Garrett Hardin

January 25, 2015

We’ll finish up “food ethics icons” month with the evil genius of the food/population debates. Everyone I know who ever met Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) spoke well of him. He was by all accounts a generous and open-minded man who welcomed philosophical inquiry and intellectual engagement. So don’t get me wrong when I call him “the evil genius”. He gets that moniker because of several articles he wrote on the population dilemmas that had been brought to public attention by The Population Bomb. The Ehrlichs mainly wanted to get across the idea that we (humans that is) simply could not continue to expand our use of natural resources endlessly. They were not too specific about what we were supposed to do instead.

Hardin put the matter much more pointedly: The earth is a lifeboat, and very soon we are going to get to a point where it is time to throw somebody off. And he didn’t stop there. Applying a pattern of reasoning that philosophy professors call “utilitarianism”, he argued that we (humanity, again) should follow the course that leads us to “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The problem as Hardin diagnosed it was that the poor (and here he pointed especially to places like Bangladesh) were just having too many babies. Rich people had already gone through that demographic transition we (this time it’s just you, me and the other Thornapple blog reader) were talking about just a few weeks back in connection with Rev. Malthus. Having gotten rich, we (again, just us) are in a position where we can cause ourselves considerable consternation by having lots of kids that we have to feed, educate and buy i-pads for. So we’ve learned to have smaller families.

Those poor folks, not so much. They keep on having kids, and that (wrote not just Hardin but also the Ehrlichs) is where the trouble lies. We (humanity circa 1971 now) were witnessing serious famines in Bengal (e.g. Bangladesh) at the time, as Sen would write about later. George Harrison was singing about “rice that keeps going astray on its way to East Bombay,” and holding concerts to raise money for the famine victims. Hardin was having none of that sentimental nonsense. He was writing articles saying that we should let them starve. If we feed them today, he reasoned, they’ll just grow up poor and have too many children. Only there will be even more of them then. We should let a smaller number starve today rather than creating the conditions that will allow a larger number to starve tomorrow.

I think that Hardin may have actually believed this, though it is possible that he took this position to shock people into something approximating an appropriate action. He was right to take on naïve offerings of charity like the Concert for Bangladesh. The whole point was that we just can’t keep riding down this road. As we wrote some months back, if you are trying to get to Canada and driving 90 miles an hour toward Mexico, slowing to 60 is not really going to solve the problem. Hardin saw the hunger crises as a “tragedy of the commons”—a case where doing what was individually rational (he didn’t think the poor were being irrational) is collectively disastrous. Note that this is exactly how many of us understand the climate dilemma today. And like many who write on climate today, Hardin believed that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” is the only solution. So he wasn’t so much advocating the death of starving people as he was urging government regulation to control population growth. The Chinese eventually tried that, by the way.

But I do have to say that the moral position Hardin actually advocated is both indefensible and unsustainable. It may seem mealy-mouthed, but the better course is the one that Malthus and the Ehrlich’s advocated, even if they did so in less than clarion tones. We can’t have this kind of poverty anymore: It creates moral dilemmas for which there are no acceptable responses. At the same time, we should remember that it’s not just a matter of “distribution”. Sen taught that we can redistribute in ways that are almost as catastrophic for the poor as Hardin’s willingness to “let ‘em starve.”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


Paul and Anne Ehrlich

January 18, 2015

The theme for ‘food ethics icons’ month is the world hunger/population growth tangle. Our thinking has been bracketed by two opposing nostrums: On the one hand, agriculture is in a race with population growth, on the other hand, the problem is not agriculture but the distribution of food we already have. Both of these are wrong. In my usual quixotic fashion, I started with the end of the story. Amartya Sen is the food ethics icon who has done more than anyone else to steer us between these nostrums to a better path. Last week we went back a couple of hundred years to discover the source of our idea that population growth inevitably outpaces our ability to produce enough food for people to eat. Malthus is the Urspring, but I tried to convince you that Malthus never predicted that global population would grow beyond our ability to feed ourselves.

We pick up the story for this week by asking, so who did say that? My MSU colleague Helen Veit has written a pretty nice history book in which she argues that Americans’ belief that they had a moral obligation to “feed the world” had its roots way back in a now defunct agency called the U.S. Food Administration. It was created by the Woodrow Wilson administration with the express purpose of ensuring that our European allies’ neglect of their own crops—they were busy fighting World War I at the time—would not lead them to starve. This belief may have primed us for the work of this week’s food icons a half century later, but you will have to follow up on Helen’s story on your own time.

I’m going to start out in my crotchety old man mode: Back when I was a young sprout, you would go to the Safeway store on Hamden Avenue and instead of candy bars there would be racks of paperback books at the cashier’s stand. Maybe that was because in the days before barcodes it took so long for the cashier to ring up a giant basket of groceries that people waiting in line would naturally be looking for something to read. Having gotten 10-12 pages into some potboiler, they would throw it in the basket when their turn to check out finally arrived. At any rate, one of the books that I recall seeing on that rack was called The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich. People were apparently throwing it into their grocery carts in large numbers because it sold more than two million copies.

It’s probably not really accurate to say that the Ehrlich’s came up with the idea that population was growing so fast that eventually we would be facing global food shortages. The message of The Population Bomb was not really shocking news to people who knew a little bit about population trends. But the book made some fairly stark statements about what the 1970s would be like: catastrophic famine accompanied by violence and competition for food-producing resources. The Population Bomb was actually co-written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, but this was 1968 and we had apparently not fully appreciated the fact that women can think. That’s worth a blog in its own right, but I’ll just note in passing that one of the early icons in gender studies was Esther Boserup, who had already published her own study of the agriculture/population relationship in 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth argued that people will always find a way to feed themselves. If I keep writing The Thornapple Blog into my nineties, Esther Boserup will eventually get listed as a food ethics icon in her own right, but this year we are looking for the reasons why this “great race” became fixated in people’s minds in the first place.

The Ehrlich’s wrote a very readable retrospective piece on The Population Bomb for the fortieth anniversary of its publication. The article is available for free on line, and it speaks for itself. They concede that they underestimated the impact of the Green Revolution, but they aren’t giving any ground to Boserup’s contention that people always find a way. The Ehrlichs believe that better sanitation, healthcare and infrastructure have unleashed the natural forces of population growth, and that sooner or later, it’s going to bite us in the butt in just the way that they predicted back when people had time to read at grocery check-out lines. That makes them food ethics icons in my book. It’s just too bad that you probably won’t see my book at the Safeway store.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



Thomas Malthus

January 11, 2015

If Amartya Sen deserves to be called a food ethics icon for dismantling the idea that the total amount of food produced provides a good index for understanding the ethics of hunger, we should probably look the source of that idea for our next entry for “food ethics icons month”. Is there anyone out there who would not go back to Thomas Malthus for that idea? Haven’t all of us heard about “Malthusian” predictions and scenarios, after all?

As a teacher of undergraduates I am well aware of the fact that there are many of us who have never heard of Malthus, so please recognize the rhetorical nature of these last two questions. Thomas Robert Malthus lived from 1766 to 1834. He could be described as an economist, a philosopher, an applied mathematician and a political theorist. He started out by becoming ordained in the Church of England, which led to sobriquets acknowledging his religious affiliations throughout his lifetime and down to the present day. For most of his life he was actually a college professor. When I was a fairly young professor of philosophy and agricultural economics at Texas A&M University in the 1980s, I spent a good chunk of time not only reading up on Malthus, but actually reading him. Malthus wrote on the economic interpretation of rent, but I did not read any of that stuff. What I did read were several versions of his work on population. This was thirty years ago, so take what follows with a grain of salt.

Malthus was not the only person thinking about population when he proposed an early formula for what we now call “population ecology” in 1798. He wrote that while food production increases arithmeticaly, population grows geometrically. Therefore population eventually outstrips the food supply. If you do know Malthus, that’s probably what you know, but please pause and notice that this is a very obscure and abstract little formula. “Geometrical increase” was nicely explained in the Pete Seeger song “We’ll All Be a Doubling”:

Two times two is four!
Two times four is eight!
Two times eight is sixteen
And the hour is getting late!

We’ll all be a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling
We’ll all be a-doubling in thirty-two years.

You get the idea.

Malthus had combined a study of the facts with some fancy mathematical modeling to come up with this, but what he thought was important was that this is “the natural rate of increase” in population, not the actual rate of increase. In fact, something constrains the natural rate of increase, and the so-called arithmetical growth in food production was proposed as one basis of constraint. Unlike the careful science behind population, Malthus based his claims about agriculture on a thought experiment. Suppose that in the first generation we do “double” food production (I’m taking some liberties here because Malthus did not think even this possible). Surely next time around the best we can do is increase it by the same amount, but now that will only be a 50% increase over what he had. Next time around a similarly sized growth in total food production will only be a 25% increase, and so on. So we have a theoretical model which shows that the natural rates of growth of population and agriculture lead to the theoretical conclusion that population eventually outstrips food supply.

Present day population ecologists still take this model pretty seriously, though like Aldo Leopold, they are more likely to talk about deer than humans. If the population of deer are not “checked”, then they will eventually exhaust their food supply, leading to a catastrophic population crash. How is population growth checked? Well, if we are talking about deer, we look for wolves, and if none are to be found we rely on hunters. When we shift to the human population, these solutions have not been ethically popular. And this brings me to what I remember Malthus as actually saying, generally with increasing clarity as his work on population progressed over a period of nearly forty years. He wasn’t saying that agriculture was in a race with population. He was setting up a research problem: What does provide the checks on human population growth? His answer? It’s general poverty in the case of the poor. People die from sickness and overwork. And in the case of the rich? Here Malthus had to be circumspect. Rich families recognized good incentives to keep their families smaller than the “natural increase” would suggest. As someone who sent two kids through college, I understand these incentives. How did the rich act on those incentives? Malthus’ one word answer was “vice”, by which he meant frequenting prostitutes.

Who said that food ethics lacks a racy side?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity


Amartya Sen

January 4, 2015

Amartya Kumar Sen was born in 1933 in a province of what is now Bangladesh. He won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics for a pretty diverse portfolio of work, most of which doesn’t concern us here. Let it just suffice that Sen was a major figure in shaking economists out of a dogmatic slumber—even if quite a few of them still need to wake up and smell the coffee. Sen would probably show up on anyone’s list of the 100 most influential living people, though somehow Time Magazine failed to include him in theirs. That says more about Time than Sen, who has (with considerable help from others, it should be noted) transformed the way that people understand development.

I should note that by “development”, I do not mean the activity that we are most likely to read about in our local newspapers. There development is done primarily by people who buy and sell real estate and who undertake a variety of projects to enhance the value of their investments. The kind of development Sen has transformed is sometimes called “international development” or more accurately “global development.” It’s akin to progress, but focused on the processes of industrialization, governance and socio-cultural change that lead to society-wide improvements in human well-being. This notion of development got its biggest boost after World War II when Dwight D. Eisenhower put some umph behind the idea that the Marshall Plan—which had helped Europeans make a rapid recovery from the devastation of World War II—could be applied on a global basis. We (meaning not just the United States but already-developed countries) could help countries emerging from colonial exploitation make rapid progress.

This didn’t pan out so much, though there have been big (and I mean BIG) changes since the 1950s. Sen’s work in the 1980s and 1990s began as a critique of then prevalent ideas about how one would measure those changes. Most of the measures being used focused on increases in national income. You’ve heard pundits talk about GDP? Yep, that’s it: a measure of growth in economic activity, whether this activity contributes to human well-being (tasty food, better video games) or simply reflects the way that society is failing to promote human well-being (employment of prison guards, rates of heart surgery). Along with Herman Daly, Sen noted that growth in any of these things translates into growth of income. Sen sarcastically wrote that we seem to equate progress with opulence.

But it was some of Sen’s earlier work that makes him worth noting as a food ethics icon. His work on famine was one of the things noted in his Nobel Prize. He found that famine is not always caused by a lack of food. Sometimes structural features of an economy can put food that is plentiful out of reach for people in poverty. Sen’s work is behind a nostrum I hear a lot: Global hunger is not a problem of food production, it’s a problem of distribution. I don’t actually like this nostrum too much, because it oversimplifies the actual significance of what Sen discovered about famine. Ironically, famine can strike farmers, too. Pestilence and drought have historically caused quite a few famines, and here it does look like the problem is not enough production. Sen’s point was that it is not global production that is at stake in these cases (and it was global production that was being plumped by everyone from Norman Borlaug to the Farm Bureau). The hunger that affected food producers in his book Poverty and Famine could have been averted by bringing food from other farmers not that far distant from the local famine site.

Sen’s point does strike a blow against my friends in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU who are constantly harping on the need to increase agricultural productivity. It’s not a fatal blow, mind you. As I’ve written before, we do need a constant effort to explore new avenues for improving all for forms of agriculture. But that, too, can become a rather simplistic picture. Sen pretty conclusively showed that simply contributing to total global food production does almost nothing to address the underlying causes of hunger. Better farming matters because a lot of poor people in the world are farmers, and they could be less poor with better farming methods. Simply having more food lying around doesn’t really solve anything.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University