Do we really need to expound here on our ecologic crisis? Well, yes, we do. Because we all may recognize what has happened to the atmosphere, the forests, the soils, the water, the ocean, and the species that are dying off at an unprecedented rate; but there is still an imperial narrative out there, that the core problem is something called “overpopulation,” and that the fix is reducing human fecundity. Especially humans that are not quite on par with “us.” This is the essence of Malthusianism.
Thomas Malthus was an Anglican curate who was friends with Hume and Rousseau in the latter eighteenth century who said that population increases faster than land can support it. Malthusianism has come to mean those who see the world’s problems are primarily a problem of “overpopulation.” Many Malthusians have advocated policies like mandatory sterilization and birth control. Malthusianism does not always entail racist ideas, though it often has. In the Chinese case, mandatory population control measures have targeted women, and have resulted in far fewer female births (because traditional ideas favor male children and females are aborted).
Anti-Malthusians (like the author) point out that population does not increase in advance of land use, but in response to it. When more cheap food is available (due to changes in land use and agriculture), then the population increases in response. The problem we face now is that we have increased food production and thereby increased population based on a model of agriculture that is not sustainable.
We rail about the worldwide water crisis, and every article I can find online about groundwater depletion compares gross population figures to gross water loss. This, of course conceals power structures altogether, grotesque inequalities, and the fact that the single greatest cause of aquifer depletion is high-intensity, industrial agriculture. Moreover, core nations are profligate in the use of water for non-essential purposes.
The $49 billion a year golf business in the US, with its 18,000 golf courses (that is half of the world's 35,000), use up 1.7 million acres of land into which we pour (and pollute with pesticides and herbicides, as well as tend with a fleet of fossil-energy powered machines) 4 billion gallons of water a day. That’s enough water for all of Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Rwanda, and Mozambique combined, given those nations’ per capital water use. Those countries use around a dozen gallons per capita, taken together, whereas in the US out per capita water consumption is around 570 gallons a day.
“I don’t use a fraction of that,” you may say, and you’d be right. Which is exactly why raw Malthusian numbers tell us very little. We use it up on golf courses, watering lawns (the biggest waste of water imaginable), and more than anything else, on industrial agriculture, which also pollutes that water before it is returned to the watersheds and eventually salinates topsoils.
What is chewing through the biosphere is not raw population, but an economic model that demands ceaseless “expansion,” or in the obfuscating biological euphemism of economists, “growth.” This growth serves our leadership, because they are groomed and selected by those who are rich within this model, and it is that to which they are committed first. This does not mean that the prime directive is population decrease, but that land use must again be redesigned.
In fact, intensive hand-tended, organic polyculture, in conjunction with passive stormwater capture through terraces and swales, can produce far more and far more variable food per hectare than extractive industrial agriculture and actually restore soils to biotic health, capture carbon, and prevent water pollution.
What prevents us now from a transition to ecologically sound agriculture in place of industrial monoculture is the fact that we cannot produce enough food on these smaller scales to match that now produced using industrial methods unless far more people engage in the practice of growing food, which requires more people having access to smaller parcels of land and water.
Jason Moore sounds a cautionary note:
The great waves of world development have been shaped not only by the sociology of state power and class struggle, the organization of industrial production, and the emergence of new forms of business enterprise, but equally by epochal agro-ecological revolutions from which issued the vital expansion of agricultural and raw material surpluses. It was not for nothing that Ricardo, who was not alone in this respect, feared that rising food prices in early nineteenth-century England would throttle industrial development. The English-led Industrial Revolution and the emergence of British world power in the nineteenth century, were inconceivable without the global reorganization of world agriculture that would, quite literally, nourish the workers in the “workshop of the world.” As English workers ate bread and jam made from wheat grown in the American Midwest and sugar harvested in the West Indies, it was not just they, but all the more so their enterprising employers, who fed off the fruits of capital’s global conquests—conquests that made food cheap, albeit at the dear cost of deforestation, genocide, and soil exhaustion. But what is the analogous process for today’s workshop of the world? From where, we might ask, will China’s hundred million-plus industrial workers be fed?
The church needs to think seriously about food.