Uncommon Sense

May 20, 2018

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

I read a comment the other day that set my head spinning. The comment pointed out that up until around 1970, the only way to increase agricultural output significantly was to put more arable land into production. Basically that had been done to all effective extents by well before 1970. We now note how people are trying to put very marginal lands into production with predictable disastrous results. (Hey, let’s cut down that jungle and raise crops! … jungles have notoriously poor soils.)

But right about that time came the Agricultural Revolution, sometimes called the Green Revolution. We managed to increase crop yields for our staple grains (rice, wheat, corn, barley) by the simple expedient of growing these grains on shorter stalks. Shorter stalks are stronger and they can support heaver seed heads without falling over from being too top heavy. We practically doubled our yields per acre of these grains.

This I already knew. What the comment pointed out that the old “acreage limited” model of agriculture, which took about 10,000 years to run out, supported a global population of about three and a half billion people. The Green Revolution doubled our grain supplies and, if you are not aware, those grains also feed our cattle and other livestock, so represent fairly well the entire food supply of the world. (You will find grain of some type in 90% of the foods you can find in a local market.)

So, we doubled our food supply starting in 1970 or so and now the world population is about seven billion people. It is an axiom of population biology that organisms expand their populations up to the limits of their food supplies. The fact that our doubled food supply (from 1970 levels) matches our now doubled population (3.5 to 7 billion) supports the idea that we are at the end of the effects of the Green Revolution.  This second phase took less than 50 years. (Think about it! Three and a half billion more people in just fifty years.)

So, what is next?

Since there is no intelligence in charge of humanity, it is likely that corporations that are exploring the genetic engineering of food crops will work up a solution. I have written before that these shortcuts to different organisms have more risks associated with them than the procedures used before (up to and including the green Revolution). But let’s say they whip up something that works and it again doubles the yields of these grains, what then?

Well, history and biology indicate that we will double our population again, this time to 14 billion people. Imagine the impact on food distribution and electricity distribution networks, on transportation systems (cars and roads, subways, air travel, on the lives of us all.

What is really scary is that the reliance on the plants created under the Green Revolution has shrunk the number of species under cultivation to a very small number. When there is a much wider diversity of crops, crop failures are not widely catastrophic, but when they are but a few kinds of crops being depended upon, well, think of the Irish Potato Famine.

Nobody predicted the Bubonic Plague, otherwise know as the Black Death. This disease killed over a quarter of the population of Europe. So, what happens if some new agricultural blight, on the order of a plague, wipes out rice or wheat. Since there are only a few types of rice or wheat under cultivation it means that such a blight may wipe out all of the rice or all the wheat or very large fractions of those crops. The repercussions would not be pretty: massive famines, food riots, insurrections, whole countries destabilized, etc. (Take a look at what is happening in Venezuela currently, being a manifestation of just bad management.)

I guess my question is not “what is next?” so much as “to what end?” We haven’t developed enough political maturity to determine a fair and equitable distribution of resources. We still operate on a “get what you can” basis. (Exhibit No. 1 President Donald Trump) Is there any upside to doubling our food supply again, other than corporate profits for Big Ag Science corporations? Do we need another seven billion people on this planet? Are we prepared to handle the changes associated with such an event?

All of the answers to these questions are, of course, no. Herds of lemmings running off of cliffs is a societal meme we created. Lemmings are not so stupid as to do that. So, basically we, as a people, are projecting that behavior onto those animals. And, we seem quite capable from doing just that.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Note The word stupid is used as a pejorative meaning lacking in intelligence. Rather, it means “slow” as in “slow on the uptake” or slow to learn (it has roots similar to those of stupor). Really bright people can distract themselves in sophisticated ways so that what is glaringly obvious gets missed for a long, long time. That stupid, that’s the one I mean.


  1. As you say we are not animals to govern our behavior. We will breed. Just as we will try to do things that keep us personally happy. So we better figure out a way to better share, better distribute, better create new resources. We face a situation that we will run out of full time jobs in most of the developed countries. We have to find a way to be productive and happy without getting our satisfaction from jobs / work. That requires we find a way to have a way to provide so sort of ability for people to have their needs met when there is not enough jobs for everyone. I think the internet will help with some of that. But food and space is not the only things we need to reform our thinking on. Thanks for another thought provoking post. Hugs


    Comment by Scottie — May 20, 2018 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

  2. I’m surprised at you, Steve. You apply the axiom of population growth in a natural setting with human population growth when there is compelling evidence against this. Just look at your own country’s birth rate compared globally. Now look at food production between your own country and those with the highest population growth rates. The two are completely unrelated, thus demonstrating the lack of merit to the axiom you are basing your argument on.

    Population growth is a social rate subject to all kinds of social factors and not the availability of food. Just look at infant mortality rates compared to global food production: where food is most plentiful and cheap, we find the lowest- yes, lowest – birth rates per fertile woman. Again, the axiom doesn’t work.

    So there’s something else going on here to motivate the thesis and I suspect it’s to criticize and vilify ‘Big Agro’ (as if this were one thing) with gestures towards the risk of lower diversity in crops and susceptibility to disease that accompanies high yield uniculture. If my suspicions were off base, then surely we would read of your strong support for genetic modification in uniculture food staples to avoid the kind of risk you allude to.

    Nor do I see the connection between high birth rate/low infant mortality being funded or organized or enabled by ‘Big Ago’ that should be present if the two were in fact connected. What I clearly see in population data of high birth rates is a connection between social systems were women have few if any rights and next to no access to women’s reproductive health care and the number of children to which they give birth. Food availability is, if anything, limited. Again, this stands contrary to the thesis that ‘Big Agro’ is driving population growth. These places where rates are highest are also the same <social conditions for the lowest economic per capita rates and the highest rates of widespread poverty, and the death of infants from preventable diseases… the target consumer least able to produce profits for ‘Big Agro’ don’t you think?

    So what’s really going on here?

    I suspect, again, that this kind of opinion is formulated by those with an ideological dog in this show. What’s true in reality has little to do with it… whatever the ‘it’ may be beyond vilifying modern agriculture. Just as quick point, the amount of carbon needed per calorie for industrialized high yield staple crops is much, much lower than is needed for the diversified low yield ‘natural’ farming methods. We also see a dramatic decrease in the amounts of concentrated fertilizer, pesticides, and insecticides with mass produced genetically modified crops. So where’s the unfettered support for these methods? Well, if one is enamored by the ‘get back to nature’ agricultural model because one is rich enough and ideologically privileged to pay for it and willing to pass on the additional costs of this luxury to future generations, then we get this kind of opinion that calls modern agriculture ‘stupid’.

    So if we assume high population is a problem, then where should our efforts go in curtailing it? What is painfully obvious to me is that the primary means to do so rests with empowering woman to fully control their own reproductive organs and the economic means to do so. And that necessarily means criticizing social organizing that reduces or hinders or curtails this empowerment. Good luck criticizing the social justice warriors busy vilifying everything that empowers real women as legal individuals with the means to do just this when that means criticizing the victimized ‘groups’ to which they ‘belong’. So my question is, where’s the real stupidity going on here and who are the ones supporting it?

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by tildeb — May 20, 2018 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

    • I like the sound of Steve’s argument if you consider the world as a total organism. But I also agree with your assessment here too. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle, and with trade the way it is, it is hard to know what you are eating or where it came from. Agribusiness I believe is saving us to kill us and is probably at the heart of it all in a way, “if you build it they will come”. Problem is we have a surplus of a handful of foods, a far cry from our hunter gatherer days. No wonder cognition is in danger.


      Comment by jim- — May 20, 2018 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

    • There are a great many details one can parse, but the facts are what they are. The population of the planet was 3.7 billion in 1070 and it is over 7 now. The Green Revolution doubled the crop yields of the most important crops we have, the ones we are very dependent upon. What would the world be like had the Green Revolution had not happened. That I do not know but I suspect it would be quite different from what we have now. And there is the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

      I do have an ideological dog in this hunt. I wonder what my child’s future is to be like. I am concerned that we seem to be moving farther and farther away from rational decision making. Even if we made decisions rationally, there si no guarantee of good outcomes. As a symptom of this, in recent years weather forecasting has become better and better and better, much better than just 20 years ago. And … we are messing with the climate so much that all of that work is going to waste as our weather is becoming less and less predictable. We need to “make progress” if we are to survive at all well. And I am not all that hopeful that some techno-fix like the green Revolution will come along to bail us out, certainly not such a fix without other major consequences.


      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 20, 2018 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

      • You seem to be trying to say the two – population growth and the Green Revolution – are causal. They are as causal as rain dancing and precipitation, the facts being what they are. That’s why I’m surprised you have argued this thesis.


        Comment by tildeb — May 20, 2018 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

        • So, you are saying that the doubling of those staple crops had nothing to do with the population increase? That the population increase would have happened anyway with the food supply half of what it is now?

          I don’t know how many studies show that the birth rate declines in “hard” economic times but I suspect it is not just a few. The Baby Boom came about even though there was a significant decline in the number of marriageable men. Good times lead to more babies. Bad times lead to fewer. Biologically, significant weight loss leads to a decrease in fertility. I do believe these things are connect. Is my argument a simple cause and effect argument, well the argument might be, but the situation is quite complex. Even so, the broad strokes do imply some connection. I cannot believe there is no connection. (Even the green Revolution was caused by a recognition that we had expanded into all of the arable land available and further growth in ag production was not going to be do to putting more land under cultivation.)

          On Sun, May 20, 2018 at 10:31 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — May 21, 2018 @ 9:24 am | Reply

          • Again, if the thesis were true, then there should be the same connection between affluent countries with abundant food resources and explosive population growth. There isn’t. There just isn’t. In fact, the opposite is the case, are the facts: food supply does not cause population growth. What causes population growth is high fertility rates and lower infant mortality regardless of food abundance. Yes, food plays a part in the same way precipitation plays a part in ‘demonstrating’ the causal connection to rain dancing – you can’t have one without the other but my issue is the claim of causation. The Green Revolution is a continuation of perpetual crop sciences to improve yield and not the selected cause for population growth any more than claiming Big Potato caused the Irish famine. There are obviously connections between successfully raising infants into reproducing adults with adequate food resources but it’s not correct to claim food resources cause population increase. And the evidence for this is obvious in post industrialized countries where abundance in food does not cause population increase as the thesis concludes. It’s not correct to claim the Green Revolution causes population increase; it is correct to claim the Green Revolution has helped enable the increase in birth rates to translate into more humans of reproductive capability. That capability, however, is not the cause; it’s social factors that diminish women’s reproductive control. That’s the cause.


            Comment by tildeb — May 21, 2018 @ 10:24 am | Reply

            • I am not saying what you say is wrong, but in 1970 the population of the US was 205 million and now it is 330 million (+ or -). This is below the average of the world as a whole. Other countries are above the average (obviously). I admit this is a complex topic but it is not as if the US population has held steady or gone down. A lot of the other factors also even out: in countries where women are better educated, the population rate of increase is lower. Conversely in countries in which women are less well educated the population rate of increase is higher.

              It is clear that there are levers to move the rate of population growth. I suggest that food supply is one of the worst. A classic case is housing in California (I grew up there so am acquainted more with it). A law was passed that limited the building of housing based upon water availability (much of the state is arid or semi-arid). So, in periods when water was abundant, developers built like crazy. Then when the water supply shrank back, there were severe water shortages, but the political power of the people so deprived caused the state to extend resources to the region. The next water availability boom lead to another housing boom. See San Diego as the poster child of this phenomenon.

              If you dissect the U.S. by ethnic group, you will find the birth rates in White, Asian, Black, and Hispanic populations to be quite different. You can parse all of this out but overall, the population of the U.S. keeps going up, substantially. The birth rates by socioeconomic status show that less wealthy families tend to have more children, and we are pushing more and more families down the economic ladder and this will have an effect, but again, these are minor blips in the inexorable increase in our population.

              We do not know how to limit our population to reasonable levels (ask the Chinese) which will put demands on food supply, which if met will increase the population, and around and around and around we go. My post was about the end game … to what end does this get us as the rate of population increase seems much faster now than ever before.

              On Mon, May 21, 2018 at 10:24 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



              Comment by Steve Ruis — May 21, 2018 @ 10:41 am | Reply

            • Would you agree that the Green Revolution supported population increases, rather than discouraged them? I am not so much interested in exact cause and effect as opposed to drifting along believing we are in control when we clearly are not.

              On Mon, May 21, 2018 at 10:24 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



              Comment by Steve Ruis — May 21, 2018 @ 10:44 am | Reply

              • Oh, I understand Malthusian theory just fine but the fact of the matter is that ‘Big Agro’ is being vilified here when the culprit for unsustainable population growth is fully social and continues to the cheering of those who believe advancing their ideology in place of evidence-adduced knowledge is the manner to achieve real and lasting change.

                This is utter bullshit.

                This thesis here is an ideology of victimizers and victims at play, identifying incorrectly the causes for overpopulation and not an investigation into understanding causal effects that is the essential starting position for meaningful and lasting solutions to this problem of overpopulation. And it is a huge problem. How does a city government, for example, plan for and implement infrastructure like sewers, clean water, schools, transportation, energy, and so on when the growth rate adds tens of thousands every month? This is a typical fact around the world for the past 40 years. This is agriculture’s fault?

                Ideology – especially this Po-Mo stupidity casting labels of villains and victims so effortlessly from the armchairs of Western privilege – stands contrary to this process of understanding real world problems to the extent that we are expected to go along with criticizing through unwarranted and unjustified vilification exactly that which offers us the best solutions. Without advancements in crop sciences, we are well and truly fucked, leading into mass migration, massive conflict, and world war when unrestricted population growth is accepted as a social virtue. The bulwark against this idiocy and global suffering are solutions to create sustainability in all things human including reproduction, including food production. And that means throwing out the perverse ideology of group identities of victims and victimizers and start dismantling those social models and cultural practices that feed such unsustainability. And that means criticizing cultural practices in the case of women that detracts from their individual authority over their reproductive capability and not pretending for one second that the problem of overpopulation is somehow and always a Western crime, such as with agricultural practices. That’s why I said earlier, good luck with that when faced by social justice warriors who can’t see past their own smug ideologically moral superiority and refuse to criticize these practices that truly cause the problem of overpopulation out of fear of offending the ‘victims’. I suspect this is why crop sciences advancement is cast as a villainous character here because producing more food sure as hell does not comport to reality, that such victims are somehow and magically ‘helped’ by vilifying the very means of providing sustenance to hungry people, that this ability is somehow stupid and a Western plot to subvert the righteousness of the SJW. And that’s supposed to be of a higher moral standard – it’s Big Agro’s fault – according to the Po-Mo idiotic ideology. There’s your stupid in action.


                Comment by tildeb — May 21, 2018 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

                • As I remember, I did not excoriate “Big Agro” except in its drive for profits being about the only driver in the scenario I am addressing. The US federal government has abrogated its role in steering the economy, leaving most things up to “markets.” I remember the Green Revolution as it happened being lauded as a way to feed the world poor, etc. It turned out not to be just that. There has been a huge decline in the number of poor worldwide and this has been because of, as you say “social” movements (China being very noteworthy). I tend to think all of our problems are social/political in nature and I am wondering if we can elevate so many people our of the status of being poor and not increase the demand for resources (food, electricity, etc.) as it should. When Mr. Trump declared a trade war with China, China stopped a huge order for American Soybeans and ordered them from Russia instead. (I believe trump got the message.) I am wondering how long such options will be available.

                  Currently in the US, most of our large decisions are being made by corporate interests. I do not thing Big Ag is any worse than any of the the other sectors of the economy, so I wan’t trying to pick on them. Maybe I stepped upon a mine in a mine field I know nothing about.

                  On Mon, May 21, 2018 at 12:21 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



                  Comment by Steve Ruis — May 21, 2018 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  3. Vertical farming and cultured meat. With these two things we can return vast swaths of land to nature and end the kill trade.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — May 20, 2018 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

    • Stop eating meat and start growing a few veggies at home.
      It might not seem much but it’s a step in the right direction.
      I do not honestly believe there is a genuine need for cultured meat as this is simply a substitute to satisfy the habit of meat-eating, which is intrinsically linked to cultural mores rather than any real need.
      You can’t honestly eat a cow while not eat a dog because of some skewed sense of ethics.
      The Chinese eat dogs and cats.
      There are undoubtedly numerous contributing factors and money/profit are also driving factors.
      Where economic standards are raised, however, the birth rate tends to drop. Or so I have read, and the negative birth rate in parts of Europe would seem to bear this out. Empowering women helps tremendously in this regard as well.

      What’s that old saying about be the change etc….?

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Arkenaten — May 21, 2018 @ 3:39 am | Reply

  4. Sorry to go all Puddleglum on you, but considering what I know of corporate mentality and based on the overall direction that the world’s dominant ruling class cultures are heading in, I have just two words by way of prediction: Soylent Green.


    Comment by Klondike Jack — May 21, 2018 @ 12:14 am | Reply

    • I would not be shocked, but I suspect there will be a punchier ad campaign associated with it.


      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 21, 2018 @ 9:46 am | Reply

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