Paul and Anne Ehrlich

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

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.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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