Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.
Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF
I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.
Trinifar: For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.
RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.
Trinifar: Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?
RH: The populations of the US, Canada, Europe and Japan are still growing. They are really not in stage 4. Even in theory, Stage 3 of the DT includes population growth. See Pan Earth for a narrated slide show that includes a discussion of the DT.
Comments pasted here to provide background for RH’s next response:
Trinifar: It would be easy to read Russ and take away the message that we should not send food aid to these countries as it only encourages more growth. I’m not sure that’s the message he intends to send.
Steve said, “The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.”
That’s true and Nigeria is the poster child. The question is what to do? Emphasizing this piece of Russ’s research can lead to what I think is a misguided notion that we have but one lever which which to address the problem: limiting food supply. To me that is not a humane response. Neither is it humane to “help” developing countries by getting them to do agriculture in an unsustainable way or by ignoring our own unsustainable, fossil fuel, pesticide and fertilizer driven agriculture.
Steven Earl Salmony: It seems to me that Hopfenberg’s science is suggesting several things to us:
1. Free, immediate and universal access to contraception is required;
2. Open access to family and health planning education is made available to everyone;
3. The time for the economic and social empowerment of women is now.
4. As a means of accelerating the present downward movement in birth rates in some countries, a VOLUNTARY policy of one child per family would be initiated worldwide.
5. The many human beings who are suffering the unhealthy effects of obesity will share their over-abundant resources with many too many people who are starving.
6. Every effort to conserve energy and scarce material resources will be implemented, beginning now.
7. Substanitial economic incentives are necessary for the development of energy resources as alternatives to fossil fuels.
8. Overhaul national tax systems so that conspicuous per human over- consumption of limited resources is meaningfully put at a disadvantage.
9. Humanity needs a new economic system, one that is subordinated to democratic principles and more adequately meets the basic needs of a majority of humanity who could choose to live better lives with lesser amounts of energy and natural resources.
9. Overall, what is to be accomplished is a fair, more equitable and evolutionarily sustainable distribution of the world’s tangible (e.g., food) and intangible (e.g., education) resources, as soon as possible.
Trinifar: I appreciate your point of view, Steve, and I’m on board with your proposals. That’s a good list.
Russ, however, says things like this: ‘To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”’
So I’d like to know if Russ is on board with your proposals too.
RH: All of these proposals seem quite admirable. I’m sure there are many, many more that are equally admirable. However, these do not address the direct bio-behavioral reality that the population size of any species is a function of its food supply. This includes the human. Therefore, each proposal (numbered above) has its own set of problems. For proposal #: (1) Who will pay for universal contraception? Will the Pope approve of this? Also, we’re much more likely to see commercials for Viagra than for Trojans. The culture is simply not on board with the idea of limits. (2) Same points as proposal #1. (3) Civilization is a worldwide patriarchal culture. This proposal seems to be a way that men can abdicate responsibility and women can be held accountable. Also, think about the “empowerment of women” in a fundamentalist Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Hindu) society. How would that work? Will they tell their husbands – “it’s not good for the planet to have more children”? This is near absurdity. (4) The world already has a voluntary policy of 0 children per family. (5) Which ones? I bet that if you ask obese people, they would all say that they would rather not be obese. The bio-behavioral reality is that all creatures turn excess food availability into themselves or their progeny. Also, who will pay for this distribution? (6) In word, we are making every effort to conserve. (7) Who will supply these economic incentives? (8) Our economy is based on growth and consumption. We seem to have a worldwide goal of “use it all up until it’s all gone.” (9) This is quite possibly true, but the culture’s response to shortages is to look for / make more (food production, oil drilling, coal mining, etc.) (10) Again, who will pay?
These proposals are worthy of further discussion and each contains valuable elements. However, the proposals above are what my wife calls “the house.” And, in order to build a solid house, we need a firm foundation. The foundation that needs to underlie any course of action is the understanding of the relationship between human food production and population size. Only then can we proceed toward solutions. For more on this, see the slide show at Pan Earth.
Magne Karlsen: Now: here’s where I’m arriving at my most basic point. Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.
Mother Nature has a way of teaching us things. But are we ready to respond to the knowledge?
RH: Good point!
Magne Karlsen: Now: I’d also like to hear Russ’ views on the “peak oil and agriculture” dilemma, as posed to us here by Paul C. – — a very compelling analysis, to say the least.
RH: I think it is very likely that the peak oil issues will extremely negatively affect agricultural production. Just as the steep increase in food production, i.e., carrying capacity, has precipitated a steep increase in population growth, a sudden sharp decrease in food production will precipitate a sharp decrease in the population (funny, nobody seems to have a problem understanding this side of the equation). Some predict, using compelling evidence, that we are already at the beginning stages of a die-off. I hope they’re wrong.
John Feeney: The data Russ uses (from the FAO) show annual food production enough to feed over 20 billion people. If I understand correctly, every year that we increase food production, we do feed more people, and at the same time the number of people starving goes up. But what of the gap between the people fed and the amount of food produced? Clearly, there’s a serious distribution problem. But what is it about that problem that allows us to feed more people each year, but keeps the percentage of starving people the same (I assume)? It’s like the obstacles to distribution are working on a percentage basis or something, allowing x% of food produced each year to get through to people. Something about that seems strange. I guess I’m just uninformed on how food distribution works. It’s as if someone were knowingly keeping the lid on what’s distributed at a very precisely controlled level.
RH: First, by some estimates, the percentage of starving and malnourished actually continues to go up. Others have reported that the percentage is hovering or slightly declining. In either case, the number of starving and malnourished seems to make little sense in light of the huge annual increases in global food production, leading to the next point… Second, there is only one simple barrier to equitable distribution. Ladies and gentlemen, the barrier is (drum roll please) … MONEY!! Who wants to pay for equitable distribution? The agricultural businesses are in it FOR THE $$. Governments are in it FOR THE $$. Why would they pay for distribution to poor, starving people? Who’s going to foot the bill? The food goes to consumers who then turn the food into themselves or their progeny.
John Feeney: Beyond that, one thing is clear — that according to Russ’s findings we should stop the worldwide increase in food production as that is causing the increase in population. Is there any implied suggestion beyond that? I’m thinking about Trinifar’s question concerning withholding food aid. But now the more I think about it, the more I think it is instead just a matter of capping overall food production. Is that right?
RH: In fact, there is no reasonable action that can be taken until the people of the world in general understand that continually expanding food production is ultimately going to lead, not to a well-fed human race but to an extinct human race. Why “people of the world in general?” It’s for the same reason that people of the world in general had to understand that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and all heavenly bodies do not orbit it in order to have a successful space program. Capping increases in food production might be a good start, but it’s not possible unless people in general understand the relationship between food production and population growth. The action that we need to take, and can take right now, is to educate people. That’s why this blog and other endeavors are so important!! We have to build a strong foundation (understanding) before we start on our house (solutions).
John Feeney: Related to my first comment above, a simple, albeit tangential question: What happens to that huge amount of food every year that doesn’t reach people? If we’re producing enough food for 20 billion, then over 2/3 of all food produced is not reaching people, right? What happens to it. (Or does that account for people or countries which receive excessive food, such as the US with its high levels of obesity? If so, then maybe a much smaller amount is actually not reaching people.)
RH: Thrown out (for example, check out the fast food industry’s food practices). Obesity too, as you mentioned. Here’s another way to think about it. If we had 500 chickens and produced enough chicken feed for 40 million chickens, we wouldn’t see 40 million chickens in the next year, or even the year after that. What would happen to the excess feed each year until we reached 40 million chickens? Here’s a figure similar to ones presented at Pan Earth:
This figure, from FAO data (artificially) sets world (and region) food production equal to 100 for the year 1961. Food production is presented as carrying capacity, or, the number of people that the amount of available food can support. You can see that, relative to the population, food production has increased even since 1961.
Again, notice that the data for the year 1961 are set to equal an index of 100. Based on the trajectory, if this were really the case, there would have been a vast famine in the year 1950, and all the years before that!! The amount of food produced in the world, relative to the population, was certainly much higher in the year 1961 than indicated here. Therefore, the amount of food produced in the world in 1999, relative to the population was far greater than indicated here.
John Feeney: If, as Steve S. has mentioned here, most scientists are unwilling to discuss Russ’s (and Pimentel’s…) work, I’m wondering why that is.
RH: The idea of a “cultural defense mechanism” comes to mind. Notice how we in this discussion group are struggling with this relatively simple concept. It’s like an abused person who can’t say “no.” It seems simple enough, but not for someone with a personal history of abuse. We have a history of being taught that humans don’t follow the same bio-behavioral rules as other creatures. We’re special. Scientists are not immune from cultural influences.
Alan McCrindle: To confer with your “response 4″ – China has just released data that shows that their population growth is accelerating despite the “one child policy”.
RH: I agree. This issue is addressed in the slideshow at (have I mentioned?), Pan Earth.
John Feeney: There’s something just bizarre about war in the 21st century. Over thousands of years, we’ve made so much technological progress, but apparently none socially. Where Neanderthals may have settled disputes by bashing in an adversary’s head with a rock, today we do the same with a cruise missile. Well, the US does anyway. Many other countries seem to have evolved a little more than that.”
RH: Regarding war, maybe this Wendy’s & NC State University placemat from the first gulf war will help shed light on the real reason we keep increasing food production — power & conquest.
Thanks again to all of you for your time, thoughtful questions and responses.