical. Because of his fame, the public will take his warning as literal. As an international seedsman, I think he is wrong.

Mother Earth has a maximum carrying capacity of 35.5 billion people – up from today’s population of 7.5 billion – at 1,500 calories per person per day. At this rate full capacity will be achieved in about 105 years. Our population continues to increase; we ranch, farm and fish everywhere we can; everyone is fed.

Assume that the world’s population doubles every 40 years and that, worldwide, a healthy daily caloric intake averages 1,500. Calculate all animals, fish, plants, grains, wild game, algae and human breast milk. Moreover, assume that all of Earth’s arable as well as grazing land can be developed fully by the year 2123.

While you might conclude from my counter-prediction that Hawking is correct, you would have to deny that humans are creative, resourceful and innovative. You’d be wrong.

Approximately 10,000 years ago, we invented a highly engineered food – bread. Regarding bread’s main ingredient, Nobelist plant breeder Norman Borlaug saved 245 million lives by breeding a shorter and more productive wheat plant – just one plant and one person fed almost a quarter billion people. If we can land on the moon, we can engineer new foods in great abundance.

It is universally accepted that malnutrition is caused by poverty, and poverty by social conflict, instability and war. No freedom, no free markets. Also, food distribution depends on road quality. No well-paved roads, no effective distribution. Such mundane realities may not occur to a gifted theoretical physicist.

Unlike Hawking, I can speak only about farmers. Global warming, air pollution and asteroid collisions elude me.

I base my observations not on disaster, but on the power of what the ancient Greeks called Gaia. She is more fecund than all the world’s inhabitants combined.

Add Gaia’s air, water, sunlight and genes to our ability to till the soil, harvest the seas, and tend the herds and flocks. The results are miracles. The trick is to be selective and to worship – that is, to follow – Gaia, as did Borlaug, and both Gregor Mendel, known as the father of modern genetics, and Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution.

I accept Hawking’s vast knowledge of outer space, and hope he explains soon how to colonize the moon and Mars. Who will go? First the starving, with hospital staffs in tow? Then those in Holland, China, Bangladesh and other low-lying places? In what order? But what about the absence of oxygen and water? Better to breed plants and pave highways.

Hawking is wrong not about Mother Earth, but about ourselves. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, we are Hawking’s proper study. Let us examine what keeps us from creating optimal horticultural and agricultural production, as well as excellent transportation to all of the world’s markets.

We shorten our lives by killing, maiming and starving one another. Stop that, build great roads, and we shall live on Earth forever.

George Ball is chairman and CEO of the W. Atlee Burpee Co., and a past president of the American Horticultural Society in Washington. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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