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The chart below right shows the vicious cycle that Daniel Quinn argues, in The Story of B, has led us to this point. The argument is that (a) the exponential curve shown above is creeping up on us so quietly and quickly that if we wait for the first undeniable evidence of cataclysm, it will be too late, and (b) the root cause of the population explosion is excessive and ever-increasing food production, and the paradoxical and counter-intuitive solution to human misery caused by overpopulation and starvation is to cut food production.
(a) The Boiling Frog
Systems thinkers have given us a useful metaphor for a certain kind of human behaviour in the phenomenon of the boiled frog. The phenomenon is this. If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death. An example of the smiling-boiled-frog phenomenon, is provided by our own culture. When we slipped into the cauldron, the water was a perfect temperature, not too hot, not too cold.
When did we become we? Where and when did the thing called us begin? In the Near East, about 10,000 years ago. That’s where our peculiar, defining form of agriculture was born, and we began to be we. That was our cultural birthplace. That was where and when we slipped into that beautifully pleasant water: the Near East, 10,000 years ago.
As the water in the cauldron slowly heats, the frog feels nothing but a pleasant warmth, and indeed that’s all there is to feel. A long time has to pass before the water begins to be dangerously hot, and our own history demonstrates this. For fully half of our history, the first 5000 years, signs of distress are almost nonexistent. The technological innovations of this period bespeak a quiet life, centered around hearth and village — sun-dried brick, kiln-fired pottery, woven cloth, the potter’s wheel, and so on. But gradually, imperceptibly, signs of distress begin to appear, like tiny bubbles at the bottom of a pot.
What shall we look for, as signs of distress? Mass suicides? Revolution? Terrorism? No, of course not. Those come much later, when the water is scalding hot. 5000 years ago it was just getting warm. Folks mopping their brows were grinning at each other and saying, “Isn’t it great?” You’ll know where to find the signs of stress if you identify the fire that was burning under the cauldron. It was burning there in the beginning, was still burning after 5000 years . . . and is still burning today in exactly the same way. It was and is the great heating element of our revolution.
No, not agriculture. One particular style of agriculture. One particular style that has been the basis of our culture from its beginnings 10,000 years ago to the present moment — the basis of our culture and found in no other. It’s ours, it’s what makes us us. For its complete ruthlessness toward all other life-forms on this planet and for its unyielding determination to convert every square metre on this planet to the production of human food, I’ve called it totalitarian agriculture.
Totalitarian agriculture was not adopted in our culture out of sheer meanness. It was adopted because, by its very nature, it’s more productive than any other style (and there are many other styles). Totalitarian agriculture represents productivity to the max. You simply can’t outproduce a system designed to convert all the food in the world into human food.
Totalitarian agriculture is the fire under our cauldron. Totalitarian agriculture is what has kept us “on the boil” here for 10,000 years.
Food availability and population growth
The people of our culture take food so much for granted that they often have a hard time seeing that there is a necessary connection between the availability of food and population growth. For them, I’ve found it necessary to construct a small illustrative experiment with laboratory mice.
Now if we should decide to have a population of 200 mice instead of 100, we won’t have to add aphrodisiacs to their diets or play erotic mouse movies for them. We’ll just have to increase the amount of food we put in the cage. If we put in enough food for 200, we’ll soon have 200. If we put in enough for 300, we’ll soon have 300. If we put in enough food for 400, we’ll soon have 400. If we put in enough for 500, we’ll soon have 500. This isn’t a guess, my friends. This isn’t a conjecture. This is a certainty.
Of course, you understand that there’s noting special about mice in this regard. The same will happen with crickets or trout or badgers or sparrows. But I fear that many people bridle at the idea that humans might be included in this list. Because as individuals we’re able to govern our reproductive capacities, they imagine our growth as a species should be unresponsive to the mere availability of food.
But we have considerable data showing that, as a species, we’re as responsive as any other to the availability of food — 3,000,000 years of data, in fact. For all but the last 10,000 years of that period, the human species was a very minor member of the world ecosystem. There was some growth, of course, through simple migration continent to continent, but this growth was proceeding at a glacial rate. It’s estimated that the human population at the beginning of the Neolithic Age was around 10,000,000.
Then, very suddenly, things began to change. And the change was that the people of one culture, in one corner of the world, developed a peculiar form of agriculture that made food available to people in unprecedented quantities. Following this, in this corner of the world, the population doubled in a scant 3000 years. It doubled again, this time in only 2000 years. In an eye blink of time on the geologic scale, the human population jumped from 10,000,000 to 50,000,000 — probably 80% of them being practitioners of totalitarian agriculture: members of our culture, East and West.
The water in the cauldron was getting warm, and signs of distress were beginning to appear.
5000 B.C.E. – 3000 B.C.E.
Now note well that no one thought that the appearance of states and armies was a bad sign — a sign of distress. They thought it was a good sign. They thought the states and the armies represented an improvement. The water was just getting delightfully warm, and no one worried about a few little bubbles.
3000 B.C.E. – 1400 B.C.E.
The water is getting hotter — always getting hotter. All the old signs of distress are there, of course. And as the water heats up, the old signs just get bigger and more dramatic. War? The wars of the previous age were piddling affairs compared with the wars of this age.
1400 B.C.E. – 0
Famine became a regular feature of life all over the civilized word, as did plague, ever symptomatic of overcrowding and poor sanitation. Slavery became a huge, international business, and of course would remain one down to the present moment.
0 – 1200 C.E.
1200 C.E. – 1700 C.E.
These signals of human evil are reactions to overcrowding — too many people competing for too few resources, eating rotten food, drinking fouled water, watching their families starve, watching their families fall to the plague.
1700 C.E. – 1900 C.E.
This isn’t to say that native peoples alone were suffering. 60,000,000 Europeans died of smallpox in the 18th century alone. Tens of millions died in the cholera epidemics. And anyone who doubts the integral connection between agriculture and famine need only examine the record of this period: crop failure and famine, crop failure and famine, crop failure and famine, again and again all over the civilized world. The numbers are staggering.
As the cities became more crowded, human anguish reached highs that would have been unimaginable in previous ages, with hundreds of millions inhabiting slums of inconceivable squalor, prey to disease borne by rats and contaminated water, without education or means of betterment.
1900 C.E. – 1960 C.E.
What do I need to say about the water steaming in our cauldron in this era? Is it boiling yet, do you think? Does the first global economic collapse, beginning in 1929, look like a sign of distress to you? Do two cataclysmic world wars look like signs of distress to you? Stand off a few thousand miles and watch from outer space as 65,000,000 are slaughtered on battlefields or blasted to bits in bombing strikes, as another 100,000,000 count themselves lucky to escape merely blinded, maimed, or crippled. I’m talking about a number of people equal to the entire human population in the Golden Age of classical Greece. I’m talking about the number of people you would destroy if today you dropped hydrogen bombs on Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, New York City, and Hong Kong.
I think the water is hot, ladies and gentlemen. I think the frog is boiling.
1960 C.E. – 2000 C.E.
For some four decades the water has been boiling around the frog. One by one, its cells have shut down, unequal to the task of holding on to life. We bewail the collapse of everything we know and understand, the collapse of the structure on which everything has been built from the beginning of our culture until now.
The frog is dead.
The next doubling of our population will take 75 years. That slight slowing, at least in exponential terms, is due to a combination of reduced population in relatively affluent and heavily populated areas, massive immigration from horrendously to less crowded areas, and new developments in food technology, birth control and medicine. But as recently as twenty years ago there was no thought of 12,000,000,000 humans on earth — people who believed that possible were called neo-Malthusians and the prevailing view was that population would top out at 7-8 billion, which was then revised to 9-10 billion and then 10-12 billion and most recently hedged to 10-15 billion. Wonder what the next revision will be, and at what point we’ll notice the temperature of the water?
(b) Population: A Systems Approach
Among life-forms found on the surface of our planet, all food energy originates in the green plants and nowhere else. The energy that originates in green plants is passed on to creatures who feed on the plants, and is passed on again to predators who feed on plant eaters, and is passed on again to predators who feed on those predators, and is passed on again to scavengers who return to the soil nutrients that green plants need to keep the cycle going. All this can be said to be the A of the ABCs of ecology.
The various feeding and feeder populations of the community maintain a dynamic balance, by feeding and being fed upon. Imbalances within the community — caused, for example, by disease or natural disasters — tend to be damped down and eradicated as the various populations of the community go about their usual business of feeding and being fed upon, generation after generation. Viewed in systems terms, the dynamic of population growth and decline in the biological community is a negative feedback system. If you’ve got too many deer in the forest, they’re going to gobble up their food base — and this reduction in their food base will cause their population to decline. And as their population declines, their food base replenishes itself — and since the replenishment makes more food available to the deer, the deer population grows. In turn, the growth of the deer population depletes the availability of food, which in turn causes a decline in the deer population. Within the community, food populations and feeder populations control each other. As food populations increase, feeder populations increase. As feeder populations increase, food populations decrease. As food populations decrease, feeder populations decrease. As feeder populations decrease, food populations increase. And so on. This is the B of the ABCs of ecology.
For systems thinkers, the natural community provides a perfect model of negative feedback. A simpler model is the thermostat that controls your furnace. Conditions at the thermostat convey the information “Too cold,” and the thermostat turns the furnace on. After a while, conditions at the thermostat convey the information “Too hot,” and thermostat turns the furnace off. Negative feedback. Great stuff.
The A of the ABCs of ecology is food. The community of life is nothing else. It’s flying food, running food, swimming food, crawling food, and of course just sitting-there-and-growing-food. The B of the ABCs of ecology is this, that the ebb and flow of all populations is a function of food availability. An increase in food availability for a species means growth. A reduction in food availability means decline. Always. Invariably. More food, growth. Less food, decline. Every time. Without exception. There is no species that dwindles in the midst of abundance, no species that thrives on nothing. This is the B of the ABCs of ecology.
Defeating the system’s controls
This ability to make food available at will is the blessing on which our civilization is founded. The ability to produce food at will is an undoubted blessing, but its very blessedness can make it dangerous — and dangerously addictive.
“At will” is the operative expression here. Because we could now produce food at will, our population was no longer subject to control by food availability on a random basis. Anytime we wanted more food, we could grow it. After three million years of being limited by what was available, we began to control what was available — and invariably we began to increase what was available. You don’t become a farmer in order to reduce food availability, you become a farmer to increase food availability. And so do the folks next door. And so do the folks farming throughout your region. You are all involved in increasing food availability for your species.
And here comes the B in the ABCs of ecology: An increase in food availability for a species means growth for that species. In other words, ecology predicts that the blessing of agriculture will bring us growth — and history confirms ecology’s prediction. As soon as we began to increase the availability of our own food, our population began to grow — not glacially, as before, when we were subject to the community’s negative feedback controls — but rapidly.
Population expansion among agriculturists was followed by territorial expansion among agriculturists. Territorial expansion made more land available for food production — and no one goes into farming to reduce food production. More land, more food production, more population growth.
With more people, we need more food. With more food available, we soon have more people — as predicted by the laws of ecology. With more people, we need more food. With more food, we soon have more people. With more people, we need more food. With more food, we soon have more people.
Positive feedback, this is called, in systems terminology. Another example: When conditions at the thermostat convey the information “Too hot,” the thermostat turns the furnace ON instead of OFF. That’s positive feedback. Negative feedback checks an increasing effect. Positive feedback reinforces an increasing effect.
Positive feedback is what we see at work in this agricultural revolution of ours. Increased population stimulates increased food production, which increases the population. More food, more people. More people, more food. More food, more people. More people, more food. More food, more people. Positive feedback. Bad stuff. Dangerous stuff.
Let me now outline a demonstration that will clarify the issues I’ve raised here.
Into a nice roomy cage we introduce two young, healthy mice. The cage has a built-in feeder that enables us to make food available to the mice in any quantity we like.
We start by putting in a certain amount of food and we increase it daily. However much the pair of mice eat the first day, we put in 50% more the second day. However much they eat the second day, we put in 50% more the third day. Before long there are 4 mice. No matter, we follow our procedure. Whatever they eat in a day, we put in 50% more the next. Before long there are 8 mice, 16 mice, 32 mice. No matter, whatever they eat in one day, we put in 50% more the next. 64 mice, 128, 250, 500, 1000. Whatever the mice eat in one day, we put in 50% more the next, carefully extending the sides of the cage as needed to avoid stressful overcrowding. 2000, 4000, 8000, 16,000, 32,000, 64,000. At this point, someone runs in and yells, “Stop! Stop! This is a population explosion!”
What shall we do? I have a suggestion. Let’s start by answering this question: How much did the 64,000 mice eat yesterday? Answer: 500 kilos of food. Okay. Well, ordinarily, we’d put 750 kilos of food into the cage tomorrow, but let’s abandon that procedure now. Our new procedure will be based on this theory: Yesterday 500 kilos was enough for them, so why shouldn’t 500 kilos be enough for them today?
So today we put just 500 kilos of food into the cage, same as yesterday. Now watch closely. There are no food riots. Why should there be? The mice have just as much to eat today as they did yesterday. Now watch closely again. No mice are starving. Why would there be?
Now its tomorrow, and again we put just 500 kilos of food into the cage. Again, watch closely. There are still no food riots. Still no mice starving.
We do it again on day three. Again, no food riots, no mice starving. But aren’t new mice being born? Of course — and old mice are dying. Day four, day five, day six. I’m waiting for the food riots, but there are no food riots. I’m waiting for the famine, but there is no famine.
There are 64,000 mice, and 500 kilos of food will feed 64,000 mice. Why should there be riots? Why should there be famine?
And the population explosion stopped overnight. What else could it do? Population growth has to be supported by increased food availability. Always. Without exception. Less food — decline. More food — growth. Same food — stability. That’s what we’ve got here: Stability.
Now the head of the department charges in and says, “Who needs 64,000 mice? These mice are eating us out of house and home. What’s special about 64,000 mice anyhow? Why not 8,000? Why not 4,000?”
You know what to do because you understand the B in the ABCs of ecology. We don’t need birth control. All we need is food control.
Someone says, here’s what we do. Yesterday 500 kilos of food went into the cage. Today we’ll reduce that by a kilo. Oh no, another objects. A kilo is too much. Let’s reduce it by a quarter of a kilo. So that’s what they do. 499.75 kilos of food go into the cage. Tension in the lab as everyone waits for food riots and famine — but of course there are no food riots and no famine. Among 64,000 mice, a quarter of a kilo of food is like a flake of dandruff apiece.
Tomorrow 499.5 kilos of food go into the cage. Still no food riots and no famine.
This procedure is followed for 1000 days — and not once is there a food riot or a famine. After 1000 days only 250 kilos of food are going into the cage — and guess what? There are no longer 64,000 mice in the cage. There are only 32,000. Not a miracle — just a demonstration of the laws of ecology. A decline in food availability has been answered by a decline in population. As always. Nothing to do with riots. Nothing to do with famine. Just the normal response of a feeder population to the availability of food.
I’ve been surprised by how challenging people find these ideas. They feel menaced by them. They get angry. They feel I’m attacking the foundation of their lives. They feel I’m calling into question the blessedness of the greatest blessing of civilized life. They somehow feel I’m questioning the sacredness of human life itself.
I’ve been told that it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been told that it’s possible for us to increase food production and simultaneously reduce our population. This is basically the position taken by birth-control advocates. This is basically the position taken by well-intentioned organizations that undertake to improve indigenous agricultural techniques in Third World countries. They want to give technologically undeveloped peoples the means of increasing their population with one hand and birth-control aids with the other hand. They’re certain that we can go on increasing food production while ending population growth through birth control. This represents a denial of the B in the ABCs of ecology.
History — and not just 30 years of history but 10,000 years of history — offers no support whatever for the idea that we can simultaneously increase food production and end population growth. On the contrary, history resoundingly confirms what ecology teaches: If you make more food available, there will be more people to consume it.
Obviously the matter is different at the individual level. Old Macdonald on his farm can increase food production and simultaneously hold his family’s growth to zero, but this clearly isn’t the end of the story. What’s he going to do with that increase he produced on his farm? Is he going to soak it in gasoline and burn it? If so, then he hasn’t actually produced an increase at all. Is he going to sell it? Presumably that is what he’s going to do with it, and if he does sell it, then that increase enters the annual agricultural increase that serves to support our global population growth.
I’m often told that even if we stop increasing food production, our population will continue to grow. This represents a denial of both the A and the B of the ABCs of ecology. The A in the ABCs of ecology is this: We are food. We are food because we are what we eat — and what we eat is food. To put it plainly, each and every one of us is made from food.
When people tell me that our population will continue to add new millions even if we stop increasing food production, then I have to ask what these additional millions of people will be made of, since no additional food is being produced for them.
And of course I have to deal with the starving millions. Don’t we have to continue to increase food production in order to feed the starving millions? There are two things to understand here. The first is that the excess that we produce each year does not go to feed the starving millions. It didn’t go to feed the starving millions in 2003, it didn’t go to feed the starving millions in 2001, it didn’t go to feed the starving millions in 2000, it didn’t go to feed the starving millions in 1999 — and it won’t go to feed the starving millions in 2004. Where did it go? It went to fuel our population explosion.
That’s the first thing. The second thing is that everyone involved in the problem of world hunger knows that the problem is not a shortage of food. Producing more food does not solve the problem, because that’s simply not the problem. Producing more food just produces more people.
Our population explosion can no more continue without food than a fire can continue without fuel. The fact that our population continues to grow year after year is proof that we’re producing more food year after year.
When all else fails, it will be objected that the people of the world will not tolerate a limit on food. That may be, but it has nothing to do with the facts I’ve presented here.
What do I have against birth control? I don’t have a thing against birth control as such. It just represents very poor problem-solving strategy. The rule in crisis management is, Don’t make it your goal to control effects, make it your goal to control causes. If you control causes, then you don’t have to control effects. Birth control is a strategy aimed at effects. Food-production control is a strategy aimed at causes. We’d better have a look at it.
If you’ve read this carefully, you will inevitably have one of three reactions: (1) Object that the logic is flawed, and try to poke holes in it, (2) Say it might be true but there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, so there’s no point worrying about it, or (3) Ask what the answer is, in practical terms. If you have reaction (1), The Story of B has several pages of Objections that Quinn addresses in patient detail. Contrary to Malthus, Quinn is saying the problem isn’t the inevitable failure of totalitarian agriculture, but its continued success. To those that point out that countries with high living standards have low growth rates, Quinn simply points to the chart at the top of this post as evidence that this isn’t nearly enough to prevent catastrophe. Quinn has no answer for the fatalists and salvationists in the second camp — he just sees them as part of the problem. And to the third group, those that say “OK, what do we do about it” his answer is “reduce food production”. He offers no suggestion on how to do that, just assurances, as descibed above, that such reduction will not produce massive famine and poverty, but will in fact alleviate it.
The group Zero Population Growth collapsed in the 1970s when Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions in his now-notorious book The Population Bomb, turned out to be dead wrong. In his well-intentioned desire to bring attention to the problems of overpopulation, he unfortunately discredited and set the ZPG movement back decades. Ehrlich’s answer was to deal with the effect — population growth — via dire methods such as adding birth control pills to our foods and withholding humanitarian aid from third world nations until they implemented strong population control programs — exactly the “poor problem-solving strategy” Quinn describes above.
On the surface it would seem futile to expect political consensus and action towards a global, mandated reduction in food production, for all kinds of reasons. But there was a time when other political struggles seemed equally impossible given the political, social and economic realities of the day — bringing an end to slavery and getting women the right to vote come to mind. And reducing agricultural production would have all kinds of other benefits besides lowering population quickly — freeing up farmland for other uses (human and natural), reducing cruelty to animals in factory farms, reducing the degradation of land, reducing soil erosion, reducing the burning of forests to create cropland, less environmental damage due to production and runoff of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, less global warming caused by farm animal wastes, and less reliance on genetically-altered foods. So until someone can show me the illogic in Quinn’s argument, or can offer a better solution to the problem of overpopulation, I’m going to add ‘reduction of global food production’ to my activist agenda.
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Gail Tverberg (US)
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Ilargi & Nicole (CA)*
Janaia & Robin (US)*
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John Michael Greer (US)
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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