I was listening to the Stuff You Should Know podcast ‘Was Thomas Malthus right about carrying capacity?’ which I knew nothing about. The synopsis of the podcast (which I enjoyed):
Thomas Malthus concluded that humanity is bound to outgrow Earth’s carrying capacity. The prediction was based on humanity’s exponential growth and the linear growth of the food supply — but was he correct?
During the podcast one of the hosts mentioned ‘the best essay he ever read’ in University, titled The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race by Jared Diamond. Coming from a Dutch and heavily agrarian heritage, the essay was uncomfortably thought provoking as it made the case that the adoption of agriculture is the worst thing that mankind has ever done:
To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.
In the end his point becomes irrelevant as the only way to avoid starvation that is driven by population growth is through agriculture or infanticide:
Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over on person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.) Partly, this is because a field planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed far more mouths than a forest with scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it’s because nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it’s old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years.
And one must argue that while the old days with an average life spans of 26 years for the hunter gatherer and 19 years for the farmer did show a benefit to the hunter gather lifestyle, without agriculture we would not have been able to go through the stages of societal development (agrarian > industrial > knowledge based) or benefit from our current life span that is 4X the poor, olden day farmer.
Long live the farmer …..