Saturday, September 4, 2010

Letting People Starve

Since James Lee took hostages at the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in Virginia earlier this week and, in the process of getting himself killed, thrust the name of Daniel Quinn and the titles of a few of his books into the news cycle, a lot of commentators have invoked the name of late 18th century economist, Thomas Malthus. Malthus warned that human populations will inevitably outgrow their food supply and that, sooner or later, the four horseman of the apocalypse will turn up to balance the books.

This invocation has sparked debates in website comment threads about whether Malthus raised a legitimate concern or whether 200 years of continued increases in the food supply has "proved Malthus wrong." Those who favor the notion that Malthus was just plain wrong equate any concerns about population with Malthus and repeat the incantation "Malthus was wrong" thus dispelling any concerns about the long-term viability of a continually-growing human population.

Some commentators associate Daniel Quinn with Thomas Malthus, assert that Malthus was wrong, and conclude that Daniel Quinn and anyone who takes him seriously is a barking moonbat, a misenthrope, and possibly, even worse in some respectable intellectual circles, anti-business. What these reflexive ideological cascades completely miss is the possibility that Malthus was wrong and that the four horseman have thus far made only cameo appearances and have yet to strut and fret their true hour upon the stage.

I spoke with Daniel Quinn in his home in April of 2008. You can hear that conversation in episode 88 of the C-Realm Podcast: Making a Living. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview in which Daniel Quinn explains why Malthus was wrong and why a Malthusian Correction is still likely.

KMO: You've mentioned in a couple places that people frequently will approach you and say, “Mr. Quinn, I understand what you're saying, but what should I do?” And when they ask you, “What should I do?” you realize that they don't understand what you're saying.

Daniel Quinn: [chuckles]

KMO: What is it that they're missing?

Daniel: What they're missing is that I have no 12-step program. There is no universal program that everyone should follow. There are things like recycling, reusing, re... what's the other one? Yeah, absolutely. Everyone should do those things. But beyond that, what you should do depends on you; depends on what you can do.

A great many people, after reading my books, make unfortunate choices because they say, “Oh, I'm going to become an environmental engineer because, you know, the environment is in danger.” Well, that's unrealistic because they may not have any aptitude for that career, and there isn't that much call for them. They aren't going to be able to make a living. Not everyone who goes into that is going to be able to make a living as an environmental engineer.

The question to ask is, “What can I do best? What am I best at?” And if you are doing what you are best at, then you are going to have more influence there than anywhere else, and influence means having an impact on the people around you. It isn't necessarily sitting down and instructing them. I don't mean that, but people are changed by what the people around them do. Even if the people around them don't necessarily try to make them change, I'm sure that the people around you, people that you know, are influenced by your way of life. They see it, and they compare it to their own life. It does influence their actions in perhaps very subtle ways.

I've heard from teachers, for example, who say, “I don't use your books in my class, but I teach a different way now than I used to.” And that to me is very cheery news. That's what I want. Sure, I'd be happy to have them use my books in their class, but that's not necessary. The important thing is to change them.

The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred because the people of the Soviet Union had changed. From the seventies on, as the younger generation came closer and closer to power, it became possible to have a Gorbachev in office. It couldn't have happened in 1945; to have a Gorbachev in office. It's ridiculous to even think about, but by 1986-7, the people of the Soviet Union had changed and were ready to listen to a new idea, and wanted a new idea; wanted to go a different way.

I once proposed to an audience... I hadn't put it in print. I wouldn't dare to put it in print... that rock and roll had a tremendous influence on the people of the Soviet Union, and it was ultimately, at least in part, responsible for its break-up. And I was very pleased when a year or so ago a Russian student of the history of the Soviet Union expressed the exact same theory; that rock and roll was really very very important in changing the minds of the young people, who eventually became the older people who said, “No more,” to the Communist regime.

KMO: I had another guest who's been on my program on a number of occasions; his name is Dmitry Orlov, and he has just published a book called Re-inventing Collapse: the Soviet Example and American Prospects. He was born in Russia, but he mainly grew up in the United States, but he made trips back to Russia at various points during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. One thing that accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the deliberate creation of a super-elite class of 'oligarchs.' State industries were privatized and given to these people, and in the process, the former Soviet Union underwent a process of economic disintegration in which 20 million people died, and that figure is not widely known.

Daniel: No.

KMO: And it seems as though a similar chain of events is looming on the near horizon here, and some people feel a great sense of urgency. I've just come from the [annual gathering of] the Conference for the New Urbanism, and there are groups of people who are desperately trying to figure out how we can re-arrange our society with the utmost speed so that we're not so dependent on cheap fossil fuels for our just-in-time delivery system of our agricultural products, and those agricultural products are also the products of petroleum. We've taken half a century to structure our country such that we are utterly dependent on cars, and the whole structure of our society is laid out for the convenience of the car and certainly not [for] the convenience of people. Particularly people who don't have cars.

There are people who feel this sense of urgency. There are people who feel this sense of urgency over climate change, but then it seems there are the vast majority of people who are only concerned with their place in the hierarchy, with the status they can acquire, with the amount of money they can acquire, and I think money serves as a sort of placeholder for status. I think social status is really more important to them than controlling resources. And it seems as though the number of people who do feel a sense of urgency is growing, but it doesn't seem that it's growing fast enough to really avert some seriously unpleasant consequences that will result in what I've been calling a 'Malthusian Correction.'

Another guest I've had on the program is a retired mathematics professor from Colorado. His name is Albert Bartlett, and he talks about the exponential function. He has a lecture that he's given thousands of times that he calls 'The Exponential Function' talking about population and the results of our loss of cheap and easily available oil for producing food. And as I sit here, the hairs on my arms and legs are starting to stand up as I think about... when I take that idea from being an abstract notion and actually imagining what it would be like in the lives of the people, [voice wavering with emotion] in the lives of my children... [long pause]

Daniel: Well, certainly, if we don't manage to come up with petroleum-free agricultural in the very near future, there's going to be a massive die-off of humanity. No question of that, and there certainly isn't any problem that is more urgent than finding those solutions. [There is] one problem whose urgencey never goes away, and that is our continued population growth which makes worse the problems we face with the loss of petroleum.

We are in the midst of a period of mass extinction as great as any in the past.

KMO: Two hundred species a day, you say.

Daniel: Up to. I think the UN recently put out a report saying a hundred and fifty... a hundred and seventy five. It's still an enormous number when considered daily. And the thing is that, of course, we don't see species dropping dead before our eyes.

KMO: We don't see species. We just see individual animals, and we have a very small subset of the species in the world within our view. We see squirrels and a few birds.

Daniel: [Chuckling] Yes, that's right. Exactly, and when species become extinct, most of us are not anywhere near enough to see them become extinct. We're down there in Brazil, destroying the environment of countless species in order to provide more biomas for humans, and we are robbing the environment there of the biomass of other species which dwindle, and dwindle, and dwindle and eventually cease to be. And this will eventually, if we [let it] go unchecked and if we continue at our present rate, we'll be at nine billion, perhaps even twelve billion. There's no way in the world that the world can survive... that the living community can survive a twelve billion human population. It can't survive a six billion population, as a matter of fact. That's why we're in the midst of a mass extinction. It's because the six billion of us require so much biomass to keep us at six billion and growing.

I'm not a Malthusian. I'm here to refute Malthus. Malthus was the first to incorporate into science the notion of human exceptionalism. All living, animate species, without exception (except one); their populations depend completely on the availability of food. If more food becomes available, their population grows. Absolutely. And when food becomes less available, the population diminishes; absolutely, without fail. But according to Malthus, we are an exception to that. According to Malthus, our population goes up, no matter what. So, we must continue to chase our population growth with more food, whereas, in fact, it is the other way around.

Population chases food availability. Food availability does not chase population. When there are more deer, it does not mean that they are somehow growing more food for themselves. It means more food has become available for them. But once we took control of the production of food then we began to increase food production in order to have surpluses, which made us powerful and made it possible for us to overtake the world and conquer all of the peoples in the world. Our population has grown constantly in the last ten thousand years and continues to grow because we continue to drive growth with increased food production.

According to Daniel Quinn's worldview, agriculture is the engine of population growth. It is also the engine of famine. Hunter/gatherers certainly experience lean times, but since they don't raise crops, they never have crop failures and the sort of mass starvation that crop failures (usually combined with war) produce. If that is true, then what are the implications? What are we, assuming there is a 'we,' supposed to do about it?

Repeatedly, people who feel indignation at the implications of Daniel Quinn's worldview confront him with something like, "So what? Are you saying we should just let people starve?"

Daniel Quinn has developed a reply that goes something like:

I don't let the rain fall. I don't let the wind blow, and I don't let people starve. We are not God, and we're not in a position to let people starve. What's more, God does let people starve.
I understand what he's saying, but I also understand why a lot of people judge this answer to be unsatisfactory. Humans move a lot of food around on this planet, and our ability to harness the energy embodied in petroleum clearly gives us some pretty god-like powers. We can move thousands of tons of food into drought-stricken or war-torn regions. We might recognize the undesirable long-term consequences of failing to allow the population of any given bio-region to achieve a workable balance with the local carrying capacity, but nobody wants to be the one to try to explain these big picture concerns to the parents of starving children.

There is, of course, another response to famine. We have a lot of food here, and they have a lot of hungry people there. We could move the hungry people to where the food is rather than the other way around. Were that proposal on the table, I think a lot of people who judge Daniel Quinn to be heartless would soon find it in their own hearts to let people starve.


  1. Hey KMO,

    Nice write-up. I wasn't aware of the Discovery Channel Takeover so I looked it up. I has some problems searching for it with the name you listed. Seems like the guy's name was James not David. Just FYI.


  2. Right you are. Thank you for that.

  3. When Daniel said this: "That's why we're in the midst of a mass extinction. It's because the six billion of us require so much biomass to keep us at six billion and growing.", I thought about the concept that it's really a small fraction of humans who are using most of the resources. If less fuel means we will have to depend more on what we can do locally, then it will be a relief on the whole world perhaps. But when will people give up on their trips to WalMart and McDonalds. Talk about use of the resources in the Amazon.....

    Peace, Lauren

  4. Hello; I am looking for West Coasties that are interested in these issues and co-existing with meaning. I found you on the farm site and am looking for likeminded Pacific Northwesterner's in primarily Washington/Oregon. I know a lot of people who are doing quite a lot, but still make it to the 'stores' the Lauren pointed out. I am working on staying away from all of that but live awefully close in and closed in. At the age of 48, I am very aware that I need to expand to help my community, or move to an existing community that already works in that capacity.
    Thank you for your indirect direction.
    from the small town of Kelso, WA on the mighty Columbia River.
    With much gratitude and less attitude,
    I thank you for sharing and caring,
    Allison Dahl
    blogspot on