Can humanity germinate the seeds of its own destruction? In 1798, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a British Scholar and Priest, tackled the above question in his classic An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he argued that population growth will outstrip the carrying capacity of the land resulting starvation and death. He foresaw a pattern of exponential population growth and an arithmetic growth of food supplies. This means at some point in time, the ability of humans to feed themselves will cease. Malthus’s self-extinction premise may have some merit if one goes by examining the historical example of the Mayan Civilization, a vibrant and highly cultured society in Central America that got wiped out around 820 A.D. Many scholars attribute the extinction of Mayan civilization to a rapid population growth, combined with severe degradation of agricultural land and deforestation, leading to widespread malnutrition and high infant mortality rates. A similar scenario is attributed to the extinction of the civilization that lived in Easter Island, some 3200km off the coast of Chile. Easter Island is renowned for its enormous volcanic rock statues and its surprisingly sparse vegetation given the favorable climate. The considerable distance to rock statues from the quarry suggests that the Easter Islanders had an advanced civilization. Scholars believe that a heavy reliance on wood for housing, canoe building and statue transportation may have decimated the forest, which contributed to soil erosion, a decline in agricultural productivity and food shortages eventually leading to wars and even cannibalism.
How does Malthus’s prediction stack up today? From the above two figures, it is clear that the world population grows at an exponential rate. At the dawn of the twentieth century (around 1900), the world population took an exponential trajectory which still continues. A population of 7 billion in 2013 would grow up to 14 billion in 2080 if a worldwide population growth rate of 1% on average continues (at a 1% average growth rate, the world population doubles roughly every 70 years). But the 60 million dollar question is whether we will see a food crisis triggered by population growth or severe environmental changes? Generally, our societies seem remarkably robust having survived many calamities, wars and natural disasters. But earlier cited examples suggest that a non-response or incorrect response would result in potential extinction of modern civilization. A possible answer may lie in the optimistic proposition offered by David Ricardo (1772-1823), a contemporary of Thomas Malthus. Ricardo argued that prices of food commodities would increase bringing more marginal land into production making it more economical to farm. Moreover, international trade allows nations to mutually exchange scarce food commodities. This argument, however, does not address the distributional aspects of food insecurity. According to Ricardo, there will always be food around but only for those who can afford it. Even today, the global food production is more than sufficient to feed the whole world and yet about one billion people go hungry everyday. The latest FAO statistics indicate that there has been a massive rise in food prices in recent times (see figure below), which supports the Ricardian prediction to an extent.
Another critical factor is the role of technology which not only can bring down the cost of agricultural production but also enhance agricultural productivity in leaps and bounds with new crop varieties, GM technology and advanced land and water management technologies. The technological advancements fueled by human ingenuity offer some comfort that we may not encounter the type of self-extinction faced by the Mayan and Easter Island civilizations. But this may well be a false sense of security because the Ricardian view ignores the distributional impacts of food insecurity and the massive economic, social and ecological costs of land conversion. It all boils down to how we, as a global society, respond to this age-old question -“Can humanity germinate the seeds of its own destruction?”. This great debate is still very much alive in today’s global policy agenda and social forums.