For basically the most depressing shit you’ll read all year (and if it ain’t, you are reading some truly depressing shit on a regular basis — maybe mix in some Dave Barry once in awhile, okay, just to keep the noose at bay?), please don’t enjoy this NYT article about the imminent and probably unavoidable starvation of 750,000 Somalis by the end of the year.
The United Nations’ warnings could not be clearer. A drought-induced famine is steadily creeping across Somalia and tens of thousands of people have already died. The Islamist militant group the Shabab is blocking most aid agencies from accessing the areas it controls, and in the next few months three-quarters of a million people could run out of food, United Nations officials say.
Soon, the rains will start pounding down, but before any crops will grow, disease will bloom. Malaria, cholera, typhoid and measles will sweep through immune-suppressed populations, aid agencies say, killing countless malnourished people.
To say this is awful and tragic and inhuman is accurate, but also empty, because how can you really qualify the mass failure of a government, of a country, of a world that allows this to happen?
And yet, there is a frighteningly compelling — frightening because it is compelling — line of reasoning that says that, even if we could deliver instantaneous and comprehensive food aid to this population with no more than the push of a button, it would be remiss of us to do so, because facilitating an unsustainable paradigm of overpopulation will merely ensure a continuation in the cycle of starvation with no termination until the affected population eventually declines to match the resources available to support it. (Sorry. Didn’t mean to get on a rhyming “-ation” kick there in the middle.)
That said, even if I were 100 percent convinced by the argument summarized above (and elucidated in much more detail below), there is no way that I — nor, I imagine, most people — could refrain from pressing said magic button were it in my power to do so, because how can one human possibly allow 750,000 others — 7,500 others, 75 others — to starve to death if it is in his or her power to prevent it? But since the button is only hypothetical, while the tragedy it would temporarily prevent is very real, the question isn’t whether or not my heart would overrule my head (as noted, it would), but whether it should.
Enter Ishamel (specifically, Chapter 8, Part 5), where Daniel Quinn offers the previously described “frighteningly compelling line of reasoning” that it should not. I can’t do any better than to quote the passages in question, so I’ve embedded the appropriate Google Books section (starting with, “Given an expanding food supply”) below. Unfortunately, GB has redacted one of the relevant pages, so I’ve also provided the complete transcript. It’s 1,281 additional words that I’m asking you to read, but the moral struggle they provoke should provide you with plenty of…well, food for thought.
“Given an expanding food supply, any population will expand. This is true of any species, including the human. The Takers have been proving this here for ten thousand years. For ten thousand years they’ve been steadily increasing food production to feed an increased population, and every time they’ve done this, the population has increased still more.”
I sat there for a minute thinking. Then I said, “Mother Culture doesn’t agree.”
“Certainly not. I’m sure she disagrees most strenuously. What does she say?”
“She says it’s within our power to increase food production withoutincreasing our population.”
“To what end? Why increase food production?”
“To feed the millions who’re starving.”
“And as you feed them will you extract a promise that they will not reproduce?”
“Well . . . no, that’s not part of the plan.”
“So what will happen if you feed the starving millions?”
“They’ll reproduce and our population will increase.”
“Without fail. This is an experiment that has been performed in your culture annually for ten thousand years, with completely predictable results. Increasing food production to feed an increased population results in yet another increase in population. Obviously it has to have this result, and to predict any other is simply to indulge in biological and mathematical fantasies.”
“Even so . . .” I thought some more. “Mother Culture says that, if it comes to that, birth control will solve the problem.”
“Yes. If you’re ever so foolish as to get into a conversation on this subject with some of your friends, you’ll find they heave a great sigh of relief when they remember to make this point. `Whew! Off the hook!’ It’s like the alcoholic who swears he’ll give up drink before it ruins his life. Global population control is always something that’s going to happen in the future. It was something that was going to happen in the future when you were three billion in 1960. Now, when you’re five billion, it’s still something that’s going to happen in the future.”
“True. Nevertheless, it could happen.”
“It could indeed—but not as long as you’re enacting this story. As long as you’re enacting this story, you will go on answering famine with increased food production. You’ve seen the ads for sending food to starving peoples around the world?”
“Have you ever seen ads for sending contraceptives?”
“Never. Mother Culture talks out of both sides of her mouth on this issue. When you say to her population explosion she replies global population control, but when you say to her famine she repliesincreased food production. But as it happens, increased food production is an annual event and global population control is an event that never happens at all.”
“Within your culture as a whole, there is in fact no significant thrust toward global population control. The point to see is that there neverwill be such a thrust so long as you’re enacting a story that says the gods made the world for man. For as long as you enact that story, Mother Culture will demand increased food production today—and promise population control tomorrow.”
“Yes, I can see that. But I have a question.”
“I know what Mother Culture says about famine. What do you say?”
“I? I say nothing, except that your species is not exempt from the biological realities that govern all other species.”
“But how does that apply to famine?”
“Famine isn’t unique to humans. All species are subject to it everywhere in the world. When the population of any species outstrips its food resources, that population declines until it’s once again in balance with its resources. Mother Culture says that humans should be exempt from that process, so when she finds a population that has outstripped its resources, she rushes in food from the outside, thus making it a certainty that there will be even more of them to starve in the next generation. Because the population is never allowed to decline to the point at which it can be supported by its own resources, famine becomes a chronic feature of their lives.”
“Yes. A few years ago I read a story in the paper about an ecologist who made the same point at some conference on hunger. Boy, did he get jumped on. He was practically accused of being a murderer.”
“Yes, I can imagine. His colleagues all over the world understand perfectly well what he was saying, but they have the good sense not to confront Mother Culture with it in the midst of her benevolence. If there are forty thousand people in an area that can only support thirty thousand, it’s no kindness to bring in food from the outside to maintain them at forty thousand. That just guarantees that the famine will continue.”
“True. But all the same, it’s hard just to sit by and let them starve.”
“This is precisely how someone speaks who imagines that he is the world’s divinely appointed ruler: `I will not let them starve. I will notlet the drought come. I will not let the river flood.’ It is the gods wholet these things, not you.”
“A valid point,” I said. “Even so I have one more question on this.” Ishmael nodded me on. “We increase food production in the U.S. tremendously every year, but our population growth is relatively slight. On the other hand, population growth is steepest in countries with poor agricultural production. This seems to contradict your correlation of food production with population growth.”
He shook his head in mild disgust. “The phenomenon as it’s observed is this: `Every increase in food production to feed an increased population is answered by another increase in population.’ This says nothing about where these increases occur.”
“I don’t get it.”
“An increase in food production in Nebraska doesn’t necessarily produce a population increase in Nebraska. It may produce a population increase somewhere in India or Africa.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska’s surpluses—and if they weren’t, Nebraska’s farmers would stop producing those surpluses, pronto.”
“True,” I said, and spent a few moments in thought. “Are you suggesting that First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion?”
“Ultimately,” he said, “who else is there to fuel it?”
I sat there staring at him.
“You need to take a step back from the problem in order to see it in global perspective. At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you’re producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you’re producing enough food for six billion, it’s a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you’ll be producing enough food for six and a half billion—which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you’ll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billion of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn’t feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion.”
“I see that. But how do we stop increasing food production?”
“You do it the same way you stop destroying the ozone layer, the same way you stop cutting down the rain forests. If the will is there, the method will be found.”
Like I said: provocative.
(Incidentally, I officially recommend the entire book — this just happens to be the passage that caused me the most psychic pain in terms of how it conflicted with my natural inclinations and yet how drawn to it I was all the same.)
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Update by Ben: I noted this in the comments, but thought I’d put it somewhere of higher prominence: I don’t think there’s any excuse for anyone who wants to seriously take up this line of argumentation to not get a vascectomy or tubectomy — relatively painless and humane medical procedures, especially compared to starving to death, although they should maybe consider that option for themselves too.