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GUEST COLUMN: Approaching 7 billion people

With the approach of Halloween, we will try to calm our fear of witches, goblins, and zombies.  But there is an even larger concern which will occur around the end of October — the world’s population will reach 7 billion. Sixty years ago, we were just 3 billion. 

Thomas Robert Malthus was the English cleric and economist who called attention to the environmental threat from our growing numbers and aspirations. His 1798 publication, An Essay on the Principle of Population, set out the notion that the earth’s fixed resources and natural laws were limits to growth. An honors graduate in mathematics from Cambridge, he concluded that growing human numbers and wants had to remain within nature’s resource numbers, either from human generated “preventive checks” which limit the birth rate, or from nature imposed “positive misery checks” of hunger, disease, drought, floods, and resource wars. 

Malthus noted that our ability to increase food supplies went up at best arithmetically, as in 4,5,6, etc. Our ability to procreate can increased geometrically, as in 2,4,8,16, 32, etc.

In the mid-20th Century, the Green Revolution arrived in world agriculture, founded on cheap fossil fuels which powered mechanized industrial farms and irrigation. Petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers also contributed to major gains in cereal crop yields. The end of world hunger seemed in sight.

The Wall Street Journal mocked Malthus disciples like England’s Prince Charles and our Al Gore as “Prince Malthus” and “Senator Malthus” for their concerns about population growth, the environment, and resource scarcity. In the Journal’s view, technology and hydrocarbon energy had given us control over nature.

Fueled by all that buried sunshine in the form of concentrated oil, gas, and coal, we have come to view the earth as our private garden to be worked as we wish, supplying our continuing need for more. But the earth is its own garden, and we don’t make the rules.  Our planet functions under natural laws which relate to physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. 

Now the Green Revolution has begun to gray, and world grain prices have doubled. On the land, pesticide-resistant bugs flourish; top soils erode from aggressive tilling; declining yields and vulnerability from single crop agriculture demand more fertilizer and pesticides. Ground water aquifers lower as we irrigate marginal land. In the sea, over fishing causes species to disappear.

Hundreds of millions of personal cars and trucks are now at the world’s food table, consuming biofuels made from the fruit of the plant. The risk set out by Malthus, “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature”, looms in parts of the world. No problem, say our legislators as they mandate more biofuels, stating that we can make cellulose fuel from non-food crop residue like corn stover, the stalks and leaves. But nature’s law requires residue to stay on the land, protecting the soil from erosion by wind and water. And every ton of decaying corn stover offers ten pounds of nitrogen, two pounds of phosphorous, and forty five pounds of potassium to the soil.

Since the end of the most recent Ice Age, we have had a stable climate period which allowed humanity to be fruitful and multiply. But we have reached the point where quality growth must supersede quantity growth. Science is providing an understanding of the physical laws which govern the planet. We can use that knowledge for more effective use of natural resources.  We can manage within the Laws of Nature for our benefit, but we are not allowed to ignore them.

ROLF E. WESTGARD is a Deerwood resident and teaches energy for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education. His current class is “Peak Oil and Peak Water”)