Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 3 -- Population
…women can act. … Because the demographics and the opinion polls are on women’s side. Because women’s hour on the stage is long, long overdue. Because, whatever new obstacles are mounted against the future march toward equality, whatever new myths invented, penalties levied, opportunities rescinded, or degradations imposed, no one can ever take from the American woman the justness of her cause.
—Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991)
Sometime between mid-2007 and mid-2008, China exceeded the United States as the single largest national emitter of carbon dioxide, dumping an estimated 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year (in 2008), compared with the United States’ estimated 6.2 billion tons in 2008. But China is a vast and populous country—on a per-person basis, Americans are still the most profligate producers of carbon dioxide, with the average American in 2008 directly responsible for around 19.4 tons of greenhouse gas (not to mention the portion of China’s emissions that went to make products shipped to and consumed by Americans).
Russia, with its less-than-modern industrial infrastructure, comes in second, at 11.8 tons per person (it’s a cold country and few homes are truly winterized); then the European Union, at 8.6 tons per person; and China, at 5.1 tons per person. India, which is rapidly industrializing, is still one of the most efficient per-person nations in the world, at 1.8 tons of CO2 per person per year, although that is because much of the country is so poor they don’t have cars, the winters don’t require much heat (except in the extreme north), and the foci of India’s industrialization has been digital rather than manufacturing.
The biggest driver of all these processes that are tearing our planet apart and putting all life at risk is the increase in human biomass. There is roughly one trillion pounds of human flesh on the planet right now, and assuming a worldwide average food consumption of around three pounds per person (in the United States it’s almost five) per day, we’re consuming around seven trillion pounds of food per year. One result of this is that over half of the entire “net productive capacity” of the planet—the entire planet’s ability to produce food from photosynthesis—is now consumed by humans, leaving every other form of life on earth to compete for the leavings.
Our population growth has not been particularly even. During the first one hundred thousand years of human history, we averaged around twenty to fifty million people total. Sixty thousand or so years ago, as we moved out of Africa and began to cover the world, we crept up to a few hundred million by the time of Christ, two thousand years ago. Around the time of the Crusades, when the world was, by most definitions, pretty well populated (enough so that we were coming into conflict with one another all over), there were only a half billion of us on the entire planet.
Around the time of the American Revolution, we hit our first billion humans on planet Earth (1800).
The second billion didn’t take 165,000 years. We doubled our population in just 130 years, hitting 2 billion in 1930, just as the United States was sliding into the Republican Great Depression.
But that economic debacle didn’t slow the growth of human numbers—by the year JFK was sworn in, 30 years later, the planet had added another billion humans. This growth in population was driven largely by cheap, abundant oil and the fertilizer and pesticides made from it; the farm and transportation equipment fueled by it; and the processing, packaging, and distribution system made possible by oil that lets a person in Iowa have a lunch of Tilapia fish grown in ponds in China, lettuce and tomatoes grown in Mexico, wine imported from France, and a fruit cup of cherries imported from Chile and strawberries from Nicaragua.
In this environment of relatively abundant food—even in the Third World—our fourth billion took us only fourteen years to add (1974); our fifth billion, only thirteen years (1987); and our sixth billion, only twelve years (1999).
As oil became more expensive, raising the price of food (indirectly, most of us are actually “eating” oil), population growth first began to slow in the first decade of the twenty-first century (part of this was attributable to birthrate declines in developed countries, part to an explosion in the death rates from TB and AIDS in the Third World, part to famine and associated diseases in sub-Saharan Africa as deserts moved south due to global warming). But while growth is slowing, we’re still adding people at a rate many times faster than just three centuries ago. Topsoil all over the world is vanishing, transportation is becoming exponentially more expensive, and as human population density increasingly resembles the inside of a Petri dish, diseases ranging from TB (more than a billion people are infected, and more die from it than from any other cause worldwide) to AIDS to the constantly mutating common cold–related corona (remember SARS?) and flu viruses represent a menace that is dramatically amplified by the trillion pounds of human flesh they can live on.
The Real Limit to Growth
We are not the first culture to reach this threshold of population versus resources. As I discuss at length later in this book, the Maori of New Zealand, a group of Melanesian explorers, are a prime example of a culture that, like the Europeans who discovered America, thought they had found a land of unlimited wealth and food, but ultimately learned that there is a limit to growth—the biosphere.
But this was largely unknown to the classical economists on whose assumptions, formulas, and work our modern economy is organized. In fact, the classical and neoclassical economists—from Malthus to Jean-Baptiste Say to Marx to Friedman—would suggest that the Maori hit the limit not of their biosphere (the ability of the land of New Zealand to produce food) but of their technology.
They would correctly point out that today New Zealand houses several million more people than it did when that island nation was entirely populated by Maori, and modern technology has ensured that not only is there enough food but that surplus agricultural land has been turned to the growing of fuel and medicinal crops (principally opium poppies to make codeine and morphine).
This modern theory, embraced by most of the world’s economists and politicians, suggests that the only real limit to human population growth is technological. The human population of the United States, for example, is twice what it was fifty years ago, yet the air in our cities and the water in most of our rivers, by and large, are cleaner, mostly the result of vast improvements in the efficiency of automobile engines.
We’re also producing more food on less land than fifty years ago. It’s not at all unreasonable to assume that vast parts of Africa and South America, where people are still using subsistence or even Stone Age technologies for food production, could experience huge increases in human population as their food supplies catch up with those of more agriculturally developed countries.
Thomas Robert Malthus, in an often-updated essay first published in 1798 titled “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” noted that human population will always grow—over the short term—faster than food production. The result of this is a sort of get-up, catch-up cycle between sufficiency and hunger.
Starting with a theoretical historical point where there is adequate food for the current population, Malthus pointed out that the population would then begin to grow exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32) while the food supply would grow only arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
The result would be that within a short period (a generation or two) the population would outgrow the food supply, and people would descend into a state of hunger, privation, and need. While the immediate consequence of this would be increases in crime, violence, and wars, the long-term consequence would be that the value of food would increase, motivating people to become farmers and/or to cultivate land previously uncultivated. Within a relatively short period, the food supply would catch up with the population size, although during the time of privation the tendency of populations would be to postpone marriage and engage in other forms of fertility reduction (and in population reduction through war).
Once the food supply was again adequate for the population, there would be an exponential period of population growth, and people would again slide into hunger and deprivation. And the cycle would continue for another generation.
Unlike most of the classical and neoclassical economists, though, Malthus saw an end point, although he didn’t identify the biosphere as the critical and absolute limit (and never really did address the issue of technology to the satisfaction of most of his modern-day critics). Here’s how Malthus put it, in the language of the eighteenth century:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
Malthus was then and largely is now dismissed in this second “end of the world” scenario as a fringe thinker, perhaps somebody who was depressed or bipolar, and whose grim vision of life gave him a grim vision of the world. And, in fact, two significant factors affected not just his thinking but that of most philosophers and economists (and biologists, such as Darwin) of the past three centuries.
The first was that there were extremes of poverty and disease, but the economic structure of society was never (until Marx) truly addressed as a causative factor in this, as most of the writers were, themselves, from the elite classes of society and were loath to attack or alienate their own peers and readers. Those who did, in all probability, are unknown to us, as their writings went nowhere.
The second is that up until the 1960s, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the world seemed eternally rich, capable of absorbing any human impacts, always with a new place to explore and more arable land (such as the rain forests) to discover, and always with the wonders (and no downsides) of “better living through chemistry.”
Carson’s alarm bell—that DDT was causing birds’ eggs to thin to the point where entire species were dying off, which could have resulted in a spring season that was “silent” of birdsong—led directly to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and other writings suggesting that now we’d hit the limits of growth. In a spherical world there must be, after all, some limit to the amount of human flesh (and its technological products and waste) this limited biosphere can support.
In his time, Malthus’s predictions were ultimately trumped by England’s ability to export its surplus people (to the United States and Australia, primarily, by the millions) and by technological improvements in growing and transporting food. Nonetheless, he was mathematically right in suggesting that there is a practical, biological limit to the amount of human flesh the planet can support without devastating our life-support systems.
The Biosphere Trumps All Previous “Limits”
When President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark out to map the North American continent from Virginia to the West Coast, he and his contemporaries in America and Europe saw what appeared to be a limitless expanse of land that could be used to radically increase food production with then-“modern” agricultural methods.
And the fact is that even with climate change, the topsoil losses all around the world, and everything else, we have the ability, within the limits of current resources, to convert the world’s oceans and soil, water and sunlight, into enough human food to efficiently feed the world’s roughly seven billion humans.
The problem comes when you view the Earth from outer space. Now that we’ve converted so much of the planet’s land and fresh water to human food production that we as a single species are consuming over 50 percent of the entire net productive capacity of the planet—the ability of the planet to support life through photosynthesis—we are crowding every other species into decline and demise.
There is not a single ecological or biological macro-system on the planet that is not in decline right now (other than humans and human feed animals, which are both expanding). For more than a hundred thousand years, we grew and pushed against ecological and biological boundaries that could be moved, either through displacing other species or making technological improvements in our agricultural methods. But now we’re displacing our atmosphere, we’re wiping out our seas, we’re causing an extinction of land-based plants and animals that qualifies as, to quote the title of Richard Leakey’s book, The Sixth Extinction our planet has experienced in the past billion years.
Most important, this is no longer a local problem. History is littered with the remains of cultures, civilizations, societies that ran into—and then over—the local limits of their ecosystems and ended up crashing so hard that they’re no longer with us. As recently as two hundred years ago, the majority of human-inhabited parts of the world were inhabited by people, most of them aboriginal, living on current sunlight, using no fossil fuels. Today, aboriginal people occupy only a small minority of the habitable places on Earth, and even in regions such as Southern Sudan, where people can spend their entire lives without ever seeing a light bulb, agriculture is increasingly “modern” (by Sumerian standards) and has displaced virtually all large nonhuman species.
This is not a popular topic. In April of 2007, Time magazine did an extensive article on “51 Things We Can Do to Save the Environment.” But they never mentioned any aspect of reducing—or even leveling off—the number of humans on the planet. The most likely reason, of course, was that Time didn’t want to become embroiled in the highly politicized waters of birth control, human biology education, and abortion that are constantly being roiled by the largest religious institutions in the world, who hope to out-populate their competitors.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Hartmann Report to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.