Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Overpopulation Myth, Part 1

Myth: We can't produce enough food to feed the people in the world today, much less in years to come.

Fact: The world today produces enough food to provide every person alive with an adequate daily diet, and there is more land still available for agriculture than is being used now.

In my sermon this morning, I said,
Beginning in earnest in 1968, we have been almost incessantly propagandized that the earth is overpopulated and that responsible adults will not have more than one child each, or better yet, one child per couple. 1968 was the year that Paul Ehrlich, an American specialist in butterflies (really) published a doom and gloom book called The Population Bomb. In it, Ehrlich predicted a catastrophic meltdown of the earth’s ability to support more than the three billion, five hundred fifty-six million people living at the time.
Ehrlich wrote,
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...
Ehrlich’s book was influential far beyond the credentials of its author or the phony science he used. The present world view that overpopulation is a ticking time bomb threatening to end in mass death derives directly from Ehrlich’s apocalyptic fairy tale.

The planet’s population is now six billion and climbing. Across the world, people are better nourished than ever before in all history. Hunger in the world today is caused by politics, not lack of food production. lists the following causes of hunger in the world. I have asterisked (**) those that are purely or predominantly political:
  • ** Land rights and ownership

  • ** Diversion of land use to non-productive use

  • ** Increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture

  • ** Inefficient agricultural practices [there are also cultural, economic and educational issues with this one]

  • ** War

  • ** Famine

  • Drought

  • ** Over-fishing

  • Poor crop yield

  • ** Lack of democracy and rights

The majority of these causes are purely or predominantly political. Note that famine is actually not a root cause of chronic hunger, it is a description of local, enduring shortages of food. But famine's relief is not an arcane art. Shipments of food stocks from other countries to the famine area take care of the problem. But whether that humanitarian deed is done is a political decision.

Famine can also result from intentional political decision. The people of North Korea are the most enduringly malnourished people on earth. The reason is simple: North Korean communism cannot organize resources and labor to produce and distribute enough food to feed the people on the one hand, and on the other the ruling classes divert the country's resources to their own use, to arming the country and to cement their iron grip on the masses. If the people finally resort to cannibalism, well then, so be it.

The International Food Policy Institute says that even so about 20 percent of the world's population,

... are chronically undernourished ... [S]ince the mid-1970s the world has produced enough food to provide everyone with a minimally adequate diet. Hunger is one piece of a complex of interrelated social ills. It is linked intricately to global economic, political, and social power structures; modes of development and consumption; population dynamics; and social biases based on race, ethnicity, gender, and age. The world community has both the knowledge and the resources to eliminate hunger [emphasis added].
According to a report published this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 1.4 billion hectares of land under farm production in the world today. "Some 1.6 billion hectares could be added" and most of that in Africa and South America (OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2009-2018, PDF). I have read some estimates that the amount of arable land in Africa alone could feed produce enough food to feed the whole world, although as a matter of practicality, that will obviously never be the case.

The point is that the amount of arable land used today can be more than doubled. Lack of food production is not the cause of hunger today and there is no reason it should be the cause in the many years to come.

Next: the real "population bomb" is not having enough children to secure our future.

Update: I thought about explaining in my sermon the new twist on Ehrlichean apocalypticism but simply didn't have time. The new twist goes like this from "the world is about to end" bunch:

1. Okay, we admit that we can produce enough food for all six billion of us, plus many billions more.

2. That doesn't matter because human beings are poisonous to the earth. They produce carbon dioxide!
The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of CO² every year of their lives. In their turn, they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government's target of an 80% reduction in our emissions by 2050, we need to start reversing our rising rate of population growth immediately.
That from the UK's Guardian newspaper. The piece ends,
Some scientists, the German chancellor's adviser, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber among them, say that if the cuts are not achieved, we will end up with a planet with a "carrying capacity" of just 1bn humans. If so, we need to start cutting back population now with methods that offer a humane choice – before it happens the hard way.
To which University of Wisconsin law Professor Ann Althouse responds, "Oh, great. Thanks for the warning about cutting back "population" the hard way, Germany."

This is not exactly a new idea in Europe. More than two years ago the K's TimesOnline ran a guest op-ed entitled, "The cry should go up in Europe: more babies, please." It includes this cheery thought:
And there is the hint – but just a hint – from the Optimum Population people that if voluntary restraints do not work, governments will bring in coercive measures. The example that springs to mind here is, of course, China and its compulsory one-child policy. I’ve come across some distinguished academics myself who wouldn’t dream of trying to impose coerced abortion here but have made it quite clear, in private conversation, that we should all be grateful on environmental grounds that it happens in China.
Last year, Dr. Freeman Dyson, one of the most respected physicists in the world, had a long essay in the New York Times Book Review in which he explained why environmentalism is now an actual religion in its own right. Mind you, in his mind this is a good thing. I'll post more about that later on.

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