In 1798 Thomas Malthus published his infamous Essay on Population in which he warned the world that unchecked population growth inevitably will outstrip our ability to increase food production. For this unpopular assertion, Malthus has been berated as a “prophet of doom.” We in the industrial world have prided ourselves on the fact that we have “proven him wrong” by demonstrating our ingenious ability to dramatically increase the productive capacity of the plants and animals we have selected for our food. Consequently, we have been able to continue feeding a rapidly expanding human population. The massive, global famines that Malthus predicted never occurred—at least not yet.
But Malthus put his finger on a truth that we have since come to recognize as a fundamental law of ecology. The more energy (food) that any species has at its disposal, the more its population increases, creating a demand for still more food; all the while eroding the ecological capital that produces the food, thereby decreasing the potential to produce the food that the expanding population needs.
In nature, this sequence of interrelated events invariably leads to a collapse of one sort or another. The species in question returns to some kind of equilibrium with the rest of the species in the ecological system in which it lives, and on which it ultimately depends.
We humans seemingly have convinced ourselves that, by virtue of our superior cleverness, we are exempt from this law of ecology. But evidence seems to be mounting that we may not be exempt.
We have been able to feed expanding populations due to our clever technologies that exploit the storehouse of non-renewable resources—coal, oil and natural gas, which have accumulated on the planet over many millennia. In addition, we’ve been blessed with abnormally stable climates that serendipitously have coincided with our fossil fuel binge, making it possible for us to consistently produce unimaginable quantities of food.
Complicating the situation is the fact that our ingenuity has encouraged us to dramatically increase our consumption, which now places even more stress on the ecological health of the planet than does an expanding population.
In a January 2, 2008 opinion piece in the New York Times, Jared Diamond noted that if every person on the planet increased consumption to match that of U.S. citizens, it would be equivalent to having 72 billion people living on Earth. No one believes that our planet can sustain such an impact for long, yet we seem to be on the way. Developing countries understandably want to share our consumptive lifestyles and many are poised to do so.
Hence, we are at an interesting crossroad. We managed to “solve” the Malthusian dilemma with the Green Revolution in technologies, which in turn increased population and consumption growth rates, while depleting natural resources (oil, natural gas, coal, fresh water, soil, stable climates) that made increased production possible.
A California farmer recently announced that he will leave his farmland fallow this year and sell his water rights; he can make more money selling water than growing rice. The price of a barrel of oil has reached $110 and probably headed toward $200 within a decade, given our rate of consumption. As recently as 2003, oil was $25 a barrel. Virtually every climatologist predicts that in the short term unstable climates—more droughts, floods and severe weather—will be the norm.
So we must ask ourselves, would it have been wiser to address the Malthusian dilemma by taking steps to keep human population growth in ecological harmony with the rest of the biotic community, rather than exploiting the planet’s resources to feed the world? It is too late to change history, but perhaps it is not too late to change our course if we act now. Continuing on our present track simply is not sustainable.
In his prescient 1938 cartoon, Ding Darling tried to call our attention to an important question (and title of his drawing): How rich will we be when we have converted all our forest, all our soil, all our water resources and minerals to cash?
There is simply no good reason to believe that the law of ecology can be suspended. Our insane preoccupation with maintaining growth, economic and human, ultimately will lead to our collapse as it does for all other species.
Instead of feeding the world regardless of the cost, we can begin bringing our population and consumption into equilibrium with the planet’s capacity to maintain its ecological health. We can do this through programs to that give resource-poor people access to education, make family planning methods affordable and available worldwide, and develop policies to discourage energy and material-intensive consumption. The irony is that we actually could improve our quality of life by taking this second path. We are finally realizing that working ourselves to a frenzy to consume a lot of stuff that we don’t need is not giving us the life we want.
CAPTION: “How rich will we be when we have converted all our forests, all our soil, all our water resources and all our minerals into cash?” By Ding Darling. Published June 1938 in The Des Moines Register.
By LeopoldCenter Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann