Sunday, August 09, 2009

the global food crisis - the end of plenty

National Geographic | Ever since our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for plowing and planting some 12,000 years ago, our numbers have marched in lock­­step with our agricultural prowess. Each advance—the domestication of animals, irrigation, wet rice production—led to a corresponding jump in human population. Every time food supplies plateaued, population eventually leveled off. Early Arab and Chinese writers noted the relationship between population and food resources, but it wasn't until the end of the 18th century that a British scholar tried to explain the exact mechanism linking the two—and became perhaps the most vilified social scientist in history.

Thomas Robert Malthus, the namesake of such terms as "Malthusian collapse" and "Malthusian curse," was a mild-mannered mathematician, a clergyman—and, his critics would say, the ultimate glass-half-empty kind of guy. When a few Enlightenment philosophers, giddy from the success of the French Revolution, began predicting the continued unfettered improvement of the human condition, Malthus cut them off at the knees. Human population, he observed, increases at a geometric rate, doubling about every 25 years if unchecked, while agricultural production increases arithmetically—much more slowly. Therein lay a biological trap that humanity could never escape.

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man," he wrote in his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. "This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence." Malthus thought such checks could be voluntary, such as birth control, abstinence, or delayed marriage—or involuntary, through the scourges of war, famine, and disease. He advocated against food relief for all but the poorest of people, since he felt such aid encouraged more children to be born into misery. That tough love earned him a nasty cameo in English literature from none other than Charles Dickens. When Ebenezer Scrooge is asked to give alms for the poor in A Christmas Carol, the heartless banker tells the do-gooders that the destitute should head for the workhouses or prisons. And if they'd rather die than go there, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."