1: “Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated” was not supposed to happen.
In 1798 Thomas Malthus famously wrote about the recurring famines of his era, which he believed were inescapable and would only get worse because “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.”
“The implication was that efforts to feed the hungry would only lead to more misery because they would breed more children who were doomed to hunger in their turn,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.
Malthusian thinking returned “with a vengeance” as recently as the 1960s, Steven notes. In 1967 William and Paul Paddock wrote the best-selling Famine 1975! The following year the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich released The Population Bomb, in which he trumpeted: “the battle to feed all of humanity is over,” predicting that by the 1980s, sixty-five million Americans and four billion other people would starve to death.”
What did Paul Ehrlich and other environmentalists recommend? Cutting off food aid to countries they considered “basket cases.”
2: So, where exactly did Malthus’s math go wrong?
We begin by challenging his assumption that population grows in a geometric ratio indefinitely. “Because when people get richer and more of their babies survive, they have fewer babies,” Steven notes. (See figure 10-1). “Conversely, famines don’t reduce population growth for long. They disproportionately kill children and the elderly, and when conditions improve, the survivors quickly replenish the population.”
As global health expert Hans Rosling observes, “You can’t stop population growth by letting poor children die.”
3: Next, we challenge Malthus’s assumption that the food supply can’t grow geometrically. Actually, knowledge can be applied to “increase the amount of food that can be coaxed out of a patch of land,” Steven notes.
The most significant innovation of the Industrial Revolution was innovation itself. During the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, human beings began to bend the curve upward to generate more food out of each acre of land.
“Crop rotation and improvements to plows and seed drills were followed by mechanization, with fossil fuels replacing human and animal muscle,” Steven writes.
In the mid-1800s, it took twenty-five men working a full day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain. Today? One person operating a combine harvester can do it in six minutes.
“But the truly gargantuan boost would come from chemistry,” Steven writes. “In 1909 Carl Bosch perfected a process invented by Fritz Haber which used methane and steam to pull nitrogen out of the air and turn it into fertilizer on an industrial scale. . . Those two chemists top the list of the 20th-century scientists who saved the greatest number of lives in history, with 2.7 billion.”
During the last 100 years, grain yields per hectare have increased dramatically, and prices have plunged. “The savings are mind-boggling,” Steven notes. “If the food grown today had to be grown with pre-nitrogen-farming techniques, an area the size of Russia would go under the plow.”
Reflection: What surprises me about the data above?
Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who believes we live in “the worst of times.”