"Malthus is usually full of it," said an online friend and instead of walking quietly by, I plunged in. The conversation then went down paths as familiar as a night-time trip to the bathroom. He talked about birth control and food-production technology as "disproving" Malthus. I talked about primary productivity and long timescales and tried, unsuccessfully, to say that you couldn't disprove Malthus since the fundamental ideas are axiomatic. Population growth is -- has to be! -- exponential, although with very effective birth control the exponent can be close to zero. And food supply grows geometrically, even with fabulously advanced technology, because it requires surface area to intercept sunlight. As a result, population is bound to outstrip food in the absence of technological and behavioural change, the core of Malthus' argument.

Having singularly failed to budge one another, I was tempted to write the whole thing off as an essentially harmless waste of time that served mostly to confirm my existing bias against people who don't understand biology. Then I read Nathanael Johnson's piece about the argument raging around him, and decided to follow his lead.

Poor Nathanael has undertaken actually to examine the arguments for and against genetically engineered food almost from first principles; going back to original sources, talking to people at different points on the pro-anti spectrum, assessing what he's found, and sharing his conclusions. For his pains, he is being pilloried as both an industry shill and an anti-scientific luddite, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Rather than wishing a plague on both their houses, which is my standard approach to this sort of thing these days, in the most recent example Johnson went back to the name-calling to see whether he could extract from it anything of value. Thus inspired, I returned to the wreck of my recent conversation and from it pulled two potential survivors. One is the axiomatic nature of Malthus' starting points which don't, in my view, require further discussion. The other is my interlocutor's use of "cheap" and "efficient" as self-evident virtues of food production, at least in the USA.

"Our wealth makes us crave less efficient foods," he said, meaning food produced by organic and other inefficient methods. My reply, that in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, it was because people were so poor that they had to make to with the same methods of production, went nowhere. Nor did raising the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, dustbowls, the consequences of feed-lot beef and intensive pigs and poultry too, obesity or subsidies. And the current absolute dependence on fossil fuels was no worry either, because energy was getting cheaper all the time. All in all, the externalities associated with "cheap" and "efficient" food seemed not to be a problem.

Maybe, then, it would be good to avoid words like "cheap" and "efficient". How about substituting "easy"?

Current unsustainable food production is certainly easy. It asks very little of the "farmer," other than to invest large amounts of capital and trust in his suppliers and buyers. Until it becomes harder, and I can think of lots of ways that might happen, why would you give it up? Because it and you cannot survive? Pshaw.

Next time, I really am going to walk on by.

Reactions from around the web


Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.

“Ordinary” comments

These are not webmentions, but ordinary old-fashioned comments left by using the form below.