Radically Rethinking Agriculture

I hear it is snowing in 49 out of 50 states today. And this, just after the big snow in Washington. Is climate change to blame?i-04fd53c9340805c668b06118d90fbdb5-ff789ed2-1601-11df-bf6a-00144feab49a.jpg

According to climate scientists, we cannot extrapolate based on the events of 1 week.

Still, even if we choose to discount the dramatic weather of this week, it is increasingly clear that the climate is changing and that we must rethink agriculture.

Population experts anticipate the addition of another roughly 3 billion people to the planet's population by mid-21st century. However, the amount of arable land has not changed appreciably in more than half a century. And it isn't likely to increase much in the future because we're losing it to urbanization, salinization, and desertification as fast or faster than we're adding it . As well, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the devastating contribution to global warming caused by the destruction of tropical forests for the further expansion of agriculture and the detrimental environmental and human health impacts of fertilizers and pesticides.

What will it take to keep agricultural supply apace with growing demand in a changing climate?

Recent reports on food security emphasize the gains that can be made in the short run by bringing existing agronomic and food science technology and know-how to people who do not yet have it, as well as by exploring the genetic variability in our existing food crops and developing more ecologically sound farming practices.

This is the conclusion of a perspective published today Science today led by Nina Federoff, scientific advisor to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Full disclosure: I am a coauthor of this article.

For more commentary, please see this interview with Sir David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and former government chief scientific adviser.

More like this

Social engineering will also have to play a roll in solving any upcoming food shortage. We're currently wasting huge amounts of food on the production of meat and dairy. Cutting back on meat and dairy consumption of animal products is a simple way to reduce a great many problems from obesity to water contamination.

One needs not be a vegetarian (I'm not) to eat more plants and less meat.

I'm not convinced that even given everything we can do that global agriculture can even begin to keep up on the same amount of land with a reduction in fertilizer and pesticide useage - I guess that perhaps a global effort towards transgenic insect resistance in all crops (where applicable) might be a worthwhile attempt to reduce losses to insect predation on crops (although if all use the same mode of action the concern is obviously that resistance will evolve quickly and overturn any advantage this technology has), likewise in areas utilizing herbicides there is an arguement that RR technology (or something similar) would be a great method of at least reducing the environmental burden of harsher herbicides - with the obvious drawback that you're eventually going to run out of phosphorous to produce the herbicide. Hopefully in the next decade or two academia and industry can get some real home run style transgenics out there in terms of salinity resistance, drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, other nutrient efficiencies, C3 plants which act more like C4 plants (photorespiration bypass pathway paper in nature in the past year or two looked very promising - be nice if it translated into something meaningful) and hopefully even nitrogen fixation in non-legumes.

Massive social change is the only clear cut method to ameliorate the problem - reduction in meat consumption globally - I am unconvinced that a 50% reduction in US consumption over the next 30 years would have an impact if the trend for increased consumption in India, China, and the rest of the world continues at the pace it is going - obviously it would do something and would be a good start. Likewise the population problem needs to be met more forcefully and not seen as something for which more food has to be provided - there absolutely needs to be open global dialogue about the need to kerb and preferably reverse population growth - simply by reducing family size - something which may well be harder to make most of the world swallow than widespread acceptance of GM technology across the whole spectrum of food.

Utilization of suburban areas capable of growing food would be a nice shift in areas where it is possible - although I find it hard to imagine most people sacrificing pointless lawns with their water and fertilizer demands for actual productivity (even if spectacularly low compared to real agricultural land)

It will be interesting to see how more ecologically sound farming practices do develop over time (there was a recent article in science (or possibly nature - I've lost the link at the moment) which showed that theoretically the most intensive farming practices may actually be more ecologically sound in terms of biodiversity due to the severe dropoff in biodiversity that is seen as soon as agriculture is practiced in an area - something that will have to be monitored closely so as to not trick ourselves into the false belief that a given system is actually better overall.

Equally we need to increase agricultural outreach programs across the developing world and get well funded locally targetted breeding programs out there - I would assume that there are currently areas where sub-optimal varieites are being used because there has not been the profit motive to develop elite lines - something which needs to change and needs to change fast (the fact that Maize yields outside the US/industrialized nations typically look not unlike maize yields in the US before utilization of hybrids points to this as one area of obvious improvement which could be made)

Is there a role for hydroponics as part of the solution? The idea of getting round the problem of land shortage by not using land sounds neat. Initiatives like the the Vertical Farm show some people are taking this seriously. Will it scale? Is cost prohibitive?


Oh, I love this part:

It is also critically important to develop a public facility within the USDA with the mission of conducting the requisite safety testing of GM crops developed in the public sector. This would make it possible for university and other public-sector researchers to use contemporary molecular knowledge and techniques to improve local crops for farmers.

I'm more and more convinced that the only way to reach some of the fence-sitters on this is public projects like this. And the current administrative system is too prohibitive around that.

Thanks for pointing out the article.

Save a little room somewhere for a statue of the Rev. Thomas Malthus.

And another small patch for a (larger) monument to Margaret Sanger.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

"What will it take to keep agricultural supply apace with growing demand?"

Wrong question. We have been doing this question over and over for 10,000 years, and this is where it's gotten us, 7 billion. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The question we need to start asking is, what do we need to do to stabilize human population and begin its gradual decrease? There is plenty of food being grown at the moment to feed maybe 12 billion, and maybe more, but it's not distributed. Which is a political problem. Which the cited article carefully ignores.

More food -> more humans (ceteris paribus).

There is plenty of food being grown at the moment to feed maybe 12 billion, and maybe more, but it's not distributed. Which is a political problem. Which the cited article carefully ignores

That's hitting the nail on the head. I read so many good articles and blog posts like this one, by people who have some kind of grasp of the converging problems humanity is facing, and actually have intelligent solutions to suggest.

But then I look at Capitol Hill and it all goes to hell. As Fareed Zakaria points out in his article re the financial meltdown (http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/02/04/zakaria.budget.deficit/), Washington is pretty much too paralyzed by lobbyists and procedural logjams to get even the most simple common sense fixes passed through both houses without it becoming yet another pork-laden monstrosity that ends up adding to the problems.

There are currently two superpowers in the world today: China, which is rising, and doesn't care about global cooperation (they proved that at Copenhagen), and the USA, which didn't care either while we had the clout, but are now on the decline.

The solutions might be workable, but they all pre-suppose a level of co-operation and good will between the governments of the world that just doesn't exist. They also pre-suppose a working political process that can pass efficient legislation and enforce policy, and that no longer exists in the USA. It exists in China, but again, they are not interested except to the extent it empowers themselves over the other nations.

We have to fix our political process, and we just keep kicking the can down the road. I'll finish with a quote from the Zakaria article:

the real unease is about the sense that Washington is no longer working, that you cannot count on the United States to be able to make hard decisions, to sort its own internal affairs out. One European CEO said to me, what worries us more than anything else is that problems you're facing now are the same problems you were facing 10 or 15 years ago.

Is there enough produced to feed the world (or 12 billion as cited above) now, really? I've heard this restated over and over, but have never seen any concrete figures around it, I can't help but feel that the economics and logistics of it are beyond what we can do globally - there may be the potential to utilize the overflow from European and US agriculture to feed billions more than currently get fed - but short of a one world socialist government it is hard to see how this would operate in practice - the sad fact is that last time we teetered on the brink like this it took an agricultural revolution in the countries affected to pull them out of impending disaster - I get the feeling that the same will be required (how many millions would be pulled out of hunger if the green revolution had also made it across Africa rather than just India and Asia) this time round, although with technology offering us the capacity to nutritionally fortify staple crops globally (better nutritional content in cassava and rice alone could make life better for well over a billion suffering currently from malnutrition - perhaps improving other crop varieties which are suite to climates in areas at the highest risk will also give breathing space)

It's a little morally bankrupt I think not to address the food problem because it will inevitably lead to more humans - not addressing the problem, in full knowledge that population is going to rise anyway, condemns billions to hunger and malnutrition - both problems need to be solved concurrently, on either front ignoring one issue leaves a horrible situation.

Ewan, you are not listening. Ceteris paribus, more food equals more people. More food to Haiti = more people in Haiti, more starving people in Haiti. Isn't it time to interrupt this insane vicious circle?

Regardless of the exact numbers, there is plenty of food produced to feed everybody right now. So why don't we do it? And if we don't do it now, what makes you think we'll do it when we crank out even more food from this suffering earth?!

I'll see if I can bring Greenpa over, he knows more about the figures.

I am listening, but I dont agree that more food necessarily = more people. Population is out of control across the globe. The main areas it has any kind of leveling off are areas where food is categorically not in scarce supply. You appear to be advocating deliberately denying food to billions of people for the simple accident of where they were born. While this may be a solution (as would sterilizing 98% of the population of the planet) I don't see it as a remotely reasonable or moral course of action to take. More food by itself is not an answer. To follow your arguement to its logical conclusion we should never help anyone in areas where there is suffering/hunger because more people = more suffering/hunger, therefore if we just cull them off the world is a better place.

Why do I think we can crank out even more food? Because globally most agriculture is still cranking out yields equivalent to what the US was cranking out in the pre-hybrid era, if I remember right yields in Mexico and South America are 30-50% of those in the US, yields in developing countries clearly have massive room for improvement - hopefully yields in the US also have such room for improvement (not an easy job, but a job worth doing)

I'm afeard you strawman me something bad... :-(

More food -> more people holds other things being equal. You can't crank out more humans without more food. Do you agree?

Now let us tackle the strawman. If we level off food production so that there is enough for 7 billion while focusing on getting it to them, who is starving? If you wanted to stem a population explosion of a mice colony, holding their food level, and letting mortality adjust population downwards is the way to go. Nobody starves. More mice die than are born. Problem solved.

I was the one who said we should help those suffering by redistributing the food we already have. You said, if I read you right, that that is politically impossible.

The question we should be asking is not whether we can crank out more food. The question should be, how can we crank out less and feed everybody, and level off human numbers, and let the earth recover.

I dont see how in your scenario nobody starves. Mortality = starvation (and the effects of malnutrition).

I'll apologize for taking your assertions to a somewhat extreme end, in that respect I guess I did strawman you somewhat.

I disagree that without more food you cannot crank out more humans. It occurs all the time. It results in horrific living conditions for the humans cranked out. During the 80's one of the most abundantly obvious (and painful) things about the famine in Ethiopia was that regardless of the shortage of food there did not appear to be any shortage of new humans being added to the misery.

The fact remains however that in areas of the world where there is sufficient (and arguably still surplus) food populations are already beginning to level off (or in the case of some scandanavian countries actually declining - although I believe the data I am remembering is circa 2000 so the trends may be different a decade on) whereas in areas of the world where food is currently an issue population is rising out of control.

I personally don't believe that cranking out less (or the same) and feeding everybody is possible in the short term, by the time we are capable politically (and economically, and indeed environmentally) of doing something like that (assuming we ever are) the global population will be such that current food production is woefully incapable, and in the meantime millions will go without (and going without/living in poverty seems to be one of the driving forces behind population growth, at least until you hit the hard wall of actual starvation - therefore more food where it is needed could technically help in putting on the brakes rather than in slamming on the gas in terms of population growth) - in the meantime I hold that we need to increase food production (globally, although ideally in areas where food production is actually needed the most) while at the same time altering the political climate (again globally) so that population growth can be kerbed without relying on an increase in mortality (which will be a direct result of low food, may not be starvation, but dying of a bullet through the chest because you happened to have a surplus of corn meal and a shortage of AK-47 essentially amounts to the same thing, or a death due to a compromised immune system due to a vitamin deficiency) but through raising people out of abject poverty and into modes of life where smaller family size follows (and educating on family planning etc).

We are both however, I think, aimed at the same goal - a reduction in global population.

I feel the model is wrong.
Centralizing production, massive CAFOs, crops independent of bugs and therefore nature in general, are suicidal in the long term. As we stray farther and farther from sensory connections with the land and the bounty it brings forth we are less and less likely to invent solutions compatible with reality. Life is not reducible to textbooks. Diversity and it's preservation seems to me the only long-term way to ensure survival; and by survival I don't mean simply we humans. If we eliminate every other species yet go on living we are morally bankrupt, and not deserving to survive.

What, then? Break the farms up. Models exist and always have; intercropping and fallow fields and cover crops; keeping animals for food and fertilizer and pest control; smaller farms with diversified production, more people involved in all steps, local. If there is not enough arable land, there needs to be a commensurate number of humans. Period. Many of these starving people under discussion would rather be farming, and not dependent on relief, huddled unemployable in cities. The modern model leaves them angry and disaffected as well as hungry. Monsanto should be the hungry one.

The planet is not our larder, to be used up. We share it. Humans are too arrogant by half; I am no more important to the future of life on this planet than that chickadee outside my window.


Survival of the planet, or human race, would be pretty unlikely if the modern model was simply broken down like that. There simply would not be enough productivity from available land to support the population of the world, nevermind the population of the world with all the contrivances of modern living. The modern world has developed on a base of ever improving agriculture - reducing the overall need for people in the system is what has allowed for increases in productivity both on the farm, and in the standard of living that everyone in the Western world enjoys today. Would it not be a more laudable goal to raise people who you claim would rather be farming than living in cities (raising the question why do people relocate to cities) into a system whereby food was no longer something on which 50%+ of income needs to be spent, where the few can supply the needs of the many freeing up the rest of the population to more diverse tasks (which is exactly how the western world pulled itself out of subsistence living and into the modern age)

The modern model essentially does not apply in areas where hunger and malnutrition exist. It isn't failing people there. It doesn't exist. As the modern model moves in people are lifted out of poverty and into situations where they can afford to send their kids to school and invest in themselves rather than subsisting from year to year (ie the effects of Bt cotton in India - and, if the Indian government removed its head from its posterior the effect that Bt Brinjal could have in reducing losses of 30%+) - if the 'modern model' or something even remotely approaching it, could be introduced in sub saharan Africa and other poverty stricken areas (I guess without CAFOs etc - not everything about the modern system neccesarily needs to be translated - modern hybrids specific to local climates combined with modern agronomic practices and modern infrastructure however would be an exceptional boost) this would doubtless go a long way to bridging the yield gap between systems and also to meeting the needs for food, in a localized manner (meeting the needs of one continent on another is not that likely to be a workable solution due to transportation and economic considerations)

"There simply would not be enough productivity from available land to support the population of the world, nevermind the population of the world with all the contrivances of modern living."

What evidence do you have, Ewan, that it is possible (nevermind desirable) to support the population of the world with all the contrivances of modern living? Do you have a few spare planets on hand?

It always boggles my mind to see the SEND THEM MORE FOOD brigade ruin the subsistence living in those countries where we do send stuff... and then try to rescue them with more of the same. Argh.

When I give lectures, there is usually someone who wants to solve the world population problem by producing less food.

I find this type of "Let'em starve" comment quite horrific from a humanitarian view. Also it makes no sense if the goal is to reduce population growth.

First 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. "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)".

See this recent article in Nature:


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 developmentâfertility relationship has become J-shaped, with the HDI being positively associated with fertility among highly developed countries.

Who are all 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 (a weighted sum of standardized literacy rate and primary, secondary and tertiary level gross enrolment ratios).

Countries with a 2005 HDI greater than or equal to 0.9 include (2005 HDI in parentheses): 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).

Many readers of this blog belong to one of these countries. In other words, we are the problem. To make the situation even worse, those of us in the US consume about 25 fold more resources than many parts of the world.

So if we wish to reduce food to those with high fertility rates, then blog readers, we need to be the first to volunteer.

@ Vertalio (14)

(1) Most, if not all biologists in agriculture donât want plants to be 'independent of bugs'. We know well the benefit predatory 'bugs' can be in reducing crop damage, and so try to keep their numbers up by reducing pesticide use/using more specific pesticides/using GM to target pests and not predators.

(2)"Diversity and its preservation seems to me the only long-term way to ensure survival"; somewhat dramatic. But all the agricultural biologists *I* know want to try increase agricultural diversity (both number of varieties and species farmed and reduction of monocropping) and decrease impacts on non-agricultural land so that diversity is preserved there. Those models you talk about? Itâs called Integrated Pest Management and was (and still is being) developed by scientists.

(3) "More people involved in all steps [of agricultural production]"... so we should revert to more people spending more time farming and people consequently paying more for food? Peasantry, in effect?

(4) "If there is not enough arable land, there needs to be a commensurate number of humans. Period." So let them starve because they happened to be born in a crappy area? I am a huge advocate for family planning, but it IS a politically, religiously, culturally charged subject entangled in economics. You canât just tell people "Forget your culture and/or religion and spend your food money on contraceptives so you donât have kids and end up starving later when you're too old to support yourself". Also, many of "these starving people... [that] would rather be farming" left for cities because cities offered A BETTER LIFE, and often there is no more land left for them to farm in order to sustain themselves, let alone sell.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

"When I give lectures, there is usually someone who wants to solve the world population problem by producing less food. I find this type of "Let'em starve" comment quite horrific from a humanitarian view."

Strawman attack!!! I said... STABILIZE the food supply. Enough food for everybody, enough nutrition, enough calories. 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?!

hi vera,

I completely agree we need enough food for everyone, that is the point I was trying to make. The data clearly shows that up to a certain income, more food means fewer people.

Check out the paper. It is quite interesting.


I have no evidence that the population of the planet can be sustained with all the contrivances of modern living - I may have made my point rather poorly - transitioning to agriculture as you would like it would remove the contrivances of modern living even from those who already have them. I prefer a vision of the world where at least those things we take absolutely for granted (fresh water, health care, education, and the basic contrivances of modern living (maybe electric lights, sewer systems, possibly even so far as computers etc) are at least within reach of the vast majority of the planet - something only possible if there is a global agricultural base there to support these things.

I'm not advocating sending spare food. I'm advocating developing crops, practices and management techniques in the areas effected so that they can grow their own. The green revolution showed it can be done. Bt cotton in India shows it can still be done. Work in Africa (embarassingly I've forgotten which country specifically) where farmers were provided with grants to supply initial fertilizer and seeds to lift them out of subsistence and into production show that it can be done.

I am also baffled by the model you are using to suggest that a stabilization of food supply (which appears to amount to 'send them the spare food' - as the suggestion you appear to be making is that there is already enough produced) will make population stabilize to the food supply. How? What magical connection is there between food supply and population which will cause some form of stabilization without the widespread horror of massive child mortality from malnutrition combined with mass starvation amongst adults (and lets face it, it's the children who are going to be taking the brunt of it) - the proposition doesnt make sense, there is no other mechanism for population control by means of controlling food supply - this is categorically why neolithic populations were as low as they were - there wasn't enough food to support exponential population growth so people died because they didn't have enough food. The majority of these deaths were likely in childhood due to malnutrition(or possibly also due to inter-tribe warfare over resources (ie food)) I hate to again set myself up for accusations of setting you up as a straw man - but sadly, with each post, sans mechanism, you're doing it yourself. The only plausible way your stabilization of food supply would ever stabilize or reduce the population is through death due to lack of food, which as far as I can see it is absolutely no different from "let em starve" regardless of how much you protest that it is not.

Ok, just a few thoughts for tonight.

"Is there enough produced to feed the world (or 12 billion as cited above) now, really? I've heard this restated over and over, but have never seen any concrete figures around it, "

Yes, there is abundant evidence. The concrete figures are nasty to fight through, which is why you won't see them in places like this. Borlaug stated publicly that there was enough food for 9 billion; my own calculations are indeed closer to 12.

Most of it does not have to do with transferring food from the first world, but upgrading postharvest handling in the 3rd. The UN statistics are available to look at- postharvest losses in Africa typically run around 40%- and go up to 80% in bad years.

There are many side effects. If US farmers weren't buying vast quantities of NPK to put on corn for ethanol, and soybeans for industrial chicken and pork - the price of NPK would go down, perhaps to the point where Africa could afford it. Etc.

If you read my comments on Borlaug, you will find I am quite fiercely opposed to the idea of "let 'em starve" - but I'm afraid from the hard biological point, in all systems and organisms I'm aware of, yes, more food does equal population growth- eventually.

And, Dr. Ronald, I see you are an author of the Science article. Very sly. :-)

Pam, we already HAVE enough food for everyone. The problem is, not everyone has access.

Ewan, far be it from me to keep on arguing with someone who is such a determined defender of the follies of modernity as you are. Sewers?! Are you serious? (banging my head against the keyboard... ;)... there is hardly anything more damaging than modern sewers. Yuk.

Yeah, I would prefer to hang on to a few good things too. But all I see is denial of what is really going on. The so called green revolution ran on fossil fuel. It brought about a population explosion. Hello?

Well, carry on. For 10,000 years... more food, more people. More people? Let's produce more food. But one of these days, maybe we'll produce more food and... a miracle will happen. Fewer people! Oh darn it, no, still more people... how could it be?

Have fun, kidz.

OMG. I canât believe Vera trashed modern sewers! MODERN sewers are great. The water coming out of the best is drinkable, for heavenâs sake! Itâs the OLD sewers -and lack thereof- that are disgusting and damaging to people and the environment. o_0

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

Local food security is the key to feeding the worlds population. My husband is a farmer in one of the most productive agricultural systems in the world PLUS we have salaries. Compare this to Africa where ca. 90% of the people are subsistence farmers with little improved seed, fertilizer or access to markets.

Even if everyone in the developed world was willing to give up the extra. How would that help the Africans? They need the tools to grow it themselves.

Bunny trail here. Sorry, mea culpa.
Sewers are a satanic invention: they turn manure that should go into fields into pollution for the rivers. At a tremendous cost to build and operate. Smaaart... yeah.

The new sewers you can drink from... where are those? Do they remove chemotherapy drugs from them? Or the gazillion chemicals many of them of unknown effects on life? And what do they do with all the toxic sludge... put it on the fields? Yeah, nice. Else they bury it in the landfills. Ever so clever...

'Survival of the planet' seems more likely, actually, while I do agree we could not support current human numbers and 'contrivances of the modern way of living'. I do not really see those as fully sustainable long-term in either case, though. Changes in the climate globally, even if you don't believe them anthropcentric in origin, strongly suggest a reduction in both in the not-so-distant future. Thanks, at least in part, to the modern standard of living, built on the advantage fossil fuels lend.
I don't see how expanding fossil fuel use solves problems caused by overuse of fossil fuels.

1) The flowering plants and insects evolved together, if I'm not mistaken, hence my suggestion that they be allowed to continue to do so. Losses are part of the game here. What humans consider a loss is a gain to those others, and can we safely deny those others life?
2) Integrated pest management sounds an awful lot like successful agricultural practices of the last ten millenium.
3) It's not just about the 'cost' of food. What is the cost of CAFO waste washing down the watersheds? Who pays for that? What is the cost of incidental species loss to pesticides, both insect and avian? I also have to object to the idea that producing your own food is somehow inferior to buying it.
4) Humans are also mammals, a part of the natural world, or rather what is left of it. Are we to be immune to natural selection? I doubt it.

Oh right. And what do you propose we do with all the non-faecal waste civilisation produces? At my local sewer treatment facility, yes, what little solid matter is left over goes into a well-managed landfill. The solid waste is repeatedly digested to minimise its volume and is put in a mono-fill; they are optomistic that once the landfill degrades then it can be mined to recover copper etc. the water from the local treatment facility isnt drinkable -but perfectly safe for release into the ocean (the cleanliness of oxygen pond effluent is monitored and is not released unless clean). We, however, have plenty of clean water available to drink. Other places are not so lucky.

"...it's not unusual for treated wastewater to be part of drinking supplies. The city of London is located downstream from numerous wastewater recycling plants that discharge into the Thames river. Which is why there's a common saying that when you drink a glass of water in London, the water has already passed through several pairs of kidneys.
And recycled wastewater is successfully used to top up drinking water supplies in Namibia, the United States and Singapore." (www.science.org.au/nova/095/095key.htm)

There are issues that still need to be resolved, of course, as potable recyled water is a new technology. If reverse osmosis is developed enough, those chemo drugs wont be a problem at all... not even in the environment. I'm guessing the salty waste would be landfilled (i.e. broken down in a contained area and not released into the environment as they are now). And lets remember that sewer systems are weighed against the widespread contamination of 'potable' groundwater from agriculture and industry leachate and madly-maintained septic tanks (i.e. no, or lack of adequate sewer systems).

In fact, here, environmental damage caused by sewage is due to the old system of stormwater overflow in the pipes (which is in the very slow process of being upgraded), as well as by untreated stormwater itself.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

Yes, there is modernity for ya in a nutshell. People being sold on drinking their own p*ss and sh*t. We have indeed come a long way.

"There are issues that still need to be resolved, of course"

Ah. That ought to be up on the entrance to hell, right next to Dante's Lose all hope ye who enter here.


1) Under that same reasoning, people should stop taking de-worming agents, as intestinal worms have evolved with humans... and who am I to deny tape worm life? Please. Agricultural pests only reach the numbers they do because we provide their food in abundance; any agricultural system is a deviation from the 'natural' no matter how 'organic'.

2) Somewhat, but vastly improved. We can study patterns with computer programmes that tease out patterns not recognised before and integrate it with modern pest control methods not previously available.

3) You seem to be assuming I advocate huge amounts of pesticide use. I am doing my utmost to research ways to avoid pesticide use while maintaining the high yeilds gained by it. Hell, look at the effect trans Bt had on field insect numbers and diversity. Woot. Also, I apologise if you thought that I thought producing your own food is inferior to buying it. Produce all YOU want. I like people using their gardens. I HATE urban sprawl and empty lawns. I, however, am arachnophobic. I tried growing my own food and ended up a crying ball of fear and shame. Also,more people spending more time growing their own food means theres less time and less people doing other things... like curing cancer (RIP dad, nana, brother) and furthering the space programme. I dream of terraforming a lifeless planet *heart*.

4) No, we're not. Which is why we are trying to figure out better ways of doing everything, always. Including experimenting with new agricultural methods and tools, rather than relying on the way people have been doing things for "the last ten millenium". The most sucessful species are those most responsive to CHANGE.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

@ Vera (29)

ROFL. Actually, the whole "drinking their own p*ss and sh*t" think is exciting for me (and we all do it anyway, just after it going through unknown rocks, plants, animals etc). It excites me because its one small step closer to long-term space travel. Yay!

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink

Recent reports on food security emphasize the gains that can be made in the short run by bringing existing agronomic and food science technology and know-how to people who do not yet have it, as well as by exploring the genetic variability in our existing food crops

I think putting our eggs in the science and technology basket is part of the problem, as these methods tend to address the symptoms of the food supply problem more than they do the cause.

What will it take to keep agricultural supply apace with growing demand in a changing climate?

1. We need more food producers. Period. Those pesticide laden lawns in the suburbs and exburbs need to be converted to food producing acreage.

2. Raised bed gardening and hydroponics can be employed in areas where the land is insufficient for producing human food.

3. Even in areas where we can't grow broccoli, we can often grow beef because on some acreage it is financially unfeasible to amend the soil to a point where you can grow veggies, but that land can often produce grass quite easily. Cows eat grass. Problem solved.

4. Better population control by reducing religion's impact on society while increasing the quality of sex education along with a rational perspective on birth control.

5. Employ technology in concert with the above, rather than in place of it.

By PlaydoPlato (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink


really, sewers are bad? I could possibly see you taking a dig at my suggestion that TVs or computers be widely available (this probably does fall more towards the unsustainable side of the equation) - but really - you're so luddite as to view sewers as something to deny the developing world? I guess that'll help with your population control - let them keep their open sewers, their dysentry, and their deaths from easily preventable diseases.

The population increases brought about by the green revolution were a result of more people not dying of starvation, not a result of more people being born because of increased food. Can you explain how this is not 'let em starve' mentality? (and again can you explain how your model of less food = less population works without the downside which this whole conversation is based around?)

You also appear to utterly ignore the trends of the past 100 years (as highlighted in this post and the other blog) more food leads to a higher standard of living leads to reduced population growth (and even a period of reduction) followed by stabilization of growth - a standard of living only achieved in the past 100 years thus offering a true change from the old model of food = population based on lack of dying of malnutrition and starvation - by what basis would this not work for the rest of the world? Whereas a return to the sort of feudal agricultural systems you propose (or a maintenance of said systems) has a proven track record of large family size, high infant mortality, year on year food insecurity.

The green revolution may have run on fossil fuel, however it saved (not created) lives, the future we face is one where we need to do the same, but with less - we have technology available now, and in upcoming decades, which hopefully can wean modern agriculture off the reliance on fossil fuels to a certain extent - At present the main available technology for doing this is Bt, removing the need for a lot of insecticide while at the same time allowing farmers in areas where insecticides are unavailable, or too expensive, to utilize an insecticide that requires no spraying, no inputs at all infact - coming online now are improved nutritional varieties, again a zero input solution to the vast problem of malnutrition in areas where calorific input may actually be sufficient, as time progresses who can say what new technologies will come online - I have great hopes for the C3 photorespiration bypass type transgenics (which I believe thus far have only been done in arabidopsis) in terms of improving C3 crop yields (assuming we dont push CO2 levels up where photorespiration is no longer the drain it is), I also have great hopes for more nitrogen and water efficient transgenics appearing in the next couple of decades, and also the holy grail of a transgenic nitrogen fixing plant (tough, but I think not altogether impossible given the rate at which technology and understanding advances) - all of these potential advances offer the capacity to retain current output levels while at the same time reducing required inputs (and most could be used in lower yielding setups to give more yield) - none of them require a 'let em starve' mentality.

I think the heat to light ratio in this thread is rather foolishly high. As far as I can tell, the spitwads in the air are from people who actually agree on most of the basics. :-)

For example; Dr. Ronald's comment #25-

"Local food security is the key to feeding the worlds population. My husband is a farmer in one of the most productive agricultural systems in the world PLUS we have salaries. Compare this to Africa where ca. 90% of the people are subsistence farmers with little improved seed, fertilizer or access to markets.

Even if everyone in the developed world was willing to give up the extra. How would that help the Africans? They need the tools to grow it themselves."

There is not one thing there that I disagree with, and that's probably true for everyone in this discussion. Hey, guys- we're mostly on the same side.

What we're disagreeing about is both how we got "here", and how to go forward.

Some of this is fueled by what I think is rather unthougthful repetition of someone else's statements. Those things that sound reasonable and true- and come from a respected figure- but which are false.

For example: Ewan R: "The green revolution may have run on fossil fuel, however it saved (not created) lives"

Not so. And you can certainly see it for yourself, if you examine the process and timelines. Borlaug's wheat started saving lives around 50 years ago. Those people who would have starved- have had ample time for 2 successive generations, often 3. Those lives would certainly be said to have been created by the green revolution, since they would not have existed without it.

That's so straightforward that it makes me think Ewan R first heard the statement from some older professor with a big reputation. And kind of swallowed it whole. We all do that from time to time; it's one of the great pitfalls in science actually. Brillant workers will sometimes have blind spots and spout nonsense.

Likewise the suggestion here that increasing food is statistically provably linked with decreasing human birth rate.

Without careful dissection, most humans and scientists will read that as - increased food supply CAUSES decreased birth rate- and in fact it says nothing of the kind.

All of us are deeply familiar with the fact that correlation does not prove, or necessarily even indicate causality.

This is a beautiful example of that. Accompanying the trend of increased food supply is - what? Increased access to medical attention, antibiotics, immunizations. Increased sanitation, improved drinking water, education. All of those are linked to increased life span.

Teasing all the causalities out of these interrelated aspects of "progress" is extremely difficult, and far from decided, and the discussions tend to be rancorous.

In other species- always a good place to look for ideas- many species have the ability to alter their birth rate based on current resources; the favorite example being the snowy owl, which in low lemming years has egg clutches of 1 -3; and in high lemming years clutches of 10-14 (or so).

Which might make you think I'm getting at "more food equals more babies"- and I'm not. What I'm getting at is that many species can alter their birth rate according to sensory inputs; generational evolution is not always required.

Two other observations from other species; long lived species tend to have low birth rates; eg. the California Condor, which typically lays one egg every other year, etc; and; species living in stable environments; with very predictable food, water, and security, also tend to have lower birth rates, eg. bats (which also have long lives.)

As far as humans go, my own belief is that broad lifetime environmental stability will bring the birthrate down; and drastic instability, as in Africa at the moment, drives the birth rate up. Actual food availability is only a single component of that situation; and one desperately easy for politicians to manipulate.

So. Do we need a radical rethinking of agriculture. Oh, yes. My own feeling is that most of the thinking so far is not even close to radical enough.

I was glad to see the "new crops" statement in your paper, Dr. Ronald. I think that is actually where the most promise lies.

My own preferential direction is something like this:


That IS radical, and initially seems to be "impossible" - but I've seen it working. A major key to it is the qualifier "highly domesticated". They've developed a genuinely new breeding technique, which is turning out to be extremely powerful. They create large artificial hybrid swarms, 10's of thousands of individuals, with a minimum of 3 species in the swarm; and select ferociously - over a minimum of 4 generations for visible progress. The thorough mixing of gene pools from different species does in fact generate variations not considered possible when breeding within species.

If anyone wants a seminar on the subject, I think they're available. I recommend it. :-)

Ewan, if you want to learn what the western centralized sewer nightmare is doing in India, read The Big Necessity, by Rose George. She is not a luddite, btw. Can you empire-heads here conceive that that are different ways of doing things besides the empire's black/white thinking: either centralized sewers or medieval sh*t running through the streets? Open up and let the light shine in. Google "decentralised sanitation." Since this topic is about "radical" -- so let's get radical and find a way to return humanure where it belongs: to the soil.

As to "let them starve" mentality: here is how it goes. There are 20K people in an area that can only support 10K. They are starving! Ship food in... come the next generation, there are 30K people in an area that can only support 8K. And they are starving! Ship more food in... can you tell me how this goes from now on out?

Greenpa - I'm not sure comparisons of human birth rates and birth rates in other species are likely to be particularly useful - I would guesstimate that the average human 'clutch' size is as close to 1 as to be pointless to call it anything different, whereas in species where clutch size can vary enormously (as in your example of owls) there is obviously a lot of room for evolutionary pressure to set up mechanisms whereby clutch size is controlled by the availability of resources. When average number of children per birth approaches one however I would assume (and yes, its a big assumption) that there is not the same capacity for selection, as having zero children is not generally a good bet in an evolutionary sense - scraping by with one child under limiting resources is likely to do more for your fitness than gambling on zero children this time round and hoping that resources increase in the future.

In response to the green revolution saving not creating lives - admittedly yes, each saved life probably then created more, so the arguement can be made that the green revolution created lives - but, and this is the point I was attempting to make, only through saving them. The alternative? Let em starve. As far as I am aware areas where the green revolution had the biggest impact (and again, I may be going out on a limb here, much to my chagrin I had absolutely no awareness who Borlaug even was until 10 years after graduating - my focus was never really on agriculture until the last couple of years) have not quite yet reached the precipice upon which they were balanced when the green revolution had its effect (although my impression is that this precipice is fast being reached) therefore it can also be argued that the green revolution continues to save the very lives that it 'created'. I guess to a large extent this is arguing essentially pointless semantics (as you've alluded to) - but I dont think the distinction is entirely meaningless - especially when you consider the human suffering that was (and still is) avoided due to the impacts of the green revolution - I don't believe for a moment that without the green revolution that there'd have been a stabilization of poplulation, or at least not a pleasant one, we'd have been left with a 50 year period of abject human suffering, with lives being created and lost due to lack of food for this whole period - I personally prefer that all these lives have been spared the horror, and would prefer this to remain the case.

On the food --> decreased population growth. Obviously the situation is not quite as simple as that, with all the layers of complexity you allude to, and likely more (such as breaking down cultural and religious barriers as alluded by Hinemoana on one or other of the discussions) however agricultural production and food security are argueably the key first step in achieving all else - improve food supplies such that not everyone has to live as subsistence farmers and other modes of life open up. Free up resources so that the majority of income is not spent on food and other avenues open up - entertainment (outside of procreation), education, careers, the first steps towards building the infrastructure which leads to reduced population growth. Without increasing food production it is hard to see how you can increase all the other variables to bring standards of living into the range where birth rates fall.

Vera -

as angry as you are about being strawmanned, you appear rather adept at doing exactly the same. I don't think the arguements generally being made here (at least not by me) are that we need to 'ship food in' - the arguement is to increase food production in the areas, meaning that your 10k area which can support 10k people but then increases to 15k people (or whatever) needs improvements which allow it to support 15k people. There isn't necessarily an upper bound on the number of people an area can support - the development of agriculture has allowed an area which previously could support ~1 million to support well over 400 million (with surplus to spare) (figures vaguely recalled from Guns, Germs and Steel - taking the US as an example) with improvements in agriculture increasing yields year upon year - the arguement therefore is that agricultural development needs to be extended to areas where yields can be improved, by whatever means - while at the same time attempting to deal with population growth in some other way (this is likely to be a sticking point, but I am fundamentally opposed to using malnutrition and hunger as a population control)

Isn't it amazing how one strawman starts multiplying, eh? The darn things must be on fertility drugs... ;-)

So let's take the area that has 10K people in it, and nobody is starving. Yes, certainly one can make the attempt to make changes so that some time in the future, the area can support 15K. Indeed, that is the sane way to do it. What I was objecting to previously is going in when the population is already in overshoot, and making matters worse in the long run. -- Then again, one may say, 10K is perfect, why don't we just stabilize? This is the road we seem to have forgotten how to take.

"There isn't necessarily an upper bound on the number of people an area can support"

Really? Is the earth limitless? And if a given area has not reached its limit, why is it desirable to push it harder? What about all the critters who habitats and lives must give way so that humans get to maximize their food-growing activities? Why is it such an overriding concern to cram more and more humans into a given area?!

Rather hastily written last post - valentines day interfered.

Obviously there is an upper bound to the number of people a given area can support (otherwise I'd advocate simply increasing food supply rather than increasing food supply while kerbing population growth by non-lethal methods) I believe I meant to say that the upper bound hasn't necessarily been met in most areas.

Ideally the area with 10k people in it (and lets assume some level of malnutrition here, rather than either enough food or categorically not enough food) should be capable of supporting 10k people (or maybe 12k people, surplus is a good thing if not in excess - that 2k extra would offer securirty in years where crops were down 20% and offer potential income in years where crop is great) without the malnutrition - and here is where increased food production (by whatever means are deemed best - the woody plants idea highlighted by Greenpa intruiges me) combined with some other method of population control (education, increased wealth, things to do other than procreate, access to birth control (and destigmatization of birth control))

Why cram more humans into a given area? Well, arguably combined with a more efficient agricultural system (and infrastructure to move food to the population centers) concentrated population centers are the best way to maintain/increase biodiversity outside of the land taken up by the Ag system - a single farm operating on 10000 acres is likely to be generating more food than 10000 seperate 1 acre lots (if only because each of those lots will lose land to a house) if for the sake of simplicity the 10000 single farms can feed 1.5 familes each, and the 10000 acre farm can feed 2.5 families/acre then you save a vast amount of land by concentrating the 25000 familes on vastly less than the 25000 acres they would have taken if each was to farm 1 acre (or the approximately 10000 acres it would have taken to feed the extra 16000 people). City living etc may be environmentally harmful to a certain extent, but it is wholly possible that the same number of people living dispersed would be more harmful (or the generate the same level of harm) if everything is planned right - humans were causing extinctions and environmental destruction well before we ever produced enough to even consider centralized city living (and as biodiversity appears to follow a catastrophic dive as soon as agriculture is practiced followed by a shallower decline as the agriculture increases in intensity it is probably better to have the same amount of food generated on less land using intense practices rather than more land using 'benign' or 'environmentally friendly' practices - at least until you hit practically hunter gatherer style food production.

Also to attempt to further clarify my stance on the green revolution and creating/saving lives - I still look on it as primarily saving lives. In my mind creation of lives due to increased food availability would fall far more in the bounds of the animal clutch variation discussed up thread - ie a life is created because there is an abundance of food (ie Mary and John decide to have 6 kids because now there is enough food, rather than Mary and John's 6 kids all make it to adulthood because none of them starved or died of a disease caused by malnutrition - in case 1 the excess food literally creates lives, in case 2 the excess food saves lives which have already been created, and does so again the next generation, and the next)

"Then again, one may say, 10K is perfect, why don't we just stabilize? This is the road we seem to have forgotten how to take."

Ewan, I was hoping you'd offer some thoughts on this. I mean, not sidestepping it with the urban/big rural farms argument (which is interesting in its own, but a separate issue). What I am saying is, if we have 10K in a given area, and the people are not malnourished, though lean, why not leave well enough alone? Why support stability?

I am not sure if you see it that way, but the modern pattern is to rush in there with technical meddling, disrupt their stable patterns, and when they begin to suffer, do more meddling. Why do we just not leave them alone, seeing their ways are working well for them?

correction: I meant to say, why NOT support stability?

How do you stabilize though is the question - assuming population has levelled off in an area, and the standard of living is acceptable, then sure, leave well enough alone, I'm all for that.

That's not what is under discussion though. We're talking about areas where people are 'lean' we're talking about areas where kids are malnourished. Where disease thrives because of vitamin deficiencies, where childhood mortality rates are horrendous, where people are trapped in a cycle of poverty and constant fear of the next bad weather patch causing famine.

How you get to this stability is another issue however. I'm not willing to accept that in an area that under current technical utilization (or however you want to phrase it) can support 10k people but has 15k people in it that rather than increasing tech utilization to support 15k people you should instead just let nature take it's course and kill off 5k people so that the population stabilizes, neither do I wish an area where population is stabilized at 10k but with infant mortality rates akin to the dark ages to be left alone.

If stabilization is a suffering neutral (assuming a low level of suffering at the start), or positive move, then I'm all for it. I just don't see that being even close to the case in the areas of the world under discussion.

Until you can offer a mechanism by which population will stabilize due simply to lack of food which does not entail suffering then I'm afraid that at best I can agree that as a cold logical proposal the system you propose would work, kerbing food production certainly would kerb population growth - I would however argue that it would be more ethical to simply go in and sterilize 80% of the population than taking this route.

"and the standard of living is acceptable"

And who determines that? You (westerners) or them?

So let's do a thought experiment. Here we have an area where there are 10k humans, living in balance with their land. Part of the balance is relatively high childhood mortality, for the usual reasons... infectious disease, water not being all that clean, and parasites. Life is good, these folks have lived this way for ages. Nobody is starving, nobody is malnourished, and the ecology of the area is still rather healthy. Their so called standard of living is meager though, compared to the west. Not much "stuff" around. But they got their basic needs met well.

You come in and see the situation. What do you suggest to do? And why?

And in your thought experiment if it was clear to the people living in 'balance' that childhood mortality did not have to be what it was, that the diseases they suffered are easily preventable, that clean water was readily available to billions across the globe, that the parasites ravaging them were treatable - what would you think if this was denied you because someone outside assumes that because their "basic" needs are met that they should be denied the chance to live without all the crap that is claimed as part of 'the balance' - balance be damned in this instance, I put it to you that given the option the majority of people living in conditions like this would give their eye teeth to switch positions with you or I, and that equally we'd give ours to ensure the switch did not take place. Assuming then that the people in this area actually want improvement - I'd offer them the help they need/want, along with education on consequences of out of control population growth, birth control, etc etc.


Have you ever had a parasite in your gut? You cannot really mean that anyone can feel "Life is good" when they are in pain and dying- or worse yet, watching their child die.

Also, have you seen what the land looks like in impoverished countries? It is stripped of almost every living thing- no wood left to burn, no clean water left to drink. This is not living in balance.

Well, there you have it, Ewan. Thank you. Balance be damned. Well then... there it is. Balance has been damned, and we are heading for the cliff. Nice going.

Dr Ronald, you seem to be a master at diversionary fallacies. I am not interested in pseudo-arguments. Nuff said.

Balance be damned - in this instance. The qualifier is somewhat important. If child mortality, preventable diseases, dirty water and parasites are "balance" then "balance" is something we can do without. I'd rather find a new balance where people dont have to live in such conditions than the base status quo of nature red in tooth and nail.

There are a huge number of things that bothers me about your outlook, Ewan. But what really jumps out at me right now is... a complete lack of foresight and responsibility. There is a price to be paid for meddling in other people's lives. And guess what... nature bats last.

When doctors go in and start "saving" all those babies, do they think of what will happen in a generation or two when the tribe is starving because of its population explosion? By then, those doctors are "saving lives" somewhere else and take no responsibility.

And in another generation, the tribe is dying of civilization diseases because their ruined land can no longer support them and they've had to come down to work on plantations. Or they are dying in the slums of alcoholism and despair. That is part of the reality that we have been spreading around the world.

Saving lives indeed. It would be refreshing if the people in question actually had a say as to whether they can live their traditional lives in peace. No bloody respect for other ways than yours. Look around yourselves, people! How many tribes are left? Seven? Our "life saving" civilization has killed them all off. And now our "life saving" civilization is trying to stave off disaster by growing even more food out of abused land with too many humans and failing aquifers. Man-made deserts are spreading. More people are starving every year. But the same kinda crap is offered... more of the same, just harder.

Y'all fuss about all the lives that must be preserved, but it is exactly these policies of endless intensification and endless growth that have gotten us where we are, and it is these very same policies that will see us into a huge population disaster, a likely die-off... unless something changes radically.

Which really brings me to a whole different thought... people here in this topic... we are all pretty smart, pretty well informed, pretty caring. That much is coming through. So why the hell can't we agree on something reasonable? It boggles the mind.

Thatâs it, Vera.

You've really pissed me off now. You obviously have never actually lived as someone in a 'balanced' undeveloped condition. You seem to have this rosy picture of a tough but ultimately fulfilling pure life.

Fuck that. I grew up with worms. Itâs ok-ish most of the time except that about once a month you get horribly sick. And they donât just stay in your stomach eating up what precious food you can get, they come out. NOT PLEASANT. And water parasites? They get a lot worse than dysentery (though dying of that is bad enough -almost did myself and most of that time it was so horrible I WANTED to die). Want to have a worm burrow itself through your leg just because you didnât have a simple mesh filter for your water? How about losing baby after baby, child after child who you dearly love? What about sitting around chewing cardboard with your siblings because the veggies arenât ripe yet and you donât have money to buy food? Fuck you for implying non-westerners should stick to their quaint ways and get none of the benefits you do. Fuck you for telling me I had no right to live.

Unlike you, Vera, most people here are trying to figure out how to give people like the child I was the same benefits they have -while also trying to minimise or eliminate the negative effects.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

You know what, Vera, if you hate 'Western' ways so much, go to some undeveloped country and swap places with some child there. You can enjoy all the quaint contentedness I did.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Sigh. Sorry guys, for the unhelpful rant at Vera. I've calmed down now and am rather embarrassed.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink


considering that 'tribes' as such have essentially been wiped out (generally due to exposure to the diseases fostered in high density agricultural societies, and then to the secondary moving in of these same societies either annihilating or absorbing the tribes) your arguement about the effects on small tribes doesn't particularly worry me - the people suffering from the worst hunger, and the worst threat of hunger, aren't remote amazonian tribes as yet undiscovered, they're people already in the system, in areas of the system which have been neglected for decades in terms of technology and investment.

It appears the difference in our two approaches is that you're fine with the disaster happening right now, and I want to stave it off and deal with it during the period we buy staving it off (this has not happened in the past, but this is what I am advocating right now - learning from the mistakes of the past (providing more without an attempt to apply the brakes (or without providing enough/the right sort of provision for the brakes to naturally apply)

On the accusation that "It would be refreshing if the people in question actually had a say as to whether they can live their traditional lives in peace. No bloody respect for other ways than yours." perhaps you should read rather than skim my post the pertinent point being -

"Assuming then that the people in this area actually want improvement - I'd offer them the help they need/want, along with education on consequences of out of control population growth, birth control, etc etc."

Whereas your own vision offers these self same people no respect by not giving them the option to not live in the conditions that they do - which Hinemoana quite rightly gets pretty upset about (I don't see a need for an apology here - by and large I'd imagine that most people involved in this discussion have only a relatively abstract idea of the suffering involved in subsistence living - it's somewhat refreshing (if scary) to have first hand opinion from someone who has lived both sides of the issue)

Finally, I don't think that we can't agree on something reasonable - I think there is general agreement that there needs to be political change, the disagreement is over whether this is all that is needed (it may well be if it could be affected overnight) and whether or not increasing food security in the worst effected areas would be negative or positive.

Well, what I most carry off with me from this discussion is that we all ought to spend a semester or two at the How To Get Along University. "How to argue fairly" would be required curriculum. I am as guilty as anyone. Though I don't think I have been out and out strawmanning, Ewan; I am more of the "reductio ad absurdum plus sarcasm" type. ;-)

We all get all bent out of shape, and it goes nowhere fast.

So where does that leave us? I figure we all here agree we would like the human species survive. Do I hear a big yes?

Second, do we agree we are in overshoot, or if not now, just about tomorrow? Are we in sync on that?

I suspect that where we really diverge is... you guys see civ as a good thing, enough to barge in on others. Enough to keep calling for more of it. (And yes, Ewan, I happily noted what you said. The problem I had was your unwillingness to see a couple of generations down the road and take responsibility for that.) I see civ as a distinctly mixed bag, and rather destructive overall. In fact, I see this Juggernaut as something that has come to threaten our very survival. I don't suppose we are in sync in this area. (?)

thanks vera

Yes! Lets work to make sure our species thrives and work towards reducing degradation of the environment.

I would agree that based on current population projections, and current resource availability we are approaching overshoot (my hope is that through better resource useage and increased availability this overshoot can be corrected in the short to mid term - a tough task, but a necessary one)

I definitely see civilization as a good thing. Although not necessarily all parts of it - better resource useage, improvements across the board required (all things which I broadly assume will occur over time in lockstep with improvements we are discussing however) such as getting away from fossil fuel useage as fast is is possible. I'd agree that civilization is a mixed bag, and for much of its history has been relatively destructive, however I don't believe this has to be the case - that's the political aspect of the change which needs to come about, less empire more altruism.

On not taking responsibility generations down the line - that's where effecting political change at the same time as increasing local food security needs to come into play. Also, given that I'd guess (and this is a bold guess which may make wild assumptions) that about 50% of my colleagues likely would either not exist or would be stuck in a menial subsistence lifestyle if it weren't for the green revolution I don't think that 2 generations down the line is necessarily as bad as things would have been without the change (although it is a shame that things weren't propelled to a level where population growth was kerbed, either through wealth generation, or through a side by side effort in terms of education etc)

Done wrong, yes a threat to survival (at least for a large portion of the world's population - not convinced that all areas would be hurt equally, and pretty convinced that those areas which one would call most civilized are the ones that will be most likely to survive relatively unscathed (well those parts that arent underwater)) done right - the key to survival. I'd certainly rather live in a world with it, than without.

Also it's worthwhile keeping in mind that even sans civilization, human populations are destructive beasts regardless - the megafauna of 3 continents attest to this.

On a largely unrelated note, I was under the impression that the emerging consensus was that human beings were not the primary force that extinguished the mega-fauna. I happened to be talking about elephants with a Native American archaeologist who was pretty pissed, actually that people were still spreading the calumny that his ancestors ate all the Glyptodons ;-).


I may be out of touch on that - although it does still seem the most plausible explanation to me (why survive every other major climate flip and then happen to go extinct when humans arrive on the scene)


is a relatively recent science perspective on north american extinction - which attributes the decline to pre-clovis human arrival, apparently changes invegetation occured as a result of megafaunal extinction rather than vice versa.


also suggests a similar pattern in South America.

Although both papers claim a slower die off than the 'blitzkrieg' hypothesis, and both suggest that human influence + climate change may have been to blame (how much of the climate change was introduced by humans would be interesting to look into - fires sparked by more than lightning strikes and the likes could have played a role in drastically altering local climate)

Most the other papers I'm digging up from the last few years at the very most say that the evidence is not 100% conclusive that humans were the number one factor, with the general consensus appearing to be that humans played a major role (why this should be surprising, or even upsetting, given the timescales invovled, and the recent historical evidence to suggest that humans wipe out large beasties wherever they haven't yet encountered them, escapes me) - even if N America is excluded from the analysis, Australasia (apologies if this is the wrong terminology!) and S America both appear to have a pretty strong case, and given S American extinctions were probably the most numerous we can still suspect 'uncivilized' humans as the likely culprits in wiping out a lot of large beasties.

I've looked into it too, and it's a mixed picture, with Australia leading the way with the vast damage human fire-setting did to the continent and its large fauna.

I think Europe provides a lot of clues of overhunting, Africa less. North America... I thought a lot of critters and humans were wiped out by the comet 13,000 years ago? Like Ewan sez, humans are implicated everywhere to some -- varying -- extent.
New Zealand and far Oceania being probably the most awful examples.

According to the science paper posted (2009) the extinctions pre-date the impact (I think a few recent papers throw doubt on an impact being to blame), at least that's what I recall... too lazy to double check right now!

So we are not that far from each other on civ, Ewan. I too agree that it's been very destructive. I too believe that another type of civ can exist that is not prey to the problem of power and greed run rampant.

So let's look at this: "we are approaching overshoot (my hope is that through better resource usage and increased availability this overshoot can be corrected in the short to mid term - a tough task, but a necessary one"

Are you saying here that the way you want to correct this overshoot is by figuring out how to feed and supply even more humans?

Vera, No - the way I want to correct the overshoot is to bring the vast majority of the world population into a mode of life which promotes decreased birth rates, be this through wealth creation, improved education, female emancipation, escape from systems of belief which demonize family planning - not necessarily the mode of life lived by many in the first world now (I firmly believe that excesses in first world living need to be trimmed while at the same time increasing the resources available to the rest of the world - that's part of the better resource useage) but a more close approximation than subsistence living offers.

The increased food production I see as part of this solution only in terms of giving areas with low to no food security some food security (which then forms the basis of the economic shift to lower population growth styles of living) and in terms of a pre-requisite to save/improve lives in the interim.

I was attempting to mull over what I would consider doable, yet radical policies regarding slowing population growth - about the most radical I could come up with (which doesnt involve letting people die, or suffer (although the suffering part is I guess arguable here)) was some form of economic incentive for sterilization globally - say $200-$500 for a vasectomy (I'm going with vasectomies here for a couple of reasons, less invasive, less likely to accrue accusations of some sort of sexist wossname) - lets say 50% of men in the world were to take it up, that's what, $2.25 trillion - hardly even what it takes to sustain a small war these days. Obviously this route is fraught with accusations of attempting to wipe out the poor(or insert race here), or other objections based around the right to have kids or whatever, but as far as I can see it this would be a manageable (if expensive) way to reduce population growth without actually causing mass suffering (as a life that doesn't exist doesn't suffer - suffering caused by not being able to have kids... I'm going to go ahead and say that this is (or should be) less than suffering through seeing your kids die) whereas reducing, or maintaining food supplies is essentially going to do the same thing, only with suffering on an epic scale. Plus I'd like $500.

I still prefer the notion of getting the whole world set up so that it is essentially more fair in the hope that population growth would naturally level off and even decline due to decreased birth rates, but as far as radical plans for population go that's about what I've got. There's a bunch more radical stuff that could likely be done with agriculture to do more, with less, on less land, which would equally be awesome (a recent slide at work here showed 8 foot tall corn cobs with absolutely zero other foliage - "this is our goal" was the comment - unlikely, but you'd save a whole bunch of land if you could do it) - it'd be interesting to see under different yield/area or input/yield scenarios how many more people could be sustained on how much less land for instance - although clearly there are limits to this, and the goal should be to be as far from your theoretical maximum population as you can be.

@ Ewan

We could probably take an even bigger chunk out of growth rates if the Catholic Church just turned around and said 'you know what; those condom things are actually really great'.

So people wanting kids can decide when they have them and decrease STI rates (condom use). Then, when they have a couple of kids, they can get the vasectomy and get the cash to kick-start a good life for their kids.

Of course, getting the Pope to give THAT decree is about as likely as the world setting aside $2.25 trillion for sterilisation.

If only.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Well, Ewan, I donât have a problem with your thinking, except that you canât save yourself while falling from a plane by knitting a parachute. Similarly, you canât deal with overshoot by attempting to change belief systems, and tinker socially. Time is not on your side.

There are a few cultures that were able to turn around and stabilize. All the ones I know about did it by infanticide, sending young people on dangerous sea voyages, and castration. Tikopia also exterminated its pigs. That may have played to role nutritionally, I am not sure. The whole culture agreed that this is what needs to happen, and they acted to cut population *now.*

Like I said before, we cannot stop population growth by sending in more food and hoping that some day, maybe theyâll lower their fertility. Either you send in food in return for sterilization, or you move the excess population out and demand that the remaining population stabilizes. Anything else is irresponsible and just keeps the vicious circle going.

Now of course your suggestion for carrot-based sterilization is sound, but it isnât going to happen. Neither is any wishful thinking regarding the Pope (re Hinemoana). So⦠what now?

There are certainly interesting things that can be done agriculturally. I like Wes Jacksonâs idea of perennial grains. How doable they are, I donât know. Maybe itâs a fantasy. But none of that is going to ease overshoot, and that is the problem. I read some stats somewhere, people are saying that humans gobble up through their activities a quarter of all living matter. That simply cannot go on much longer.

There are many fantasies floating around, like watering crops with salt water and of course altered genetics and what not. Personally, if I were the benevolent dictator, I would stop money to the âmore foodâ people and shove it to the âstop breedingâ people. But that too is a fantasy. So what we have is a variety of fantasies while the population burgeons at an unspeakable rate.

Depressing, no?

$100 dollar bounty on missionary scalps.

Only women are eligible for governmental office for three generations.

Problem solved.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

We need to get off the 'sending in food' vibe. That isn't what is being suggested as the solution here. Food security is the suggestion. Food security != relying on outside sources for your food supply. Supplying research into better local varieties, and transgenic solutions to local problems in food production != reliance on outside sources -once these fixes are in place they are essentially relatively low tech solutions - Bt for instance is a high tech solution to get going, but a low tech solution once it is off the ground - perhaps a local breeding program to maintain a steady supply of hybrid seed.

Food for sterilization is equally not going to happen, it will be rejected outright as I don't believe that anyone is going to buy into forced sterilization programs (regardless of how effective they could be), and I don't see that there is ever likely to be a concerted effort to withold food. (not that I sincerely think my sterilization for cash program would be accepted either, even if the cash was forthcoming)

I can however think of another major culture which has beaten the growth curve and stabilized - western culture - as far as I am aware most population growth now is due to immigration from outside, the paper linked in the other blog posting shows categorically that with 'westernization' (for want of a better word) comes decreasing population growth, then negative population growth, and then (sadly) population growth stabilization. Now obviously not all aspects of westernization are good, particularly not historically, but the hope here is to maintain the good while either skipping (nobody needs to redo the industrial revolution, nobody needs to rediscover the harms of various industrial techniques) or avoiding the bad (excessive consumerism, oil/fossil fuel addiction(something likely to have more of an impact than food if we can't figure out an alternative to - if only because so much of the Ag system is currently reliant on it) - perhaps even avoidance of the overuse of parentheses.

I don't believe that any of the realistic measures mentioned, even if instituted right now, are going to copletely solve the issue - as far as I see it damage control and amelioration are about as good as we are going to see, at least in coming decades, however I am optimistic that "social tinkering" and attempting to change beliefs is something that over time can work, altered beliefs and social change in the west changed the socio-political landscape drastically over the course of a few generations. In the meantime these cultures we are attempting to change require the food security for these changes to be effective.

Hinemoana - I'm not sure that the Catholic church backing down on contraception would necessarily have the same impact my suggestion would, if only because my own approach is all inclusive whereas yours would only hit Catholics (which is what, about 1/6th of the problem?) - it'd be great if they would of course - also, I'm not sure maintaining that people have 'a couple' of kids then stop is ideal - what needs to be pushed for is population reduction, not growth. Zero or one kids (Despite being personally elated at just discovering my first is due, I do now consider myself part of the problem just a tad more) would be a better ideal.

And, on a vaguely related note, good news for those of us into change through improved technological access - apparently pioneer have signed on to help in terms of a Nitrogen Efficient Maize for Africa (akin to WEMA, but from a bunch of meanies who lie about the state of competition) which in my mind could potentially do more for yield than a WEMA type project.


Yeah, you would think the Pope only has power over his followers... however the Catholic Church sponsors, supports and encourages various programmes that demonise condoms. Everything from billboards to people on the ground spreading lies. The Church is affecting non-followers in the same way that Abstinence Only programmes in the USA donât only affect believers/fundies. Then, of course, there are the followers in developed as well as undeveloped nations that are discouraged from safe sex and abortion and encouraged to have big families (all the while helping reinforce a social climate that pushes for the Churches ideals).

Have you heard about this? http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2008/mar/08033111.html

The quote at the end is classic. "When the power structure of an entire country is rallied against us, that's a sure sign that we're right!"

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

But isn't food security primarily a political issue? Until a few hundred years ago, the whole earth consisted of local populations that knew how to feed themselves. There were occasional famines if a bad drought hit etc., but apart from that... they fed themselves. Now they can't. That is not due to lack of knowhow or tools.

Question for you. Why is it that a proposal to swap food and growing supplies for sterilization is termed "forced sterilization"? Why is it when food is exchanged for money it's not called "forced monetization," or when for raw ores, not called "forced demineralization?" There is something here that just does not jive.

The stuff about the religious propaganda just means that your schemes of changing minds.... you've pretty much been outfoxed. The MORE PEOPLE! people have won. The Four Horsemen cannot be far away.

As for the western model, it does not do what you think it does. All the nations where birth rates have fallen to replacement or below have imported people from elsewhere because their economic systems cannot function on the basis of "less people." They can only function on the basic of "more people." So we are back to the economic & political stuff.

Interesting little debate you all have going on here. From what I can see, it boils down to the following:
vera - you seem to be a Malthusian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusian_catastrophe), i.e. you believe that a forced regression to subsistence level conditions is not only inevitable but perhaps optimal. Or perhaps more accurately, you are a neo-Malthusian who believes that any day now, population growth is going to go hyper-exponential even in the developed countries and screw us all. Or more accurately, you believe the natural tendency of human population over the long term follows an exponential function.
Whereas I (and I suspect many others posting comments here) have more of a tendency to believe in the demographic transition model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_transition) where the natural tendency of human population over the long term follows a logistic curve (âSâ curve) and eventually levels off upon attaining a certain level of development.
Now I can fully understand your positions and solutions if you believe in the exponential model. Hell, if I thought that was the case I would want to run the other direction (back in time) to subsistence levels as fast as possible too. But since I donât and I believe in the logistic model, going forward is an option too. In fact, maybe running the hell forward to get to the leveling off of the S curve seems to people like me the most logical path. So the question becomes why do I believe this?
To answer that, letâs start with good old Thomas Malthus himself. In the link from Wikipedia, the quote from him is, âI think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present stateâ¦
Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.â
I do agree with him on the overall statement but I disagree with him on one important thing: the âpassion between the sexesâ does not necessarily lead to procreation and hence to population growth. If I believe in the logistic model, I necessarily believe that the equation translating passion into procreation is modulated by technological, economic, and social development to produce the leveling off effect of the S curve.
As for âQuestion for you. Why is it that a proposal to swap food and growing supplies for sterilization is termed "forced sterilization"? Why is it when food is exchanged for money it's not called "forced monetization," or when for raw ores, not called "forced demineralization?"â
Since I believe in the S curve, and the optimum being reached in the leveling off sector, the optimal path to that goal is to get people there through their own wants. Yes, societies should not be forced to do anything whether it be sterilization, monetization, or whatever. But I would add a third immutable law to Malthusâ observations of humans, and that is we are fundamentally curious and questioning. That is what makes us different. That is what makes us human. And that is what makes it impossible for us to perpetually exist in the subsistence state. We always look over the next hill; we always take things apart to find out how it works; we always strive for improvement. So that leaves us with three paths, 1. Change what it means to be human and engineer out our curiosity. 2. Invent some system of punishment that forbids the curiosity (your seemingly preferred path?). or 3. Accept our curiosity and figure out how to allow and nurture this aspect of our nature in a way that is the least destructive and sustainable for our sphere of existence (currently this single planet) as possible. To âforceâ anything is taking paths 1 or 2 and that to me is not only morally unacceptable but the tougher and more dangerous path. To people like me, option 3 is the natural, reasonable way forward.
Given that, the big question then becomes, can we reach the leveling off part of the S curve through option 3 while not significantly reducing the carrying capacity of our planet? This perhaps is another discussion altogether but again, for me the answer is yes but we sure as hell arenât doing well enough in that arena currently.

Interesting stuff, Cyrus! Welcome to our little Hyde Park Corner. :-)

I will take some time to digest what you write. I would like to run in quickly and ask for a clarification. Where exactly has the S curve happened?

Looking at the Czech Republic, one of the countries officially at negative birth rate for some time, the population has continued to climb steadily... here is a graph that shows things since 1970. Marching ever upwards.

I imagine this would be true in other "negative" lands because they import people. It seems to me deceptive to claim that they have experienced a population S curve (in theory) when in reality they have not. But perhaps I am misunderstanding you. I am off to ponder exactly what kind of a malthusian I am, or whether. :-)

Thanks for the Badgersett link, Greenpa; I'd lost track of them, having once bought a half-dozen of their fine hazelnut seedlings. Which still thrive.

Which brings us to one way to sate our natural curiosity and stabilize population, Cyrus, if that's possible; develop permaculture. Trees, nuts, seeds; prairies; large-scale passive irrigation projects using rain runoff (i.e., not further draining or damming already threatened rivers); changing from tree pulp and cotton and synthetics to, for instance, hemp cultivation; keeping people involved in food production. It's not something to look down on, as inferior to things modern people do. Hell, most moderns I know spend inordinate amounts of time watching tv or playing games or doing what we're now doing. Farming is far nobler.
And as the price of oil climbs, the infrastructure to produce and process and distribute foodstuffs may well need to de-centralize, and emphasize the local. Oil will be kept for military uses first, as affordable oil grows scarcer. All the while the climate looks likely to undergo unpredictable changes, suggesting the need for more people experienced in agriculture, not less, in order to hedge our bets. Wild germplasm must be nurtured.

I'd also like to put another plug in for the creatures we share this life with, that we evolved with and from, that we depend on in ways we neglect to honor due to our species-centric awareness. I don't believe we can continue to extinguish them, a new species every day, and not suffer deep and essentially permanent damage.
The fossil record is littered with dominant species.

Considering the impact of our actions a thousand years in the future seems most wise.

A few hundred years ago people on the most part were able to feed themselves, but they had very limited ability to feed others. This meant that there were few surplus resources (especially food) to support specialists who donât have time to grow their own food. While I donât care much for entertainers, I would not want to do without doctors and scientists. Having the time and resources to liberate my mind, to me, is an incalculable benefit to having food surpluses.
Furthermore, I would argue that the lack of food security in many undeveloped nations is because of a lack of knowhow and tools. What is primarily being advocated here is to supply undeveloped areas with tools (new tough breeds, hybrids, GE varieties that are pathogen resistant and/or nutritionally enhanced, tested management practices etc) so that they will have the same benefit of food security and surplus developed nations have. I believe undeveloped nations will only ever be politically stable and independent if subsistence living is eliminated in the vast majority of the population. By producing a surplus (which you are against as you think it will encourage perpetually more people) less people are needed to tend the farms; this weakens the economic incentive to have many children (who help on the farm, especially when you are in old age) and those less-needed children that are born will (being adequately fed too) be more likely to complete more years of education (becoming specialists and reducing birth rates due to increased female emancipation and knowledge of family planning). And, as Ewan points out, the best thing about a lot of the technologies being developed to help farmers in less developed areas is that the errors and damage inflicted on already developed nations as they were developed can be avoided.
Also, I am quite aware that the benefit of banning contraceptives and promoting large families is beneficial to religion as it creates more followers. That is why pretty much all religions have those (for lack of a better word) memes. It was my way of politely pointing out that often, religions suck.
In answer to your question: I consider a food-for-sterilisation scenario âforced sterilisationâ, or at least coerced sterilisation, as is can also be seen as âbe sterilised or die of hungerâ. I dislike that just as I dislike religionâs worship-for-eternal life scenario (AKA âforced obedienceâ, AKA âworship or dieâ). I donât feel it can be equated to money as money is simply an advanced bartering system. Now if someone said âGive me 10% of your income or you will be tortured for all eternity by the antithesis of my Godâ I would call that âforced donationâ.
As for your last statement on birth rates and economics; do you really that we think undeveloped nations are the only ones that need cultural/political/economic change? In any event, Japan, Italy and various other nations with declining populations (and many others that are increasing as slowly as to negligible and are headed to decline) seem to be doing just fine.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hinemoana: Fraid endless bunny trails would be created if I responded to your claims about the glories of civilization. If you ever want to see another perspective, here is a link:

Italy does not have a declining population. Japan does, slightly, because it's an anomaly and does not allow immigration. If the numbers reflected resident (legal and illegal) guest workers, I think it would show very different numbers.

Cyrus, I appreciate Malthus, and I think his warning was ignored (and he vilified) to our detriment. However, Malthus believed that the key question to ask was: how are we going to feed all these people (when they outstrip the food supply)? I think outstripping the food supply is not possible, what do people think humans are made of? Moonlight? I think the key question is: how are we going to stop producing all these people?

So those folks who are still calling for âmore foodâ are Malthusian in the sense that they completely ignore that population is a function of the food supply. And when folks ask the other question, there is hue and cry and endless denials.

I think that between all those religious people who believe God wants us to crank out humans like there was no tomorrow, and the progressives who will not hear of actually doing anything directly and now, and dream of progress that will make it possible for us not to have to face some unpleasant choices, the other voices get drowned. I am not a pessimist when it comes to human survival, but I see a looming die-off on the horizon. The only way we could tackle this is by working together, making some hard choices, and people donât want that. So be it. Nature will take care of it as she always does. Those of you who make it your business to cry about how awful it is to actually *demand* that humans rein in their procreation, religious or not, the blood will be on your hands. Sorry to make it so melodramatic, but that is how I see it. Choices have consequences. My choice would be to make demands now to avoid horror later on. I know, itâs just so inhumane⦠(feeling bitter, yup)â¦


I just think itâs strange how you think culling (via starvation) the human race is the only way out of the population problem. Itâs like you are blatantly ignoring that we are a sentient species. People can be (and often are) dumb and stubborn, but there are those that are planning and working towards alternate solutions. Unlike an owl or Kakapo or any other animal, we can consciously alter our actions in light of our knowledge of population dynamics.

I see crop improvement in developing nations as the foundation of the social changes needed to curb population growth. And those same improvements stave off hunger long enough for the social changes to occur and birth rates to slowly lower. The end result of that option is more people (but not so many that canât be supported, and with a levelling off of growth) that have suffered less and then live in a stable society. Simply letting a population starve will just throw that population back into subsistence farming and tribalism âor, in lots of places, the âsame old, same oldâ.

You know, I feel Ewan and I have repeated ourselves so many times âas have you. I think the main difference is you donât like the âwestâ (a falsely dichotomous term I hate using, as if the developed world is some homogeneous culture and other cultures cannot own modern technology in their own way given the chance). Thatâs fine âyou can go live as a subsistence farmer somewhere or whatever you want to do. Just let other people make their own choice.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hinemoana - to be fair Vera has slightly veered from her initial message which did appear to be essentially to let people starve, to a somewhat more workable (if hard to sell) stance of food for sterility.

Vera - if population in the west is still rising, but due to immigration rather than birth rate, then at least you concede that birth rate is independant of food supply in some situations. Therefore the question is how do we achieve this over a greater area of the planet. Once birth rate is equalized/in decline across the vast majority of the planet then immigration is no longer an issue (while at present it may ameliorate the strain on 3rd world (again nomenclature problems...) countries)

Thankfully we're not made of moonlight, but sunlight - of which there is much more! At least that's one positive right! (now if we can just increase photosynthetic efficicacy of crops under high light somewhat closer to 100% we're golden!)

On the swapping food for sterilization vs money/supplies - I'd say the difference is that in cases we are discussing we aren't looking at a system where we're going to exchange food for money or supplies, we're discussing situations where the difference is between food aid freely given and a situation which essentially says if you want to live then do this (sterilize)

"Just let other people make their own choice." That is precisely a choice that this civilization has not given to people... if they were not interested (and many were not) they were exterminated, put on reservations or forcibly assimilated.

And even sentient species who go into overshoot will have to pay the price, same as snails and lizards. That sentience was needed earlier on (before overshoot).

Ewan, admittedly, my stance was initially somewhat... er... rantish. It has not changed. We should stop pushing more food and should start pushing fewer people. My idea was slow attrition. Sigh... This debate, here and elsewhere, has convinced me -- much to my despair -- that the message is simply not palatable to the majority. Why, I even got nowhere trying to challenge people to look and plan before sending in doctors and engineers to "save lives" lest the lives be lost later on... no luck.

No, Ewan. It is biologically impossible for any critters to be independent of the food supply. As humans are not made of sunlight (plants are but we are not) we are made of food. I really can't believe I have to point this out. There are, of course, other variables IN ADDITION, which is why I always said, ceteris paribus.

As for food aid... um, again, I do not advocate giving people food so they can starve again in a few years. That is simply not an acceptable solution. There are others, but again, people do not find them palatable. So be it.

I tell you honest. Until I got into these debates, I thought there was a chance we could work together to get population down before mother nature steps in with her much harsher solution. I don't see it any more. Between the religious who pray to the God of "multiply and dominate the earth" and the progressives who pray to the god of progress -- neither being willing to undertake some hard choices now so that later generations would not have to deal with devastation... the rest of our voices do not stand a chance. Be well, kidz. I will not be back here. Thank you for the conversation.

I never claimed it was possible to be independent of food supply, I was just making the somewhat trite observation that we are essentially 'made' of sunlight as that is the basic source of all our nutritional energy - how many steps removed we are from photosynthesis is not really that important.

I also don't believe that slow attrition would occur if you simply stopped increasing the food supply. You'd have cycles of massive famine and then malnutrition and population growth (much as you get in localized famines globally when local food security plummets due to environmental or human causes (drought and war)) - which admittedly would stabilize the population eventually (at least over long timescales, there'd be pretty stochiastic variation over shorter scales which translates directly into human misery)- as far as I can see, without improving life globally, as detailed above, and in the nature paper this sort of massive scale suffering without end is what the plateau of the S curve would inevitably look like (mass adoption of birth control notwithstanding).

It still appears to me that your choice is massive devastation now, rather than later - I prefer the alternative where there is a chance (albeit slim) to avoid the devastation altogether through proper planning and development.

Ewan -you're right, at least Vera has altered from starvation to sterilisation.

Vera -I'm not sure if you're here anymore, but I'd like to say that I'm not against 'forced sterilisation'. Only, however, once the 'nicer' development method is tried. You seem to be saying we are already in 'overshoot'. I beg to differ -most developed countries produce a surplus (even more if we made less meat) and undeveloped countries have the ability of producing or saving far more food than they do now. Once those resources have been used (and I am not advocating converting more land to agriculture -just to better use that which we already have)and the population problem has not been fixed with gentler social change then sure, sterilise the heck out of the population.

PS: I'm well aware how colonialism forced a particular culture and development scheme on other cultures. That doesnât mean we should turn around now and force people not to develop.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Well, Hinemoana. Seems like you are the more draconian of the two of us! I was only advocating carrot-driven sterilization. That is a surprise!

Since development is your preferred & nicer method to deal with the population problem, however, please cite me one country in the world where development has resulted in lowered population in real numbers (natives + immigrants + year-round guest workers, meaning all the people who actually live there). Since this is your preferred method, where exactly has it been successful?

Vera, we have truly come full circle now.

We are trying to move you away from your "Gut" feeling to the scientific data.

I quote from the Nature paper cited in the "Let em starve" post (capitals mine):

During the twentieth century, the global population has gone through unprecedented increases in economic and social development that coincided with substantial declines in human fertility and population growth rates. The negative association of fertility with economic and social development has therefore become ONE OF THE MOST SOLIDLY ESTABLISHED AND GENERALLY ACCEPTED empirical regularities in the social sciences. 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).

Please read the paper.

Dr Ronald, please read my post. I am not asking about fertility or growth rates. I am asking very clearly: tell me one place in the world where *population* has declined as a result of development.

Vera - while there may not be a place in the world where population has declined as a result of development (other than possibly europe with a population decrease of 0.2% or so for a brief period in the early 2000's according to the UN - not an exhaustive search, but the best I can be bothered to do right now) this doesn't weaken the arguement that development can decrease population if broadly applied.

I assume you do not argue that birth rates do not decrease with increasing economic prosperity (as all the data I've looked through supports this hypothesis).

I equally assume that you don't believe there is a correlation between economic prosperity in one area, and birth rate in another (a model whereby the poor have children because resources are available, but not 'right here')

Therefore, does it not follow logically, that if you increase economic prosperity for a large enough portion of the world's population then population will decline, or stabilize? Or is there some reason that this trend would fall apart when applied to more of the global population than it is now? If so, at what point? Why didn't it fall apart earlier? (and a possibly more interesting question for everyone - how much of the global population do we need to get to the 2.1 and below point before a tipping point is reached - and can we assume that pulling this portion of the world down will shift the rest of the world closer to 2.1 at the same time? This would potentially allow for more focused effort (which is a somewhat harsh approach I guess if you fall in an area that doesnt make the cut...)

That is all that is being argued here. Without a closed system (economically prosperous country with completely sealed borders) it seems unlikely, that given the pull of an succesful economy, and the capacity for people to move about, that in a world where the poorest nations are producing more people these people would not move to the richer areas (and then subsequently have less descendants than they would have if staying put, making the situation better (comparitively)rather than worse)

You surmise correctly, Ewan. I was simply curious on what Hinemoana based her belief that development is a better method to lower a population than sterilization.

The truth of the matter being that development has never lowered population anywhere. The possible European numbers you cite... do they include in-migration? I am certain they do not include guest workers. Compared with what? If we compare the population of any developed country at the early stages of development with the one now, I think that we all here know that we'll see a population EXPLOSION not reduction.

Will you humor my little skit? :-)

Haitian woman: OMG, we have too many people on this little island! Every little thing we try is stymied. Too many people too much! Too many people, and many more are born every day! We need to reverse this pattern. Foreign visitors, do you have a proposal for us?

Dr. R: Economic and social development coincides with substantial declines in human fertility and population growth rates....

Haitian: I am sorry to interrupt, but... we are simple people, we do not have a use for statistics. We are looking for a practical way to decrease our population, now. Kiwi lady, do you have a proposal for us?

H.: Well, sterilization would work, but I really like development better, as a gentler, kinder way.

Hiatian: I like the sound of it. Will it lower our population numbers fast?

H.: Er... actually... it does not quite work that way...

V.: Development has always led to large population increases. Always and ever.
New Zealand:
1950: 2 million
2005: 4 million

1950: 47 million
2005: 58 million

1950: 22 million
2005: 74 million

1950: half a billion
2005: nearly a billion and a half (even with a famine and one child policyâ¦)

Haitian: (shocked) Oh no, no, please, that is the opposite of what we want to achieve! We need a practical proposal to begin lowering our population now! We've been in overshoot for some time!

V.: Well, how about if the richer countries agree to give each childbearing-age person a plot of land with all the fixins if they agree to sterilization? We'll even throw in plots of land for the elders if the village agrees to maintain and protect a greenbelt where the ecosystem can recover.

Haitian: Hm... that sounds very interesting. If I understand it correctly, that would begin to show results in 9 months? I will present it to the village councils in our region. Doctor? Kiwi lady? Sir? Do you have an alternative proposal for us?

The European numbers cited were all inclusive as far as I recall.

What was more interesting was the trends shown - to break it down, by country, from 1950-2010 (in 20 year chunks showing averages, as I dont want to paste in a bazillion pieces of data)


New Zealand population growth rate (p/a)
1950-1970 1.9%
1970-1990 1.6%
1990-2010 1.2%

1950-1970 0.7%
1970-1990 0.3%
1990-2010 0.2% (including a 5 year period with -0.03%)

1950-1970 2.5%
1970-1990 2.4%
1990-2010 2.1%

1950-1970 2%
1970-1990 1.7%
1990-2010 0.9%

1950-1970 1.9%
1970-1990 2.0%
1990-2010 1.8%

So sizable reductions in population growth rates across the 4 countries which can probably be said to have had a general improvement in living conditions over the period - when you break it down further and look at birth rates and immigration the picture again would look more favorable to the Haitian -

with a crude birth rate of 28 per 1000 in 2010 as compared to 8.6 in Italy, 13.8 in NZ, 13.7 in China, 23.2 in Egypt there is a pretty clear correlation between BR and economic success (although apparently NZ could do birth control a tad better!)

And with Haiti topping the charts for emmigration (3/1000), egypt at (0.8/1000), China at (0.3/1000)
NZ at (2.4/1000) immigration, and Italy at (5.6/1000)

I'm sure the Haitian would grasp that there is a clear reduction in population growth correlated with economic improvement, and equally that it is unlikely in the short, mid, or long term, that immigration would likely be a problem for Haiti (despite your assertion that simple people have no need for statistics, which I'll let slide bar this little bit!)


Digging further into the data - there are a bunch of European countries which show declines in population (although sadly not for prolonged periods - other than Hungary - go Hungary!) later in the timecourse rather than earlier (balkan states seem to do rather well at it also - as does the russian federation) whether or not this can be entirely put down to development is another question, but it does seem to be a trend only visible in developed countries (other than Rwanda, and I think nobody wants to see that sort of depopulation event)

Thank you for the slide! :-)

Haitian lady says: So, sir, what is your proposal to our village councils?

Probably something along the lines of the rebuilding of the agricultural system already in place (and improvements thereof as possible), attempts at reforestation (which sounds like a major reason that ag productivity disappeared), debt forgiveness, increased education - although not knowing the particulars of Haiti that well I'd have to suggest listening to what the UN folks say - they at least aren't going to offer you land that isn't theirs to give (and we're the imperialists?! =p) in exchange for reproductive choice that you are highly unlikely to be willing to give up (at least at the drop of a hat like that)

(Leaving aside power issues. As I have been in this skit, thought I stressed them earlier on in our discussion, and you are right, of course, they are firmly wedged in there.)

Haitian: Well sir, there have been attempts at reforestation earlier, but they failed and things got worse. Too many people! Our experience has been that you cannot reforest places that are in badly in overshoot... or can you point me to an example where they were able to do that?

We appreciate hearing about improving our agricultural system. Will that lead to a decrease in our population?

It will lead to a decrease in suffering and over time decreases in population growth.

However as you seem to be so down with population decrease, may I offer you an unlimited supply of prophylactics, no strings attached.

(and if you send your men folk along we'll vasectomize them for a cool $500)

Haitian: Sir, in relation to your first sentence: we are out of time. We don't have the luxury of going through a further population explosion while waiting for the rates to drop, in following the development model.

I do like the prophylactics offer, and will propose it at the village councils.

I especially like the vasectomies... but it seems to me that the offer of land and tools is better. I know too many men who will gamble the $500 away before coming back home. You know... the old saying about giving them a fish, and teaching them fishing. Maybe we can combine V's proposal and yours and offer $500 or land/tools? And how about adding a deal for the ladies? If the men can earn a reward for doing the cut, why not women? Does not seem fair...

Haiti, though? There will be no future for Haiti unless their entrenched power elite, aided and abetted as always by western powers, is routed. Cite Soleil is being prepped as we speak for luxy hotel development, now that it's poor have been Katrina-ized.

If I were more cynical (me?) I might suggest that Haiti is further forever cursed by having revolted and tossed out their 'masters'. Cursed, that is, by their master's descendants and allies. Forget Haiti; pick another poor nation that was once a vibrant jewel and has been degraded and abandoned in the absense of further resources to exploit.

True. The problem of power is far harder to solve than the problem of population. Any ideas or hints?


But Haitian, if there are so many people, what land would there be left to give you? Is that not your original problem -too many people, not enough land? Additionally, how could we give that land to you? We donât own it. Even the land being exploited by multinationals is still legally yours âit is being leased. Perhaps you need take up your concerns with them and your government over changing the arrangements?

I am not against you deciding to be sterilised and am intrigued to find out how you convince your predominantly Roman Catholic fellows to do so.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

Kiwi lady, there is still land enough to grow a garden, but we lack access. We depend on you folk from the richer world to make the deal work... we are stuck on the problem of power. Our government is a bunch of scumbags and have been for a long time. But since your governments have been playing patty cake with the scum, maybe you could give us a hand here? :-)

As for convincing... if the incentive is good enough, I think enough people will go for it. Besides, the plan offers other methods besides sterilization... In any case, so far this plan is the best I have heard yet, for lowering our population. Do you have a better one?


Why do you blame my government? I think you are blaming the wrong country.

Also, with the proper developmental tools (which are, admittedly, being denied you by many in your [now destroyed?] government and some other governments who support them) to increase agricultural and economic production the problems associated with having an 'overshot' population will lower or be eliminated. During this short term ease (the NOW), population growth rates should lower so that 'overshoot' problems do not occur again.

PS: Though I am thoroughly enjoying this argument (as much as it mught seem I'm not listening, I like to push at peoples beliefs and ideas -somtimes to the point of defending ideas I dont support- so that people are further pushed to challenge mine), I might not be able to answer as much for a short while as my thesis kick up a gear.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

Awesome! Good luck, tons of it, for your thesis (what is the topic?)! Thanx for sticking it out with me... I am too much of a ranter sometimes. Also, I wanted to say, you were of course completely right about the impossibility of imposing "less food" on humans. It works with wild or especially with caged critters where tiny steady reductions in food rations can decline a population over time, but not with humans... I just don't yet have a good way to convey what I was trying to say about food/population.
Kiwi lady: sorry about the besmirchment of NZ. Well, you know, us Haitians have a hard time distinguishing the less evil rich nations from the others! ;-) It's all a blur to us...

I wish I could believe our so-called government was destroyed. As we all know, in the present system of power, scum rises. Very discouraging.

What are "proper developmental tools"? We certainly are not interested in the kind of development that brought about the Victorian "satanic mills" and all the misery associated with them. Sir Ewan claimed he wanted to help us from our misery, and that would be nice, but keep in mind that it took y'all a long time of (ancestors) suffering to get to where you are now. But please, by all means, we would very much like to learn what sort of agricultural changes you would recommend, now that we are on track with population reduction.

We are a nation without oil or natural gas resources, and therefore we are leery of modern ag systems that rely on them. We would like something more sustainable... nudge, nudge... Till we meet again, yours in sisterhood, Haitiangrrl

Good to see this thread is still going. Keep in mind everybody- the topics being dealt with here are deeply complex. Really. The potential for person A to have a firm grasp of the middle 10% of it all, and none of the rest; is very very high. And person B has a firm grasp of the first 10%. Etc. More listening all around would be good. :-) (hey, I'm 61, I get to pontificate.)

Ewan- "Greenpa - I'm not sure comparisons of human birth rates and birth rates in other species are likely to be particularly useful"

On the contrary; I think they may be our only hope for getting any handle on H. sap.

(first- of course I wasn't expecting "clutch size" to vary in Homo; but birth rate, # raised to age 10, etc.)

My reason for saying that mostly has to do with my pretty broad exposure to Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, History, etc.

Now. No offense; really; but most of the information generated by those disciplines is, well- highly unreliable. I'm NOT trying to be rude- just hoping we can reach a more advanced understanding. (Hint; if you want reliable information on human behavior, study Marketing. They fire you if your theories don't work. That's not true in the Psych Dept.- there, tenure is based on how many arguments you generate. I think.)

The problem is so basic as to escape scrutiny in most cases- it's the inability of Homo to study Homo in any objective fashion. I will contend that it is literally impossible to do so.

A quote from an old essay of mine:

"Science longs for âobjectivityâ. It is, of course, useful if you are going to get to âtruthâ. Science positively hankers after objectivity.

Now the philosophers of science know, as you know, and I know, that âobjectivityâ is a snare and a delusion. But they yearn, and strive, for it anyway.

Striving is fine, but there is a tendency for striving to become âbeliefâ, which is an immediate disaster in sifting facts looking for truth; belief causes blindness."

The whole thing is here, if you like:


and yes, there's a part 2.

Striving for objectivity is wonderful; and in the case of Homo studying Homo is likely our only alternative; but we need to keep firmly in mind that it is actually - not possible. Every human on the plant has preconceptions, cultural stuff, etc, which will color what they see and what they report. Building useful predictions on such sandy foundations is a questionable enterprise.

Humans tend to be a LITTLE more objective when studying animals- though the gender biases in early primate studies (it's a Patriarchy!) and in the revisionists (it's a Sisterhood!) are well known.

With great care; I do think we can glean more information about population dynamics from animal studies than we can from human studies. So far, please note, most of the "exceptional" stuff that is supposed to differentiate humans from animals has turned out not be exceptional after all. Tool use, language, etc; recent studies all show them in other species.

We're a big, insanely competitive and currently successful, omnivorous mammal.

There is another aspect to this particular bit that I find amusing.

Virtually 100% of grant proposals say, in the last paragraph: "Through this study, we expect to learn amazing things that will help us deal with human problems too!"

But seriously- don't EVER try to actually refer to animal studies as a guide to human behavior in public- the crucify you, if you do. Careers have wound up in the toilet.

Hey, Greenpa, good to see you back. Isn't it amazing? We actually did not go down in flames here. :-) Will check out your essay.

Been reflecting that I have not been very good at explaining the whole "more food -> more people" thing... which of course holds for every critter out there. (But folks think that humans are exempt.)

So I am going to try again, please tell me if it makes sense.
"Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population" (P. Farb). I would modify it to say, "intensification of production to feed an increased human mass leads to a still greater increase in human mass." Provided people eat all that food, of course.

And I am coming from the point of view that continually increasing human mass can only go on at the expense of others in the community of life who get diminished and destroyed. And in the end, the progressive destruction of the community of life (aka loss of diversity) will also destroy the one species who thought it could keep on increasing its mass.

Ergo: agriculture must come to terms with this, and scientists must come to terms with it rather than blindly keep on cranking out yet more ways to keep on intensifying.

I totally welcome feedback on this.

Meh, I had just written another vast screed, unfortunately playing with too many tabs open and I lost it (possibly not unfortunately for anyone who would have read it... but meh to wasted time)

Anyway, short point first, then later in the day I shall return if I remember what it was I was saying.

On sterilization programs - I don't think they'd have the impact either of us would like - the population age distribution in Haiti and other developing countries is all wrong - there are approximately 2x as many individuals in each 5 year age grouping under 20 as there are in each between 20 and 40.

The assumption here is that adoption of sterilization would likely be small, and would likely be focused on those who either had already had kids, or had the wisdom to know that population growth was an issue (and here I'm correlating, perhaps erroneously, this wisdom with age - particularly in a society where education is not likely to be that widespread, or that different to how it was decades ago) - this means that every 5 years cohort that matures is unaffected by your program, and all that is likely to occur is a relatively minor blip in a 5 year cohort which will mature in ~20 years giving a 20 year (ish) cycle of reduced reproductive population which would probably just disappear in a stochiastic mess. (I had some economic arguements as well, which may, or may not appear later - and a response to Greenpa)

Haitian: That is a good point; of course we need to continue the program into the future. We are in this for the long run, not as a hit and miss thing. This is the very marrow of our hope. We may be simple and average-young, but we are not stupid. We will work very hard to make this work, as long as the rich countries hold up the incentivization part.

Am I missing something here? Every month a new cohort matures. Young people are recruited all the time. (?)

Think of it like recruiting young poor people for the war. The incentive to go is provided: a better future. They take the gamble knowing that some will not come back. In Haiti, the program could be shaped to become patriotic duty too. With more truth to it than war propaganda.

So what is the average square inchange of the plot of land you are promising these people?

You have a population of 9.4 million, 4 million of whom we'll assume are currently under the age at which the program would kick in (if anyhing just on moral grounds)

Given the size of Haiti and the population, and assuming that the ~40% estimated to be in use for agriculture is an upper limit (although I'm guessing environmentally that this figure would be better off being revised downwards) if every eligible member of the current population was to sign up for the plan you'd be able to parcel out the land in approximately 0.5 acre lots - at which point you'd be completely out of land, and I'm guessing that a 0.5 acre lot probably wouldn't be able to support a family for a year, particulaly if the entire ag sector is now fragmented into 0.5 acre lots (or similar size) without the economies of scale available to larger scale ag (I doubt this is much better than is available to current subsistence farmers in Haiti to be honest - and would probably result in having to forcibly take land from some in order to redistribute to others)

As the uptake rate of the scheme declines it would obviously become more plausible in terms of available land etc, but lack of uptake would make the whole scheme fall apart.

The other problems I forsee with the system (if I don't close this tab) are that you create wealth amongst the infertile - presumably at the expense of the fertile - which will push the fertile segment of the population (and I'm afraid that under either scheme I would forsee this always being the majority, people being as they are - and even if not the majority initially, they eventually would be, for obvious reasons) the wrong way along the economic scale of reproductive insanity - there'd be tipping points at which this is more or less viable as an option (and I have neither the time nor the mathematical skill to figure them out) but it essentially would boil down to how much the slide further into poverty drove up birth rates amongst those who chose to remain fertile as compared to the decline in birth rates amongst those who chose infertility.

Also - can we stop the fake Haitian discussion thread... its bad enough when we strawman you, but when you build your own straw man to support your hypothesis it gets a tad bizarre.

And on intensification - lets not always assume it is a bad thing. If you maintain the same amount of land useage for ag, but increase the intesity of the production, then the impact is going to be less than increasing the area but maintaining the intensity on the rest of the ecosystem (the focus should be on doing either more, with the same resources, or the same, with less resources - assuming you don't go down the road of doing less, with less resources - which isn't likely to be possible for quite some time)

Greenpa - I'm in full agreement that it is silly not to view humans as just another animal. I don't hold any of our abilities as particularly special (it would be equally silly to assme elephants were particularly special due to their prodigious proboscitude). However I still don't think the comparison made is a fair one (owls and all that) - you'd need to look at a more similar model, one in which average birth no is ~1, with long child rearing period (definitely longer than a single season - single season success of raising young probably shows a very close correlation with available resources, whereas season to season resources fluctuate such that it may still pay off to have a relatively sickly child at the end of one season rather than no child at all) - and, as there are some case studies with animals that show there is a resource related fluctuation in birth rates, equally there are studies (if I remember final year population genetics right at any case... its been a while) where populations have completely (or atl east almost completely)wiped themselves out under limited resources (which I personally think is a more viable model for where human population is headed under limiting resources - if I recall this was a population of deer, with no predators, and limited geographical range)

I'd also think that looking historically at how human populations have responded in the past to resource limitation might be a more viable tool than any animal study - do we see evidence of decreasing birth rates etc (I'd guess the historical sciences could probably find various sources of data from the past 1000 or so years to give an inkling one way or the other - we could ignore the past 100 years or so as an oddity if needs be).

Ewan: Sounds you woke up on the grouchy side of the bed. I was trying to bring the human element into the story. Lame better than none? ;-)

Cranking the numbers:
John Jeavons has shown experimentally that a person can have a decent diet (by CA standards) from a plot of land of 4000 square feet, if intensively worked.

Haiti has (per wiki) 937 people per square mile.
If 4000 ft plots were available to each person, this would only use up 14% of that square mile. If 5000 ft plots were available to each person, 17%.

Doable? Dunno. But it bears looking at, no?

I am not getting the objection regarding the slide to poverty of the fertile... can you explain more what you are getting at? I thought the whole incentive program was meant to convey the idea that cutting population leads to more prosperity. Ergo, more prosperity for those who do it. Ergo, more incentive for those who have not done it yet... I may be missing something here.

Finally, I would like to point out that the intensification I am against is the intensification of food production in response to population increase. (I am for stepping off this treadmill.) I am actually *for* intensification in terms of conversion of energy into food, and intensification in terms of using each given plot of land well... getting lots of food from a given plot while leaving the soil in good shape.

Bad intensification:
More babies? Let's plow under another few acres of rainforest.

Good intensification:
It takes an acre and 10 units of energy for us to produce food for one person. Let's figure out how to decrease both.

Working those numbers into my numbers you're looking at 0.1 acres per individual, which, if the system works (and to me it looks highly suspect that you could make that little space work - but for the sake of arguement lets assume it will - as I have no idea what Haitians actually work with anyway under subsistence farming...) would at least be a potentially workable system.

However one can't help but think that if you can produce that much on 4000 sq ft then the solution we're looking for isn't mass fertility treatment, but adoption of this system (or reasons this system hasn't/can't be adopted in Haiti, or elsewhere) as my guess is that any subsistence farmer will have at least a good portion of 4000 sq ft on which to work (assuming 4000 sq ft can support a US type demand for food, then you'd have to assume that 1/4 or less is probably enough to sustain)

Looking at things from a somewhat less optimistic viewpoint, the 2002 paper "A method to determine land requirements relating to food consumption patterns" seems to suggest that the average household in the Netherlands requires approximately 0.86 of an acre to supply its needs (or wants I guess) which also bodes somewhat better for Haitian land useage (than my initial assumptions) I guess - although how comparible this is likely to be to Haitian needs, or output potential (or crop suitability), is totally up in the air as the Netherlands data will be based off high intensity agriculture which obviously produces a lot more per unit area than subsistence farming.

Looking from an even more depressing viewpoint a piece I read about subsistence agriculture in Zimbabwe "A SCENARIO OF CHANGES IN SUBSISTENCE LAND USE AND ITS RELEVANCE TO THE TRIBAL AREAS OF ZIMBABWE" (apologies for the caps...) which while old (1979) may have more relevance to Haitian ag than the 4000 sq ft feeding a family, or Dutch land useage in that it describes capacity of severely degraded deforested land under subsistence farming conditions - here ~1.65 acres supports 1 person. Which translated any which way to Haiti (even with land available to people) renders land for sterilization pointless, and highlights requirements to improve Ag massively in the area. This also has broader implications for the rest of subsistence Ag globally not specifically focusing on a very small subset of the problem (given that Haiti could essentially disappear without there being any real effect on global population)
My objection with the slide to poverty of the fertile is simply that as those who are infertile reap the benefits of the aid given, the fertile become more impoverished and thus (assuming the trends shown in the nature paper hold) increase their fertility - my idea behind the incentive was not to convey any ideas, but simply to cut population growth - I'm not convinced that simply seeing that people who went the infertility route doing better is enough to convince others to take the same route (particularly when such things come into play as the infertile getting old and no longer being able to tend the land given) the incentive may be there, but I am not convinced that it is a strong enough incentive to work on enough of the population to have a meaningful impact - and there is the potential for it to actually make things worse.

Apologies if this is a tad disjointed... demands of working for a living and all that.

Well, Ewan, it seems to me that you are kicking up a lot of dust around, while not improving on the idea. For example, under the scheme a couple, who already reproduced and went for sterilization, would get land. So old people would bequeath the land to kids or other relatives in exchange for care. And so on. Is there really a point to take this route? The details would have to be worked out by folks who know the specifics. I simply wanted to present a sketch of something possibly workable.

As for claiming that providing the incentive to those who limit their reproduction would not work does not sound, on the face of it, credible to me. People go to war and risk death or maiming, for an incentive. But they would not do it when it involves a vasectomy?! The fertile in Haiti already *are* impoverished. The program gives them a chance to stop increasing further and get with improving their lot. How about giving the program a test run and see if it works or not? Then fine tune it based on what actually happens in the field. They could even do a computer simulation first. You like vasectomies for $500 but not vasectomies for livelihood so much. I makes no sense to me, so I am wondering⦠do you feel unhappy with my proposal because you are wanting more of a western life for these people?

âHowever one can't help but think that if you can produce that much on 4000 sq ft then the solution we're looking for isn't mass fertility treatment, but adoption of this systemâ â Well, no, actually. Unless you lay in a provision to first get the numbers under control, you are back to where we started: the old âmore food, more peopleâ treadmill. "Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population." Unless? Unless you lay in specific provisions for this not to happen.

Let me illustrate. You got a place in Africa where the water wells are shallow and water not so clean, and hard to get. If you just go in and dig better wells, the population will go into explosion mode and quickly ruin the ecosystem. To do this responsibly, you gotta think aheadâ¦. So you say, ok, what do we need to do so that this predictable disaster does not happen after we dig the deep wells? If we lay in provisions *now* for population control, properly incentivized and tailored to that culture, we stand a chance of preventing that disaster. How can we best do that? You wanna be a do-gooder meddler with other peopleâs lives? Fine, but then do it right.

Also please keep in mind that my proposed deal is not land for sterilization. Itâs land in return for population control plus habitat restoration. You say: âhighlights requirements to improve Ag massively in the area.â What do you have in mind?

(Will be back tonight.)

Not really kicking up dust so much as attempting to explore the ramifications of the system you're proposing - I think you're the one who was advocating planning ahead, surely that works both ways.

I believe that the incentive method might work for some people. I do not believe however that this would translate when people see the incentive being given to others to push them towards going down the same route. Possibly for some, but for others it is far more likely to breed contempt - keep in mind that just because you already are impoverished doesn't mean you can't be more impoverished, it's a scale, so my arguement holds regardless of the starting level of poverty. I'm also unsure that sterile folk are going to leave their land to their kids (right?) or to others in return for care (others who will be either caring for themselves, or their parents who decided not to go for the snip)- one of the reasons the birth rate remains so high is to ensure care in later life (so far as I've read) - getting around this hurdle is not likely to be as easy as saying 'well yeah but you can give your land away to someone and they'll look after you'

I'd say well yes actually to the next bit - if 4000sqft can sustain a family easily, then implementing this type of system would do so much to raise people out of poverty and uncertainty that the population would tend towards stability (as described in the nature article and as shown globally in countries with food security) - would this be all you have to do? No, but it'd be such a huge step in the right direction that you likely wouldnt require any massively radical moves - although you would require constant work across the board rather than a fix it and forget it type of approach.

I had thought I'd made it clear that I was backing away from both sterilization methods - For the reasons I've highlighted I don't see that either would work (although the fact you'd run out of land faster than you'd run out of money still leads me to support my own method over your own - particularly as at least initially your method was you get help only if, whereas my method is here's the help, now anyone want $500?).

I also wonder about the African wells scenario - I know it was mentioned elsewhere, I wonder if there are actual real statistics around what happens after these wells are dug but on a sample size of >1 anecdotal case - I recall this being a huge charity push in the UK during the late 80's and early 90's so the data should be available if the research has been done - everything I am digging up suggests no such studies, with the most negative comments I can find that wells are built and not maintained - wasting resources, not creating catastrophically spiralling out of control population centers.I'll try and dig around this some more but some hard data wouldn't go amiss (likewise on the success of sterilization programs)

My plan calls for giving people land if they agree to take care of the birth control regardless of how many children they already have.

I am happy that you agree with the incentive working for some. The rest can be ascertained in modeling and practice.

I am surprised you think the system would do so much to raise people from poverty. Such a plot of land can feed a person but not exactly raise them from poverty or do any of those things the studies of the West are linked to. You still have a system based on ag work which tends to value children as contributors to the peasant economy. Cultural values play a role too. Look at the Amish, they are not poor in any meaningful sense and have have 8 kids on the average. I think care and foresight demands that people make meaningful commitment to reducing population. Why would a westerner want to go into all this huge trouble (to stage a massive land transfer) unless they made the commitment on their end? If they don't, then there is a good chance it will just be business as usual. Cultural inertia can be a very strong force. Do you feel uneasy with such a plan because you want people to choose to cut population of their own volition, without incentives? Or would you go with it if it could be shown in modeling and test runs to work?

"particularly as at least initially your method was you get help only if, whereas my method is here's the help, now anyone want $500?"
I don't understand. Where is the difference?

The wells... I remember it being a well-known case from anthro, but fishing around, I don't see a ready reference. Still though, do you feel it's not credible? It goes like this: more clean water -> more people and cattle survive in a fragile arid environment -> population of both goes up (especially as cattle = wealth in this area) -> environmental damage from overgrazing and foraging increases -> carrying capacity of the land goes down -> in a bad year, cattle start dying, and then do people... classic.

Well, now you know what I would recommend. Let us say that the population deal has been worked out *somehow* and is in place. What would you recommend in terms of Haiti's ag?

In terms of haiti's Ag I am not altogether sure - I think I've already stated a lot of what I'd like seen done in Ag in prior posts to the thread - I still firmly believe that intensification of agriculture away from subsistence type farming towards (although not neccesarily to) a more industrial model (preferably without the same inputs) is vital to forming the basis of an economy which can provide a base for a more modern mode of life - medicine, sanitation, education, longevity and fewer children (although we've agreed that some form of population deal has been worked out here so this isn't necessarily an issue - although in the long term I think a transition to a more western population dynamic is the ideal (looking at the population distributions of european countries it truly looks like the long term way to go - with the slight hitch that it will take ~50-70 years before you see a noticable population decline)

On the wells - on the surface, yes, it sounds vaguely plausible, but 'well known' and 'widespread' are different things - all the literature I could turn out was about how to implement these systems, and lamentation on those that no longer get repair and maintenance - which suggests there is still merit in the system and the damage caused cannot be as signinficant as it may be being portrayed here.

The difference is you implicitly only help those who enter into your plan. My plan helps everyone and offers the sterilization as an extra incentive, with no strings attached. Your system when read to the extreme is 'sterilize or die' (assuming conditions are that bad) my system - not so much (although with the issue that the aid provided has to be structured such that the problem does not recur - which is a hugely complicated endeavor and beyond me as to exactly how the details would work out). I think however we can drop discussion on sterilization as I'm guessing we both understand each other, and have probably succesfully removed all other human interst from the discussion by going round in circles.

"On the wells - on the surface, yes, it sounds vaguely plausible" Ewan, I feel like I claimed that married bachelors do not exist and you retorted that "indeed, that is vaguely plausible"! If you go in and save babies without making any provisions for what happens next, pop will increase! Ha. Well, let's pass over that and quietly tiptoe away. :-( Thank you at least for noting that waiting 50-70 years for [now greatly increased] population to decrease is not viable for some situations.

"intensification of agriculture away from subsistence type farming towards (although not neccesarily to) a more industrial model (preferably without the same inputs) is vital to forming the basis of an economy which can provide a base for a more modern mode of life"

That's pretty vague. Though I confess I don't have a ready recipe either. Perhaps Dr Ronald can do another post addressing this issue... given the current situation in the west [unfolding economic collapse] modernity may not be the best thing to recommend to those who never tapped into it when the going was good. It seems to me we need other models.

I have read that horticulture [in the anthropological sense] is the most efficient type of ag ever invented. It provides the best return on the energy invested. Buttressing it with new understandings, yes. But with foresight and care. Modern ag is dead, IMO. The inputs do not work in a world of limits. I would like to see a lot of good thinking into what's next, and what exactly of modernity can be taken with us into the world that is coming.

Like I said, modern sanitation is nothing to recommend to a place like Haiti. They need a system to get the manure on the fields and use it to regenerate their soil. That would make another whole thread... I hope you look into it more. It is -- I think -- *vital* to understand that soil grows food -> food feeds critters -> critters' refuse returns to the soil -> soil grows more food. This understanding, so basic and so ancient, was lost with modernity.

Modernity has broken the soil nutrient cycle, and bought our silence and complicity with conveniences like flush toilets, âall-forgivingâ sinks, and virtually unlimited, unquestioned and swift garbage removal. Now we never have to think about the cycles of food and excrement and life and death, never have to think where our food comes from and where it is going and what our own responsibility is. We have become like cows, waiting for the masters to bring in the food, milk us, and take away the manure. The masters decide where the manure goes. And if the masters are morons and flush it downriver, whatâs a cow to do? :-)

I don't think the timescales under discussion in terms of the wells introduced are sufficient to explain a large population explosion - even given that you save a lot of babies as far as I am aware these projects haven't really been in existence long enough to do anything like cause a population explosion - the example given by Greenpa (which again, was anecdotal) involved migration, not population growth due to increased survival (and thus suffered in my opinion because if people can move into an area because it is better, surely they can equally move out of an area if it is no longer the best option).

The 'unfolding economic collapse' of the west is I think, somewhat of an overexaggeration - yes at present we're going through a downturn, but the economy is cyclical, it would be like argueing in a boom period that we have an abundance and there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

I don't think modern Ag is dead, it is changing, what is modern today is archaic tomorrow, the question is whether we throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of systemic change - are current inputs sustainable? Not particularly - can we find alternatives - probably be they high tech (gimme nitrogen fixing plants, or giant vats of N fixing bacteria) alsoas it becomes increasingly expensive to produce N fertilizers that some practical way to utilize sewage etc will be developed) - in terms of insect control we've already seen that a transgenic approach is highly succesful - in terms of weed control, not sure where that will go, hopefully down a route of less reliance on high levels of input (glyphosate is great and all, but minable phosphorous is a limited resource, and not everyone is likely to be mining it in the most environmentally benign manner) - possibly bacteria as factories for complex chemicals (with resistance genes in the plants)

While your soil analysis is sound, it is probably unworkable at levels of production needed to supply (hence the N fixation fixation I have) global demand - I did a back of the envelope calculation a while back to figure out the manure output required to fertilize the US corn crop (I think it was just corn anyway) at the average application of N - worked out that the current herd would have to increase 10 fold with all manure going to the field to cover the difference - which would then beg the question - how do you feed that many cattle.

I also don't think modernity per-se has broken the soil nutrient cycle - agriculture in general does that, subsistence ag does it, industrial ag does it - it's part and parcel of living in population densities higher than hunter gatherers (and as the population increases the problem becomes increasingly bad, however I would guess that if the current world population were living on land farmed in subsistence, or even pre-industrial modern ag methodologies the degradation of soil would likely be worse - not to mention the abject lack of any non-ag land that would be left) - what needs to be done is to work out the best from all systems and apply them together to mitigate the damage while applying as much new knowledge as is humanly possible to the problem.

Ewan: Good point with the wells... I am assuming that when human and cattle population growth combine the problem looms much faster. (As I remember the story, it was the cow babies that were the real culprit there.) Goats of course are deadly to the arid landscape; don't know if they had those too. That is why I keep urging to examine and put in safeguards before the chickens come home to roost. ;-)

Whether or not the economic collapse is cyclical is besides the point. More to the point is that we have converging multiple crises, some of them unprecedented. Another thread, this one. But if I were looking at whom to follow, however, as an informed Haitian looking out, I would be very uneasy about what's going down in the modern world. A lot of us in the middle of it are uneasy too.

Interesting ag details. Can you tell me... is there a downside to giant N-fixing bacteria vats? In what way is this better than just say growing alfalfa in the same area? Can small vats be utilized in a small operation? Is this available yet?

Sewage is toxic. Humanure in general is not, is safe to use when composted, and practical ways of utilizing it were developed in the neolithic. :-)

There is plenty of phosphorus. It's currently being flushed down all the toilets. I hear the Swedes have been working on urine-collecting toilets, maybe already have them in place... but of course it can be done even by a child at any time.

Can you tell me about the insect control you speak of... gist of it & example?

When you did your back-of-the-envelope calculation regarding manure and corn, did you figure into it the human herd's manure production? If not, why not?

As for the broken soil nutrient cycle, it has nothing to do with foraging. In my old neck of the woods, dry privies were still standard in villages, the manure pit and cesspool was regularly emptied on the fields. Modernity killed all that, within my memory. Folks replaced the cow barn with a garage, the young generation did not want to bother with horses, and of course the flush toilet had to be installed... you gotta compete with the Joneses! :-(

I hear Paris was fed from nearby gardens, which were fed by all the horse and humanure as late as 100 years ago. And in NYC farmers eagerly collected all the black gold for their farms. But the engineers of course had a better idea... let's take that black gold and just... throw it away! Yeah, that's the ticket! That's the modern way!

You seem to have a touching faith that under subsistence the problem of soil degradation would be worse. Never mind that we are dumping Iowa into the Gulf of Mexico in such prodigious quantities that the sea is getting killed off by it. I know that subsistence ag has done some real damage, but modern ag has taken it to new levels of infamy. IMO, of course. ;-)

Here's a question for you: if you knew that Dark Ages were coming, and you wanted to preserve say three things (or five) from modern ag down the lane, which ones would you pick and why?

Ewan: " the example given by Greenpa (which again, was anecdotal) involved migration, not population growth due to increased survival"

It was indeed anecdotal; it was told to me first hand by a researcher of some kind at the 1989 Climate Change conference in Cairo, Egypt. Sorry, don't recall who he was- but he'd seen it, more than once. Unsolicited information; we were discussing population, and he felt he needed to tell the story. Not too surprised it's not written up anywhere- failures tend not to be.

And he said the population growth did indeed include more babies- better sanitation; lower infant mortality- and it takes a while for people to react to that by decreasing their babymaking. So, yes, growth, not just migration.

As for moving back away... um. These people left their previous site because they were desperate already. And, while they were away- somebody back there almost certainly moved in. Not a given, at all.

And: "I also don't think modernity per-se has broken the soil nutrient cycle - agriculture in general does that, subsistence ag does it, industrial ag does it"

It's the plow that does. Ergo the attraction to moving to woody plants- which also make seeds, you know- oil and protein. Mostly we use trees to produce fruit in the temperate zones- but many in the tropics eat tree seed a great deal- and they are all utilizing unimproved wild trees.


apologies for delayed response... the Bt Brinjal post was too much fun to pass up (even if Prometheus insists that nobody actually reads what I say...)

On N fixing vats of bacteria - I don't think this is available, it'd be better than Alfalfa (or cover crops with N fixing capacity) in that it could either be used as an alternative meaning no cover crop (thus increased yield/area/time - any fallow field, despite being a good idea in terms of soil recovery etc, is a reduction in yield) or as a supplementary measure - although it'd depend on the inputs required, if you require 1 acre of corn (or less)worth of input to produce enough fertilizer for 1 acre of corn then clearly it is not a workable idea - would it be amenable to small scale work? Depends on the output, I see no reason why technically it shouldn't be (although it would require a degree of technological availability as N fixation is anaerobic - although so is alcohol production and that's a pretty ubiquitous tech). It's a relatively hypothetical technology right now, but I have a firm belief that using bacteria to do cool chemical stuff currently done by throwing more petrochemicals at it is going to be one way that the industrialized west can keep doing what it does without as much reliance on oil/gas - it'd just be nice if we'd get onto it a little faster (there is a lot of very cool work utilizing bacteria however)

On the phosphorous - I don't disagree that there is likely a lot of valuable fertilizer type material in sewage etc - I still think city life requires a waste management system more like we have now and less like 100 years ago - I do however think that it can and likely should be utilized more effectively to extract the useful portion of the chemicals - getting the best of both worlds rather than the evils of either seems a better way forwards. Also, my point wasn't entirely around phosphorous for plant use - manufacture of glyphosate is dependant on phosphorous - my point therefore being that as phosphorous availability as an industrial material declines the availability of the roundup system will decline (increased expense at first, then zero availability) - also the environmental issues with mining of phosphorous (leaching of other minerals into groundwater etc, which is controllable to a fashion, but whether or not P mines in developing nations are going to go to the expense of lining their mines (which is what Monsanto proposes for its new P mine/s) where there isn't the public pressure or legalities of environmental protection is another question (with a fairly obvious and sad answer).

Insect control - Bt genes in crops - reduce insecticide use, improve yields in areas where insecticide utilization is either inefficient or non-existant - there are issues potentially around evolution of resistance - although this is likely manageable by stacked genes and refuge utilization (and even if resistances do appear after 10-20 years, it appears to me that 10-20 years without insect predation is better than 10-20 years with)

With my back of the envelope manure calculation - I didn't figure in human production because that wasn't part of the arguement I was involved in, and I didn't have the figures available for human N production - I may dig em up at some point, but I'm pretty sure having concentrated sources would be a more economically viable method - assuming you can utilize them, which in my mind is an area of research/development well worth persuing as it frees up land (by concentrating populations to the extent that sewers>not sewers) and provides the economy of scale whereby recovery of the various chemicals may be more viable.

It'd be interesting to compare environmental damage caused by Ag on a per unit yield rather than a modern vs ancient technology basis - I was under the impression that the anoxic zone in the gulf of mexico was predominantly an N runoff problem (again this may be because of my unhealthy obsession with N) rather than soil runoff per-se - one of the positives of modern ag is that it is constantly evolving, and one major benefit of late is the capacity to adopt low-till and no-till agriculture on a large scale due to the better weed control technologies available (yay roundup) - this prevents a massive amount of erosion, fertilizer runoff, improves water holdign capacity of the soil etc etc - although there still remains the issue that crops planted suck the soil dry of nutrients to the extent that for stable year on year yields supplementation is required.

If we were returning to the dark ages what would I preserve from modern ag? Tough question - I'll throw a few ideas out there, but I'm sure that other people have vastly better ideas (and more knowledge from which to pull those ideas from)... plus I'd likely be dead within 9-12 months of the onset of the dark ages which leaves me less than interested in how they perform after that (unless I get to preserve all of medical science while we're at it, which would be awesome if a tad unlikely)

Breeding in general - I guess we'd have to assume the loss of the very top end of breeding, all the QTL work, computational biology etc (wouldnt really be the dark ages if you could crunch numbers on a supercomputer to see where your yield is coming from) however I think the retention of knowledge around breeding high yielding hybrids (and stress resistant hybrids/hybrids suited to various climates) would be a major improvement over the clumsy selection utilized in Ag prior to what I'd consider modern breeding.

Biotech - I think keeping some biotech traits would also be awesome - and assuming the dark ages doesn't hit for another decade or two I'm going to hedge my bets and say that the traits we would keep aren't even in plants yet - of the currently available traits, I guess I'd opt predominantly for Bt (with more widespread adoption across species), drought tolerance (which while not yet commercialized is very close) and then nutritionally improved varieties (like golden rice)

On top of that - no/low till ag - as greenpa suggests the plow is a major soil killer - if we can reduce tillage of ag land we can reduce loss of ag land. (I'd also be all for the development of woody plants and utilization of this form of Ag - seems a great way to retain soil etc and not have to worry as much about yearly tillage/weed management - once the trees crowd out the light anyway)

Ewan, you have been the most awesome correspondent, and I thank you. I am disappointed that the algae thing is just a dream for now, for folks out on the farm.

I too have been thinking what to preserve of what we have learned, and it's a toughie. Apart from all the understanding of soil and nutrients and soil food web etc., which can be preserved, I vote for teaching the art of the scientific method to every last farmer in this country.:-)

Yeah, the stuff about washing Iowa down to the sea, I am not an expert on it, but my understanding is that is is N + P + silt (and lately, I been wondering if damaged de-oxygenated river water flowing into it also plays a role).

As for sewers, they are doomed. Would be nice if people began to lay in plans for another system. Many of the large cities are broke, and their citizens more and more unemployed. How are they gonna pay for upgrades to an unsustainable system that has been largely ignored for decades?

As for erosion, I favor transforming the fields of highly erodable areas into pastures. That will capture a lot of carbon as well.

Anyways, be well, and thanks again. Maybe we'll run into one another again here somewhere! :-)