Pessimism on the Food Front

Ehrlich, Paul R., Harte, John | April 24, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Corn growing along the Kenyan coast of Lake Victoria by Erika Gavenus

Introduction

Virtually all trends, biophysical and socioeconomic, suggest that levels of hunger, already high, will only increase as the human population grows and its life-support systems are degraded. Steps that might ameliorate the situation are, unhappily, nowhere in sight.


Is it likely humanity will satisfactorily feed 11 billion people around the end of this century? A quick response would be “Of course not—after 60 years of assurances that the food problem would be solved, we’re not feeding 7.5 billion today”. (For a pessimistic popular discussion, see bit.ly/2BuHiLK). Indeed, the number of undernourished people in the world has been rising since 2014, reaching an estimated 815 million in 2016 [1], and several billion suffer levels of serious micronutrient malnourishment [2]. A more refined answer would consider first, the odds on there being 11 billion people in 2100 as projected by United Nations demographers, and then the biophysical and sociopolitical problems of nourishing such a mob. We will skip the question of what the future population size will be, except to note that the increasing chances of a nuclear holocaust, a deadly pandemic, and/or already plummeting human sperm counts may transform a likely lethal population explosion to a dramatic population crash.

The world’s future food production faces several potentially serious biophysical constraints. One is the availability of arable land [3]. Most of the best land is already in production, and much of it is adjacent to urban centers (that is why human populations have tended to concentrate there). Furthermore, much of that land is being lost to soil erosion and degradation. The addition of more than 3 billion people to the global population seems certain to tighten this constraint. A review nearly a decade ago of the prospects for feeding “just” 9 billion people in 2050 highlighted some of the enormous hurdles the world would have to overcome in just the first half of this century [4].

A second major constraint is likely to be declining soil quantity and quality, including erosion, depletion of many nutrients not contained in fertilizer, but also degradation of soil texture, and disruption of the soil microbiome that can be critical to crop productivity [5,6,7]. The key nutrient phosphorus might be especially problematic, but that issue is debated [8].

Similarly, food production can also be impacted by humanity’s general assault on biodiversity, especially of pollinators and the natural enemies of crop pests [9,10]. The deteriorating situation of pollinators has mostly focused on colony collapse disorder of honeybees, but is much broader. Populations of wild bees and other pollinating species, including butterflies and moths, birds and bats, are being pushed to extinction at startling rates.

A difficult to measure constraint is the security of the increasingly large monocultures humanity has created, the ability to control pests on them, and the toxic side effects of human control efforts. Potato agriculture and its “pesticide treadmill” presents a good example e.g., [11,12]. A related problem is the likely great increase of poisonings from microplastic/toxin interactions in marine food chains e.g., [13,14].

The most likely major biophysical constraint on future agricultural production is climate disruption, and it is already showing measurable impacts. Changing temperature and moisture regimes directly influence the ability of crops to produce. Global warming has been shown to reduce wheat production by 6% for each 1 °C increase. Higher temperatures at night can result in a substantial reduction in rice yields [15].

Climate change will very likely cause large reductions in crop yields in numerous ways. First, for all plants, including domesticated crops, there are temperature and soil moisture conditions that produce the highest yields. Not surprisingly, farmers generally know this and grow crops on their land that achieve their optimal yields under the local climate. However, as shifts in climate “push the climate envelope”, yields will generally decline. Empirical studies indicate that even if we can prevent warming from exceeding 2 °C, the temperature effect alone will result in at least 10% declines in yields of some important food crops [16,17]. This is optimistic, however, because water scarcity in a hotter climate will nearly certainly have even more dire impacts on agriculture. On top of that, the trajectory we are currently on will blow the planet right past the 2 degree target.

Second, roughly a third [18] of the world’s crop production relies on irrigation water, much of which derives from snowmelt. The winter snowpack in mountainous regions such as the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Sierra, and the Andes is a most efficient reservoir, storing water through the cold months and releasing it gradually as snowmelt in warm months when farmers need it. Climate disruption is resulting in diminishing winter snowpacks and rapid spring runoff, thereby depriving farmers of this valuable asset, and for much of the world, there are no known substitutes. In response to severe and prolonged drought in many regions of the world, including China, India, Thailand, Italy, and California, loss of surface irrigation water has resulted in excessive pumping of groundwater, which in turn has led to land subsidence, groundwater depletion, and irreversible loss of aquifer volume [19,20,21].

Third, climate disruption inevitably results in catastrophic weather events that occur more frequently, are more intense, and last longer. Such extreme events include drought, superstorms such as Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, heatwaves, and vast wildfires. All of these are devastating to crop production, and the agricultural effects can linger well beyond the duration of the weather event itself. For example, extreme storms often cause extreme soil erosion, and the substitution of pumped groundwater for lost precipitation can lead to a permanent loss of arable land due to salinization of soil and land subsidence, and (as indicated above) permanent loss of aquifer storage capacity.

Fourth, food production will also likely be reduced indirectly by the impacts of climate disruption on biodiversity [22]. Warming, for example, will tend to reduce the “pest control” function of winter, converting more and more areas to “tropical” agriculture. Warming will also reduce the amount of time farmers can actually work their fields in areas where, for instance, air-conditioned tractor cabs are not available. And, sadly, adding CO2 to the atmosphere may lead to serious problems in the nutritional value of major crops [23].

Fifth, warming of the oceans may have serious impacts on fisheries productivity, and ocean acidification from the carbon dioxide humanity is pouring into the atmosphere may have even more serious consequences for the harvest from the sea e.g., [24,25]. Impacts on coral reefs are already documented and even readily visible to tourists; this is virtually certainly harming local fisheries so critical to the protein supply of many poor people [26,27].

Finally, climate disruption is already creating the dual problems of climate refugees and increasing flashpoints for conflict within and between nations. For example, drought in Syria and in the Sudan undoubtedly contributed to the eruption of conflict and displacement of people in those regions. With farmers displaced from their land, and with the disruption in food supply infrastructure that inevitably accompanies conflict, the problem of hunger is greatly exacerbated.

Even if the global climate were not disrupted, the world would likely face a severe food security crisis in the coming years. For example, we are overharvesting on both land and sea. An early signal of this is fluctuations in the prices of ocean fish, including the recent spike in the price of king salmon. In some regions, the cycle of fallowing and cropping, which is necessary for the sustainability of the soil, is being compromised by the necessity of feeding rapidly growing populations.

Then, of course, there are the problems of toxification and disease. While climate disruption exacerbates these problems, they also exist even under a benign climate. When we toxify our crops with hormone-mimicking pesticides, we poison ourselves [28,29]. When we pump antibiotics into our domestic animals, to a great extent, a consequence of growing animals in higher densities to increase the efficiency of high-yield husbandry, we render ourselves more vulnerable to newly evolved pathogens. A growing reliance on farmed fish and shellfish, to substitute for declining wild populations, will only increase this risk.

We suspect, however, that the greatest barrier to hope on the hunger front is sociopolitical. Above all, it arises from a combination of ignorance, politics, and the stresses on the world order from human overpopulation [30]. Although growing and gathering food is humanity’s most important activity, the potential global food problem is given scant attention by either the media or in education systems. Indeed, few American college graduates know where their food comes from beyond the supermarket. Such topics as the roles of energy, trade, roads, water-handling infrastructure, and biodiversity in supplying humanity with nourishment rarely appear in classes or public discourse.

This is dramatically illustrated in the inadequate attention being paid to climate disruption. That is arguably the most serious threat to future food supplies, and yet in climate coverage more attention is paid to sea level rise, heat waves, and coastal disruption from hurricanes and superstorms. In fact, the media rarely even draw the dots connecting “weather disruption”, which is given great prominence in the news, to climate disruption. It was irresponsible of the mainstream media to talk about the Texas storm, Harvey, while essentially never mentioning its connection to climate change, let alone the strong connection of population growth to both global warming and environmental disruption in general [31]. In a warming climate, higher ocean temperatures can power more intense storm events and the warmer atmosphere has the capacity to store more water, so rainstorms are more intense. Hurricane Irma, following immediately after Harvey, at least led to some discussion of connections to climate disruption (but almost none of the fossil fuel and population connections). On the negative side, both events added to an emphasis on sea-level rise among those who understand that humanity is changing the climate, to the neglect of the much more serious challenges of climate disruption to agriculture. The multiple harms that global warming is causing, especially to human access to adequate food supplies, will only increase if the science deniers continue to provide politicians with excuses to do nothing about the problem, while the media remains nearly silent.

It does not help that the most powerful nation in the world, a center of agricultural production and research, is now governed by a kakistocracy. The current Republican administration is acting contrary to the needs of society in critical areas such as agriculture, energy, environment, and water policy. Other national governments are often little better. The importance of climate disruption, biodiversity, water-handling infrastructure, the soil microbiome and so on is little appreciated by decision makers in most nations.

What would make us more optimistic that massive starvation can be avoided? First and foremost would be bringing the issues of climate change and the many dimensions of the food security situation, especially the inequity of food distribution and food wastage to the top of the policy agenda everywhere. Also important would be global efforts to redesign soil and water management practices to help agriculture to deal with climate change already entrained, steps to reduce meat consumption, public education on these, and other food-related issues, including hormone-mimicking toxins. Above all, a most hopeful sign would be more nations providing more access to modern contraception and backup abortion and truly equal rights for women. Those steps could move the world toward population reduction, the sine qua non of sustainability, and without which none of the other environmental goals are likely to be reached.


Acknowledgments
We thank Anne Ehrlich and Mary Ellen Harte for cogent comments on the manuscript.

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Paul R. Ehrlich: Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA and and John Harte: Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.

This article was originally published by the journal Sustainability. It was received: 12 March 2018, accepted: 5 April 2018, and published: 9 April 2018. Access the original article.

© 2018 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.


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  • Didem Aydurmus

    What about not feeding cruel factory farming? When do we talk about the wastefulness of animal abuse (meat and diary consumption) and openly say that “going vegan” is not just a solution to cruelty, but also to feeding the world (7 calorie of plants result in 1 calorie of beef for instance)?

    • JohnTaves

      No amount of animal friendly farming will feed the world. We are averaging more than 2 babies. Averaging more than 2 attempts exponential growth. There is some sort of fundamental mental block on this topic that is entirely frustrating. Let’s say that we distribute food flawlessly such that no children die of starvation related causes next year, then the following year there will be exponentially more to feed. This fact has existed forever, and thus we have always had groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality.

  • stevenearlsalmony

    Of course this is a fine article but also a deeply disappointing one. Sound science supports their view that we will likely not be able to feed all members of the human community in the not so distant future, even though food harvests are plentiful now here. The food supply is so large that every human being on the planet could be fed were it not for a lack of reasoned political will and sensible economic incentives.

    The authors are eminent and able reporters of WHAT is happening with regard to the dramatically occurring “population explosion.” Unfortunately, they deploy the research of pseudoscientists (e.g., demographers) in support of their perspective while denying extant ecological science of human population dynamics. Food is nowhere reported as the independent variable in the relationship between food and population growth. Nothing is said about the uncontested science of human population dynamics that discloses how annually increasing the food supply for human consumption is literally fueling the colossal growth of the human population on Earth. Following the preternatural thinking of demographers, the authors seem to agree with idea that we need to grow more food to feed a growing population.

    Where are the first-rank scientists who are willing to rigorously examine and objectively report findings regarding one question? WHY are absolute global human population numbers exploding, despite the near-universal decline of total fertility rates (tfrs). A breach of a primary responsibility to science and profound duty to humanity is occurring on our watch.

    • stevenearlsalmony

      If professional researchers with appropriate expertise choose to embrace flawed evidence of ‘automatic population stabilization’ or ‘the population bomb is now defused’ or ‘population growth will benignly end soon’; if they consensually validate and broadcast this ‘evidence’ because it happens to be politically convenient, economically expedient, socially satisfying, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed while willfully denying virtually irrefutable science which discloses the root cause of the continuous, rapid increase of absolute global human population numbers, then the experts are putting the future of children everywhere at risk.

    • JohnTaves

      stevenearlsalmony is saying that the population numbers rise because we are finding ways to feed more. He is correct. However, the failure here is the belief that a rising population is the problem and thus holding food supplies steady is a good solution.

      A rising population is not the problem. The problem is averaging more than 2 which means that our breeding is attempting, yes attempting, to increase the population. If Salmony gets is wish and food availability is held steady and we average 3 babies, then 1/3rd of the children will die.

      Population experts, like Salmony, and Ehrlich, have the belief that there are benign mechanisms that ensure we do not overbreed. They cite the falling fertility rate as some sort of proof of this. This is nonsense. Correlations and trends prove nothing. There is no such mechanism. Go ahead and spell out how it works. It must throttle fertility to ensure that children do not die of starvation related causes…. Oh, crap, that mechanism is broken. We have always had groups of people suffering starvation related causes.

      • stevenearlsalmony

        Dear John Taves,

        Please note that I do not cite “falling fertility rate as some sort of proof” that a “benign mechanism” exists which “ensures that we do not overbreed.” This is an example of a Straw Man argument. I do not think and have not reported such a thing. What I have reported repeatedly is this: Despite the near-universal decline in total fertility rates around the world, absolute global human population numbers have continued to skyrocket, just as human numbers are doing in 2018.

        Declining fertility rates virtually everywhere on Earth need not blind us to the undeniable, ongoing annual increases of absolute human population numbers. Human numbers have exploded by more than 5 billion globally in the past three score and ten years. This population growth ‘trajectory’ is patently unsustainable on a planet with the size, finite resources and
        frangible ecology of Earth. Please consider how the growth of human numbers worldwide is caused by the spectacular production and distribution of food for human consumption. With each passing year more people are being fed and more people are going hungry.

        For years we have been encouraged to “think globally.” Let us hope that it is not too late to begin “acting globally.” There is no time to waste because untethered overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species are on the verge of causing a global ecological wreckage of the planet we inhabit by turning Earth’s land surface into mountains of human detritus and its seas into sewers.

        As things stand, the leading self-righteous elders in the world, on our watch, are charting a course to the future that will wreak havoc on what is surely sacred and normalize what is plainly profane…come what may. And these self-proclaimed ‘masters of the universe’ erroneously believe that they can have some faraway island or mega-yacht to which an escape from the global ecological wreckage would be possible. More evidence of immaculate hubris, I suppose.

        Those few with power would like the status quo to remain as is; whereas, the many, too many, without power want necessary change and a “course correction” while a ‘window of opportunity’ remains open. Note to us all: the window is closing steadily in our time. When unbridled production, consumption and propagation activities of the human species are occurring synergistically, expanding rampantly and effectively overspreading earth, perhaps this moment in space-time is an occasion to do something that is different and somehow right… for a change.

        No one knows what is possible once we begin somehow to do things differently from the ways that we are doing things now here on our planet. At the moment we know that silence has overcome science; that greed has vanquished fairness and equity; that ignorance and stupidity have almost obliterated common sense and reason; that hubris has virtually annihilated humanness. Like it or not, ready or not, we are presented with enormous challenges.

        Let us hope that our most able responses to the human-induced and -driven existential ecological threats looming ominously before humanity do not come too late to make a difference that makes a difference. There is much to do. Human limits, global planetary limitations and time constraints are the factors to which we are called upon to respond ably with all deliberate speed.

        If only the world worked the way we want it to! That all-too-human creatures of Earth were
        actually self-proclaimed ‘masters of the universe’ in more ways than “name only.” By evading extant scientific knowledge about our distinctly human creatureliness and the biophysical limitations of the planet we inhabit; by widely sharing and consensually validating utterly false, hubristic thinking regarding our seemingly god-like super-human capabilities and Earth as a maternal presence –imagined as an eternally expressive teat; by denying that earth is relatively small and finite with a frangible environment, it may be that the human community is not able to evade the consequences of our patently unsustainable behavior. Can we rise above our apparent incapacity to respond ably or not? Can we do so in a short time-frame so we avoid insurmountable “doomsday scenarios”?

        Note the exquisite talents demonstrated by the savants among us or the teachers, poets, artists from whom there emanates universally shared, humane values, principles and practices for living or the leaders who have not sold out their souls for the poisoned fruits of power, gluttony, greed, wrath, pride, envy and effortless ease. The global challenges presented to our generation of elders are likely different from the threats to human well-being that had to be confronted by our ancestors. But that does not mean, even for a moment, that their challenges were either more or less difficult from the ones we face.

        If our ancestors had not acknowledged, addressed and overcome the challenges before them, I dare say that we would not be here now. It does not appear that our generation of elders has so much as begun to struggle in a meaningful way with the global challenges before us. We collectively have been running away from our responsibilities and duties to the family of humanity and Earth’s well-being in general.

        Our children and their children after them will say that we have failed them. Their true statement, perhaps spoken someday soon as a refrain, is not acceptable and cannot become our enduring legacy to life on this planet and to the planet, itself. We cannot luxuriate in our willful ignorance and self-serving hysterical blindness any longer.

        The moment to step up, take hold, and move forward courageously is at hand. The time has come to accept the challenges already dimly visible in the offing.

        Let us speak out as if we are a million voices because so many of us remaining electively mute make us complicit in the destruction of Earth and life as we know it. Are better, more responsible courses of action available to us? If so, other ways of going forward need to be discovered, discussed and implemented, fast.

        • JohnTaves

          Dear Steven,

          You are correct. I was speculating as to what might be going on in yours and the other heads. I should not have speculated.

          However, you have not mentioned any thing that regulates fertility. Without that magical regulator, your whole argument that the population grows because food supply grows, is useless. If one were to do what this “causality” suggests and limit the food production, more deaths will happen.

          You should actually read what I wrote, and figure out what it means, instead of focusing on my speculation of what’s in your head.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            John Taves, you report, ” If one were to do what this “causality” suggests and limit the food production, more deaths will happen.”

            How can you draw such a conclusion, John? More death will happen? More death than what? More deaths than the number of deaths that are occurring on our watch? Please take a moment to carefully consider what would happen if we halted ONLY the annual increases of total global food production as well as redistributed the extraordinarily abundant food supply more fairly and equitably so that people everywhere are provided with substantial sustenance. Would more deaths occur in those circumstances than are occurring today? John, there is more than enough food available from current worldwide harvests to feed 7.6 billion people. Is there any question from you or anyone else about that fact. We do not have a food production problem. We do not need to increase food production annually. We do have a dire food distribution problem. And it strikes me as simply dreadful and unforgiveable that the scientific community willfully refuses to examine the ecological science of human population dynamics. Growing more and more food to feed a growing population is causing absolute global human population numbers to skyrocket. In that process more people are going hungry and more children are starving to death with each passing year, just as surely as the population numbers of the human species keeps skyrocketing annually.

          • JohnTaves

            It is trivial to draw such a conclusion. Averaging more than 2 attempts to grow the population to infinity. The finite nature of Earth ensures that this attempt fails. If we hold food production steady, then children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x, where x is how many babies we average. If the food supply is increasing, then the population can grow and thus fewer than (x-2)/x children must die. This is fundamental math. This is the basic fundamental principle that we all must know.

            If we comprehend that averaging too many babies kills children, we might figure out how to not average too many babies. If we do that, the population will not grow, regardless of the food availability.

            Your view point is typical. The UN states that there is enough food to feed 7.6 billion people. Of course there is enough food. Of course there is less than perfect food distribution. Why would anyone find it interesting or relevant that there is excess food? What is your position? Are you saying we must have a perfect subsistence delivery system before we recognize that averaging too many babies is the killer? Surely you don’t expect we will ever have zero food wasted, right? So what level of wastage is the goal? How does that stop us from averaging too many babies?

            Of course there are starving children. That’s exactly what happens when we average too many babies. It makes no goddamn difference how much wasted food there is.

            Stop repeating the same crap. Answer the damn question: What fertility rate regulator will ensure we do not attempt to grow the population while you hold food production steady? NAME IT. DESCRIBE IT. You keep bitching and whining about the scientific community, but you keep making the same mistake they do. You refuse to think about the concepts I keep trying to convey to you. You don’t comprehend the (x-2)/x formula, and you keep refusing to name the mechanism that will ensure we do not attempt to grow our numbers in an environment that refuses to let it grow.

  • Malthus Anderson

    If you ask any permaculture leader, or similar, “Can we feed 11 billion people?” they will simply chuckle and say “Of course!”. The answer lies not just in the soil but in the way we treat the soil. Stop industrial farming, stop the addition of chemicals to agriculture. Its not rocket science.

    • Esther Phillips

      Really? 11 billion people – what a party we are going to have!

      I am afraid if you believe this very eminent scientist (and a few others I met) we are in fact doomed.
      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention
      As far as I am concerned reading this most people ought to now make the decision to have ZERO children.
      Children are not just for Christmas!

    • JohnTaves

      When we average more than 2 babies, we are attempting exponential growth to infinity. No amount of flawless farming is going to produce infinite food.

      Averaging more than 2 has been going on forever, and the consequences of that are obvious. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality are proof we are averaging too many.

      It is simply unbelievable that on a website founded by a population expert, the expert himself and almost all of the commenters mention the supply side of the equation. It’s like nobody is willing to recognize that REPRODUCTION ATTEMPTS EXPONENTIAL GROWTH, and no amount of magical farming will produce exponentially more food forever.

  • Watch a vimeo called Empty Handed put out by Population Action international. Women tell their short little stories of not being able to access family planning, contraception because the commodities are lacking. UNFPA is the world’s largest supplier of family planning. Every American should chip in their $34! http://www.34millionfriends.org. Probably the best use of your dollars considering everything—climate, water, food, the environment, peace.

  • JohnTaves

    “Above all, a most hopeful sign would be more nations providing more access to modern contraception and backup abortion and truly equal rights for women. Those steps could move the world toward population reduction, the sine qua non of sustainability, and without which none of the other environmental goals are likely to be reached.”

    Here is the essence of the problem. Our population scientists have the belief that if we just provide access to modern contraception and equal rights for women, we will magically not average too many babies. This belief system is based on trends and correlations.

    Our population scientists need to understand the fundamentals of reproduction in a finite space. If we average too many babies, thus attempting to grow the numbers to levels that cannot be kept alive, babies must die. It is the only way nature can stop the growth. Environmental destruction does not have to happen. Reduced quality of life does not have to happen. War, disease, famine, etc are all optional. The only thing that must happen is dead children. There is a formula for the rate that children must die. Children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x when we average x babies.

    “but clearly that formula is wrong. we are averaging 2.5 and we do not see that amount of child mortality!”. — True, if the subsistence production is increasing, or the average age of the parents is increasing, or the adult life expectancy is increasing, or the income distribution is becoming more even, then fewer children must die than that formula dictates. However, all 4 of these values are bounded and they only affect the child mortality rate when they are changing. In other words, the formula is correct. You must fully understand the math before you abuse the formula.

    We group ourselves, like all mobile species, so we do not expect this child mortality to be distributed evenly across the world. Furthermore, we expect that if if other forms of death are not killing children fast enough, then starvation will be the swing producer to ensure that our numbers do not grow too fast. Therefore, we expect to find groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality…. OMG!! Surprise surprise, we have those symptoms. We have always had those symptoms.

    Of course we do. There is no mechanism that ensures we do not over breed. Yes, there are mechanisms, like marriage, and the social stigma of birth out of wedlock that reduces our fertility from what it otherwise would have been, but that is not a mechanism that ensures we produce babies only to replace deaths. If we don’t have that mechanism, then DUH!!! we are causing death by making too many babies.

    Population scientists need to know this and teach this. Ignorance of this brutal fact of nature allows population scientists to believe that fertility trends will continue and their correlations are causality and from that arrive at the untenable conclusion that we just need to provide birth control and give women full control of their bodies and we will magically stop over breeding. I totally agree we should ensure everyone has access to birth control and I fully support letting women have full control over their bodies. However, THIS IS NOT SUFFICIENT TO ENSURE WE DO NOT OVERBREED!!!

    Get off your intellectual rear ends. Be logical. Think this through!

  • trilemmaman

    Here we go again. Failure to see that high birth rates are a symptom and not a cause. “hunger” is not on the rise. In fact fewer people are hungry today with even more people in the world. There has been a rise in starvation….(far different than ‘hunger’) but that has been the result of war…not a lack of food or money. Just today the Health/Science section of Washington Post had a new report regarding how much food is wasted…and its environmental costs. There is certainly changes that need to be made in food production in tune with environmental principles…but feeding humanity now and in the future will be more a function of political priorities…not a shortage of food…unless there is an asteroid, supervolcano, nuclear exchange, or EMP event.

    • Esther Phillips

      But what is the true cost of assuaging the needs (let alone the wants of) an ever increasing Human population?
      We are already now hovering up the very bottom of the food chain: insects and krill all on the backdrop of a changing climate that will make living ever more painful for most.
      In a short lifespan of just over half a century I have seen a vast number of life forms and the beauty of this planet trashed and am ashamed at the price paid for our temporary “victory” over hunger. At no point in time did it make sense to let ourselves become so numerous and it certainly makes no sense to continue on this trajectory.
      As they say in the Financial world: past performance is no guarantee of future returns. There is no point giving life to future generations if there is going to be no quality in it. If the air that we breathe, the water that we drink are polluted, there is no wildlife left to wonder at, no silence to be found, no beauty spot to enjoy on ones own, no privacy remaining I would say actually we are all already living in poverty.

  • Karen Shragg

    On Bloomberg news there is a horrid article about the demise of the Population bomb.. with untrue statistics the guy says that the population bomb will defuse itself… all is well. NOT!! !!
    We need to be aware of the narratives that dismiss this critical issue and defuse them… our earth is limited and we are way too successful which will be our downfall.

  • What you write is truly overwhelming. You could do one little thing: Join 34 Million Friends.of the UN Population Fund. We started in 2002 when Bush defunded. Now Trump. Horrible man. Anyone who follows long term trends and thinks about the future has got to be profoundly pessimistic. Watch a little vimeo “Empty Handed” by Population Action International. Women telling short little stories of their heartbreak at not finding contraceptives “I went to the clinic three times and came back empty handed.” Oh my goodness!

    • trilemmaman

      UNPF is not the solution. A comprehensive approach of health, education, clean water, sanitation and jobs is required. If family planning is promoted in the context of women’s heath is has a chance. If it is pushed in the context of controlling births…it will backfire…as it has before. The most effective means of getting a sustainable decline in birth rates is meeting all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Stove piping solutions has never worked and can’t work given the reality of human nature and the nature of life itself.

      • I didn’t say UNFPA was the solution, I said it was a small thing one could do.

    • JohnTaves

      The UN Population Fund does not tell us that we must not average too many babies. It does not tell us the consequences of averaging too many. It does not tell us what too many is. It does not tell anyone how they can tell if they are contributing to averaging too many babies.

      I totally agree that every man and woman should have access to birth control, and it is horrible that the USA and other nations are not committed to ensuring everyone has free access. However, the cause of that failure is ignorance. We do not know the answers to the questions I just stated. Of course Bush and Trump don’t fund these things. Our population scientist have never comprehended and thus never told them the consequences of averaging too many babies. The consequence is dead children. Malthus never said this. Ehrlich never said this. Joel Cohen never said this. Did you know this?

      The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is proof we are averaging too many babies right now and have always averaged too many.

      Assuming that if we provide everyone with free contraception and the freedom to use it we will somehow magically not overbreed is just plain stupid.

  • Esther Phillips

    It must be a good thing that the latest Royal child cannot yet read !!! What delightful prospects.
    The only answer I was able to provide is not to have a child and to grow our food using permaculture and forest garden priciples ie regenerative ways of growing food.
    Otherwise wishing I had my own planet…

  • Joshua M. Rosenau

    The moral and ethical underpinnings of human populations in the billions should be reconsidered. Perhaps there is not an agricultural answer to this quandary. Just because agriculture might be able to support such a population, does not make it morally or ethically good. Food and provisions may placate the belly, but the natural capacities of the earth and the souls of people will have no respite. The Tragedy of the Commons should be considered when considering such a question.

    • JohnTaves

      The Tragedy of the Commons tells nobody that we must not average too many babies. It does not tell us the consequences of averaging too many. It does not tell us what too many is. It does not tell anyone how they can tell if they are contributing to averaging too many babies.

      It is useless.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Demographic and biophysical calculations describe the problem, but the solution is a renewal of humanity based on an integral anthropology that transcends the patriarchal norms of conduct we inherited from the Greeks and other ancient cultures. “Homo sapiens” must outgrow “Homo economicus” and become “Homo ecologicus.” The man-nature relation is a mirror of the man-woman relation. As long as the man-woman relation is corrupted by patriarchy, it is hard to envision any sensible resolution of the ecological crisis.

    • JohnTaves

      “Homo ecologicus” tells nobody that we must not average too many babies. It does not tell us the consequences of averaging too many. It does not tell us what too many is. It does not tell anyone how they can tell if they are contributing to averaging too many babies.

      It is useless.

      • Luis Gutierrez

        According to your criteria, “Homo sapiens” and “Homo economicus” are equally useless. I am suggesting “Homo ecologicus” as the start of a conversation, not the end. Can you suggest a better term?

        • JohnTaves

          We need to understand some concepts and teach them.

          For example, if we average too many babies, we cause child mortality. (This is a dirt simple fact from the fact that we are in a finite space here on Earth and averaging too many babies attempts to grow the population to infinity. Indeed there’s a formula that tells us the rate that children must die. (x-2)/x of the children must die when we average x babies.)

          Another dirt simple fact is that if your descendants average too many babies, everyone else on the planet can have zero babies, but still your descendants will cause child mortality. (This simple fact tells us several things, which I won’t expand upon here)

          There are other facts that must be understood and taught to everyone on the planet, but none really involve the environment, or being environmentally conscious except to note that the environment is finite. I do agree that we should give this collection of facts (I have not listed them all) a name, but “homo anything” does not work.

          Ultimately everyone does not need to know the fundamental math behind it all, even though it is simple enough for the bulk of kids above say 12 to understand it. What is important is for everyone to comprehend that we must not average more than 2 children, and no more than 4 grandchildren and no more than 8 great grandchildren. But also because we depend upon non-renewables to keep our current numbers alive, we must average less than TwoFourEight until we no longer depend upon non-renewables.

          I suggest StopAtTwo is the name for these concepts, because at least the name tells us one very important base concept.

          Fundamentally our population scientists like Ehrlich must buckle down and recognize that bitching and whining about the environment does absolutely nothing to stop us from overbreeding. Further, they need to comprehend that we are overbreeding right now. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality around the world are the proof and the consequence of averaging too many babies world wide. They need to comprehend that there is no magical fertility regulator that will ensure that if only we all had access to contraception, we would not over breed.

          • Luis Gutierrez

            I agree that artificial contraceptives are no magic bullet. Such artificial fixes give the illusion that people can have irresponsible sex without paying a price, but we know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Sexual promiscuity is not good for people, and too many babies are born with biological fathers unknown.

            Mathematical calculations are equally unpersuasive, even if they are correct. In the ultimate analysis, men and women must make family planning decisions based on conscience. Personally, I like the concept of “responsible parenthood.” It avoids dictating universal rules, and would be intrinsic to the collective unconscious of “Homo ecologicus.”

          • JohnTaves

            I’m not sure why you are mentioning artificial contraceptives, irresponsible sex, or sexual promiscuity. These have nothing to do with my statements.

            “mathematical calculations” are also not terribly relevant. (x-2)/x is not some sort of calculation. It is dirt simple logic. Understanding that reproduction attempts exponential growth and the consequences of that attempt is simple knowledge. You either understand it, or you don’t.

            My whole point is that you, me, and everyone else on this planet needs to understand the fundamental concepts of reproduction in a finite space. Ehrlich needs to understand them and help teach them. Ignorance is not bliss.

          • Luis Gutierrez

            I understand the math of exponential growth but also believe that humans are endowed with free will. What are “the fundamental concepts of reproduction in a finite space”?

          • JohnTaves

            There are a few levels to the fundamental concepts of reproduction in a finite space, but here’s the simplest:

            1) Averaging more than 2 babies only kills children, and kills only children.

            2) If your descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality.

            3) Humans, and all species have always averaged more than 2, and we can see the consequences. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality are proof that we have been and still are averaging too many babies.

          • Luis Gutierrez

            OK, thanks, but these are concepts, or hypotheses, and they would not seem to recognize the possibility of humans making more rational decisions. Can you provide links or references to empirical data to support hypotheses 1, 2, and 3? Can you provide references to article or books where these concepts are explained?

          • JohnTaves

            These are trivial conclusions from trivial observations that we all agree on. This is basic math/logic.

            1) Figure this out for yourself. Invent a simple world where 16 people can exist at one time. There are 4 at each generation. Each generation is 20 years apart, and boys/girls are born as close to 50% as possible. When they reach 80 yrs old, they die. They have their children all at once at age 20. Set this world up on paper, then advance time by 20 years and the new parents will have 3 babies. Only 16 can be kept alive at one time in this environment. What must happen? Advance time again by 20 years. Keep repeating until you recognize what must happen.

            2) Once you comprehend #1, you’ll find that this is obviously true.

            3) This one is not pure math/logic like 1 and 2. We can discuss it after you comprehend the fundamental principle of reproduction in a finite space from 1 and 2. Maybe I should say “sexual reproduction”.

            Yes, it is dirt simple. My nephew at age 14 figured it out in 1 hr.

          • Luis Gutierrez

            I understand that an ethical system cannot be based on a biophysical impossibility. However, while logic is necessary, it is not sufficient to induce human behavior change. Some supporting data and real life stories would be helpful. Besides, the assumption that carrying capacity is fixed is easily deniable. Fossil fuels created an energy surplus that was a game changer. Who has a crystal ball to prove that something cannot happen in the future to enhance carrying capacity again? Abstract mathematical logic is necessary, but not sufficient to overcome human delusions of grandeur.

          • JohnTaves

            I did not assume the carrying capacity is fixed. I know that fossil fuels and countless discoveries that are powered by fossil fuels have dramatically increased the production of subsistence over the past few hundred years. This does not change the fact that Earth is finite. This does not prevent you from doing what I said in #1 to learn something.

            “while logic is necessary, it is not sufficient to induce human behavior change.” Just shoot me! You are proving your point by finding idiotic excuses to avoid thinking it through.

            “Some supporting data and real life stories would be helpful.” Or you could stop attempting to tell me how to convey the concept that you are unaware of. You could actually do what I said and learn it. You will discover no supporting data or life stories are relevant.