Choose now: a “depopulation explosion” or a doubling of earth’s population by 2040

Movie poster for SOYLENT GREEN (1973)

There’s a very worthy front-page story in today’s Washington Post (“Simplicity Becomes a Selling Point“) about the current scramble among mass-produced food companies to slant their advertising campaigns to cater to the swelling public desire for greater simplicity and “naturalness” in food products, and also the desire for more locally produced foods.

Near the end it features this choice paragraph that serves as a useful gauge for current attitudes toward and levels of (un)awareness about where we’re headed in our resource-constrained future:

“Processed food — whatever that means — is not all terrible,” says analyst [Phil] Lempert [a food and consumer behavior analyst who calls himself the Supermarket Guru]. “The reality is that in the next 20 to 30 years we’re going to double the number of people on the planet. We need to figure out how to feed people in a good, affordable way.”

To which I respond, “NOT!” Double the planet’s population by 2030 or 2040? If I live a normal life span — normal for current population levels, that is — I’ll still be alive in this postulated future scenario. And it’s not one that I want to see. Can you say Soylent Green?

This is where I find the reality of peak oil and other resource constraints to be a positive comfort. Insane as it may sound, I’ll take a massive population crash — John Michael Greer’s “depopulation explosion” — and a return to more healthful and sustainable numbers and ways any day over the possibility of a dystopian earth that’s struggling to sustain 13 or 14 billion people. And I mean this even if I should happen to number among the hordes that are culled as Mother Earth and the laws of ecological reality begin to set things straight.

On a completely different note, the Post article is also good reading for its featuring of Michael Pollan, who continues to prove himself the best food journalist on the planet, not least because of his casual willingness to “tell it like it is.” His 2007 New York Times essay “Unhappy Meals” introduced me to him and simply blew me away. What he says in his recent books (which I have only skimmed in bookstores) and, as quoted below, in today’s Post only confirms the necessity of his voice and presence in America’s collective media consciousness.

“It is better that the food be simpler than more complex,” Pollan said in an interview. “On the other hand, this is another case of food manufacturers reformulating to reflect whatever the latest critique of their food is and turning what is a criticism into a marketing strategy to sell more food.”

….Will such products help Americans to eat more healthfully? Pollan is not optimistic. Successful marketing campaigns have led many to feel virtuous about eating large quantities of low-fat cookies or low-carb pastas, even as obesity among U.S. adults continued to rise.

….For Pollan, a local pedigree and fewer ingredients may be better. But ultimately, he says [of Frito-Lay products, Snapple Beverages, Haagen-Dazs, and more], “It’s still junk food.”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 7, 2009, in Environment & Ecology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Of course, if there’s a war over what few resources remain, then ultimately, we might find ourselves at the point where we ARE at a population more sustainable. Not to say I advocate war; I despise it. Sadly, however, it is simply one more bad possibility of many that await.

  2. I don’t read as much on this subject as you, but help me out. I *thought* populations were shrinking in most all of Europe, and were steady in N America (bearing in mind that even 2.1 children per couple is actually shrinkage, since they have to “make up” for all the people who don’t have children or who die before bearing children). China I thought was pretty near zero growth, and India was slowing down. So if the doubling number is anywhere near right, it’d have to all come from Africa, South America, and parts of Asia and the Near East. Which would, essentially, turn those places into hells on Earth, with massive stravations and pandemics, and inevitable wars for resources as well. Which are just nature’s (highly unpleasant) way of saying “Slow down. There’s way too many of you all.” But are there numbers I’m unaware of? Not trying to pull a Hank on you and paint a too rosy picture, just trying to get the numbers straight.

  3. EnigmaticWinter

    Well, I’m all for world domination: but who would want to rule a world like that? On the other hand, i am against all opinions that say the world is becoming overpopulated. The entire population could fit easily inside Texas if bunched up (i think the actual estimate is an acre each, but that sounds a bit high). Also, if you gave each person in the world a four foot by four foot square to stand on they could all fit in a thirty square mile block.

    The problem is not overpopulation or lack of food: it is the continuing decrease of people in food manufacturing. By that time the population will have expanded a ton: not enough to be “overpopulated”, but enough that the lack of food manufacturing is an extreme problem. If we want to avert this “crisis”, then we need to look at this area and stop worrying about a problem that doesn’t exist.

  4. thefaithfulmind — Yes, any large-scale population reduction may well be largely unintentional and uncontrolled. In fact I think it’s more likely to turn out that way than not. An uncomfortable thought, for obvious reasons.

    EW — Well, I think the problem of “the population bomb,” as it was famously called by Paul Ehrlich in the late 1960s in his book of that title, manifestly *does* exist. And is it somehow solved by postulating the impossible-to-occur (and, if it did happen, impossible-to-live-in) situation of each individual on the planet being confined to four square feet?

    But I’ll certainly concur with your diagnosis of a food production problem, and one that’s apparently poised to cause serious and large-scale troubles for us all. And the historically low number of people, especially in the industrial nations, who are involved in food production is definitely a factor in the situation. See, for instance, “New food crisis looms” (UPI, April 6) and “G8 warns of hunger threat to global stability” (Financial Times, April 6) , the latter of which begins by saying,

    The world faces the prospect of a permanent food crisis endangering international stability if countries do not take “immediate interventions in agriculture”, according to the policy document for the first Group of Eight ministerial meeting on agriculture.

    The report, entitled “The global challenge: to reduce food emergency”, warns that global food production needs to double by 2050 to feed a surging population while at the same time dealing with “pronounced climate changes” and higher input costs.

    “Without immediate interventions in agriculture and agri-marketing systems, the 2007 crisis will become structural in only a few decades,” the document, drafted by the G8’s Italian presidency and seen by the Financial Times, warns.

    KP — Obviously your questions are valid. Please pardon me while I refer to Wikipedia — a move whose associated stigma is apparently fading away, especially since Encarta just officially gave up and closed its doors in this new age of user-created free encyclopedias on demand; see “Microsoft’s Encarta, Rendered Obsolete by Wikipedia, Will Shut Down,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14.

    According to the Wikipedia article on U.S. demographics,

    U.S. population growth is among the highest in industrialized countries, since the vast majority of these have below-replacement fertility rates and the U.S. has stronger immigration. Accordingly, the United States Census Bureau shows an increase of 0.95% between November 2007 and November 2008 for the resident population. Nonetheless, though high by industrialized country standards, this is below the world average annual rate of 1.19%. Long term, the U.S. growth rate is projected to surpass that of the world at large: the Census Bureau projects a population of 439 million in 2050, which is a 46% gain from 2007, compared to the world population’s gain of 38% over the same period, per United Nations projections; per the U.N., the U.S. increase will be 32%, from 306 million in 2007 to 402 million in 2050.

    Maybe not Soylent Green, but still nothing to scoff at.

    As for Europe and China, yes, I’ve heard the news that the former is experiencing a slight population decline in certain regions. But I hear China is actually still growing at a fairly rapid clip despite the “one child” policy.

    And the overall point of my Soylent Green-inspired viewpoint is that we’re almost certainly living in a state of ecological overshoot right now with our global population of 6 or 7 billion, and we’re indisputably experiencing all sorts of bizarre and unpleasant social disruptions and breakdowns, many of which seem attributable to population pressures. Given all this, what would a doubling of that number look like? I don’t think we’ll ever do it. I think pressures like famine, disease, natural disasters, war, and industrial collapse will prevent it. But the very thought of such a global population situation is a still a nightmare greatly to be feared, and making any sort of plans based on the idea that we will or, God help us, *should* get there strikes me as misguided.

    Sorry if I didn’t manage to address your comment and question directly. I’m up past my usual bedtime and the synapses are sluggish.

  5. Of course, as you’ve pointed out before, Cardin, the problem isn’t necessarily that we can’t feed all the people in the world; the problem is that we don’t. The industrialized nations (especially the United States) are well-supplied in terms of food supply, while the developing and undeveloped nations are mostly left to fend for themselves. I think I pointed out in one of my blog posts that the United States more money on trash bags than some countries have to spend on the basic essentials of life, i.e. water, shelter, food. I think it’s also interesting that a dollar will barely buy you a candy bar in the United States, but it can feed a child for a day through Compassion International, which tells me that our gross overabundance of food in the United States has inflated the cost of food far beyond its actual value. So, the excess of food in the United States is problematic for us because we are paying inflated prices for food, and the food isn’t being provided to undeveloped countries who really need it.

  6. EnigmaticWinter

    Faithful, i do agree that america spends more on frivolous things and waste than on important things. I for one have first hand experience in just how much food America wastes, seeing as how i work at McDonalds. We waste enough food each day to feed someone for three months in my opinion. And i’m not just talking scraps: i’m talking whole sandwiches and meals, thrown aways just because they sat in the warmer for longer than thirty minutes. Thirty bucks could feed a child in Africa for a month and Americans have the audacity to say that obesity is a disease! It comes from an overabundance of food, not from a genetic disorder. In America we have the luxury to be fat: in other countries they don’t even have the luxury to eat a whole meal a day sometimes. It goes back to one of my favorite pictures: it shows a brand new SUV on one side and an extremely thin African on the other and has the title DEFINE NECESSITY. I can’t stand how bad America’s priorities can be sometimes.

  7. Ok, if the point is “We’ll far exceed our resources by 2040,” that sounds likely (esp the unrenewable resources). That’s not quite the same as “We’ll double the population and resort to cannibalism,” though I love those headlines, you little imp, you!

  8. EnigmaticWinter

    So we’ll all become Reavers? That would stink. I mean with the right seasonings maybe…..

    That was a joke.

  9. The industrial nation state, as an institution of industrial civilization, collapses. No one gets to dodge the Post-Peak Oil bullet. It is time for the Peal Oil Movement to embrace the States’ Rights Movement. FYI:

    North American Secessionist Congress, October 2010

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