Wizards versus Prophets: How to feed 10 billion people

The Atlantic carries a useful discussion of two schools of thought, one of which is broadly eco-doomist, and the other is ameliorist. The dispute takes place in the vital issue of agriculture, and the author situates the dispute as one between William Vogt (1902-1968) and Norman Borlaug, (1914-2009) father the Green Revolution. It will come as no surprise that they knew and despised each other.

Vogt published his views in 1948 in a book called the Road to Survival, which, according to Wikipedia set forth

…his strong belief that then-current trends in fertility and economic growth were rapidly destroying the environment and undermining the quality of life of future generations. Vogt’s most significant contribution was to link environmental and perceived overpopulation problems, warning in no uncertain terms that current trends would deliver future wars, hunger, disease and civilizational collapse.

Road to Survival was an influential best seller. It had a big impact on a Malthusian revival in the 1950s and 60s. After its publication he dedicated many activities to the cause of overpopulation. From 1951 to 1962, he served as a National Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Borlaug, says Wikipedia:

…was often called “the father of the Green Revolution”,[5][6] and is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.[7][8][9][10] According to Jan Douglas, executive assistant to the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, the source of this number is Gregg Easterbrook‘s 1997 article “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity”, the article states that the “form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.”[11] He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

As a Bengali-born professor of economics once told me, in relation to the Green Revolution, “when I first came to Bangladesh I could see the ribs of the rice farmers; now I can’t”.

The Atlantic article is entertaining and informative, but it fails to mention the vital point, which determines whether Vogt or Borlaug will win the argument. As soon as women can be guaranteed that they will have one or two surviving children, they cease to have more. Everywhere in the world, industrialized or not, population growth is crashing. This process is occurring with great suddenness in Islamic countries. The world population will be 10 billion by 2050; what the article fails to mention is that it will be 7 billion by 2100, according to David Goldman, who bases himself on UN population projections and the latest birth rates.

These issue are explored in David Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is dying too). The book overturns a number of beliefs that were drummed into us in the 1970s and beyond: overpopulation, ecological disaster, resources running out, doom, in short.

Goldman advances the view that throughout history, but especially now, population decline is mostly to be feared, because it throws economies into a tailspin. Fertility rates have fallen below replacement in nearly all wealthy countries, and are doing so in Islamic countries.

In the great ideological debate about human nutrition, one can only hope that Borlaug’s practical optimism will prevail. The eco-doomist vision has never failed to produce want, misery and failure. Stick with the optimists, it will be tough enough even if they are right.

Of the questions that need to be asked bout human society in the next decades, the relevant one is whether we will still breed in 2050 enough to avoid social and economic collapse. There will be enough food, enough water, and enough resources. The truly important question is whether there will be enough humans to enjoy them by 2100. Spengler maintains that birth rates are falling between the green line and the yellow line in the UN population projections, shown below. (I leave aside the important question whether the remaining humans will be slaves or masters of their robotic machinery).

World Population Estimates


Goldman says the green line is the correct one.