Wizards versus Prophets: How to feed 10 billion people

The Atlantic carries a useful discussion of two schools of thought, one of which is broadly eco-doomist, and the other is ameliorist. The dispute takes place in the vital issue of agriculture, and the author situates the dispute as one between William Vogt (1902-1968) and Norman Borlaug, (1914-2009) father the Green Revolution. It will come as no surprise that they knew and despised each other.

Vogt published his views in 1948 in a book called the Road to Survival, which, according to Wikipedia set forth

…his strong belief that then-current trends in fertility and economic growth were rapidly destroying the environment and undermining the quality of life of future generations. Vogt’s most significant contribution was to link environmental and perceived overpopulation problems, warning in no uncertain terms that current trends would deliver future wars, hunger, disease and civilizational collapse.

Road to Survival was an influential best seller. It had a big impact on a Malthusian revival in the 1950s and 60s. After its publication he dedicated many activities to the cause of overpopulation. From 1951 to 1962, he served as a National Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Borlaug, says Wikipedia:

…was often called “the father of the Green Revolution”,[5][6] and is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.[7][8][9][10] According to Jan Douglas, executive assistant to the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, the source of this number is Gregg Easterbrook‘s 1997 article “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity”, the article states that the “form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.”[11] He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

As a Bengali-born professor of economics once told me, in relation to the Green Revolution, “when I first came to Bangladesh I could see the ribs of the rice farmers; now I can’t”.

The Atlantic article is entertaining and informative, but it fails to mention the vital point, which determines whether Vogt or Borlaug will win the argument. As soon as women can be guaranteed that they will have one or two surviving children, they cease to have more. Everywhere in the world, industrialized or not, population growth is crashing. This process is occurring with great suddenness in Islamic countries. The world population will be 10 billion by 2050; what the article fails to mention is that it will be 7 billion by 2100, according to David Goldman, who bases himself on UN population projections and the latest birth rates.

These issue are explored in David Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is dying too). The book overturns a number of beliefs that were drummed into us in the 1970s and beyond: overpopulation, ecological disaster, resources running out, doom, in short.

Goldman advances the view that throughout history, but especially now, population decline is mostly to be feared, because it throws economies into a tailspin. Fertility rates have fallen below replacement in nearly all wealthy countries, and are doing so in Islamic countries.

In the great ideological debate about human nutrition, one can only hope that Borlaug’s practical optimism will prevail. The eco-doomist vision has never failed to produce want, misery and failure. Stick with the optimists, it will be tough enough even if they are right.

Of the questions that need to be asked bout human society in the next decades, the relevant one is whether we will still breed in 2050 enough to avoid social and economic collapse. There will be enough food, enough water, and enough resources. The truly important question is whether there will be enough humans to enjoy them by 2100. Spengler maintains that birth rates are falling between the green line and the yellow line in the UN population projections, shown below. (I leave aside the important question whether the remaining humans will be slaves or masters of their robotic machinery).

World Population Estimates


Goldman says the green line is the correct one.


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old white guy

eventually we will exceed the carrying capacity of the planet and nature will pare things back. the planet is a finite piece of dirt.


I believe that we will not exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, or, putting it another way, the carrying capacity is experienced by and through economic conditions. I expect population levels will be controlled by economic conditions. As of now, humans are choosing not to breed once they reach a level of prosperity and health where woman can guarantee, pretty well, that two children will reach maturity. What would increase this low birthrate from current levels is war, pestilence, plague and civilizational collapse. Then once again we would see women bearing five or six children in order for two to survive to maturity. It seems paradoxical, but increased prosperity decreases child bearing, after a gap of a generation or two.

old white guy

the population went from2.3 billion in 1945 to 7.5 billion now. Prosperous nations cut back on the number of kids but others have more than made up for it. as I said, nature may give an assist.


Just read an article last night about Capetown South Africa. Seems there is a major drought in that part of the world and approximately 4 million black Africans are at risk of dying of thirst even as they are situated on one of the largest bodies of water in the world, the Pacific Ocean. It isn’t that they have no access to water it’s that they lack the wherewithal to extract it. A combination of economics and ignorance (and low IQ if truth be told) will likely spell doom for 100’s of thousands of them unless they get rain.

I have no doubt that some *do gooder* who is not a black African will come to the rescue in the near future and save almost all of them with their deep pockets and a better understanding of technology and provide them with desalination plants. But is this the best solution? Perhaps a few million (billion?) should be left to die on the vine leaving a more capable, intelligent human on the planet.

I’m already old and will never live to see the ends of these dilemmas, though I often wonder if we shouldn’t leave some of these problems to a higher order.


Er…Tony…shouldn’t that be Indian/Atlantic Oceans?

I agree that people must be free to make their own way in this life – their own successes and their own failures. As for your ‘practical’ solutions on real people, I believe in the similarly practical ‘You First’, and ‘Show Us How’ principles. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…or he who thinks Cape Town is on the Pacific.

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