By Samuel Scott
When I was in the seventh grade in the United States l in the early 1990s, my English teacher assigned a series of public-speaking assignments. We were to choose several topics and then give presentations. Perhaps I had been a little precocious, but I selected overpopulation and the food crisis as one of my subjects. (Other children had chosen various television-shows and bands.) My interest had been piqued — and I had become alarmed — by my reading of old world-history textbooks that I had found in used bookstores. (I had not read any world food-crisis articles yet.)
As one of the textbooks had stated, I told the class (in simpler words at the time) that there would be one person standing in every square-foot of space in the world within a few centuries if the existing trends would continue. I had brought four rulers and formed a square on the classroom floor to demonstrate the point. I think I received an “A” on the speech, but the teacher told me later that I would have driven the idea home if I had asked someone in the class to try to stand inside the square. (Note to readers: Audience participation is crucial in effective public-speaking.)
However, as it turns out — I was wrong. Or to be more accurate: the trend I cited turned out to be incorrect, but the societal implications were correct in a different way. In any facet of life ranging from politics to business, the tendency for people to use extrapolation is important because past data, of course, is the only data that exists. But to quote the usual fine-print in financial statements: “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” As an example, see this humorous cartoon that has made the rounds on the Internet.
The textbook that I had read had been written, I believe, in the 1970s — before the increases in developing-world economies, health care, and women’s rights had gained their footholds in recent years. All of these factors led to declining rates of population growth since people in richer countries — for reasons that no one completely understands — generally have fewer children.
As such, world population is now expected to grow (at a lesser rate than what had been predicted decades ago) and then stabilize rather than increase exponentially until there is a literal lack of living-space:
But that does not mean the situation is fine. As the world is currently seeing, the problem of increasing population (rather than “overpopulation”) is not one of physical space — as my seventh-grade classroom-example described — but one of resources. As critics of efforts to fight overpopulation have always noted, the entire population of the world could fit in the U.S. state of Texas with ample, comfortable space to spare — but, again, it is an issue of resources, not space. Foreign Policy’s new issue contains several lengthy articles on the current food crisis, and the articles shed light on the reason for the increased cost of food:
…for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval…
Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months.
To understand the issue in macroeconomic context, it is essential to compare humans on planet Earth to the life-cycle of microorganisms grown in a petri dish:
The similarities are profound — and disturbing. First, both planet Earth and a petri dish are closed environments with a limited amount of resources. The earth has a non-infinite supply of food, water, and minerals; a petri dish may have items like a human hair or drop of milk that bacteria consume to grow. Second, both populations increase as they use the resources. Third, the population begins to slow as the number of people and bacteria increases and the amount of required resources decreases. Fourth, the population remains level until the resources are depleted. Fifth, the number declines until none remain. Again, it must be noted: a near-infinite number of humans and bacteria can exist on planet Earth or in a petri dish — but the issue is one of resources.
(However, one difference must be noted: The amount of “food” in a petri dish constantly declines while that of planet Earth does not since new plants grow and new animals are born. As a result, the bacteria in the dish will eventually die while the number of humans will eventually decline and then remain at a lower, stationary level that will keep the amount of available resources stable.)
Presently, humanity seems to be in the middle of Stage Two in the chart directly above. But as the life-cycle in the petri dish shows, conflict over resources will increase. From the latter part of Stage Two to all of Stage Three, bacterium Bob and Tom will fight over who gets a piece of the decreasing amount of food. Some will survive and some will die — thereby keeping the population stable in Stage Three. But the result to the bacterium may resemble the Darfur food crisis to us.
And at a macroeconomic level, this is what is occurring in the world today. As people in the developing world continue to grow in numbers as well as wealth, they will consume more food — especially expensive, tasty meat — on a planet in which there is a limited supply. (It takes much more resources to produce a pound of beef than a pound of wheat, and the prices of both are skyrocketing.) So as demand increases and supply decreases, the cost of food will rise — along with conflict over the food in general.
But the situation is not entirely pessimistic. The petri-dish example rests upon the following premises:
- The supply of food will not increase as population increases
- The number of humans will continue to increase (as in Stage Two)
Both statements may not remain true.
First, the supply of food can be increased beyond natural means through processes including genetically-modified crops and animals as well as improved agricultural-methods. In addition, people — particularly in the West — could start to have diets that incorporate less meat and more gains, fruits, and vegetables. (Whether this would come come through personal choice, market forces, or government coercion is another issue.)
Second, the rate of increase in world population may continue to decrease as the developing world becomes richer. (Again, whether this would occur through people choosing to have fewer children as a result of rational choice or government-mandated rules is another issue.) But there is a caveat. As I wrote earlier, richer societies have fewer children, but they also consume more food in general and more food specifically that is costlier in terms of resources.
Regardless of the long-term trends, the short-term reality is that the world will endure more instability as a result of population growth and increased food-consumption. But at least no one will need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside a square of rulers on the floor.
Related: Foreign Policy also notes how people around the world “are what they eat” — but in more ways than you think.