Optimism v. Pessimism. Boserup v. Malthus.

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I’ve written about Norman Borlaug often. (Here’s but one example.) Back when I was younger, he was advocating for what we now call the Green Revolution. And, while Borlaug was promoting methods to increase agricultural yields world-wide, there was a competing voice, that of William Vogt.

Now, Vogt was the prophet of doom. He claimed that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity”, the maximum ability of the world to support a given population. In his tome, “Road to Survival” (published a few years before I was born), he was telling folks that we were doomed. Our soil capacity was being extinguished and our food production would be unable to keep up with the burgeoning population. In essence, he was the original Chicken Little (espousing the Malthusian doctrine at all times.) He was an ornithologist by training and, believe it or not, the director of Planned Parenthood. (Hmm. Now you see from where and on which syllable the emphasis on Planned Parenthood originated- because he wanted the total population controlled!)

One major difference between these two scientific spokesmen- Vogt had a Bachelor’s degree (albeit with honors) from St. Stephen’s (now Bard College), while Borlaug was a PhD geneticist from the University of Minnesota. (Borlaug also was associated with the Rockefeller Foundation.)

That argument- how much population our planet can withstand- has been overtaken by the question of climate change. But, when I was growing up, the push was on to prove Vogt wrong and for us to focus upon methods to feed the world. (It’s what inspired me to include hydroponic research among my home lab escapades.)

(Vogt also reminds me of a scientist who took great umbrage with our development of microbes that converted ammonia to nitrogenous gasses, That fellow was positive-and extremely vocal- claiming that we were going to destabilize agricultural production.  He, too, was dead wrong.)

Borlaug was a big advocate of the Haber-Bosch process to produce nitrogen fertilizer [one of the bigger contributer to the pollution that we were “fixing” with our new development]. But, Borlaug also bred crops, choosing those with genes most capable of responding to nitrogen fertilizers.

Right before Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize (1970), Vogt committed suicide, since he felt his ideas were not being properly considered. 1970 was also the year that Dr. Paul Ehrlich published his tome, “The Population Bomb”- and two years later he helped write “The Limits to Growth” (along with DH Meadows, DL Meadows, J Randers, and WW Behrens). Both of those books became the bibles of the nascent Earth Day acolytes.

As a matter of fact, Ehrlich’s beliefs were the subject of a semi-apocalyptic movie in 1973, Soylent Green. Which itself was loosely based on the sci-fi novel, Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. Both the novel and the movie promised a dystopian future of dying oceans, perennial humidity due to the greenhouse effect, thereby yielding a world laden with pollution, poverty, overpopulation, euthanasia and depleted resources. Thankfully, Borlaug was proven to offer the correct operational plan for our civilizations.

(IIf all this is of interest, you may want to read Charles Mann’s book- The Wizard and the Prophet (Charles Knopf). The Wizard is Borlaug; Vogt the Prophet.)

The Wizard and the Prophet

And, to be honest, these arguments also mimic the ones we’ve been entertaining about our economies. Is it critical for our GDP (gross domestic product) to continually increase? Or, is it possible for us to have a thriving nation with a stable GDP? This argument began as a result of the Depression- when many sought out an increase in GDP as the signal that the economic scourge was ending.

But, as mentioned above, Dr. Erhlich and “The Limits to Growth” (1972) advocated that we need to temper our (incorrect) desire to grow GDP with environmental concerns. (These concerns were and are important, but the evidence has show they don’t interfere with GDP growth.)

But, the real issue is that any single aggregate measure cannot account for the innovation or improvements to our lives that may transpire. (However, on the other hand, a drop in GDP does seem to indicate the loss of innovation. Which makes GDP growth more the measure of failure than a potential marker to discern success.)

No matter what surrogate measurement we elect, it is clear that we need to improve conditions for all of our citizenry, not just the 1%. Which is why stock market conditions are clearly NOT the proper surrogate measurement of economic progress.  (Don’t forget that barely 40% of all Americans own a share of stock and 80% of stock market wealth is held by the top 10% of the population.)

Nor is population control the way to go. While I am a fan of Earth Day, I don’t understand how this concept got perverted to believe we can’t improve conditions and augment agricultural production. All this can be done equitably when we incorporate water reuse, develop (and follow) a more responsible water policy, as well as convert our sea water to potable quality (using solar-powered reverse osmosis [RO] systems).

Let’s dream big.

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4 thoughts on “Optimism v. Pessimism. Boserup v. Malthus.”

  1. I heard the saying once “there’s enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed”. I can’t remember who said it, but I genuinely believe there is enough wealth out there in the world to cover the cost of food to Sudan, or water to Mexico, but there’s no profit in it for the 1%. Population growth is something that I have no doubt will adversely affect the way humanity is used to living. But it will be interesting to see whether we adapt, or if we are in fact, doomed. Ultimately though, every species has a lifespan and dies out at some stage … unless you’re an alligator 😀

    1. For what it’s worth, Megan….
      The world’s population has more than doubled since 1970- and we have managed to lower the number of the hungry to keep the level below that of 1970. BUT, we are now running out of water in too many places around the world. So, we need to develop techniques and technology to make this not the rate-limiting problem. (I have written about many of them- devices that produce water from the humidity in the air using solar or wind power, reverse osmosis to recover water from the sea (or waste) using alternative energy, etc.)
      Let’s hope we keep up our progress.

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