Engineering alumni tackle potential global catastrophe

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State alumni Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce teamed up to build a roadmap for human survival following natural or nuclear disaster.

The duo released the book “Feeding Everyone No Matter What” in November 2014, but the authors go way back.

Denkenberger, who received his degree in engineering science in 2002, and Pearce, who earned his physics and chemistry degree in 1999 and doctorate in materials engineering in 2004, met in engineering science class as undergraduates.

After school, the two started collaborating on projects with an interest in helping the developing world.

Pearce said the topic for “Feeding Everyone” grew out of Denkenberger’s work with the Global Catastrophe Research Institute.

He said the institute studies a whole category of different disasters, like super volcanoes – however, the solution is always just to store up food.

“That doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We certainly can’t store enough for everyone on the planet economically – it would only worsen current malnutrition. We started looking at if we can feed everyone, and do we have the technological skills to do it.”

Pearce and Denkenberger found that there actually are a number of viable solutions. They took a hard look at the energy side of things to create a “basic battle plan.”

“If we solve the energy problem, we can solve the food problem,” Pearce said. “We found a way to feed everyone. Now we have some solutions.”

The pair found that even in the event of nuclear winter -- a hypothetical climatic effect, most often considered a potential threat following a countervalue, or city-targeted, nuclear war --  or if the sun shut off for five years, it was possible to feed the entire world population – if they are willing to think a little differently about food.

Solutions include eating mushrooms, insects and bacteria grown on dead trees and natural gas.

While unsavory to those not afflicted with disaster, these means of edible food could save billions of lives.

“From my perspective, you either die or eat beetles,” Pearce said. “So you eat the beetles! No questions!”

Denkenberger agreed that people will get over the issues of social acceptability, considering the circumstances.

Pearce added that there are ways to make things like insects more appealing for picky eaters. He suggested grinding beetles into flour and baking it into bread.

“Diets wouldn’t necessarily change that much, just the source of food is different,” he said. “Meal worms are good for conversion -- they’re not bad once you get over initial revulsion. You would never know after processing.”

While the book focuses on long-term solutions, Pearce said they also developed a short-term plan to get through the first year. He said the best solution is to use leaves, and there are three ways to do this – crush them, pull out the nutrients and eat it; chew them and spit out fiber; or make tea out of them (pine needle tea).

“We’re very confident in at least 10 of the solutions,” Pearce said. “In any event of disaster, governments could start working on them.”

Denkenberger said the practical approach the book takes is intentional.

“We focus on the technical solutions that can actually be ramped up within about a year without any preparation,” he said. “If [political leaders] knew these were possible, they wouldn’t have to prepare ahead of time to save themselves.”

The next step is for countries to make a plan and do more technical research. If individual countries conduct their own additional experiments, they are more likely to implement these solutions.

Denkenberger said one of the main criticisms of the book is that with so many people starving already, how can the authors claim they can feed everyone in the event of disaster?

“Because we’re focusing on what’s technically possible,” Denkenberger said. “The next step is to analyze the economic and political realities.”

Another problem Pearce outlined is a moral hazard when it comes to telling the world there is a plan to survive a nuclear winter. Such an event would unmistakably alter the global climate for a period of years, resulting in agricultural losses from the colder weather.

“If everyone knows we have a solution to nuclear winter, they might be more likely to build nuclear weapons,” Pearce said. “However, if we can decrease our nuclear stockpiles, we radically reduce the chances of having a nuclear winter.”

Denkenberger worried people will not work as hard to reduce risk if they know there’s a solution.

He cited the example of former President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev – awareness of nuclear winter prompted them to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

However, there are still enough nuclear weapons to cause nuclear winter, and many catastrophes we have little control over, like super volcanic eruption. Therefore, in the right hands “Feeding Everyone No Matter What” can be the best survival guide to prepare for the worst.

“We want to see if we can get the word out to political leaders or staff,” Denkenberger said. “If there is breakdown of international cooperation in this situation, people will starve. Awareness makes it more likely that we’ll cooperate.”

Denkenberger said cooperation will be vital in such a situation. “Every country for itself” will only lead to disaster.

“I hope [readers] come out with some hope,” Pearce added. “Humans can solve their problems if they work together and get along.”

Last Updated March 31, 2015