The apocalypse that missed

In the past 50 years, we have managed to weasel our way out of a situation that seemed like a death sentence for hundred of millions of people. Which is a good thing, right? If anyone here remembers the 1960s, 70s and 80s, you will remember that it was a pretty grim time. Nuclear war was hanging over the Earth like an ugly bat, and the full damaging effect of climate change was starting to peak from behind the curtain. But there was another thing that was threatening the global population. Population crash.

I wasn’t around during this time, so I don’t really know what it was about. But one of the things that sums it up well is a certain subplot in the graphic novel Watchmen. One of the characters (who is slightly deranged) is convinced that world population, world food supply, global money supply and so on are all running out. He predicts that all these factors will converge around 1983, with a massive population crash and the death of billions. In fairness, his solution to this is to teleport in a giant psychic squid-being from another dimension to kill off a good portion of the world’s population, to make the global supply of food last longer. So what he has to say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But there were lots of other people saying the same thing. Probably the most famous one of these is the book The Population Bomb, by Paul R. Ehrlich. It was written in 1968. And one of the quotes in the book that Wikipedia highlights goes as follows.

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

In fact, one of the main criticisms of the book at the time was that it was too optimistic about the future. There’s a cool Google feature that lets you analyse the frequency of different words in books over the past 60 years. I ran that for the phrases ‘overpopulation’ and ‘population bomb’. The resulting graph illustrates the changing interest very nicely.


The upper line is ‘overpopulation’, the bottom is ‘population bomb’. In case you can’t see.

So, that was the popular opinion of the future. Doooom. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the population only went up. Now, the main reason for this was farming. Over the past 50 years, world farming productivity supply has increased by almost 50% per unit of land area. A lot of that is in the First World, where new technologies like better fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have made farms much more efficient. So more efficient farms means more food, and cheaper food. So we can feed more people. That’s what you’d think, right? Nope. Even as crop production goes through the roof, the number of malnourished people on Earth has not decreased. The world’s farms are now producing more than enough for everyone on the planet. In fact, the world’s farms produced about 2900 calories per person per day in 2011. That is almost another half as much as the recommended daily consumption of 2000 calories per day. So, if we follow this through logically, we should have been able to feed the entire world more than enough. Nope.

The world’s food supply is still extremely unbalanced. America has reached such a high level of overconsumption that it has been labelled an ‘obesity epidemic’. But in sub-Saharan Africa, people starve. There is something very wrong going on here.

I just read back through the last 200 words of this post and realised I had gone off on a huge tangent. This wasn’t supposed to be about food inequality at all. Oops.

Anyway, there was a philosopher and statistician called Thomas Robert Malthus who designed a theory about population growth around the 1790s – Malthusian Growth Theory. It states that a population will expand exponentially  as long as there is adequate food supply. Then the population will crash, and it will crash hard. Then the population will rise, and crash. The population might eventually stabilise – but probably not. The population will rise and fall, rise and fall. It will continue to do so forever.

In the 1970s, dozens of statisticians and demographers had a look at the Malthusian Growth Model. They said:

World population is rapidly catching up with global food supply. Malthus tells us that things will go extremely badly once that happens.

But thanks to the miracles of modern farming techniques, we preserved the global population. We preserved them to become a carbon-emitting resource-guzzling monstrosity.

And given the way that the world is going – what with climate change, the growing threat of nuclear war, the energy and water shortages – I’m starting to doubt whether it was worth it.

Should we have saved the world?


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