The Austerity Conundrum

| 5/27/2009 1:19:02 PM

Tags: sustainable human future, conservation, industrial agriculture, agriculture, human population,

You’ll read here and there these days that industrial agriculture is more environmentally friendly than organic agriculture or traditional, diverse farming practices.

The writer is, almost without exception, someone who makes a living, directly or indirectly, from industrial agriculture. That doesn’t change the fact that they are, in their reasoning, perfectly correct. Industrial agriculture pollutes in ways organic and traditional growers do not, but its efficiency also creates environmental benefits.

As humanity’s population grows and we sprawl across the planet’s empty spaces, the efficiency of our food production becomes more and more important. As much as I believe in organics and grass-feeding, I don’t believe that I can produce 100 calories of soybeans or a pound of hamburger in a smaller space than the industrial farmer. I need more room, and generally more time, to do what I do.

If I have a hungry world to feed and I feel a sense of urgency, then it’s time to cultivate, irrigate and spray. It’s time for genetic engineering, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. That’s the way to produce the maximum amount of food using the minimum time and space.

I’m not talking about sustainability. I’m talking about efficiency.

Our toughest philosophical problem these days is what I call the Austerity Conundrum. A lot of people believe in human dominion and unfettered expansion. That leads us to a world in which we will, eventually, have minimal resources available to each person. We can’t expand production forever, so if we continue expanding demand we end up stretching our resources thin. It’s a grim certainty.

david grubba
12/9/2009 10:10:38 PM

The thing about arguing over damage to the environment is that there are a lot of different things that constitute the environment. The usual definition I have heard is "anything that is not built by humans". That is a lot of things. That's everything. Surely actions that damage parts of the environment may not affect others. It is time to stop thinking of about "the environment". There is the earth, and there are her numerous systems.

bob r
9/11/2009 8:51:57 AM

P.S. I got the name of the river wrong, but the basic point is the same. Population growth, while necessary to sustain our current economic systems, is damaging our environment.

bob r
7/7/2009 6:15:32 PM

Okay, I may have gotten carried away, inferring things about others because they do not agree with me. Please let me give a real instance where population control might be part of the solution. Some readers are probably familiar with the water war going on between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Georgia gets first shot at the waters of the Ochloconee River. With water rationing every summer in recent memory, Georgia wants to be allowed to take more water from the river. This water is important to Florida and Alabama, too, so they have gone to court to try to prevent Georgia from taking any more of the water. Now, given the perennial water shortage, is it good planning, or good stewardship of resources, for Atlanta to approve more housing developments or encourage people to relocate there? The increased building and other business generated is nice, but what about the water situation? The current lack of fresh water from this river,combined with increasing pollution, is decimating the Gulf coast fisheries. So it is not just a matter of providing water for humans.

7/6/2009 10:08:20 PM

But the idea that government is more likely to be a part of the problem than a part of the solution is a political question. This principle is not well known or popular in most of the world. Leaders of nations do not tend to support this thesis, for obvious reasons. Only in the United States is this belief a strong part of our political beliefs, and it is much less understood and believed today than it was 233 years ago.

7/6/2009 10:01:15 PM

I'm not suggesting that just because "no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" that there is nothing that can or should be done to speed things along and reduce pain and conflict. But the paradigm that I put forth suggests a very different set of approaches to solving population and hunger problems than others have suggested here, including the author of the article above. I am suggesting that the way to conquer hunger in third world nations is to foster the conditions that bring industrialization, such as property rights and an independent judiciary. Since first world countries have already invented approaches to manufacturing that have less impact on the environment than those used in the 19th century (when we went through the process), third word countries can industrialize with a less negative impact on their environment than the US went through. But we cannot realistically expect that a widget produced in Africa or China will have as low of an impact on the environment as one produced in the US today. Not anytime soon, at least. I am suggesting that the way to conquer over population in incompletely industrialized nations like China is to hasten the maturity of their process, not to hamper it. Absent their "great leap forward" which brought their progress to a halt for many years, I suggest that China would be much further along now than they are, and would be neither polluting nor expanding their population as quickly as they are today. It seems to me that most of the hunger and/or starvation exists in countries whose governments are hampering the progress of their people through stifling regulation, taxation, limits on foreign investment, and import/export restrictions; and where the rule of power predominates rather than the rule of law. There are, indeed, studies that support this thesis. (There are also studies that show that government to government aid tends to make things worse rather than better.) B

fran tracy
7/6/2009 9:21:32 PM

I think one of the problems is our welfare system which increases the amount a persongets when they have another child. This encourarges the non-productive people to just keep having children they have no intention of taking care of or supporting. As a working person, I didn't get a raise when my son was born. The other thing about organic farming, is that everyone can do it in a small way and even in the city as container gardening and the quality of the food wood be better. If people put their vegitable and paper waste in a composting system, they would be decreasing the amount of waste going into landfills as well as building the quality of the soil one person at a time. I also don't believe this garbage of global warming. Just look at the average temperatures ofer the last 10 years and you will see they go up and downperiodicly and last year it started going down again. This whole thing about stopping using oil and coal is rediculous. It will creaate a country where we are all back to the great depression and unable to heat our homes or afford our food. Fran

drue woods_2
7/6/2009 7:57:26 PM

When issues are important there is no room for name calling,example if you do not agree with my take you have you head in the sand. I do not claim to know, but i would really appreciate it if those who do know would argue with facts backed up by something except this feels right or someone else says the same thing. it seems that most of the hunger and or starvation exists in countries that simply don't have the capabilities to solve the problems. is it possible that we need in depth studies that meet the scholarly requirements with their required experimentation, analysis, etc and see if we can solidly pin our problems on population growth or any other factor. i truly suspect we would find that there are many factors to take in consideration when it is time to find a solution.

bob r
7/6/2009 7:17:29 PM

Well, I guess we could just continue on blindly, reassured by people like BillH, that ultimately everything resolves itself satisfactorily. (How wonderful!) Please let the pre-industrialized people that are currently starving to death know that everything is okay.

7/6/2009 3:41:02 PM

Currently, America produced more than twice as much food per person than is neede. It is estimated that some 100-150 pounds of food is thrown into the garbage annually in America or some 40%. Perhaps if things were a little more "austere" Americans would be driven to be more frugal with their food: Restaraunts wouldn't serve as big portions, grocery stores wouldn't toss still edible food in the dumpster out back, farmers wouldn't "dump" food in order to raise prices, people wouldn't let the zucchini rot in the back of the fridge. Maybe American wouldn't have become the fattest nation in the world if they had less to over eat. Many will say that population growth is the problem, but from where I sit, this looks more like a problem of distribution and stewardship (i.e. self-centeredness and greed). On another note, we should also look at the population controls of China and India as a cautionary tale. Because of the restrictive nature of their laws, parents are killing their female children. They now have fears that there will be not enough women in their future for all of their male prodigy and that this could lead to more violence against and oppression of women in their cultures.

7/6/2009 3:17:01 PM

Overpopulation is simply not a long-term problem. Prior to the industrialization of a country, the population is limited by lack of food, caused by inefficiency. During the industrialization of a country/cultural area, inefficiency is greatly reduced and the population quickly climbs (as does pollution). Post industrialization, the population levels again, this time based on life-style choices rather than limited resources (and pollution levels plummet, as they have in the US). The US and Europe are not even achieving replacement levels of births; what little population growth that exists is due to immigration. There only appears to be a problem when you look at the worldwide figures added together rather than looking at the processes that take place over and over, country by country. Until China achieves post-industrialization status, the world will continue to see great population growth. But the situation is self-correcting. Indeed, the world can accurately be seen as a single living organism, with built-in corrective measures. And human beings are a part of that organism, not a deadly cancer, as some extremists characterize us.

bob r
7/6/2009 2:57:59 PM

John Stossel claimed on 20/20 that over-population is a myth, and that our human creativity will allow us to support many more billions. To which I say, just because something is possible doesn't mean it is desirable. Personally, I don't think we are all that clever, because the environment has some really big problems that are getting worse and some roads we are going down now are looking like dead-ends. It makes sense to respect the balancing act that has been performed by the earth and its ecosystems for billions of years. There is no doubt that modern human activities, and the sheer numbers of humans, are upsetting this balance. If you don't see this, you have your head in the sand or perhaps you are under the influence of some religious ideology that is effecting your ability to think.

mary lou shaw
7/6/2009 1:58:28 PM

This article speaks to the fact that we humans must obey nature's rules just like all other living things. If we don't take it upon ourselves to do so, than the planet will make adjustments to survive without our positive input. And perhaps without us. To continue think that we can grow our population by eliminating the food and habitate of other species is a dangerous arrogance. We spoke earnestly of population control in the 1970's, but were put back to sleep by corporations that benefit from our growth and consumption. Humility and common sense means we live in balance with all other living things on our planet while the choice is still ours. I am glad Mother Earth News will speak up on this most basic issue.

melanie _1
7/6/2009 12:12:48 PM

I think many who tout population control, and how much humans are a 'cancer' on the earth forget how innovative humans are when pressed to do so. I don't think that people are even considering the acropolis idea. Growing up rather than out, and using permaculture. However, there needs to be a cohesive vision for that to happen...and it won't until the average person actually feels the crunch of non sustainability.

dawn montague_2
7/6/2009 12:01:34 PM

There are a number of problems I see in the article and in some of the comments. We are a "quick fix" culture. Too many people are willing to ignore human rights and/or destruction of the natural environment, thinking there is no other way, in order to "fix" a problem. Things like the value of human life and true sustainability fly out the window when times get tough and we think we have no other choice because we believe the fear mongers (they come in both conservative and liberal disguises). The reality, right now, is that the world is producing plenty for every person on earth. And we are far, far from the maximum efficiency that organic production could produce (read John Jeavons and Fukuoka). So why do we have starving people? Wars, corruption, greed, you name it. In that regard, much hasn't changed since Francis Moore Lappe wrote "Diet for a Small Planet". I do not think we can blame population. I believe the root of the problem (and so many other problems) is greed and pride. We want much more than we need and believe we can get away with murder. As a translator who is often privy to confidential materials that have to be translated for court cases, I can tell you that the depth of greed and corruption in international business and government is unfathomable. The truly ethical company is a rarity, and they are usually the small ones. Agribusiness is no exception.

bob r
7/6/2009 11:31:13 AM

I am glad to see MEN addressing this issue. I stopped supporting the Sierra Club years ago because their official stance was to ignore population growth as a cause for concern. Since then, I learned that a wealthy individual contributed a huge sum of money to them, on the condition that they drop the population issue. Why this is taboo for some people is a mystery to me. Paul Ehrlich, author of Population Timebomb, weighed in again on a recent Diane Rheem Show. He indicated it was possible to change from an economic model that depends on ever increasing consumption, by ever increasing numbers, to one that reaches a sustainable stasis. I would like to hear more about this.

george works
7/6/2009 10:28:02 AM

I completely agree. If the human population expands until resource availability limits our population, we face a future where each of us has barely enough to survive. Some evidence suggests that we've already passed this point and only consumption of non-renewable fossil resources now sustains our population growth. It's high time to have a serious discussion of this issue. If we wait until we are starving, we will have no good options left. Do our human rights include the right to bring children into the world who will starve? Is this a responsible thing to do?

7/6/2009 10:21:41 AM

Ah, efficiency! The will-of-the-wisp Americans seek in vain.. What's the efficiency of travel in a good hybrid when the purpose could be served as well on the phone? (hint: zero) For food growing, it was known before Fukuoka (from USDA data measuring calories in and out) that agriculture is progressively LESS efficient over the decades. Top performing (Fukuoka) are hand labor without animals except us; then animals; then machines, which among other inefficiencies have no 'get.' (They don't reproduce, just break or wear out.) Americans, read John Jeavons' classic on food production with less water and land, now in its 7th edition, and see what 'efficiency' could be. Also those neglected scholarly pieces showing that organics can feed the world, without the side effects.

7/4/2009 12:04:09 PM

The first comment is spot on. Industrialized agriculture is only more efficient (more output per input) if we ignore the externalized costs that the commentor lists, plus natural resource deterioration and depletion -- which, of course, we do.

7/2/2009 10:50:45 PM

When you say that conventional farming is more efficient in terms of space, you neglect the space required to mine the oil, mine the metals to make the oil mining machinery, transport ships, pipelines, delivery trucks, tractors, pick-up trucks, etc etc etc, factories where all this stuff is produced on and on throughout the supply chain. This chain doesn't exist for organic gardening.

john brandes
5/28/2009 4:00:35 PM

China has laws about population control, yet we look at them and constantly point out how the violate human rights.

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