Let ‘em starve

When I give lectures about the global food supply and the environment, often someone in the audience will comment that the best way to solve the problem is to quit producing so much food.

I find this type of “Let ‘em starve” approach quite horrific from a humanitarian view. It also makes no sense scientifically.


ResearchBlogging.orgFirst of all, it is well established that increases in economic and social development (think: enough food to eat) coincide with substantial declines in human fertility and population growth rates.

According to this recent article in Nature, “As a result of this close connection between development and fertility decline, more than half of the global population now lives in regions with below-replacement fertility (less than 2.1 children per woman)”.

The authors find that for low and medium human development index (HDI) levels, this is still true: Development continues to promote fertility decline.

What is worrisome is that at advanced HDI levels (>0.9), further development can reverse the declining trend in fertility. What this means is that the previously negative development-fertility relationship has become J-shaped, with the HDI being positively associated with fertility among highly developed countries. i-b5dbba0760fd9877f874a4daf55fbf6d-,DanaInfo=www.nature.com+nature08230-f1.0.jpg

Who are these people having more children?

An HDI of 0.9 roughly corresponds to 75 years of life expectancy, a GDP per capita of 25,000 US dollars in year 2000 purchasing power parity, and a 0.95 education index.
Countries with a 2005 HDI greater than or equal to 0.9 include: Australia (0.966), Norway (0.961), Iceland (0.956), Ireland (0.95), Luxembourg (0.949), Sweden (0.947), Canada (0.946), Finland (0.945), France (0.945), the Netherlands (0.945), the United States (0.944), Denmark (0.943), Japan (0.943), Switzerland (0.942), Belgium (0.94), New Zealand (0.938), Spain (0.938), the United Kingdom (0.936), Austria (0.934), Italy (0.934), Israel (0.922), Greece (0.918), Germany (0.916), Slovenia (0.913) and South Korea (0.911).

In other words, these people are us. To make the situation even worse, the people in the high HDI countries consume about 25 fold more resources than many parts of the world.

So, blog readers, if we wish to reduce food to those people most likely to wreak havoc with the environment, we need to be the first to volunteer.

Myrskylä, M., Kohler, H., & Billari, F. (2009). Advances in development reverse fertility declines Nature, 460 (7256), 741-743 DOI: 10.1038/nature08230

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    February 23, 2010

    Some general comments. More than half the people in the world now live in urban settings, and the percentage is going up. A comment that people go hungry because they don’t buy enough food emphasizes the economic aspect of starvation. Is it widely true that availability of food is the limiting factor which meets the law of the minimum? It may well be sometimes.

  2. #2 Download Icon
    February 21, 2010

    Some folks with purely good intentions noticed that quite a few of the pastoralists in the Sahel struggled to find enough water, both for themselves, and for their livestock. Women’s lives were quite likely to consist 80% of walking to a well, and carrying water back. And the water was uncertain, to boot- the hand dug wells, centuries old, might go dry in droughts. And the quality of the water was very poor; likely contaminated with coliforms from all the animal dung being deposited around the well.

  3. #3 Hinemoana
    February 16, 2010

    @ Ewan R (#27)

    i do apologise, but I dont have any references about the Kakapo. Its just something we learn about as we grow up here (its one of our national birds, along with the Kiwi, Kia, and Kereru… yeah lots of K’s!). Its not so much the clutch size that is limiting, but the mating rituals. Males spend at least a third of the year just calling to attract a female -in a deep bass so that the female cant actually tell where its coming from. Although aparently most of the time the call actually repels females. If the female does want to breed, and does manage to find the male, she only consents to mating if the main food tree is in bloom. Most New Zealand birds are slow breeders -Kiwis have less difficult mating rituals, but only have one (bloody big) egg.

  4. #4 vera
    February 16, 2010

    Yahzi… have you read any of what I posted? Can you get past spewing insults and actually SEE? I am the one here saying we need to have a whole different socio-economic system in order to even hope for improving this situation. (scratching my head) How bracing. Anybody else wanting to hit me for being a capitalist nutjob? C’mon, line up with the crowbars while you have a chance. That’ll get us somewhere good, riiight…

  5. #5 Yahzi
    February 15, 2010

    Vera, you say: “I would not oppose shipping food to Haiti in exchange for the Haitians DOING what it takes to cut their population growth, and doing it now.”

    But what you don’t seem to get is that the Haitians doing what it takes to cut their population growth is growing more food.

    The entire point of this blog post, which you missed while you were flailing on about your one-trick pony, is that sufficient wealth leads to culture change which leads to population stabilization.

    On the other hand, starving people leads them to acts of desperation while paradoxically limiting risk-taking. People in hungry countries have more children because it is the best way they can ensure their own survival in old age. They do what is best for them even though it is worse for everyone else because they can’t afford not to. People in rich countries, on the other hand, can contribute to the social good because they already have enough to survive.

    It’s called capitalism: those who have it get richer, and those who don’t get poorer. You are (presumably) a right-wing capitalist nutjob, so why don’t you already grasp this essential point of capitalism?

    Let go of your monomanical obsession with punishing people, stop thinking of overpopulation as a moral issue, start paying attention to the mathematics and your own ideological claims, and maybe you can figure it out. It’s not that hard, really.

  6. #6 Ewan R
    February 15, 2010

    Vera

    the more food being argued for here is the fundamental basis of establishing better governance and breaking the status quo for people in these impoverished areas. Shipping food in for nothing, or in exchange for reducing population maintains an external power over impoverished people which is unneeded and counterproductive. Unless the society in question has got to a level where it is economically involved in importing food (which is one possible way out of the mess for areas where food crops aren’t ideal but cash crops may be) shipping food into an area is simply going to sink it further into a cycle of food insecurity etc (how does a farmer begin to make a living if food is being shipped in and handed out for nothing, or for the promise of reduced population (or whatever your attached strings are)) – we’re not talking about throwing more food at these people, but freeing them from the cycle of external aid by providing them the means to produce their own food (which then forms the basis of a local self sustaining economy, rather than a false economy based on handouts from richer countries) – in doing so you break the cycle.

    Now clearly, this isn’t the full solution. Governance won’t necessarily fall into place simply because local food is now available – but it is more likely that areas which can produce their own food, and not have to spend all their time just to maintain a basic level of existence (and all their kids time, which could be better spent getting educated and using this education to get into government and break the cycle) that political action will take place – if you take the example of Indian farmers utilizing Bt cotton there is a clear example of people breaking out of poverty, sending kids to school, and changing their lives for the better – all on the back of yield increases brought about by technology – a model which really should be able to be applied anywhere where subsistence farmers have the potential but not the tools to break out of simple subsistence and into economic viability.

  7. #7 vera
    February 15, 2010

    Ewan, I oppose shipping food in, stop. I would not oppose shipping food to Haiti in exchange for the Haitians DOING what it takes to cut their population growth, and doing it now. Voluntary mass sterilization, for example. And in exchange for the shippers’ DOING WHAT IT TAKES to assure that the food actually gets to the people who need it and not profiteers! And DOING what it takes to restore their ecology. I am opposed to just shipping it there without any plan for what happens next. Except for the usual plan: shipping more next year. But of course, they have been screwed in more ways than one… are we willing to look at that? Are we willing to look at why they are in such a pickle? And what foreign governments have done to promote that sorry state of affairs?

    Of course we all agree that local food security is critical. So tell me, how do we assure that those farmers have, as Dr. Ronald says, good government? Hm? We are smack back to socio-economics. Because, frankly, most of those people who are starving are not starving because they are idiots who can’t manage their own ecologies, they are starving because they’ve been screwed. Hard and repeatedly. By ours and their governments/economic system. Who profits by the status quo?

    Hinemoana, I am sure you and I would have our differences in picturing a better system, but I expect that we would agree in much. It really does not take a brainiac to see the basics. Neither does it take a genius to see that we don’t need any more effort and money thrown at MORE FOOD. We need more money and effort and care thrown at … breaking the stranglehold of power over the earth and its peoples.

    Dr. Ronald, how do you propose to assure good governance in the suffering areas?

  8. #8 Pam Ronald
    February 15, 2010

    Ewan and Hinemoana. I completely agree with your comments. Local food security is critical and farmers need good government, good seed and good farming practices to achieve this. The idea that we can simply grow all the food in the US and send to Africans, makes no sense socially, economically or scientifically. Vera, please check out Paarlberg’s book
    “Starved for Science”

    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/PAASTA.html

  9. #9 Ewan R
    February 15, 2010

    You state we already have the food. But you also oppose ‘shipping food in’. The solution – local food security which does not require shipping food in. How to get there – more food (and more nutritious food) grown where it is needed. Ignore the areas of the world where there is a surplus right now. You’ve plainly stated that redistribution has no place in the solution, and I personally agree with this at least.

    There needs to be something in the interim, there needs to be more food available in these areas while social change is implemented. It doesn’t have to be either or. It needs to be both.

  10. #10 Hinemoana
    February 15, 2010

    Vera,
    I think you misunderstand most of us when we say ‘more’. We mean MORE production in the areas currently prone to famine -you know, so they don’t have to rely on aid, don’t get stuck in a spiral of dept, don’t get economically forced to produce non-food cash crops, and don’t have famine years that destabilise their fragile growing stability and economy. Without MORE food (i.e. a STABLE food supply) the social changes that reduce birth rates and lead to better lives CANNOT happen. I, and most people here as far as I can tell, are advocating local food stability and independence.

    As for developed countries -I am more than willing for social change. But then, your idea of the ideal social structure is probably very different from mine. And that the whole problem, isn’t it? Well, that and the lack of scientific training among politicians, which I feel biases their policy choices to illogical social pressures and corporate benefit.

  11. #11 Hinemoana
    February 15, 2010

    Vera,
    I think you misunderstand most of us when we say ‘more’. We mean MORE production in the areas currently prone to famine -you know, so they dont have to rely on aid, dont get stuck in a spiral of dept, dont get economically forced to produce non-food cash crops, and dont have famine years that destabilise their fragile growing stbility and economy. Without MORE food (i.e a STABLE food supply) the social changes that reduce birth rates and lead to better lives CANNOT happen. I, and most people here as far as I can tell, are advocating local food stability and independance.

    As for developed countries -I am more than willing for social change. But then, your idea of the ideal social structure is probably very different from mine. And that the whole problem, isnt it? Well, that and the lack of scientific training among politicians, which I feel biases their policy choices to illogical social pressues and corporate benefit.

  12. #12 vera
    February 15, 2010

    Oh for crying out loud. We already *have* the effing food. What I am opposed to is calling for more and more of it, while ignoring the real culprits.

    You want cultural change? Then let’s have real cultural change. Let’s stop repeating the idiot mantra of MORE, MORE, MORE! Let us put our effort into creating a social-economic system where the food that is already here finds the people who need it. We don’t need more food. We need another social system. Are ya willing? I sure am.

  13. #13 Ewan R
    February 15, 2010

    But Vera, what this blog post is pointing out is the basic fact that with increased food availability (as the base of increased standard of living) population increases slow and can even lead to declines.

    People here are advocating cultural change because it does not result in massive loss of life.

    Maintaining, or reducing (without moving about, which you are opposed to) food supply at current levels most likely would level off population. However it would do so with massive loss of life (and other suffering). Most people are opposed to this.

    It would be nice if expertise could be used to not get us to 9 billion I agree, however I disagree that the expert way to do this is by witholding food. It’s a barbaric way to do it (unless you can explain the mechanism behind population reduction/stabilization under limiting food which is not a result of widespread death)

  14. #14 vera
    February 15, 2010

    What I am trying to do here, to no avail, it seems, is to point out the basic biological fact: more food means more critter mass — ceteris paribus. Ceteris paribus of course means that there are many *other* variables that can kick in… if you castrate most of the bucks of a deer population, they will crash no matter how much food they have around them.

    But people would rather believe that what applies to lemmings and owls does not apply to human beings. That we can somehow “decouple” from basic biology.

    My point is that the biology is always there, and must be paid attention to, first and foremost. That does not negate other factors having influence. (It seems to me that one of the main reasons women in the affluent world stopped having babies is the obvious: children there are a serious economic drag. Whereas in areas where children are an economic asset, people will have them. But that’s an aside.)

    “It’s the cultural change that the rest of the world needs, not the resource restraint.” In a planet that is being plundered, we don’t need resource restraint? How do you figure that?

    “In essence, it is possible to increase food supply without increasing population.” Sure it’s possible. But that is not what’s been going on globally for the last millennia. And if the population is not *meant* to increase, why encourage greater food production? You have it backwards. What *actually* happens is there is always a call for more and more food, now, today, cuz people are starving. Then there is the call for curbing population… well, some day, when the moon is right and all those neat socio-cultural thingies fall into place.

    And so the human population explosion continues apace. And the population experts claim large salaries to tell us that we will bloat to 9 billion in a few years. Anybody on the street can tell you that. What we need is population experts who can use their expertise to help us NOT get to 9 billion…

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    February 15, 2010

    The US is actually brilliant evidence that the food supply/TFR equation is not direct – the US declined over the course of a century from a TFR around 8 to one in the mid-2s (it went up again after WWII, declined again…) during periods of both plenty and food supply limitations.

    Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies have argued that India’s fertility history tracks very carefully with colonialism, rather than abundance – that the population stability began to decline and the population overall to increase as pressure for new labor emerged. It doesn’t seem to be closely tied to rising standards of living, because for the msot part, for ordinary Indians, they declined under the British, at least at first.

    The Green Revolution also can’t accurately be seen as a history of “feeding into population growth” – the majority of the calories simply didn’t go to the world’s hungry – the vast majority of the calories produced by the Green Revolution went to people who were not previously hungry in the form of livestock.

    I think the “they eat, therefor they breed” story needs to be complicated – it simply doesn’t seem to work that way.

    Sharon

  16. #16 Ewan R
    February 15, 2010

    Hinemoana – getting somewhat unrelated to the topic at hand here, but do you have a decent reference for the Kakapo low breeding rate? I’m intruiged because evolutionarily I can’t see how a tactic such as reducing fertility under all conditions would ever take hold – as in boom times the succesful strategy would be to produce more chicks, and as evolution isn’t forward looking, just reactionary to the environment, I’m a little confused as to how a low birth rate strategy could take hold and keep hold over time.

    The one paper I could find that I had access to concludes “the kakapo’s clutch size, incubation and nestling period are similar to those of its closest relatives, although its egg size appears smaller than expected on the basis of female body mass. The kakapo’s lek mating system is unique among parrots but their requirement for above-average fruit crops to trigger nesting is shared with their close relative, the kaka.”

    Which suggests more that there is a trigger based on availability of food rather than a low breeding rate to actively avoid a large population size.

    Apologies for taking things somewhat off track, but inquiring minds and all that…

  17. #17 Sorcha
    February 15, 2010

    @Sophie
    Spain and Italy are also counter-examples. At first blush it seems odd that southern Europe, which has retained more “traditional” opinions on family, has a lower birth rate than liberal Scandinavia. But traditional social attitudes, when combined with high GDP and increased opportunities for women in the workplace, can act as a further brake on birth rates.

    Young women in Spain and Italy have similar levels of education and employment as their counterparts in Norway and Denmark. However, there is less provision for maternal leave and childcare. If the stay-at-home mother is considered the “ideal”, many women reduce the size of their families or opt out altogether. There is also a social stigma attached to out-of-wedlock births (my otherwise-liberal Spanish friend was shocked by the number of single teenage mothers in Britain). This combines with a relatively high age at first marriage (perhaps because many adults live with their parents well into their 20s and 30s).

    I’m not providing this as an ideal way to keep family size down, just pointing out some of the unexpected factors that affect it.

  18. #18 Hinemoana
    February 15, 2010

    I always get a strange feeling somewhere between boredom and frustration when people give me the argument that historically and within nature, supplying more resources results in larger populations -and therefore we should not seek more resources (looking at you Vera). It does this for two reasons.
    1) Historically, people did not have the same access to family planning technologies (i.e. birth control), education or female emancipation. These three factors, amongst many others, strongly negatively affect birth rates despite large resource availability. The pro-suppliers here keep quoting the correlation between ample resource (i.e. food) supply and low birth rates, but correlation is not causation. Thus, stability, education and emancipation can be said to decouple birth rates from food supply -and therefore future outcomes can now be very different from historical outcomes.
    2)When looking at population growth in nature, I always think of the Kakapo. The damn parrot breeds at a snail’s pace. Really, torturously slow. This is because without predators a population is prone to boom and bust cycles (the bust part being badly close to extinction) as there is no limit to growth other than resource supply (i.e. just like people); so, big growth, no food, big bust, lots of food… etc. There is no real population stabilisation, just a population seesaw –sort of what one might predict to happen in undeveloped countries if we ‘let them starve’. But the Kakapo, and other native New Zealand species, have avoided this cycle by evolving a tortuously slow breeding regime to avoid large population growth. I consider humans in developed nations to have evolved (culturally) to do the same thing as the Kakapo. It’s the cultural change that the rest of the world needs, not the resource restraint.

    In essence, it is possible to increase food supply without increasing population. It simply requires the coordination of social development and education while increasing food supply. I am sure most people here realise this; it is simply that this is a blog about food supply, and therefore we talk about improving the food supply while often omitting the sociological side.

  19. #19 vera
    February 15, 2010

    I don’t suppose you will find it. Globally, more food has meant more people… the food gets moved around. Locally, there is a variety of factors.

    Of course, more food has also meant more fat people, some places. Greater human mass, in either case.

  20. #20 Jim Thomerson
    February 14, 2010

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_growth_rate

    Looking at the distribution of population growth rates among the world’s countries, I don’t see much correlation between low growth rates and lack of food availability. Perhaps there is better correlation between adequate food and low population growth rates.

  21. #21 CW
    February 14, 2010

    This is a true story…

    Is that anything like “Here’s an unsourced anecdote…”? Or is it closer to “Once upon a time…”

  22. #22 doug l
    February 14, 2010

    From what I’m reading it seems that all around the world large cities by scores are springing up in developing countries; cities with millions of residents, only a minor portion of which were actually born there as most of their residents are within a generation of having migrated from the rural food growing areas of these countries.
    People go to the cities for opportunities; to earn money certainly, but also for access to modern sanitation/health and education, which parents see as a way out of the grinding cycle of poverty which is the only pathway for the uneducated peasant in the countryside.
    Once in the cities the need for money is an unavoidable reality,of course, and the desire for it is inexhaustible. And so women become economically important as wage earners instead of just producers of offspring which was the measure of wealth in their previous rural life.
    With women earning money they start to make decisions: to have fewer children and focusing instead on the ones they have and seeing they have better health and a better life, and a better future for their entire family.
    While we see more and more congestion in cities and along major roads where we drive or cars, vast portions of countries known for their population, like China, have many villages and communities that are not on major roads and like here in the US they too are seeing those villages de-populate. An unprecedented migration of millions are leaving the countryside and coming to cities. In rural areas where economically possible, agriculture will, of course, become more mechanized and will require fewer workers and the young move to the cities where they will begin to form theirown families but with far fewer children than the one into which they were born.
    So, there is a stabilization mechanism in urbanization. Where populaton growth in the countryside is most pronounced it is typically along transportation corridors that connect urban complexes. With modern engineering and understanding of how cities can and need to work we will see economies of scale that are not applicable outside of cities; enhanced water management and waste recycling, more efficient transportation sytsems, no need to deforest the local region for cooking fuel or harvest what few wild animals for food there may be around villages, when you’re on the grid.
    It would be really good to see verticle farming become a more prominent factor in these hundreds of new million-plus population cities that are springing up around the globe. The concept of vertical farming which as been getting some attention lately and as it’s imagined for cities like NY is very expensive and is conceived as growing $3 heads of designer lettuce and other high-value crops in high-tech, highly automated, robotically controlled greenhouse setting, and not necessarily intended to grow the staples which are presumed to still be grown out in argicularal belts away from urban centers. But in the new cities this might not be the business model. Twenty story structures that recycle water, waste and harvest solar and wind and rainwater can be relatively inexpensive when designed and managed to do things a bit differently and take advantage of the fact their growing population is coming to cities from the country side to find work. Imagine the transformative influence of more simply designed verticle farms in new urgan landscapes.
    As you might suspect I am an unabashed admirer of R. Buckminster-Fuller, whose perspective on the limits consequent to resources was that the only real shortage we face as a civilization is a shortage of vision as to how to apply our intelligence and know-how to solve the problems that we see magnified by our sense of insecurity. I don’t for a minute think that food shortages, over population, and limite resources are going to problems that we can just ‘envision’ being solved, but without a realistic sense of what we can accomplish when we get beyond the old, and sometimes inaccurate set of assumptions we make about how human progress will be, we can live in a world where there is enough and make intelligent decisions to contain our human impacts, use resources wisely, and plan for the long term.

  23. #23 Greenpa
    February 14, 2010

    Again, I think people 95% on the same page have allowed themselves to get caught up in what are mostly different uses of words. I think. :-)

    For one thing, I would not agree to “let ‘em starve” equating to “do not increase the food supply.” The first is blatantly the red flag to the bull, and the second does not illustrate any consequences.

    There is a real moral dilemma here; one which has no good answer, I think. I know Borlaug struggled with it, and so do I.

    Let’s get away from food, for an example. Let’s look at water.

    This is a true story (approximately- don’t hold me to exact numbers, etc.).

    Some folks with purely good intentions noticed that quite a few of the pastoralists in the Sahel struggled to find enough water, both for themselves, and for their livestock. Women’s lives were quite likely to consist 80% of walking to a well, and carrying water back. And the water was uncertain, to boot- the hand dug wells, centuries old, might go dry in droughts. And the quality of the water was very poor; likely contaminated with coliforms from all the animal dung being deposited around the well.

    So; the people with good intentions decided to drill these folks modern, deep wells; pumped with diesel motors. Far more water, much cleaner, not going dry in the drought.

    Before drilling the wells, each old well supported around 150 people; widely scattered, so their animals could find grazing.

    With the new wells, the local standard of living improved dramatically; pure water, all you can drink, plenty to wash with- the infant mortality rate went down a lot.

    People moved closer to the wells, to enjoy the benefits; and for their animals sake; when a cow or a goat is not really thirsty all the time, surprise, they get fat quicker and give more milk.

    When the pastoralists with the new wells were visited by their relatives from farther away. The relatives decided to move, and come and enjoy the benefits of the modern well, too.

    So; now, instead of 150 people living on the edge of what is possible; which includes high infant mortality, short average life spans, and minimal livestock; you now have 400 people living on the same amount of land, with twice the livestock. Pasture become degraded, livestock loses health, less milk, less meat- and the 400 people are now, again- living on the edge of what is possible.

    If you substitute “living on the edge of starvation”, for “living on the edge of what is possible” – you have the idea, and in fact, it’s much the same thing. Babies die, and people die young.

    The dilemma, which is extremely difficult to address: in the first case, you have 150 people living in palpable, real, misery. In the second; you have 400 people living in real misery; and scrabbling just to keep their children alive.

    Is that an improvement?

    In terms of the amount of misery and anguish; clearly not. In terms of the value of individual lives- I think it’s questionable. Many of those lives would not exist, except for the intervention.

    There is of course no arguing this with the pietist view that “all life is sacred!” – they will say of course 400 people is better than 150.

    There is no sustainability down that path, however.

    To put it in terms of hunger; is it better to have 400 people starving; or 150?

    That’s really very difficult; particularly when you’re standing next to the hungry, and know them.

  24. #24 Hinemoana
    February 14, 2010

    @ Sophie

    Hint3: Stop propogating the message in media etc that a persons (i.e. woman’s) life is not truly fulfilled unless they have babies (i.e. “the most important and fulfilling job you can ever have”). How sick am I of people asking when my partner and I plan to have kids!

  25. #25 Sophie
    February 14, 2010

    Among the high HDI countries, Japan is certainly a counter-example to the theory. Their fertility index is very low.
    Hint1: if you want to limit fertility in a high HDI country, treat women as patriarchally as you can, and do not provide child care services. Much more efficient than hunger.

    About the immigration theory, maybe, but… The countries I know well in this group tend to encourage fertility, because they are scared of their population ageing (Oz baby bonus, France family benefits…).
    Hint2: if you want to limit fertility in a high HDI country, find a way to get out of the “we need more young people than old people” circle.

  26. #26 Hinemoana
    February 14, 2010

    You know, as opposed to letting them starve, which, even according to you, would be doing the same old.

  27. #27 Hinemoana
    February 14, 2010

    @ Vera

    Sure. Lets stop letting religious groups spread lies about contraception.

  28. #28 vera
    February 14, 2010

    An argument began with a strawman continues via an ad hominem. Way to go, Michelle.

    Folks, what we have NOW largely is a “let them starve” world. Just look at the long term situation of Haiti, our near neighbor! The question is, are we gonna do something DIFFERENT, or are we going to keep going with more of the same that got us here?

    Here is more of the same: Thirty or forty years ago, there were 5 billion of us, and millions were starving. Nevertheless, we were producing more than enough for 6 billion, and so in due time, there were 6 billion of us, and millions were still starving. They say even more than before. But the cry kept going out for more food, more food! And so we produced more than enough for a population of 7 billion. And so we have nearly 7 billion. And millions are still starving, even more than before.

    Isn’t it time for a rethink?

  29. #29 Greenpa
    February 14, 2010

    I too always run into the “let ‘em starve” people. I even had one intern, an extremely bright post baccalaureate woman, who eventually admitted her real preference would be for a world with no people on it whatsoever.

    Now THAT was startling, but she isn’t alone, of course.

    My general observation though is that both these types tend to be pretty young, and not experienced outside their highly protected middle America lives. Very few people who have had real contact with the poorest poor feel that way.

  30. #30 Sharon Astyk
    February 14, 2010

    I should observe in Vera’s defense that if we don’t officially “let” them starve, but effectively do by failing to deal with the issues of equity, or by placing our faith in results that are unlikely, we will be just as morally responsible as if we’d taken the “let them starve” position or something like it. The idea that good intentions get us off the hook, is, I think a deep calumny.

    Sharon

  31. #31 Sharon Astyk
    February 14, 2010

    I agree completely with you that the “let them starve” argument is unethical – and foolish. One researcher has shown that if everyone but the US, Canada and Australia disappeared, we’d still cross the climate tipping points, still be facing a water crisis, still be facing a toxicity crisis, etc… that is, even in the most Machiavellian of analyses, the people who would starve wouldn’t relieve the basic pressure on the environment – and some folks have ethical considerations.

    On the other hand, I’m skeptical that development, as we’ve seen it, can actually occur if we either substantially limit our emissions to control climate change – or if we don’t, and have to bear the costs of unchecked climate change. The good thing is the graph you are showing is evidence of causality – we can also look at nations that have reduced their TFR without high levels of economic development (note, I’m not saying they don’t have a right to have it, but that it is unlikely in a world of resource constraints and climate change) – Cuba, Sri Lanka and others, for models of how to improve quality of life even at lower costs. We also, of course, can hardly advocate such a thing unless wealth nations are willing to lower their use of resources dramatically.

    In the end, even without a magical world government to perform fair allocation, starvation is more likely than not at present extant models of agriculture given climate change, unless we are willing to do a great deal to increase equitable distribution of resources. It is perfectly possible to say that it is impossible to perfect human nature or ever to fully equitably distribute food on a world scale, while also acknowledging that if we don’t deal with the equity issue, all the increases in supply we can imagine will probably be insufficient.

    Sharon

  32. #32 Lab Rat
    February 14, 2010

    “Population will stabilize to match the food supply.”

    You know, like it’s doing in many parts of Africa at the moment. Where all those starving people are stabilising their population nicely.

    People don’t have babies based on whether or not resources can cope with them. They have the babies and *then* try to organise the resourses for them.

    “Intensification of production began the vicious spiral of population explosion in the neolithic.” Yes, but that wasn’t because peoople were having more babies, it was because fewer people were dying of starvation! You might think that ‘let them starve’ is a strawman, but what you’re saying here is: ‘Wasn’t it a pity that people stopped dying so much in the neolithic’

  33. #33 Onkel Bob
    February 14, 2010

    I already volunteered and served my commitment. Far upper end of middle age without siring children. And I work to maintain my svelte boyish figure :^)
    I too wonder of about the data, how does it separate immigrant or recent immigrant (1st generation) populations – both groups are more fertile then the affluent “natives”? What of the underclasses – they historically have also been fertile than their elite counterparts; is there a distribution graph breaking out fertility among the classes in what are undoubtedly stratified communities? Is it your contention that a member of Dine on the reservation consumes as much as the members of retired communities in Phoenix?
    Out of curiosity does this question come up in your lectures: What problem does the addition of another human solve? It appears we have reached a critical mass, where the stupid exponentially out number the intelligent. This is compounded by the fact that the malevolent intelligent are able to manipulate the stupid, and so undermine, thwart, and undo any advancements made by the benevolent. To this misanthropic cynic, letting them starve is the better alternative.

  34. #34 MadScientist
    February 14, 2010

    @Caravelle: You can see that the “so hungry they will forego having children” didn’t work well in India, Ethiopia, or China. Although in China Mao’s “cultural revolution” did manage to kill hundreds of thousands through starvation and in all cases infant mortality was very high. Unfortunately Thomas Malthus seems to have got it right – the urge to reproduce trumps everything else up until everything falls in a heap.

  35. #35 Jeremy
    February 14, 2010

    “More protein less starch”. Sounds more like a recipe for disaster than one for sustainability. Sorry, Vera, but you jjust don’t get it, do you?

  36. #36 Michelle B
    February 14, 2010

    Vera: Intensification of production began the vicious spiral of population explosion in the neolithic. Isn’t it about time for something different?!
    ___

    Strawmanning your argument? You don’t have an argument to strawman. Something different? Like your chicken-brained suggestions? Go play with your toys, the adults here are discussing important matters.

  37. #37 Hinemoana
    February 14, 2010

    @ Renee

    I was just thinking that. New Zealand has a huge immigrant and refugee population who tend to either already have large families when they arrive, or have them when they get here due to cultural pressures. My family is one of those (I am the 8th of 9 children). The second generation tend to have much smaller family sizes.

    Our census information doesn’t seem to record this, so this observation is only from my experience.

  38. #38 Renee Watkins
    February 14, 2010

    Could it be that the highly developed countries attract large enough numbers of immigrants from places where reproductive rates are high to explain the J curve?

  39. #39 Alex
    February 13, 2010

    “Population will stabilize to match the food supply.”

    You didn’t read the blogpost.

  40. #40 Ewan R
    February 13, 2010

    Looking at the graph though it looks as if fertility essentially levels off at replacement rate rather than increasing back into >2.1 territory even at an HDI of 1.0 (at least on the graph you show) which at least would be a position where once you got most of the world into that state future worries of Agricultural output would have the increasing population removed (and then one would hope that advances in breeding, agronomics, and biotech could increase yield in lockstep with lost ag land and productivity (due to climate change and whatever other reasons) – also you’d have to assume that the transition from 0.7 through 0.9 on the scale would have some future downturn on population size before a final levelling off – now we just need to get the rest of the globe out of the low end of the scale and up to the high end.

    Easy right?

  41. #41 Caravelle
    February 13, 2010

    Enough food for everybody, enough nutrition, enough calories.

    In an imaginary world government that allocates food to every person this might work. In this one, it means rich people will eat as much as they like and poor people will starve. More than they already do, that is…

    Population will stabilize to match the food supply.

    I.e. people will starve. Or be so hungry that they forgo having children (let’s ignore issues with contraception access and education for a moment).
    Nothing against stabilizing the population, but using a limited food supply as the main mechanism does imply hunger.
    And that’s assuming the population does stabilize to match the food supply. It could fall into boom-and-bust cycles instead.

  42. #42 vera
    February 13, 2010

    “When I give lectures about the global food supply and the environment, someone in the audience will often comment that the best way to solve the problem is to quit producing so much food. I find this type of “Let ‘em starve” approach quite horrific from a humanitarian view.”

    Pam, I don’t lecture to people, but I can recognize an underhanded argument when I see it. If you cannot answer those of us who disagree without strawmanning our position, what hope is there for a civilized dialogue?

    What is so horrific about STABILIZING the food supply? Enough food for everybody, enough nutrition, enough calories. Nobody’s starving. But on the thin side. More protein, less starch. Population will stabilize to match the food supply. Would I volunteer? You bet.

    Intensification of production began the vicious spiral of population explosion in the neolithic. Isn’t it about time for something different?!