Feeding the people:
I have produced graphs and made grim comparisons with previous history and mumbled darkly about the extinction of the species, but what is likely to happen?  I mean we have plenty of vanished peoples and plenty of vanished civilizations, but much of that may have been contingent on local factors and specific decisions, as indeed historians have always assumed.  Can, indeed, a human population that has suffered a fertility decline from excessive population size and diversity recover at all?  Is it likely?  I really don’t know.  The model says it can go either way. It should be fairly easy to tweak the model to make recovery after a crash more likely or less likely, but there is no point in doing so if there are no hard numbers.  All I can say is that the model matches the data available.  But there is data that is unavailable.  One can only go with what one knows, which as I said suggests that things could go either way. 

Besides, I find extinction a very difficult concept to manage.  It is sort of like trying to divide something by zero when you are doing arithmetic.  The result can be nonsense.  So for now let us try to whittle things down to more tractable concepts. 

In 1918, an influenza epidemic swept the world.  The death rate was so terrible that only Spain did not find it necessary to censor the news, making them the lone point of light in a world of otherwise unbroken willful ignorance and despair.  Rather churlishly, I think, we named the disease after them.  It was quite simply the worst thing that ever happened.  But if the world has something like seven billion people and the planet using standard traditional agriculture can only feed two billion, then the famine that never happened would have been worse than the Spanish flu.  So we did something better than we might have done.  We introduced the green revolution, and most of the people alive today would not be if that revolution had not happened. 

Maintaining the food supply requires a lot of things.  For one thing a lot of energy must be expended in the form of fossil fuels, so we cannot continue like this indefinitely.  We may escape our fossil fuel requirement.  The story of petroleum is to woeful degree one of low cunning, and one can imagine better arrangements.  The revolution also has required access to an enormous number of independently maintained lines of cereal grains.  And that is a story of high heroism.   In the mid 20th century the largest library of such strains of wheat, corn, barley and so forth was in Russia.  Things sometimes went poorly in Russia in that century, and some of the people caring for the grains died of starvation.  One starved to death at his desk.  I think it would be a really great thing if somebody would gather the history into one place and somebody would propose some sort of recognition of the team to whom most of us owe our lives.  Because without that grain, the green revolution would never have happened. 

The most important thing to maintaining our high tech farming and our high tech civilization in general is having an adequate number of capable people.  Although I do hope that the most developed countries in the world can be saved, and feel that there may be close to an even chance that the less developed regions of the world can be rescued, the most casual glance at current birth rates indicates that everyone must make an absolute priority of transferring our science and engineering to the countries listed in the August 25, 2005 posting.  That does not mean they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21’st century and start acting just like us.  One main reason they are so important is that they are not like us.  But we need to be sure that what we have learned will always be available to them should they ever decide to use it.  Otherwise, barring a miraculous change in people’s hearts, everything we have created and will create as a society will probably be lost forever within a few generations. 

Do not think for a moment that they are unpromising material.  The best minds have often come from the poorest places.  Voltaire during the 1700’s once remarked that he could not understand why anybody would be willing to fight a war over North America, “a few acres of snow.”  The engines of wealth were places like Haiti.  And in North America, it was not the rich and global minded South that catapulted the United States to the top of the food chain but the Northeast, where incomes and diets two hundred years ago were probably worse on average than in the least developed countries of today.  You may cry foul and say the North got rich by conquest, but there was certainly more to it than that.  Some serious thinking got done.

Similarly in Britain consider the book by Arthur Herman – How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It. 


England was a global minded superpower with fabulous wealth, the most stable society ever recorded and a tradition of education going back to the druids.  But serious thinking got done in the least promising place.  Our next great discovery after this one will come from one of those nations.  Well, maybe that depends a little on who will be keeping score. 


Right now of course we are doing things exactly wrong in this our last and greatest treasure, the last place having babies.  We are trying to make them just like us and at the same time leaching out their finest minds and luring them into the death trap that has always been urban society.  Do we think we can outsmart them forever?


I concede that there is one factor that may be very significant that damps my optimism.  There was a movement called the Reformation in Europe, and one of the consequences was an interest in reading scripture.  Religion having been then as at most times central to people’s lives, literacy became something of enormous importance whether one was hungry or not.  These intellectually energetic societies may have been poor but they could read. 


Nowadays at least among my friends, young people still relish literacy.  By now, according to early computer gurus, we were supposed to be an oral culture again.  Computers would be able to talk and listen and we could slough off all that nuisance about reading and writing.  It seemed to me that if they could not make computers as smart as people, they were working at making people as dumb as computers.  In fact now, it is all text messaging.  They take their phones, originally designed to permit ordinary oral conversation, and use them go punch out terse little notes to each other.  So hereabouts at least, literacy has not lost its appeal despite what appear to have been urgent efforts to stomp it out.  (It goes on.  Douglas W. Oard Unlocking the Potential of the Spoken Word SCIENCE vol. 321 no. 8600 September 26, 2008 page 1787.) 


So here is the question.  Do they use text messaging in the least developed countries?  I understand that cell phones are very popular indeed, more so than here, for one thing because the infrastructure is easier to build in an unsettled environment.  If they are punching at their phones with their thumbs, I think that would be very good news indeed.  If not, that might be a good thing to give them the opportunity to try.  Then they would be positioned, as the rich and intermediate countries die out, to take over the technology and sustain an agriculture able to keep the wolf from the door.


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