Are you happy today? Are you feeling cheerful?
Don’t worry, I can fix that.
I called a friend of mine back in Missouri, a retired farmer, to inquire how he was surviving the record-setting heat. As a man who made his living raising crops in some of the most productive land this side of the Valley Nile, his immediate response was in terms of agriculture: the extraordinary on-going drought, crop losses, the anticipated ripple effect of those losses, federal crop insurance for farmers, subsidies, value of agricultural land, plummeting water tables, corn, soybeans, exports, fuel, rising food prices… He started me thinking.
I went to college in the Midwest, Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, about an eight hour drive north through corn fields from where my friend lives. Beloit College in those days had required courses one had to take in order to graduate and this included a minimum of two science classes. Math and science and I have never been on speaking terms, so I surveyed fellow students and got recommendations for the sure-fire, childishly easy, any-moron-can-pass classes.
One of the classes I picked was a geology class. I think I had a vague fantasy about digging up diamonds or emeralds or something. The professor was an ex-Marine with a flattop, built along the lines of a fire hydrant, but he was so good, and so enthusiastic about his subject that I got the highest grade (B) I have ever gotten in any science class. But one day, as he was discussing agriculture in that part of America, and the richness of the soil, and the productivity of the American farmer, the conversation turned to India which was, at that time, in the throes of a terrible drought. America was supplying the vast bulk of the emergency food supplies that were keeping people alive, sending freighters filled with corn and rice, and the professor brought things to a complete standstill when he said we shouldn’t try to save people starving in Bangladesh. You could have heard a grain of rice drop in that classroom. We all sat there, hair down to our shoulders, mouths sagging down past our idealistic beliefs to our bell-bottom jeans, staring at this man we all admired who had just casually suggested letting hundreds of thousands of people starve to death. Finally someone questioned him.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “The world’s population is growing exponentially, but our resources are finite. The day will come when a drought will hit us, perhaps one even worse than back in the days of the Dust Bowl, and America’s population will be so much greater we will have trouble feeding ourselves. It will happen. And suppose India or China or part of Africa has a comparable drought in the same period. That will happen too. Who will we feed then?” He paused, then added, “It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I will tell you now that some of you will live to see the day when America has to turn a deaf ear to cries for help from less fortunate countries, and when that day comes, it won’t be a question of hundreds of thousands starving to death. It will be a question of hundreds of millions. Some of you will live to see that, and you have my sympathy.”
While I was in college, and the world’s population was about three and a half billion, Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb and founded an organization then named Zero Population Growth. Today, the world’s population stands at over seven billion and the organization has been given the more diplomatic and politically correct name of Population Connection. (Go to my links.) Their goals are the same, so I don’t know if they renamed themselves for touchy-feely reasons or if there is some other perfectly valid, practical explanation, but it certainly sounds more politically correct. But just to put Mr. Ehrlich and his organization into perspective, it took all of time, the entire existence of life on this planet, to reach the three and a half billion people that worried him so. It has only taken forty years to double that number.
Which brings me to politically correct. When was the last time you heard any politician outside of the People’s Republic of China make any mention of curtailing population growth? It’s one of those “third-rail” issues guaranteed to offend someone no matter how you frame the conversation. Mention contraception and you have personally and directly offended one billion Catholics world-wide and roughly twenty-four million Americans who might have voted for you. As far as I know, Jews and Muslims and other religions have far more practical, common sense approaches, but it’s more than simply a religious question. It goes to something much more primal in the human animal, so that anyone can take it as an affront. Try to promote birth control in (name a country that cannot feed itself) and you are automatically a bigoted anti-(name the race or religion or culture that inhabits the country that cannot feed itself).
The economy—America’s economy, the world’s economy—is based on an unsustainable paradigm of constant growth. If the Acme Novelty Company doesn’t sell more items to Wiley Coyote this year than it did last year, it’s in trouble. To sell more, it must manufacture more. To manufacture more, it must consume more natural resources and more energy to convert the natural resources into novelties. As the global population expands, more entrepreneurs in more lands start up their own Acme Novelty companies, and consume more natural resources and energy. So the economy is dependent on natural resources and energy—the environment—as is food production. More and more people are competing for those things just at a time when it is becoming more and more apparent that those things are desperately, imminently finite.
Have I cheered you up yet?
Not to worry. Back in the late seventeen hundreds and early eighteen hundreds there was one of those relentlessly obnoxious Pollyannas who can always find a dark cloud around every silver lining. He was the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus and this is one of the things he wrote:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
Have a nice day!