Created: 1995. Updated: 7 July, 2000


Review of Video
Food Production and Population Growth

by Daniel Quinn and Alan D. Thornhill, PhD.

EcoFuture (TM) Population and Sustainability
Media, Non-fiction

Food Production and Population Growth, Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, and Alan D. Thornhill, PhD.; available from New Tribal Ventures, PO Box 66627, Houston, TX 77266-6627, ISBN 1-885664-01-X (3 hours, $39.95). Supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Theology.

My initial impression of having to listen to a 3-hour video on population by a well-known author of new-age mumbo-jumbo was not very good. Don't get me wrong - after all, there is a lot said about his book Ishmael on my EcoFuture ™ website. I simply didn't think that Daniel Quinn would have anything substantial to say about overpopulation. I was indeed mistaken. This video is a serious and significant step towards addressing overpopulation issues and presenting scientific fact as well as ethics in context that is understandable to the lay person. I highly recommend this video to anyone, especially the uninformed, concerned with sustainability and the population problem. (You may copy this video for others if you obtain permission from the distributor).
Quinn states that he produced the video because "I have just been staggered by the difficulty and resistance I have encountered by audiences on these issues", and that this video discussion is the most effective way of presenting this material.
"Nothing threatens the future of the world more than the uncontrolled growth of our species. Population stability can only be achieved if we ignore mythology and pay attention to reality. I consider these videotapes equal in importance to all my books combined."
      -- Daniel Quinn

The video is a dialogue between Daniel Quinn and biologist Alan D. Thornhill in front of a small audience in Houston, Texas, USA. Although the setting is somewhat mundane, the discussion is not. The discussion begins by describing the ecological principle of how populations of species are in continual balance. Each species is in balance with its food supply - for example, as the number of snowshoe hares varies on a yearly basis, so does the number of lynx who prey upon the hares. This self-regulating system has worked for millions of years.
Humanity has defeated the negative feedback loop relating food supply to population. We continue to grow more food and then instead of stabilizing our population, we allow it to grow at even faster rates, requiring even more food. As part of this process, we are turning the biomass of the planet into human mass, and by using fossil fuels to do so are expending 10 Calories of energy to obtain each single Calorie of food. We are preempting land, resources, and habitat for human consumption at the expense of other species - our neighbors in the community of life, and are whittling away at the very capital of our planet. By increasing consumption and the number of people, we are removing bricks from the foundation of our building - from the biosphere which sustains us. The current human-induced extinction rate is approximately 100 times the normal background extinction rate. None of these losses are reclaimable.
We make food a commodity and reward producers for higher output. The surplus allows our population to grow even more. The presenters contend we need a systemic change - one that rewards producers for their work, but not by the pound. We also need to tie food production to local areas of sustainability. Original Native American tribes were restricted to the food supplies of their own geographic areas and could not infringe on food sources in the territories of neighboring tribes. Similarly, areas such as Houston could become sustainable if they included a regional area sufficient to produce food for their residents, necessarily enforcing population to remain in equilibrium with available food supply. [For more information on this concept, see material on Ecological Footprints].
Quinn states that we are concerned with simplistic solutions. For example, as embodied by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Warning to Humanity, and proclaimed by concerned moralists, Quinn states:
"We have encouraged people to think that all we have to do to end our population expansion is to end economic and social injustice all over the world. This is a will-of-the-wisp because these are things that people have been striving to do for thousands of years without doing them. And why we think that this will be doable in the next few years is quite bizarre to me. They don't recognize any of the biological realities involved. This is typical of what I call the atomistic approach to problems as opposed to the systemic approach, which is that if our population isn't solved, it is your fault, and your fault ... 6 billion times. And if population goes up as it does every day, it's just that people are not doing what they should do and people are no good."
"This kind of thinking must change. And we must begin to see that we are a biological population just like every other biological population on this planet, and to begin to think of our expansion in those terms and realize that our difficulty is systemic and a solution will be systemic."

Thornhill comments that the sociological/economic explanation of population growth is dependent upon two other levels: The first level is abiotic interaction with the environment - with wind, rain and weather. The second level is with other biological resources - with food, predators and disease. Only then does the third sociological level come into play.
For example, although societal factors impacted population growth in India, there must have been more food to allow population to grow. With respect to the ethics of sending food to North Africa, Quinn noted that the U.S. has helped undeveloped nations increase their population, often under the auspices of corporations promoting "Coca-Cola colonialism" to increase demand for their products. We show African nations how to reduce infant mortality and thus increase population. Then when drought occurs, we naturally send food aid. In our benevolence we export surplus carrying capacity from the U.S. to Africa to maintain high populations in areas which for thousands of years had only a small carrying capacity - the dance has begun. Quinn then discusses the ethics of "playing God", and that in doing so we have disassociated ourselves from a natural system that has worked for millions of years, and that in doing so we are doing more harm than good.
Quinn is frequently asked that "since population growth is slowest in the most developed countries, why shouldn't it work to advance poorer nations to the U.S. level of affluence?" Thornhill explains that there is a lag time between the result of introducing second-level processes to improve health and the time when population stabilizes after this change. During this interim period, death rates drop and birth rates remain high, so population increases dramatically, as has happened in Africa. Thornhill observes that in a large population, it is very difficult to reduce this time lag.
Regarding ethical implications, Quinn states that "We have to decide whether we are going to be the gods of this planet or not. If we do everything we are capable of doing, we will cause a population crisis in developing countries. We create more problems than we are solving. I am not convinced that we know how to run the world better than it has been done in the last three billion years. I am proposing a different attitude for our powers - one which people are not necessarily prepared for. If humanity is here in 1,000 years, it will be because we are thinking in a different way."
This is indeed a thought-provoking discussion and certainly worthwhile viewing.
      --Fred Elbel


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Copyright 1995-2003 Fred Elbel. This material may be freely used and distributed only for non-commercial purposes, with credit. Trademarks and copyrighted items remain the property of the owner.