To Scientific American, Re: Population and Food

A well established principle of population ecology is that an increase in food availability generates an increase in population, as surely in a lynx population which finds an abundance of hares as in a human population that purposefully increases food production. This fact is used as the basis for numerous (if not most) discussions of the rise of civilization and is overtly acknowledged by reputable scientists even outside the field of ecology, including anthropologist Peter Farb and evolutionary biologist Niles Eldredge.

Try as we might, no human endeavor can succeed if it contradicts a scientific principle. In Sandra Postel’s “Growing More Food with Less Water,” though, you put at center stage the ideal of avoiding hunger in a growing population. Such a pursuit flies directly in the face of science. As Eldredge says, growing more food, the great technofix for the hunger faced by an ever-growing number of people, is the engine that itself drives population growth, “the very heart of the problem for which we need a real fix” (“Dominion,” 1995, p. 155).

In the previous issue of your publication, the editors recommended Vaclav Smil’s “Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century,” in which the author sees “no insurmountable biophysical reasons why we could not feed humanity in decades to come while at the same time easing the burden that modern agriculture puts on the biosphere.” I agree with this statement, but such an achievement can only be made possible by abandoning growth. If we continue to pursue growth, Smil’s prediction that “humanity will not double in number again” can only come true if we reaches our maximum possible global carrying capacity prior to another doubling, at which point we would become the victims of a monumental ecological disaster.

There is, of course, a third possible path, which is that this maximum carrying capacity is a long way off, in which case we could, in fact, continue to double our population before eventually hitting that disaster (that people like Paul Ehrlich can be proved wrong because their timelines are misguided, as pointed out in Edward Sieber’s letter to you, does not disprove the general logic behind their claims). Thus, while I agree with both Smil’s claim and his optimism, the review does not make clear whether or not Smil has growth in mind, so it is possible that his optimism may be unfounded.

While technologies may be developed to mitigate our need for certain resources, and those technologies should certainly be encouraged, growth can only contribute to ever-greater stresses, both directly and indirectly, on clean water and all other resources. But growth is not our only option, and a denial of growth does not have to be the pessimistic attitude it is so typically thought to be. Indeed, it is only by abandoning growth that we can, as Smil hopes, ease our burden on the biosphere.

Science show us how things work, and so through science we can learn how to make our society work. This is a vastly preferable alternative to the continued pursuit of so-called solutions which may contradict science and/or simply strive at not failing rather than actually succeeding. In a society that understood population ecology, for example, large-scale population control measures would be no more desirable or necessary than increased food production would be in achieving a stable, healthy population. The easing of our burden on the biosphere would not require laws that prohibit people from doing things they want to do; instead, human activity would become consistent with the health of the non-human world.

It would be impossible to fully elaborate on this in a letter to the editor. What is certain, though, is that only when “Scientific American” acknowledges one of the fundamental principles of the life sciences — that food makes population — could it begin to make genuine contributions toward solving humanity’s greatest problems, from hunger to ecological degradation and beyond.

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