The End Allegedly Still Nigh

Review of The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World

Thomas Robert Malthus shares an unenviable place in public thought with men like Hobbes and Lamarck—he is the poor sap who gets glibly abridged at the beginning of the chapter, before a theorist better aligned with 21st century ideology comes along. So to stand up as a neo-Malthusian, as National Geographic writer Joel K. Bourne Jr. does in The End of Plenty, is to invite a fair degree of ridicule; Malthusian predictions that human population must inevitably outstrip food supply have an astonishingly poor track record.

To his credit, Bourne explains why Malthusianism commands so little respect today. Malthus postulated a race between population and food supply, in which population grew much faster than food supply ever could. With insufficient food, people starve. But in fact, the two centuries since Malthus have been marked by enormous scientific increases in our capacity for food production. In particular, the Green Revolution (a series of worldwide improvements in farming techniques beginning midway through the 20th century) seems to have set human population free to grow exponentially, with few limits to available food supply.

Further to his credit, however, Bourne points out why Malthus, “the father of modern demographics…and one of the most hated scientists in history” (24), deserves a little more respect than he gets. The much-mocked “Malthusian collapse,” for one thing, is entirely an invention of modern critics; “Malthus was simply demonstrating the wide chasm between logarithmic and arithmetic growth” (28). Furthermore, though he and his theories are widely reviled as callous and unfeeling, the Reverend Malthus was a lifelong advocate for the extension of privileges and liberties to the lower classes. Not being a utopian should not be confused with reveling in starvation and misery.

Most importantly, Bourne argues Malthus’ population principle may be more relevant to our situation than we like to think. Increasing the potential food supply depends on technological advances, advances that simply have not occurred in the years since the Green Revolution. We are currently increasing in population far faster than we are increasing Earth’s carrying capacity. In fact, by some metrics, environmental degradation is diminishing the carrying capacity. “Given the growing gap between population and production and the limit on arable land,” Bourne’s sources conclude that at the current rate, “the world will soon be essentially in the same place it was in the 1960s before the green revolution took off, when widespread hunger was the norm” (151). We will have reached a new population limit, and Malthusian principles of evenly matched growth and starvation will return with a vengeance. Bourne imagines a world in which the rich, food-secure nations leave everyone else (with the exception, one supposes, of a few local elites) to starve.

The majority of The End of Plenty explores ways to stave off this future. Worryingly, however, nothing it proposes seems rigorous enough to deal with the problem he identifies: we need to almost double food production by 2050. Bourne has described a cataclysmic flood in the first third of his book, and then spent the next two thirds piling up pebbles in a dam that would be hilarious in its inadequacy if it were not also so tragic.

Some possibilities seem interesting, certainly: Ukraine’s farmland is badly mismanaged, and, as Bourne points out, could be producing much more food than it is. Similarly, many people have shared Bourne’s excitement in aquaculture for a long time now. But no one thinks that Ukraine or aquaculture is likely to feed several billion more people any time soon, and those are the most promising options available in The End of Plenty. Others, like new organic or water-saving farming techniques, seem marginal at best.

Bourne’s discussion of the Daodejing, “which purports to teach us how to live in harmony and balance with each other and the world through ziran, the principles inherent in nature” (159), is hardly comforting. Daoist principles seem no more likely to help humans escape Malthusian famine now than they were 2000 years ago—starvation is a principle inherent in nature. If the upcoming population crunch is as bad as it sounds, what we need is another Green Revolution, not just feel-good environmentalism.

A number of factors contributed to the Green Revolution, but at its core it was based in genetically modified and highly productive strains of rice and wheat. At the moment, that stunt looks unlikely to come off a second time. Very little of the money in agricultural research these days is devoted to helping small farmers in poor countries boost their yields. Most genetic modifications over the last couple of decades have been minor alterations of preexisting breeds, designed for sale to rich farmers. That is completely logical—nonprofit funding in the field has dried up, and the market seeks out the most profitable course. But it should also be remembered that the market has little reason to rescue the world’s have-nots from Bourne’s predicted crisis.

The End of Plenty has an unmistakable National Geographic touch to it. Agronomy, as Bourne points out ruefully at the beginning, is a discipline that sheltered suburbanites and urbanites take little interest in. Through interviews, historical analysis, and gripping descriptions of crises past, present, and future, Bourne shows himself a science writer of the highest order, able to make agronomy exciting to anyone. And yet the National Geographic influence is not all positive; The End of Plenty reads like a collection of articles, and if actually evaluated as a whole returns the discouraging message that given the inadequacy of our preparations for population growth, a lot of people are going to starve. This is probably not Bourne’s intention, but when a problem is coherently explained and its solution is not, there’s only one real conclusion for readers to come to.

Bourne does not seem to realize just how gloomy his book is. He closes with an upbeat pat on the back for developed nations and their low birthrates, and forecasts that if we could just make all nations like that (within the next twenty years or so), and put together a sweeping series of resource-saving reforms to everyone’s way of life, the population problem would be totally manageable. Of course, our population problem would also be totally manageable if we colonized the moon. Bourne’s reporting on the crisis seems sober and well-researched, but his reporting on solutions is too uncritical and quixotic to be taken seriously.

If the crisis is so bad, why is it not bigger news? The reason given is that “it would be political suicide for…any international organization working on global food issues to…say that we are headed for an agricultural Armageddon. No one wants to be lampooned as the next naysaying Malthus” (147). But perhaps they are right not to mimic Malthus. Stepping back from the generous sprit in which this review has evaluated Bourne’s claims thus far, Malthusian predictions of doom have never come true yet. So while hoping that trend holds may not be the most responsible course of action, we might just be justified in doing so.

About Author

Thomas Westbrook

(Joseph) Thomas Westbrook is a staff writer and editor for the Harvard International Review. He contributes primarily to the Reviews and Global Notebook boards.