7 billion mouths to feed.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus presented his fear that eventually we would all starve to death. His theory was that food supply was a natural brake on population increase. As agriculture would improve, it would allow more people to survive, but at a certain point farming would reach its limit and the rising population – coming behind that curve – would temporarily exceed the limits of food production. The following period of famine and war would destroy most of what that process of civilisation had achieved, and the human race would be reduced to square one. For two hundred years, as agriculture has constantly exceeded demand for food, Malthus has beencategorized with those victorians who thaought that travelling over 30 miles an hour would cause asphixiation. Quaint, yet hopelessly wrong.
As we see the nominal birth of our 7 billionth Human Being, it may be a good time to reflect on what Malthus broadly got right. Food security has undoubtedly been at the heart of the growth of civilizations. As food becomes plentiful, the population rises and from that increase in numbers comes creativity, knowledge, curiosity and the time and wherewithal to achieve progress. There is no doubt that we are on a similar curve. But as each civilsation reaches its peak, food security, the foundation of its success, starts to falter. Those great achievements of agriculture – irrigation, fertilisers and continuous usage eventually take their toll and the land becomes barren. Ironically these civilisations are advanced enough to monitor their demise. The move from wheat to barley ( a crop more salt tolerant) is often the first sign of the disaster to come.
Of course, our forebears were very limited in their methods of destruction. They couldn’t effect their environment much. Today, our industrial power is changing our climate, something more fundamental than the land we live on. Of course we are advanced enough to monitor the climate change. I wonder if there is a marker as clear as the switch to barley? I wonder if we have reached it yet?