In an article headed First signs of the coming famine, in the April 26-27 Weekend Australian, New York correspondent David Nason writes:
It’s 40 years since Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation in the 1970s and ’80s because the world could no longer produce enough food for its rapidly growing population.
Nason goes on to mention Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, a crude neo-Malthusian work that, as Nason says, “offered policy prescriptions ranging from compulsory birth control, cutting government payments for dependent children, applying a luxury tax to cribs and nappies, and ceasing food aid to the Third World”.
Nason doesn’t mention that since then, in 2004, Paul and Anne Ehrlich have written another book, One With Nineveh, with a rather different approach, although its focus is still the clash between population growth and the world’s resources.
In the introduction to One With Nineveh, the Ehrlichs turn from the harsh, fear-driven approach of The Population Bomb to a search for systemic solutions, and they quote favourably some recommendations of the 1993 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity:
- We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water … We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and maring plant and animal species.
- We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.
- We must stabilise population. This will be possible only if all nations recognised that it requires improved social and economic conditions and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
- We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
- We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their reproductive decisions.
The later book also acknowledges that The Population Bomb‘s population projections were wrong:
“Rather than doubling and redoubling in the seventy years following publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, as once seemed likely, the global population may double (from 3.5 to 7 billion) in fifty-four years, by 2012. But a redoubling is nowhere in sight. As mentioned earlier, growth of the global population has slowed to about 1.2 per cent per year, and it appears on track to continue slowing for the next several decades, according to the United Nations’ medium demographic projection.”
The book then goes on to savage the US government’s sabotage of UN birth control programs, driven by fundamentalist Christian opposition to abortion.
It’s not surprising that Nason appears to prefer Ehrlich’s earlier book, since in the later one the world’s best-known neo-Malthusian of the late 1960s turns 30-odd years later into a rather severe critic of neoliberal capitalism and US imperialism, and strays rather far from the Malthusian raison d’etre, which is to blame the lower orders for creating their own misery and to prescribe war and famine as natural events to kill off excess population, and harsh domestic policies to restrict excessive breeding.
The title of the later book is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional, a warning to British Empire against imperial arrogance, and the Ehrlichs are clearly referring to today’s world empire, the US. (Of course, Kipling’s concern was to preserve the empire, so that Britons wouldn’t be cast back among the “lesser breeds”, and I presume the Recessional, with its blithe references to “heathen hearts”, etc, is no longer sung in school assemblies, as it still was when I went to school.)
Nason’s reference to The Population Bomb is the second I’ve come across in recent weeks, the other being an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in which Sydney University historian Anne Bashford blunders from one stupidity to the next and ends up rambling about eugenics, which like Kipling is also a product of imperial Britain, arising out of one Francis Galton’s investigations of individual genius and running in a direct line to genocidal policies against indigenous Australians, not to mention Nazi racial theories and their consequences. Bashford also seems more comfortable with The Population Bomb than with Ehrlich’s later views.
Unlike Ehrlich, Nason goes on to suggest that The Population Bomb wasn’t wrong, just a bit premature:
Not surprisingly, Ehrlich was branded a crackpot and his basic premise that a terrible age of famine was at hand never eventuated. In fact, there was less famine in the last quarter of the 20th century than at any time in history, the result of world food production growing at 15 per cent annually and outstripping the growth in population.
The famines that did occur arose from natural catastrophes or the interruption of food supply and cultivation in war zones.
But today, with the cost of staples such as rice, corn, wheat and soybeans skyrocketing, with food riots breaking out across the globe and with the UN’s World Food Program warning of a “silent tsunami” of hunger threatening the lives of 20 million of the world’s poorest children, galloping food inflation is raising Ehrlich-like fears of a world where famine is no longer confined to war zones and sub-Saharan Africa.
The strange thing is that the rest of Nason’s article doesn’t bear out his introduction. He points to numerous examples of the problems caused by rising food prices, most of them market-driven, rather than caused by a global food shortgage. The exceptions to market-driven causes are drought in Russia and Australia. Even then, if Nason had done his research, the drop in rice production in Australia is due only partly to drought. A market-driven cause is the fact that irrigation farmers can get a higher price for wine grapes than for rice, and water licences have been widely bought up by grape growers.
The main problems Nason cites are market-driven, not a sudden exhaustion of the world’s capacity to produce food for a growing population. Much of the problem arises from dramatic rises in the prices of oil and fertiliser prices and a switch in some places, particularly Brazil and the US, to growing crops for ethanol rather than food.
There is no world food shortage, there is a dysfunctional market based on the long-failed 19th century theories of laissez faire capitalism, revived as neoliberalism, but as food riots and other social breakdowns spread due to the failures of this market system we can expect more attempts to revive the discredited The Population Bomb, which even its author no longer supports.