Posted by: terrapraeta | January 23, 2008

Feed Me


There’s a hole at the bottom of the earth
Where the blood pours out at the end of the day
When the usual amount of people have died
Sit back and watch the death and decay
It’s a dying world
When you’re living in a dying world
Panicking becomes the everyday thing
Buy up the food, the power and the guns
Get used to the threat of the final fling
It’s a dying world
There’s a hole in your mind where nothing exists
Except fear and loathing of the strange but true
Facts that defy your inner intelligence
Like man kills himself for something to do
It’s a dying world

The SubHumans, Dying World

In last week’s Philosophy Blog War, Simon write an article about Being Vegan that led to a comment discussion on Veganism as a potential strategy for solving world hunger. I expressed that this would have the opposite effect, but that the topic was too complex to try and address it within his comments section. Of course, that meant that I would need to take the time to explore it at depth. This is my attempt to do so.

(Note: The ideas I will be exploring here are not exclusively my own. Initially inspired by Dan Quinn’s Ishmael, extensive discussions with several friends over the last couple of years have gone into the development of this model.)

In 1789, Thomas Malthus published his infamous work An Essay on the Principles of Population. In this treatise, he proposed that food production will always grow at an arithmetic rate(i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.) , while population grows at an geometric rate((i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc.), thus by the 1900’s population would outstrip food production and massive famine would ensue. Quite obviously, this did not come to pass. In fact, the Green Revolution in the mid twentieth century led to massive increases in our ability to produce food for our burgeoning population.

In 1992, Daniel Quinn won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award which led to the publication of his entry Ishmael. Quinn suggests that whatever else may be the case, and however wrong Malthus was, there still must be a relationship between food production and population – for the simply fact that humans are made out of food. His suggestion was that so long as food supply surpluses increase, population will also increase. Over the years, this premise has led to a lot of discussion and debate. One of the most common arguments against his assertion being that first world nations – with the greatest access to food – have the lowest growth, while poverty stricken third world countries generally have the highest population growth rates. Since this is demonstrably true, how can Quinn’s assertion also be true?

The first thing to consider is that Malthus was correct in one of his assertions: human population has been growing at an exponential rate for the last ten thousand years. Looking at the chart, it appears that this has only really been a problem recently, but an exponential curve like this is defined by the curve: meaning that if you were to select a smaller time period and blow it up to this same size, the shape of the curve would be virtually identical to the whole. It is also important to note that this exponential growth rate is unique to humans. Even before we began have a dramatic effect on other species and extinction rates, population growth rates like this are extremely uncommon among wild populations and always end with massive fatality and perhaps extinction. (For a classic example of population overshoot see The Reindeer of Saint Matthew’s Island)

So we know that human population growth is un-natural, at least in any ecologically healthy way. The next question has to be why? and perhaps, what makes us unique that we have maintained this growth rate for thousands of years? According to Quinn, the answer to both is agriculture. Through agriculture, we have taken control over our food supply, and we have adopted a strategy of surplus production that has enabled our population to grow at unsustainable levels.

So why is it that the first world, with its extreme food surpluses (not to mention low infant mortality, effective disease prevention and treatment and high longevity) has decreasing population growth – and even in some cases, pending population decline, while the third world is spiraling out of control? The answer is to be found within the assumptions just listed.

We live in a complex society. In this context ‘food surplus’ must be understood to metaphorically stand in for all resources consumed within a given society. In the western world, our high standard of living applies not only to ourselves, but to our children. In the US, each child born costs his parents, on the average, one million dollars to birth and raise to adulthood. This creates a powerful mechanism to slow population growth.

By comparison, in third world countries, not only are children relatively cheap to bear and raise, but the children also become an asset to their parents at a young age. When Americans are trying to figure out how to afford a college education for their children, third world parents have already recovered the cost of having their children from the work they have been able to perform for the family as a whole. In the third world, larger families are more robust and more successful, where large families in the first world are simply more expensive.

Of course, this does not only apply in extreme cases. It is also true that First world poor are more likely to have more children – for the same mechanistic reasons – than their wealthy counterparts. Likewise, in the third world, the truly destitute may well have more children than the merely poor, while the local ‘elites’ have fewer offspring (although, to some degree, cultural expectations of virility may override the economic disincentive amongst the elites).

One significant point in all of this: these mechanisms modify cultural expectations regarding family size and structure. At the same time, food is an enabler of population growth, but it cannot predict what individual persons will do. Any given individual may choose to behave contradictorily to the model, but this merely enables other individuals within the society to also make choices outside of the ‘average’ range. That means that this model is highly predictive of the behavior of whole populations, while being relatively useless as a predictor of individual behavior.

So what is the answer to all of this? I would suggest that the first response is to take these issues into consideration when trying to address population issues. Understanding the mechanisms that allow, modify and enable population growth allow us to look at the problem from a systemic perspective. Second, it provides a clear indicator of why famine continues at sometimes epidemic proportions.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that increasing food production is not the answer. More food simply leads, eventually, to more people (especially if increased production leads to decreasing prices). Likewise, improving distribution does not solve the problem. Because, once more, it decreases prices and increases population growth in an inverse relationship.

Draconian population controls, such as the laws we find in China may help somewhat: but fundamentally, these are laws instituted by authoritarian elites designed to modify natural human behavior. Any law that is designed this way is guaranteed to be of limited use: there’s a reason for the cliche: rules are meant to be broken.

At this point, I have eliminated to the two most common responses to world hunger. So what does that leave? I have a few things that I would suggest, knowing full well that they are not solutions but merely a step in the right direction.(and also knowing that the political will is unlikely to ever arise to enact any of the top-down components)

1.Eliminate the IMF and forgive all third world debt. The first world has crippled the third world with a debt load composed of primarily either private loads to corrupt dictators, or virtually forced (by the world community) modernization. The poverty caused by this debt is one of the driving forces of population growth. If we want to end hunger, we must end poverty itself.
2.Localize food production (and eventually ALL production). Much of the waste our current systems generate proceed from transportation. Additionally, localizing production puts food resources directly back into the hands of local populations removes some portion of the economic disparity of food itself.
3.Get off of fossil fuels. Sweden and the City of Oakland California both have introduced initiatives to achieve fossil fuel independence by 2020. It will be interesting to see if they can succeed – but more importantly, if the first world were to achieve this across the board, it would remove a portion of the exploitive relationship and standard of living gap between the first and third worlds.
4.Give up the notion that we, humans, have the power of life and death. Our culture places a premium on human life above all else. Perhaps it is time that we come to recognize that death is not evil, but rather nothing more or less than a natural part of life on planet earth.

It is only a start – and unlikely to happen as well. But if it were to happen it would not be because governments, nations, politicians make it happen, it will be because real people all over the world, decide that they are going to make different choices for themselves and their loved ones. If that were to happen, governments, nations, politicians would have no choice but to fall in line, or else simply get left behind.

(Originally Posted November 6 2006)

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