Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Other Downside of Agriculture? Overpopulation.

I first read the book Ishmael on a beach in Cabarete, Dominican Republic.  My mom and sister laughed as I allowed the surf to wash over my lap.  They watched me turn the pages, enthralled with the words of Daniel Quinn, adjusting my position periodically only to protect the book from the rising tide water.  

Daniel Quinn's general message is that our subscription to humanity's cultural myth is going to lead to our extinction in the same way that it has been destroying hundreds of species across the planet.  
The myth goes a little like this: you go to school for twelve or more years, you find a job, buy a house, own a few cars, replace your TV every five years, etc.  We consume, our population grows, we make more stuff to feed this growing population, and the cycle continues.  

The basic premise for his protest of the way we live our lives is that the fundamental laws of ecology mandate a feedback system in which the population of a species increases when food is in abundance and decreases when food is scarce.  In our modern paradigm, the human population is destined to increase ad infinitum, so we must adjust our food production to sustain it.  By defying the laws of population ecology, we are consuming a great deal in order to sustain our burgeoning population while crowding out the rest of our ecosystem.  
With the switch to agriculture, not only did we adopt unhealthy eating habits, we also adopted a way of living that has permitted and continues to advocate for a rise in population that is slowly destroying the world and all of the organisms living here.

This topic is relevant for three reasons:
1) It's valuable to spread the doctrine of free thinkers with novel solutions to world problems
2) There is a better way for humans to live.  It has little to do with Crossfit and recovery drinks and everything to do with sustainable practices and a general respect for ecology 
3) Natural selection always wins: we're doomed if we don't curb consumption and overproduction

I have been exchanging emails for Mr. Quinn for a few months now.  I've had some questions and protests of my own, which he happily answered by email in addition to providing me with some of his materials and publications so that I could dig a little deeper.  Below, you'll find a speech that he made on Earth Day at Kent State University.  I'm reproducing it with his permission.  Enjoy.

Reaching for the Future with All Three Hands
Daniel Quinn, Kent State University, Earth Day, 1998

A few days ago I was feeling depressed and said to Rennie, my wife, "I don't see why I should give this speech at Kent State University. Why can't I talk about something that will send everyone home with warm, fuzzy feelings and smiles on their faces?"
            "Well, why don't you then?" Rennie said. "Why did you decide to speak on this subject in the first place?"
            "Because it's the most important subject in the world right now," I told her.
            "But why do you have to tackle it?"
            "Because no one else is tackling it, at least not for the general public."
            "Then I guess you're pretty well stuck, aren't you?"

I thought I'd start with this little story, just to let you know what I'm doing here.

The Phrygian sage Epictetus said: "Everything has two handles, one by which it can be carried and a second by which it cannot." The sage who stands before you here today says: "There's a third handle on the other side, but it can only be reached by people who realize they've got a third hand to reach with."
            I think the reason people invite me to speak at events like this is that they vaguely sense, from reading my books, that I have a third hand I use to grab at things that most people only use two hands on. They want to see what a three-handed man will make of whatever theme they're exploring—whether it's social investment, health care reform, or the future of business in the twenty-first century.
            Ours is an obsessively two-valued culture. For example, when it comes to games and sports, we have many that are two-sided (chess, checkers, tennis, boxing, football, baseball, soccer, basketball), some that are many-sided (poker, baccarat, track events, skiing events), but very few that are exactly three-sided.
            Our justice system is intrinsically two-valued. There must be prosecution and defense, plaintiff and respondent—one winner and one loser, always. Everyone HATES a hung jury, though it's generally perceived as a defeat for the prosecution and a win for the defense.
            Everyone takes it for granted that there are exactly two sides to every argument. When it comes to abortion, for example, there's the pro-choice side and the pro-life side, and people who haven't chosen one of these two sides don't represent a third side, they just don't represent any side at all. The same is true of issues like animal rights, capital punishment, and drug legalization.
            The media play an important role in shaping reality into two-sided events. Very often two-sidedness isn't clearly evident in developing situations. The fundamental news-gathering process helps to clarify—or manufacture—that desired two-sidedness. If one expert says that X is wonderful, the reporter is expected to find another expert who will say that X is terrible—or that Y is much more wonderful than X. This is, to a large extent, what makes the story NEWS.
            When it comes to "the environment," it hasn't been so easy to polarize the community. Where do you send a reporter to get a quote AGAINST clean water? Or AGAINST clean air? Obviously everybody wants clean water and clean air. The issue had to be recast into one that doesn't put everyone on the same side—and so it was. If  environmentalists are FOR the environment (as they very willingly say), then what are they AGAINST? The answer to that wasn't hard to find. If they're for the ENVIRONMENT, then they must against PEOPLE. This is kind of mind-boggling, but that's how it's shaken out. You can't be for people AND for the environment—you've got to "choose sides." This is an interesting example of taking a thing that originally presented only one handle and rotating it so as to expose two—thereby putting the third handle completely out of sight.
            The Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union started when I was ten years old, so I watched the whole race from beginning to end. I'm sure you all know how it went. We made an atomic bomb, they made one. We made a hydrogen bomb, they made one. We made an intercontinental ballistic missile, they made one. We pointed twenty missiles at them, they pointed thirty at us. We pointed a hundred at them, they pointed two hundred at us, and so on. It was a race with no finish line (except catastrophe). Apparently, it was a race no one could either win or quit.
            As you'd expect, the Arms Race presented two handles. You could take one of two positions. If you were a Hawk, you said Better Dead than Red, and if you were a Dove, you said Better Red than Dead, and every presidential candidate had to talk tough enough to placate the Hawks but also nice enough to placate the Doves.
            Then in the mid-60s there appeared a generation of children who wouldn't grab either of these handles. They were sick of the Arms Race, and they began groping for a third handle. In fact, they began to look like regular three-handed monsters. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago police waged war on them, and the mayor felt completely justified in giving the order to "Shoot to Kill." A couple years later, as I'm sure you all know, more of the three-handed monsters staged a protest against the invasion of Cambodia right here at Kent State University. After National Guardsmen killed four of them, people began to understand just how dangerous these monsters were. When you saw people exhibiting signs of three-handedness, it was time to start shooting on sight.
            The youngsters of that generation vigorously campaigned for peace and against war, but they failed to find the third handle that would turn off the Cold War. That was found—and probably had to be found—by a Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said to us, in effect, "I'm going to do something really nasty to you. I'm going to deprive you of an enemy." He ended the Arms Race the only way such a race CAN be ended—by pulling out of it.

With the Cold War over, another problem came to the fore that was just as threatening: unchecked world population growth. The problem was not a new one. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had written: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for Man." Based on this, he most famously (and very influentially) predicted that we would eventually fail to be able to grow enough food to feed our growing population.
            What was new and most alarming in modern times was the realization that the increasing rate of our population growth was like nothing that could have been imagined in the age of Thomas Malthus. Modern research and modern surveys revealed that our population was doubling at an increasingly rapid rate, going from 1 billion to 2 billion in 123 years (1804-1927), from 2 billion to 4 billion in 48 years (1927-1975), and from 3 billion to 6 billion in just 39 years (1960-1999).
            Two handles on the problem (Population Growth) presented themselves. One of them was this:

As you see, this first handle comes with three mandates—three buttons you have to push to SLOW and ultimately END population growth.  We must (1) promote the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning; (2) advance the status of women; and (3) drastically improve social and economic conditions worldwide. THEN our population will AUTOMATICALLY level off and soon stop growing entirely. These first two mandates probably need no explaining; hey have wide support and are realized to a small degree every year, though probably not enough to account for any decrease in population growth. Here's the reasoning behind the third (and most ambitious) of these mandates:

It's an established fact that population growth has leveled off and even ceased in many socially and economically advanced nations. The United States and some European nations are examples. The citizens of these nations typically spend a lot of money on their children's health, education, and social well-bein g. Children are a welcome but heavy economic burden until near adulthood, and this condition discourages most parents from having large families. Contrast this with the world's least socially and economically advanced nations, where children, far from being economic burdens, typically begin to contribute to family income at a very early age (and very little money is spent on them). For this reason, having large families is actually an economic benefit, so it's no surprise that these nations have the world's highest rate of population growth; this can be halted by helping them attain the social and economic wealth of the most advanced nations.

On its face, this would seem to make sense, to be obvious. All we have to do is make all seven billion humans on the planet as wealthy as middle-class Americans and the problem of population growth will disappear. (As if such a thing could be accomplished with just a nod of our heads.) What is not quite so obvious is the fact that solving this problem creates another that is just as devastating.
            A United Nations Human Development Report of 1998 states that "Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. . . . Runaway growth in consumption in the  past 50 years is putting strains on the environment never before seen."
            To see how consumption presently stands (and to keep the math simple), let's pick an arbitrary number to designate the amount of all resources consumed by humans every year—100 billion megatons. As it presently stands (based on percentages from the Global Issues Web site), the world's 20% richest consume 76 billion megatons, the 20% poorest consume 2 billion megatons, and the middle 60% consume 42 billion megatons (100 billion megatons total, as you see). If all nations were to become as rich as the wealthiest 20%, then the 20% poorest would consume 74 MORE billion megatons than they do now, and the middle 60% would consume 54 MORE billion megatons than they do now, bringing the total to 204 billion megatons.
            In other words, if we somehow managed to push all three buttons on this handle, our population would stop growing, but its catastrophic impact on the environment would more than double. 

So much for the first handle on the population problem. The second handle was this:

To explain the rationale in detail:

We must increase food production to feed our growing population, not just this year but every year—for as along as our population keeps growing. (And without fail, our population DOES keep growing, year after year after year, and so we must increase food production year after year after year.)

Those who grasped this handle never asked WHY our population keeps growing. It just DOES. No other species on earth just keeps growing without limit—only the human. It's apparently the very nature of the human species to grow without limit—relentlessly, eternally, until the Malthus Disaster finally takes place. This is the plainest of all handles: We must increase food production to feed our growing population, for as long as that population keeps growing.
            But the underlying notion here that, out of all animate species on Earth, the human population alone just grows and grows without end FOR NO REASON is unacceptable. And if readers of Malthus had read more closely, they would have seen that it was unacceptable to him as well. He knew exactly why the human population grows. He wrote: "population does INVARIABLY increase WHEN THE MEANS OF SUBSISTENCE INCREASE."
            In other words, our population doesn't keep growing for no reason, it keeps growing because we keep increasing food production! If you'd like to see another statement of this law, here's how Peter Farb (1929-1980), noted anthropologist, linguist, ecologist, and biologist, put it in his book Humankind (1978):

In the interval from 10,000 to 6000 years ago—a mere 160 human generations—the population of the Near East is estimated to have increased from less than 100,000 to more than three million. With each increase, additional pressure was placed upon the food-producers to domesticate new species and to invent new technologies, such as those based on the plow and on irrigation. Human beings now found themselves on a treadmill from which to this day they have not been able to get off. They are still plagued by the basic paradox of food production: intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a STILL GREATER INCREASE in population. [Emphasis mine.]

The very first time I came across this little-known but inescapably logical fact was in the 1969 Dunlop Illustrated Encyclopedia of Facts by Norris and Ross McWhirter. It can't hurt to have it said again. In their estimate,

The world has only fifteen generations before the human race breeds itself to an overcrowded extinction. . . . Increasing food production merely aggravates the problem by broadening the base of the expansion and hastening rather than postponing the end.

What the policy of increasing food production to feed our growing population has given us is an unwinnable Food Race that operates just the way the Cold War Arms Race did. In the Arms Race, every win on the U.S. side was answered by a win on the Soviet side, and every win on the Soviet side was answered by a win on the U.S. side, over and over again in self-perpetuation. In the Food Race, every win on the food production side is answered by a win on the population side, and every win on the population side is answered by a win on the food production side, over and over again in self-perpetuation. Far from postponing the Malthus Disaster, the Food Race is hastening it.
            The Arms Race could only be ended by someone reaching for the third handle: Walk away from the race. And that's the third handle by which the Food Race can (and must) be ended:

Only by ending the Food Race can we end the disastrous growth of our population.  
               It should be noted that, while it was widely deplored, the Arms Race gave great joy to the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex. They had a vested interest in the Cold War and would have been delighted to see the Arms Race continue forever. In the same way, the Food Race gives great joy to the Food Producing, Processing, and Distributing Complex. They have a vested interest in population growth and would be delighted to see the Food Race continue forever.
            There was a Mikhail Gorbachev to see to it that the Arms Race was abandoned. We have no such person to see to it that the Food Race is abandoned. You and I will have to do it—you and everyone else who cares about the human future on this planet.
            Tell everyone, print it on every surface: Constantly increasing food production doesn't AVERT disaster, it HASTENS it.
            If anyone tells you that we must increase food production to feed our starving millions, tell them that increasing food production has NEVER fed our starving millions. Year after year we go on increasing food production, and year after year the starving millions go on starving. Increasing food production doesn't REDUCE the number of people who are starving, it INCREASES that number, just the way it increases the number of blue-eyed people and the number of brown-eyed people, the number of right-handed people and the number of left-handed people,  the number of short people and the number of tall people.
            There are no starving rich people anywhere, no starving middle-class people, no starving lower-class people, no starving working-poor people. Only the poorest of the poor are starving—and that's not because there's no food. There's plenty of food, but they have no money to buy it. Producing food—no matter how much—puts no money in the pockets of the poor to buy the food they need to keep from starving. 

No other undertaking comes close to equaling the importance of ending the growth of our population, which at seven billion is causing the extinction of an estimated 50,000 species a year. Our food race is steadily and inexorably converting more and more of our planet's biomass into human mass. This is what happens when we clear a piece of land of wildlife and replant it with human crops. This land was supporting a biomass comprising thousands of species and millions of individuals. Now all the productivity of that land is being diverted into food that will be turned into human mass. Every day all over the world diversity is disappearing as more and more of our planet's biomass is being turned into human mass. This is what the Food Race is about. This is exactly what the Food Race is about: every year turning more of our planet's biomass into human mass.
            It has become my most important task to bring into view a third handle by which this problem can be carried: the unarguable fact that the Food Race can no more be won than the Arms Race could be won—and for the same reason: Neither race has a finish line, because every win made on the side of food is answered by a win on the side of population.
            The strange thing is that many people HATE hearing all this, yet I'm clearly pointing out a path of possibility and hope for humankind. I'm not a doom merchant, my compass is set firmly on success. Our population explosion is a problem we CAN get a handle on, provided we start reaching for it with that third hand.


For more information, start with these: Ishmael and My Ishmael.

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+. 

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