To the Editor,
Re: Technology, time overcame limits of past theories, Letters, Sept. 17.
Although Ron Heusen makes a fair point that “technology was able to overcome … agricultural limits”, it is also necessary to point out that much of the increase in population in the 20th century depended on the availability of relatively cheap fossil fuel.
Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides require enormous amounts of energy to produce.
Tractors to till the soil, trucks to transport the produce, factories to process and package comestible commodities – all require energy that is becoming more expensive as oil and gas reserves dwindle.
And as we’ve used most of the easily accessible organic reserves of the planet (witness the island of Nauru), and as we deplete aquifers that take thousands of years to accumulate, food production (and therefore food) becomes increasingly expensive.
So, it seems that population is currently at an artificial high. This puts pressure on land use, as we have seen with B.C.’s own Agricultural Land Reserve.
Prime farmland is turned over for housing development, roadways, or golf courses. Efforts to increase biofuel production, or to produce grain that goes to feed animals (an especially inefficient use of land) reduces even further the amount of space for farming food.
None of these obstacles is insurmountable, but they do require some decision-making, individually and collectively.
Yes, humans are an ingenious bunch.
Malthus was saying as much when he claimed that, rather than relying on disease or war to check population size, we could voluntarily have children later in life, practice birth control, or remain celibate. (China, with its one-child policy, actually putting this into effect.)
And yes, he did suggest doing away with the ‘poor laws’, which subsidized families unable to support themselves, and supported the ‘corn laws’ that placed high tariffs on imported grain, making food cost more.
But it appears that his intent was to discourage poor people from having unsustainably large families and to promote the development of local agriculture.
He had no difficulty with increasing population, if it was proportional to production, and it’s perhaps unfair to characterize him as condemning the poor, anymore than was Jonathan Swift with his ‘modest proposal’ to eat them.