denis_dutton's picture
Philosopher; Founder and Editor, Arts & Letters Daily; Author, The Art Instinct
When will overpopulation create worldwide starvation?

They cordoned off the area and brought in disposal experts to defuse the bomb, but it turned out to be full of — sawdust. The Population Bomb is truly a dud, although this news and its implications have yet fully to sink into the general consciousness.

Ideas can become so embedded in our outlook that they are hard to shake by rational argument. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural India in the 1960s, I vividly remember being faced with multiple uncertainties about what might work for the modernization of India. There was only one thing I and my fellow development workers could all agree on: India unquestionably would experience mass famine by the 1980s at the latest. For us at the time this notion was an eschatological inevitability and an article of faith.

For 35 years since those days, India has grown in population by over a million souls a month, never failing to feed itself or earn enough to buy the food it needs (sporadic famine conditions in isolated areas, which still happen in India, are always a matter of communications and distribution breakdown).

Like so many of the doomsayers of the twentieth century, we left crucial factors out of our glib calculations. First, we failed to appreciate that people in developing countries will behave exactly like people in the rest of the world: as they improve their standard of living, they have fewer children. In India, the rate of population increase began to turn around in the 1970s, and it has declined since. More importantly, we underestimated the capacity of human intelligence to adapt changing situations.

Broadly speaking, instead of a world population of 25 or 30 billion, which some prophets of the 1960s were predicting, it now looks as though the peak of world population growth might be reached within 25 to 40 years at a maximum of 8.5 billion (just 2.5 billion above the present world population). Even without advances in food technology, the areas of land currently out of agricultural production in the United States and elsewhere will prevent starvation. But genetic technologies will increase the quantities and healthfulness of food, while at the same time making food production much more environmentally friendly. For example, combining gene modification with herbicides will make it possible to produce crops that induce no soil erosion. New varieties will requires less intensive application of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. If genetic techniques can control endemic pests, vast areas of Africa could be brought into productive cultivation.

There will be no way to add 2.5 billion people to the planet without environmental costs. Some present difficulties, such as limited supplies of fresh water in Third World localities, will only get worse. But these problems will not be insoluble. Moreover, there is not the slightest chance that population growth will in itself cause famine. What will be fascinating to watch, for those who live long enough to witness it, will be how the world copes with an aging, declining population, once the high-point has been reached.

The steady evaporation of the question, "When will overpopulation create worldwide starvation?", has left a gaping hole in the mental universe of the doomsayers. They have been quick to fill it with anxieties about global warming, cellphones, the ozone hole, and Macdonaldization. There appears to be a hard-wired human propensity to invent threats where they cannot clearly be discovered. Historically, this has been applied to foreign ethnic groups or odd individuals in a small-scale society (the old woman whose witchcraft must have caused village children to die). Today's anxieties focus on broader threats to mankind, where activism can mix fashionable politics with dubious science. In this respect alone, the human race is not about to run out of problems. Fortunately, it also shows no sign of running out of solutions.

DENIS DUTTON, founder and editor of the innovative Web page Arts & Letters Daily (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/), teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand and writes widely on aesthetics. He is editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Professor Dutton is a director of Radio New Zealand, Inc.