Sustaining growing population requires bold changes

Remember Malthus, the man whose ideas have been the inspiration since 1798 for anyone concerned about overpopulation and the scarcity of food and other natural resources?...

Remember Malthus, the man whose ideas have been the inspiration since 1798 for anyone concerned about overpopulation and the scarcity of food and other natural resources?

Relegated to history's back shelf in the 1960s by agriculture's Green Revolution, Malthus' forecasts are back -- with a vengeance. Now, in addition to food shortages, we have stress on fresh water, topsoil, petroleum, metal ores and more.

Thomas Robert Malthus was the English economist whose 1798 publication, "An Essay on the Principle of Population," caused Thomas Carlyle to dub economics as the "dismal science." The principle theme of the essay was that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man."

An honors graduate in mathematics from Cambridge, Malthus argued that the human sex drive can produce geometric increases in population per the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. At the same time, the Earth can, at best, provide increased resources at an arithmetic rate, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

With that in mind, let's reflect on the motives behind Essar Global's acquisition of Minnesota Steel Industries ("Indian firm will build steel plant," Oct. 23). Was it to build a high-cost steel plant on the Iron Range? Or was it to obtain a billion tons of precious taconite ore to feed the steel plants Essar already owns in Canada, Ohio, and West Virginia?


Malthus stated that the Earth's population must remain within resource limits, either by using human-generated "preventive checks," which lower the birth rate or with nature-imposed "positive misery checks," which increase the death rate.

A devout Christian, Malthus abhorred such preventive measures as contraception and abortion. He argued instead for delayed marriage through moral restraint. He opposed the Poor Laws, England's first real attempt at welfare, because their support encouraged earlier marriage and procreation.

Despite his warnings, the world's population grew by six times since 1800, limited periodically by the positive misery checks of hunger, disease, and war.

In the mid-20th Century, the Green Revolution arrived in world agriculture, founded on cheap fossil fuels that powered mechanized industrial farms. They use vast amounts ofpetroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers in lieu of manure and crop rotation. These oft-irrigated farms produced major gains in cereal crop yields. The end of world hunger seemed in sight.

The Wall Street Journal mocked both England's Prince Charles and Al Gore as "Prince Malthus" and "Senator Malthus" for their concerns about population growth, the environment, and resource scarcity. Technology and hydrocarbons had apparently sidelined the dismal science.

But in the 21st Century, the fossil fuel supply is tightening, and it is no longer cheap. Pesticide-resistant bugs flourish, topsoils erode from aggressive tilling, declining yields from single-crop agriculture demand more fertilizer, ground water tables lower, and the Green Revolution has begun to gray.

But world population continues its yearly addition of 70 million. And the two billion at the lower end of the income scale seek a greater share of the Earth's resources. In parts of the world, nature is implementing Malthus' most serious positive misery check. As he put it, "Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature."

Recent record prices for grains are the result of competition for the same cropland between people and biofuels. To feed E-85 ethanol fuel to one average car or light truck requires allocating the harvest from two acres of Minnesota corn land. No problem, say our leaders. We can use cellulose from crop residue like corn stover, the stalks and leaves. But scooping those up to make ethanol exposes the soil to erosion from wind and water. It also deprives the soil of nutrients, requiring more natural gas-based fertilizers. Every ton of corn stover contains approximately 10 pounds of nitrogen, two pounds of phosphorous and 45 pounds of potassium.


Dealing with resource scarcity will require both conservation and major lifestyle changes, enforced by strong measures such as unpopular carbon taxes. We do have a few political leaders with the political courage, such as U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, whose leadership of the House Transportation Committee is supporting energy-efficient electric rail. But the new farm bill has $40 billion in subsidies and takes just 6 cents per gallon off the ethanol subsidy.

Unfortunately, political courage is another commodity that is still in short supply.

Rolf E. Westgard of St. Paul is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and associate chairman of the Crow Wing County DFL.

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