Friday, 2 December 2011

Soylent Green is PEOPLE!!

My attention was drawn to a startling fact today. The global population in classic 60s overpopulation dystopias 'Soylent Green' and John Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' was 7 billion. Exactly the same number of people as currently exist here in 2011. Brunner was even spot on about the year - his book was set in 2010. The film version of Soylent Green was set in 2022, although it was based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel 'Make Room, Make Room', set in 1999. Either way, in spite of persistent food production problems in some parts of Africa (especially war-torn parts like Somalia), you'll have noticed that people aren't being forced to sleep on fire escapes (or only by poverty, not lack of available accomodation) and we aren't having to eat recycled human bodies. It's worth reflecting a little on why that is.

The books were part of a wave of eco-doom novels that were kicked off by the first beginnings of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring arguably began the whole thing, in 1962, but by 1968 the concern had moved beyond her focus on very real and widespread pollution and on to the looming population crisis, care of Paul Erlich's neo-Malthusian 'The Population Bomb' - its title designed to mirror then-current concerns about the other Bomb - the hydrogen bomb - and predicting that its effects would be just as devastating. Erlich wrote: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." He said that India might as well be written off - there was no way it could feed more than 200 million people (for the record, its population is currently six times that). We should concentrate on saving ourselves, via mandatory sterilisation and closing our borders against the inevitable tidal wave of famine refugees.

Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said: "it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." The fact that all this didn't come to pass was as a result of what has been called the 'Green Revolution'. A combination of irrigation, increased cropping area, fast-growing strains of wheat and rice, and increased use of fertilizer has tripled world food yields. The godfather of this was an American scientist named Norman Borlaug - a man who deserves to be far more widely known than he is. It is arguable that half of the world's population is alive today thanks to his work, especially in India. Now modern agriculture has many critics, and it's certainly by no means perfect, but we mustn't overlook the almost miraculous way it has saved the world from mass starvation. As Borlaug himself put it: "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels... If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

We're not out of the woods yet. Global population continues to grow, although the rate of increase is falling rapidly and it will probably peak somewhere above 9 billion in 20 years or so. Water resources are becoming scarce in some parts of the world, and careless use of fertilizer has caused side effects like the seasonal 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico - although it ought to be noted that fertilizer use in the developed world has actually been falling for 30 years. And then... the Green Revolution is still under way. Africa has still yet to benefit from it in the same way that China, India and South America have. Meanwhile more targeted use of fertilizer and new genetic technologies also offer the promise of even more increases in yield. I'd never argue that all in the garden is perfect, and we owe a great debt to the environmental movement for cleaning up our industry and agriculture and making the world around us a much safer and cleaner one. But let's also remember that technology let us dodge this particular bullet (or Bomb), and it's our best hope for keeping pace as population continues to rise.

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