This is a very long, and important, post. If you’re in a hurry, please bookmark it and come back later.

population chart
Of all the radical ideas I have espoused in How to Save the World, none has proven to be as controversial as my belief that substantial human population reduction is a necessary condition (I am not sure whether it is a sufficient condition) to prevent ecological catastrophe in this century. The chart above, which I explained in this post, shows the impact of our continued population explosion, far beyond the levels of sustainability represented by the green and red lines on the chart (the green line allows for coexistence with other creatures, the red line hogs all resources on earth for humans).

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.
pop system
It is this second argument that causes the strongest reaction, and I have been unable to briefly articulate Quinn’s line of thinking (and there’s no room in this blog for a 40-page treatise). But I’ve just discovered a brilliant prÈcis of both arguments (a) and (b) above, on David Sheen’s Anarchitecture site. I’ve reproduced David’s prÈcis of both arguments in their entirety below, and thank David for his diligence in putting this online. I would encourage readers to buy the extraordinary Story of B so they can read these arguments in their entirety.


(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.
Imagine if you will a cage with movable sides, so that it can be enlarged to any desired size. We begin by putting 10 healthy mice of both sexes into the cage, along with plenty of food and water. In just a few days there will of course be 20 mice, and we accordingly increase the amount of food we’re putting in the cage. In a few weeks, as we steadily increase the amount of available food, there will be 40, then 50, then 60, and so on, until one day there is 100. And let’s say that we’ve decided to stop the growth of the colony at 100. I’m sure you realize that we don’t need to pass out little condoms or birth-control pills to achieve this effect. All we have to do is stop increasing the amount of food that goes into the cage. Every day we put in an amount that we know is sufficient to sustain 100 mice — and no more. This is the part that many find hard to believe, but, trust me, it’s the truth: The growth of the community stops dead. Not overnight, of course, but in very short order. Putting in an amount of food sufficient for 100 mice, we will find — every single time — that the population of the cage soon stabilizes at 100. Of course I don’t mean 100 precisely. It will fluctuate between 90 and 110 but never go much beyond those limits. On the average, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the population inside the cage will be 100.

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.
It was getting crowded. Think of that. People used to imagine that history is inevitably cyclical, but what I’m describing here has never happened before. In all of 3,000,000 years, humans have never been crowded anywhere. But now the people of a single culture — our culture — are learning what it means to be crowded. It was getting crowded, and overworked, overgrazed land was becoming less and less productive. There were more people, and they were competing for dwindling resources. It’s during this period, starting around 5000 years ago, that we see the first states formed for the purpose of armed defense and aggression. It’s during this period that we see the standing army forged as the monarch’s sword of power.

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 fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population took only 1600 years. There were 100,000,000 humans now, at 1400 B.C.E., probably 90% of them being members of our culture. The Near East hadn’t been big enough for us for a long time. Totalitarian agriculture had moved northward and eastward into Russia and India and China, northward and westward into Asia Minor and Europe. Other kinds of agriculture had once been practiced in all these lands, but now, agriculture meant our style of agriculture.

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
The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population took only 1400 years. There were 200,000,000 humans now, at the beginning of our “Common Era,” 95% or more of them belonging to our culture, East and West.

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.
The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 1200 years. There would be 400,000,000 humans at the end of it, 98% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. War, plague, famine, political corruption and unrest, crime, and economic instability were fixtures of our cultural life and would remain so.

1200 C.E. – 1700 C.E.
The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 500 years. There would be 800,000,000 humans at the end of it, 99% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. It’s the age of the Black Death, the Inquisition, the first known madhouse, and the first ghetto.

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.
The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 200 years. There would be 1,500,000,000 humans at the end of it, all but 0.5% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. It would be a period in which the opium trade would become an international big business; in which Australia, India, and Africa would be claimed or carved up as colonies by the major powers of Europe; in which indigenous peoples all around the world would be wiped out in the millions by diseases brought to them by Europeans, with millions more herded onto reservations or killed outright to make room for white expansion.

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.
The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 60 years — only 60. There would be 3,000,000,000 humans at the end of it, all but perhaps 0.2% of them belonging to our culture, East and West.

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.
The next doubling of our population occurred in less than 40 years, bringing us to the present moment, when there are more than 6,000,000,000 humans on this planet, all but a few scattered millions belonging to our culture, East and West.

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

For three million years our species grew at an infinitesimal rate from a few thousand to 10,000,000. Then about 10,000 years ago we began to grow rapidly. This was not a miraculous event or an accidental event or even a mysterious event. We began to grow more rapidly because we’d found a way to defeat the negative feedback controls of the community. We’d become food producers — agriculturists. In other words, we’d found a way to increase food availability at will.

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.

A demonstration

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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  1. On the issue of agricultural sustainability, you should check out this month’s Harper’s Magazine for “The Oil We Eat.”

  2. Richard says:

    Lynn White argued in 1967 an alternative cause of the current and future ecological crisis: not so much Christianity, but the emphasis Christians placed on certain sections of the Bible, and that there is a tradition within Christianity (that of St. Francis) that emphasizes man’s equality with nature, rather than his domination over it. Granted, the argument presented by Quinn suggests the root cause happened earlier with the form of cultivation that humans chose, but at least both are in agreement that the current crisis was caused far earlier than the Industrial Revolution.Both are the same document, but the latter comes from a .edu address rather than a geocities.com one.http://www.geocities.com/atomicputty/ecological.htmlhttp://www.uvm.edu/~gflomenh/PA395/articles/Lynn-White.pdf

  3. Dave says:

    How about boiling this down a bit so that your main points are a bit more clear. Maybe you are on to something, but I think its gettng lost in all the “noise.”

  4. Doug Alder says:

    Well I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about over population for long Dave. There have been several “hiccups” in the flow of the Gulf Stream over the past few years and recent studies have shown that, unlike previous assumptions that it would take thousands of years, it appears now that from start to full fledged ice-age is a matter of 3 or 4 years at most. The trigger is the halting of the “Great Convetor Belt” od which the Gulf Stream is a major part and that is accomplished by a rapid desalinisation of the Atlantic ocean in the great whirlpool off of Greenland (the heavy salt water that has cooled sinks to the bottom of the ocean thereby drawing more warm water fromthe Pacific into the Atlantic – at the bottom of the ocean the water forms a river that flows along the botrtom of the ocean around Africa and back into the pacific – thus the Great Conveyor Belt) The rapid melting of the northern polar ice cap and the glaciers in Greenland is rapidly dilting the salinity of this region. If it reaches a critical point, and evidence seems to indicate we are heading there, the usually dense cold salt water will be too diluted to fall to the bottom of the ocean and the conveyor belt will stop. When that happens it will take between 2 and 4 years for the ambient temperature of the Atlantic to drop (the remnants of the last warm Pacific ocean water carried ther by the belt) and a 10,000 to 15,000 year Ice Age will hit the Northern Hemospher, in Particular lands that are bounded by the Atlantic. The damage however will not stop there. The Gulf Stream is also responsible for the tropical rains. Without it operational the tropics and the southern hemisphere will go into extreme drought conditions. Fire and drought will kill off much of humanity in the South and ice and cold those in the North with starvation being the main killer on both sides of the equator. How serious and imminent is this? No one really know but the Pentagon is taking it serious.From http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0130-11.htm“And when might that threshold be reached? Nobody knows – the action of the Great Conveyor Belt in defining ice ages was discovered only in the last decade. Preliminary computer models and scientists willing to speculate suggest the switch could flip as early as next year, or it may be generations from now. It may be wobbling right now, producing the extremes of weather we’ve seen in the past few years.”Do a Google – http://www.google.com/search?num=30&hl=en&lr=lang_en&ie=ISO-8859-1&newwindow=1&q=Ice+Age+Great+Conveyor+Belt&btnG=Google+Search for some very interesting and,well quite frankly scary, information. As a species we will be lucky if we survive it in numbers sufficient to prolong the species. Then again that might not be such a bad thing – from a planetary perspective.

  5. Ray Jefferd says:

    The proposed idea is an interesting observation but the conclusion is unsupported and I don’t believe is provable. Just because two events have the appearance of a constant relation to one another does not necessarily mean that the relationship is cause and effect. Even if it was in the past there is no certainty that it will in the future.Further, on the proposition that the reduction in the food supply will cause a painless reduction in population is to say that no straw will break the camels back, or that there is no tipping point.There is the law of supply and demand that I see being applied in a selective manner or perhaps even misapplied to meet the writer’s objective which contains the assumption that it is an imperative to reduce human population, which is not universally agreed and may be wrong. (Is someone wanting to play God here?) Suggesting the reduction in food supply will lead to a benign reduction in population is in no way supported by what has been written, the example of the mice is very simplistic and not reflective of reality. Implementation of such an idea will have innumerable unintended consequences since knowledge of the higher laws of nature is limited, and commonly our mind lacks understanding and awareness of its own real motivation. The proposed idea will remain and I suggest is best left as an intellectual exercise since it affronts humanness. I do accept however that any proposed solution that does not scale to the problem is not really a solution at all. Perhaps better question to ask is, what is the real problem? I suggest that it is better to look within ourselves first as a more productive opportunity to achieve real change that may actual make a positive difference.

  6. Deb says:

    I must point out that the experiment with the mice isn’t a very good fit. Lab mice never (or I should say none of them) produce their own food. Humans (some of them, admittedly a small minority in the developed world) do produce their own food. “Producing” was originally hunting and gathering, and is now “totalitarian agriculture” or “totalitarian fishing”. But really, what we are hinting at, but not completely describing, is an energy budget. What about the energy to produce extra food, which the mice did not have to expend? I think there are too many factors in the energy budget of human ascendancy over nature, agricultural methods, food production and availability and growth of population for this to be an airtight case. It is not disproved, but it needs work. Still, I am going to link to this article, because it is something that merits discussion.

  7. Don Dwiggins says:

    I agree that it’s important to look at population as a component of both the problem and potential solutions, but I tend to be skeptical of single-factor explanations in both domains. If you look at some of the biological studies of population dynamics, you’ll find several kinds of population change in response to environmental constraints being increased or decreased, including the kind of “gentle adaptation” described in the mice experiment, but also species that undergo large boom and bust cycles (e.g., think of algal blooms in a waterway).Interestingly, it looks like the human population growth is slowing. I read recently that many European nations are actually declining in population (and it’s only immigration that’s keeping it from happening in the US). Ironically, these nations consider it a problem to be solved (plays merry hell with the dominant economic paradigm), possibly by loosening the barriers to immigration again. Also, I recall a quote that I haven’t been able to find again, from a UN social worker; something like “the best contraceptive for the third world is better education and living standards for women”. If you look under “Population” near the end of http://home.socal.rr.com/dldwiggins/FinalExam.html, you’ll find references to some good resources. Also, I recommend the essay by Peter Hartley at http://dieoff.com/page74.htm for a technical, but fascinating take on the concept of carrying capacity.Regards,

  8. Marijo says:

    This retelling of the story of human beings always reminds me of the barbed wire wars which resulted from the fencing of land in the North American west– a practice which interfered with the free-ranging life of the cowboy cattle-herders as much as it did with the few remaining hunter-gatherer indigenous people. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blbarbed_wire.htmI find the Quinn argument compelling and the objections less so– if reducing the food supply can reduce population, then it should be undertaken. The reduction of the food supply wouldn’t prevent us from also working towards the liberation and education of women, the distribution of birth-control methods, etc. Diminishing the population too fast is hardly an issue. We produce too much (far too much) food now, anyway, leading to enormous waste and obesity. If we want to work at improving the distribution of foods to the hungry, we should be able to do that, as well, while reducing overall production. There are a couple of very effective programs in Nashville which salvage food which would have been thrown away, from groceries and restaurants, so that it can be made available to people too poor to buy food. Thanks for posting this.

  9. 'nee says:

    The current standard of constant economic growth – where maintenance of current profits is equal to failure – encourages, indeed requires not only constant population growth but accelerating population growth. This is a mentality, a systemic necessity, and a policy standard that needs to be changed before anything can even be approached about our population problems. North American companies and ideas drive the developing countries. The change needs to start here, even though our own population growth rate is decreasing.

  10. catnmus says:

    Very intriguing post. But I wouldn’t feel too much like we’ve conquered any of those other socio-political problems. There are still many countries where women DON’T have the right to vote and many other rights that men have. And slavery still exists in many countries, too – maybe mostly underground, but it still exists. Ivory Coast. Sexual slavery rings. And simply saying that we as a planet will reduce food production to control population isn’t going to do it – it hasn’t worked for the drug wars, has it? Pretty soon there’d be a black market “market”: “Dude, can you score me some hamburger and maybe some potato salad? I’ll pay top dollar.” I think the only thing that’s going to work for this planet is plague, meteor, pick your cataclysm. And if it doesn’t kill all of us, well, I predict that population doubling rate of 40 years may be where it starts…

  11. In my opinion, the most influential factor to supportpopulation is medicine, not food. Either way, you cannot stop them. Many people in the 3rd world are stillin hunger and with poor health condition.Digging deeper, human innovation may be the underlyingcauses. For any other species, if the population is toohigh, the mother nature will tell the balance mechanisms to reduce the population, either by straving or epidemics or etc.Human’s ingenuity has conquered all those mechanisms.Mother nature will then send a more competent balancer,wheter it be smaller land for each person, or pollution.Eventually, she will win. Unless, of course, humanity haslearned to adapt it self and end the fight altogether by us own.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Globalize: Thanks, I took a look at this — good to see people are picking up on this and starting to think the unthinkable — that maybe we should be taking action on population and not assume the right to procreate without limit is sacrosanct.Richard: I’d read Lynn’s stuff before, but this is a good read. There’s some conflicting views on whether St.Francis was really as ecologically enlightened as Lynn suggests, since I understand his views wavered several times over his lifetime.Dave: I’ve tried. I can’t. I apologize for the length, but this is already a synposis of the full argument. Dynamic Doug: The book “Extinction” has a really interesting study of ice ages. There is no way of knowing for sure, but it is quite possible that they were caused by a meteor impact that put a smight wobble in the Earth’s spin, and that in turn led to sudden climate change and then to mass extinctions of large mammals, and then perhaps to early human invention of agriculture as a substitute food source. If it weren’t for that, we might still be living in Eden. As it turns out, we’ve survived ice ages and might survive another one, but it will take an innovation on the scale of inventing agriculture to do it. I suspect nature will be better equipped for this invention than we will, which is why the author of Extinction says the most likely next cycle of evolution will be dominated by birds and insects, not mammals like us.Ray & Deb: You raise some good points that Quinn attempt to address in his books. I think Edward Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, adds some fascinating data that suggests that Quinn is essentially right, but is missing some additional variables that tend to reinforce the vicious cycle. I’ll blog about that in the next week, as soon as I finish the book.Don: I enjoyed reading your site, though I don’t find some of the sites you refer to, ‘dieoff’ and ‘overpopulation’, as compelling as your own arguments.Marijo: Agreed. There is no ‘one’ answer.’Nee: Yes, absolutely, though I don’t think we can wait to deal with these other issues before grappling seriously with overpopulation. Once the US population hits a billion, at anywhere near current consumption levels, I’m convinced it’s endgame.Catnmus: That’s an interesting analogy — attempts to solve the problem of substance addiction and abuse from the ‘supply’ side has completely failed, so many people believe the answer is to regulate it rather than prohibit it. That’s a ‘demand’ side solution: hoping that with proper education and making the supply safe and affordable, the evils will be alleviated and eventually eliminated. In my post on that subject I said the answer is to develop non-addictive forms of the substances we love. So it’s not surprising that a ‘supply’ side solution to overpopulation strikes people as not only undemocratic but unworkable. But the ‘demand’ size solutions to overpopulation — the sheer cost of raising each child, the availability of birth control, education on the social and environmental costs of overpopulation — have only worked to a limited degree as well. The reason I think you might be a bit too pessimistic about ‘supply’ side restrictions on food production not working is that (and Hall has something to say about this as well) the people who would be most likely to support an ‘underground’ economy for food would be the rich, who actually make up a very small part of the total economy (and the total population problem). For most of the world, it is simply easier to have fewer children than to become dependent on an underground economy for enough food for more children. Having children, unlike drugs, tobacco and alcohol, is neither addictive or habit forming. [I can already hear the comebacks on that last sentence ;-]Korakot: Yes, though I am convinced that we are going to see 14 billion, perhaps 20 billion, humans before the sheer volume and size of ecological catastrophes, combined with the voluntary reductions inbirth rate already occurring, will negate human propensity to keep breeding to the level of available food production. Yet I still believe that, on balance, human innovation (which has produced birth control as well as advanced medicines) has had, on balance, neither a positive nor a negative impact on the overpopulation problem.

  13. natasha says:

    Dave, if this premise held up, America and Europe should be having lots of kids. But they have the fewest, in spite of being the best fed. The countries that have the most children are places where infant mortality is high, violent death in conflict is a constant peril, the water supply is scarce or tainted, and the risk of starvation is high.Do you know what happens to a plant when it knows that it’s going to die? (I’m anthropomorphizing for clarity, forgive me.) It puts out as many seeds as it can. The most beautiful flowers it may ever have produced, the most luscious fruit possible. And humans do the same thing. People raised in cultures of high survival anxiety have lots of children. They do so because it’s the best way to guarantee that at least one will successfully continue on. Children raised in low survival anxiety cultures tend to have a number of children that more closely approaches the replacement rate. Consider the differences in first and second generation US immigrants, or our transition from agrarian to industrial economy, along with the predictable reduction in family size.Restricting the food supply would be, in my opinion, highly counterproductive.

  14. DL Fitch says:

    The only part of this argument that is correct is that there is too much food in the world. This is not a problem because it will cause overpopulation (people don’t go, ‘honey, I got a raise and we can afford more groceries now, so let’s squeeze out a few more kids’). Too much food has resulted in it becoming too cheap, and local farmers in developing countries cannot make a profit from their produce. Third world agriculture have collapsed as a result, leaving millions of the world’s poorest people dependent on food that has to come from thousands of miles away. The issue is more complicated than it is made out to be here, and it has nothing to do with mice but rather capitalism as a whole.

  15. shan says:

    How does the boiled frog phenomenon apply to business and particularly, strategic management. What could a company do to avoid this phenomenon.

  16. rupert schmitt says:

    Have you actually put a frog into cool water and gradually raised the temperature to prove that the frog will not jump out? Many people cite this but I have never heard of anyone putting the frog to the test?

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