by Rob Horning

22 December 2005


The most recent Economist has a story on the intertwined history of the human species and the cultivation of wheat (with some thinly-disguised propaganda for genetically modified crops mixed in), a story that ends with an unexpected twist: Rising wheat yields and the defeat of famine in most of the world outside of Africa has revealed that “human beings may be the only creatures that have fewer babies when they are better fed.” The article predicts that human population will seize to grow by 2035 and will reach its peak in 2050—it will never double again. The only places where population still increases is in the poorest places of the world: Burkina Faso, Niger, Somalia—places where human life seems to be disturbingly cheap. Could it be that in more-developed countries people cherish and value their own lives so much that they feel no need to augment it by bringing into this world more lives? Prosperity may make it seem as though additional mouths to feed are unwarranted, can seem a subtraction rather than an addition to one’s life. Or rather, is it that prosperity can produce technologies that defeat the instinct to procreate? Does it provide distractions and pleasures that make child-rearing seem the distraction? Malthus famously thought the world’s population would be decimated by famine, but as this article suggests, it’s ultimate ironic end may come by sheer surfeit.

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