Fables about population and food?

As promised last week, this is the first of five posts reviewing the central part of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book, Betrayal of Science and Reason. Despite having been published 15 years ago, its message seems very apt for today – because so little has changed: In Chapter 5, then, the Ehrlichs set about demolishing the most commonly-stated contrarian arguments (i.e. “fables“) for dismissing concern regarding population growth and/or food supply. They call the people that do this the brownlash… This chapter therefore provides a useful analysis to balance out the views of economists like Tim Worstall. Regular readers of this blog may recall that, after he discovered (by Google search or whatever) that I had suggested he was climate change denier, he launched a very detailed rebuttal (in the form of a lengthy exchange of comments with me). Furthermore, when challenged by me regarding Limits to Growth issues instead, he persisted in asserting that resource scarcity is not a binding constraint upon economic growth” and that “[p]opulation as a problem is over… This is exactly the kind of thinking that the Ehrlichs deconstruct in their 1996 book: To do this, they present a series of arguments made (most commonly it seems) by economists that they characterise as “technological optimists”. If I may adopt the terminology I have used in my MA dissertation and on this site, this may be understood as either Promethean or Cornucopian belief (depending on whether reliance is placed upon human ingenuity or nature’s abundance). So then, let us look at some of these “fables”… To tackle the first of these (i.e. Worstall’s position) the Ehrlichs’ cite Julian Simon 1994 assertion that “humanity now has the ability (or knowledge) to make it possible to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” To which they responded by pointing out that if growth did not decline from 1994 levels, it would take only 1900 years for the mass of the human population to equal the mass of the Earth! (p. 66). Worstall’s response to this was to dismiss this as an absurd abstraction because, even in 1996, it was expected that the global human population would eventually stop growing as a result of improvements in education, healthcare and overall living standards. May be so. However, that will only happen if poverty and malnutrition can be eliminated; a battle that – just as the Ehrlichs first predicted in 1968 – we are still losing. The other main fables about population and food are therefore those that suggest that starvation is just a problem of food distribution (not production) and that the planet is not overpopulated. In order to deconstruct these fables, however, it is necessary to understand what is meant by ecological carrying capacity and thereby to understand that the planet can have vast areas of wilderness that are completely uninhabited and still be overpopulated. As I pointed out in the second part of my posts on the theory of Ecological Modernisation, the concept of optimum population has quite a heritage – having first been recognised by Aristotle. The Ehrlichs start by pointing out that the ecological carrying capacity (of an ecosystem to support a population of any given species) is not a pre-determined and unchangeable number. As with all other limits to growth, confronting it can be delayed by virtue of technological advances. However, if it may be defined as the population the Earth can support in the long term without degrading the environment then, arguably, we have already exceeded this limit. Even in 1996, no individual nation was supporting its population on a self-contained sustainable basis. As the Ehrlichs’ remarked, “Homo sapiens is collectively acting like a person who happily writes ever larger checks without considering what’s happening to the balance of the account” (p.68). Therefore, deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, groundwater mining, and the extinction of other species are all evidence of human overpopulation. So is climate change. However, if humanity would collectively modify its behaviour, the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity could be increased. Unfortunately, if that is going to involve a more equitable distribution of food and living standards, we will not all be able to like we do in the West. We just cannot have it both ways: Either we have a problem with population or we have a problem with food supply – we cannot deny both problems simultaneously. So is poverty and starvation a problem of distribution or production? In 1995, it was Dennis Avery (i.e. co-author with of Fred Singer of Unstoppable Global Warming in 2006) who claimed that “[f]amine is a thing of the past for most of the world’s population“. Whilst the Ehrlich’s point out that things would be much better if humans were not carnivores, they also acknowledge that we are never all going to voluntarily stop eating meat. We must deal with the world as it is, and as it is, we do not have enough good quality farmland to grow enough crops to feed enough cattle to provide 6 or 7 billion people with a good balanced diet. This is the reality of overpopulation. The brownlash’s response to this is to appeal to the ability of technology to solve the problem, but crop yields per hectare are falling – not rising – and I for one do not want to eat artificial meat grown in a laboratory. So what is the solution? Well, we cannot turn the clock back but we can, and should, modify our collective behaviour to limit the continuing degradation of the environment that is exacerbating the overpopulation problem. However, we can’t do that until people stop denying that we are not causing the problems.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Betrayal of Science and Reason, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Growthmania, Limits to Growth, Optimum Population, Politics, Scepticism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Fables about population and food?

  1. Donald says:

    Something else worthy of consideration is human sewage, nearly two thirds of our population has no proper sewage meaning it all goes into the ocean, just think about it for a while, that is the equivalent of almost 3 billion people excreting in the ocean! that is not only filthy, it is bound to damage our environment,especially coral reefs and so on.


  2. Donald says:

    Another concern I just thought of, what happens in say 10 years time when we begin to cut back on fuel use in order to conserve it? Such a cut back is bound to mean that there will be less transportation, therefore less deliveries of goods. How then will food destined for the poor in overseas nations get there? most likely it will rot in the ports. I doubt if we will have to wait too long for this too happen, according to the latest research many countries will face a severe shortage of fuel within 7-10 years so I would expect that we shall begin to see mass starvation within maybe 5 years. Let’s hope I’m wrong but regardless of when it begins .. it has to happen unless we secure more oil which I can’t see happening in the near future.


    • Rick_Altman says:

      In the UK, there is a movement called Transition Town network. This is promoting environmental resilience at grassroots level – That is to say small self-sustaining networks that do not make unsustainable demands upon other parts of the planet – such as the international transportation of food or sources of energy (a.k.a. Bioregionalism). Resilience is all about planning for survival once technology fails to compensate for current overpopulation (otherwise known as “overshoot”), resulting in societal and ecological collapse. 😦 “Happy Monday” to you! 😐


      • Donald says:

        Funny that, planning for survival is something the western nations do quite often, we are most always thinking way ahead in the future, other countries however think of only how much they can beg from day to day .. a sad state of affairs. Happy Monday to you too 🙂


  3. Billy Budd says:

    I have experienced, over a period of three decades, environmental degradation on a large scale, due solely to unrestricted growth in human population,supplemented by “economic development”, entering the so-called “cash economy” and in improved infrastructure.Malawi is virtually treeless; Lake Nyasa/Malawi has been fished out, AIDS is rampant and soil degradation due to the removal of the woodland cover is advanced and, perhaps, irreversible in our lifetimes. In this same period the population has increased threefold! Those who cannot or will not make the connection between population and devastation must be either blind, daft or have ulterior motives.


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  7. Colin Morse says:

    It is true that we’ve already passed the Earth’s natural carrying capacity. However, this isn’t necessarily relevant, seeing as the carrying capacity of the Earth itself has been enhanced via artificial fertilizer since at least World War II.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, Colin. Can, you please explain why you made it? That is to say, do you see any of this as being a problem; or do you see it as evidence of how clever humans are?


  8. Duncan says:

    And the “technological optimists” also remove from their spurious calculations that, to produce one ton of fuel oil requires the combustion of one ton of the same. Refineries do not run on sunlight, unfortunately. And I recall a Pope who declared that with modern technology we could make the Sahara bloom. Possibly, but for how long? All processes of civilization are combustion processes. All resources are finite-even the surface of our planet-although this awkward fact never features in any prognostications. Whilst we squander the resources of “our” planet in a flippant and irresponsible manner the amount remaining dwindles, day by day whilst, simultaneously, the population, due to the squandering, increases, putting ever-increasing demands for more of the declining staff of modern human existence.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Duncan; for your thoughtfully-expressed opinions. However, presumably you are talking figuratively when you say it takes a tonne of fuel oil to make a tonne of fuel oil… Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is the term used to define the efficiency of producing any fuel and whereas conventional hydrocarbons (bad) have an EROEI of 25, the EROEI of unconventional hydrocarbons (worse) is 5. Given that we now know that burning them is damaging our climate, it is quite simply insane not to substitute fossil fuel use in every process where alternatives exist.


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