The Changing Realities of Food, Energy, Affluence, and Quality of Life

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The Changing Realities of Food, Energy, Affluence, and Quality of Life

For people living in advanced Western cultures, it's easy to forget how recently we lived in a world of limited resources, where for most people the top priority and the focus of nearly every day's activity was to meet the essential needs of survival.

Even as recently as the 1800s, most people depended on agriculture and lived in rural areas, where obtaining the necessary supplies for survival was difficult, owing to poor roads and arduous travel.

It was in this atmosphere of deprivation, beginning in the 18th century, that intellectual visionaries considered the future. The world's population was rising. But at the same time, they saw a world in which resources were finite, based on an agrarian economic model that had been in place for millennia. The conclusion seemed obvious: The population would grow so large that we would inevitably run out of resources plunging the world into famine.

The most famous of these thinkers was Thomas Malthus, who published An Essay on the Principle of Population1 in six editions between 1798 and 1826. In it he wrote:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."

He went on to predict, "sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague… in terrific array," along with "gigantic inevitable famine."

This vision had an immediate, seductive effect on a wide variety of minds. There was a kind of irresistible dramatic quality to it — a Biblical intensity — that swept up thinkers from diverse disciplines, including Charles Darwin. The only trouble with this theory was that it was completely wrong.

It failed to take into account the way that technological advances would transform industry and agriculture. It also failed to take into account that more people meant more productivity. An economist named Henry George put it this way: "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens."

The result has been a steady increase in food production that has been sufficient to feed the growing world population. However, this bounty has come with certain hidden costs and unintended consequences, which we will have to intelligently address today and in the coming years.

For example, the production of food has become inextricably bound up with the production and use of energy. In the United States, for example, each calorie of food that the average person consumes requires 15 calories to produce and transport...

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