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The Double Crisis


Illinois Agricultural Association record (January 1944- December 1949)

The world's food resources are being used very unevenly and very wastefully. The world cannot afford this at a time when population is growing at a rate which now exceeds 20,000.000 persons a year. The growth threatens to outstrip our food resources unless something is done soon to re-establish the balance. This is one of the commanding problems of our times. UNESCO has selected "Food and People" as a major discussion topic for this year and has issued a call to discussions groups throughout the world to rize attention to this challenge. In order to focus public opinion and stimulate discussion in schools, colleges, local clubs, civic organization and adult education groups, UNESCO asked experts in the food and population field to write a series of papers on the problems involved.

Aldous Huxley fires the opening shot of the campaign with what he terms "The Double Crisis" which the world is hopelessly facing today. He stresses the declining fertility of the soil as opposed to the increasing fertility of mankind.

By Aldous Huxley

The human race is passing through a time of crisis, and that crisis exists, so to speak, on two levels ‒ an upper level of political and economic crisis and a lower level crisis in population and world resources. That which is discussed at international conferences and in the newspapers is the upper level crisis-the crisis whose immediate causes are the economic breakdown due to the War and the struggle for power between groups possessing, or about to posses, the means of mass extermination. Of the low-level crisis, the crisis in population and world resources, hardly anything is heard in the press, on the radio or at the more important international conferences.

Yet the low-level crisis is at least as serious as the crisis in the political and economic field. Moreover, the problems on the upper level cannot be solved 'without reference to the problems that are taking shape in the comic and biolog: cal basement. If it is ignored, the low-level crisis is bound to sharpen the crisis on the political and economic levels. At the same time, a concentration of attention and energy on power politics and power economics will make a solution of the low-level problems not merely difficult, but impossible.

In what follows I propose to discuss certain aspects of the low-level crisis and to point out how the obscure happenings in the basement have affected and are likely to go on affecting the lives of private individuals, the policies of statesmen and the conduct of nations.

"Poverty In the Midst of Poverty"

It has been fashionable for some time past to talk about"poverty in the midst of plenty". The phrase implies that the planet possesses abundant resources to feed, clothe, house and provide amenities. for its existing population and for any immediately foreseeable increase in that population, and that the present miseries of the human race are due entirely to faulty methods of production and, above all, of distribution. Given currency reform, socialism, communism, unrestricted capitalism, distribution, or whatever the favourite remedy may be, humanity, like the prince and princess in the stories, will be able to live happily ever after. Want and hunger will be transformed into abundance and the whole earth will become one vast Land of Cockayne. 

Such are the miracles to be achieved by political and economic planning. But when we pass from these high-level considerations to a study of what is going on at the biological and ecological levels, our optimism is apt to seem a little premature, to say the least of it. 

Instead of poverty in the midst of plenty, we then find that there is poverty in the midst of poverty. World-resources are inadequate to world-population. And meanwhile world population is rising. It is rising at the rate of about two hundred millions every ten years.

Soil-Erosion Menaces Civilization

Morover, while population goes up, the fertility of the soil declines. Atomic warfare can destroy one particular civilization; soil-erosion can put an end to the very possibility of any civilization. Favourable weather has prevailed in North America for the last eight years and, in consequence, we hear much less of erotion than was heard during that succession of dry seasons which called the Dust Bowl into existence.

Nevertheless, in spite of considerabie improvment in agricultural practices, soil-erosion still goes on and is likely, as soon as the continental weather takes another turn for the worse, to assume the same disastrous proportions as it did in the thirties. But within the next twenty-five years the population of the United States will rise (if nothing untoward happens in the interval) by about thirty millions.

What is happening in North America is happening also in other parts of the world. Erosion is rampant all over Africa, where a rapidly increasing native population clings tenaciously to its old habit of measuring social status in terms of cattle. There are more people, therefore more cows, therefore more over-grazing, therefore more erosion. 

In Asia too, the same irreparable damage is being done to the very foundations of any possible civilization. Human poverty exists in the midst of a steadily increasing natural poverty.

More People-Less Food

Since 1800, Western Europe hasJ trebled its population. This increase was made possible by the exploitation of the empty and agriculturally virgin territories of the New World.

Today the New World has a large and rapidly increasing population of its own and soil, after more than a century of abuse, is losing its fertility. There is still a very large exportable surplus of food; but as numbers go up, and fertility goes down, there will be less and less to spare for the hungry in other parts of the world. Moreover, the manufactured articles which Western Europe exchanged for food and raw materials have tended to become less acceptable in proportion as the nations of the New World have developed their own industries. 

Food is a renewable commodity. If the soil is not abused, this year's harvest be succeeded by next year's. But the vein of tin or copper which produced this year's output of ore will not be renewed in years to come. When the lode has been worked out, the miner must move on to another deposit of the mineral. And if he can find no other deposits  well, that is just too bad. 

Industrialism is the systematic exololtation of wasting assets. The thing we call progress is in many cases simply acceleration in the rate of that exploitation. And such prosperity as we have known up to the present is the consequence of rapidly spending the planet's irreplaceable capital.

How long can the accelerating dissipation of capital go on ? How soon will the wasting assets of the world be exhausted? All we know for certain is that the supplies of many hitherto essential commodities are limited and that, in many places, very rich and easily available deposits of those commodities have been or are in process of being, worked out. Thus, in the United States, high-grade iron ore is running low; so are zinc, copper, lead ; so is petroleum. And this is happening at a time when a rising population with steadily improving methods of production is calling for everincreasing quantities of consumer goods in other words, is making ever heavier demands on the limited reserves of our planetary capital.

Food, People and Pollitics

An unfavourable relationship between population and natural resources creates a permanent menace to peace and a permanent menace to political and personal liberty In our days, whether there is a threat to peace depends upon whether such an over-populated country possesses an industrial plant capable of producing armaments.

There can be no aggression without the means to aggression. Lacking these means, the people of an over-populated country are confronted with two alternatives. They can either stop breeding, and so reduce the population. Or else they can go on breeding until famine, disease, political unrest and civil war combine to raise the death-rate to the point Where a decreased population can re-establish a favourable relationship with natural resources. 

But some over-populated countries are also industrialized ; and for these there is a third alternative: to enslave or exterminate their neighbours, and so acquire more land, food, raw materials and markets. 

Remembering that "God is on the side of the big battalions," the military leaders of industrialized countries with high birth-rates will feel confident of winning any war they care to wage against the countries with low birthrates. And remembering that David killed Goliath with a stone from his sling, the military leaders of the countries with low birth-rates will come to believe that their only chance of survival consists in using, before it is too late, their technical superiority in atomic and biological weapons, in order to offset the effect of the big battalions. 

So long as it remains axiomatic that nations exist for the purpose of damaging or destroying one another, the unequal increase of world population is no less dangerous, politically speaking, than the over-all increase of population pressure on resources...

A Time of Gravest Danger

Assuming for the sake of argument, that, in spite of nationalism and militarism, a world population policy should be agreed upon, how easy would it be to get that policy implemented? The answer is that, in the countries where its immediate implementation would be most desirab1e, it would be exceedingly difficult, indeed almost impossible, to do so... [And] even if a substantial cut in the present high birthrates of the world were to take place tomorrow, the number of persons in the reproductive age-groups is at present so large that, despite the reduced birth-rate. over-all population would continue to increase until at least the end of the present century.

In the most favourable circumstance, we can reasonably imagine, world population is bound to rise to at least three billions before it starts to decline. This means that, whatever happens, the next half-century will be a time of the gravest political and economic danger.

If a world population policy should be agreed upon and implemented in the near future, this danger may be expected to grow less acute after about the year 2. 000. If no such policy is adopted the crisis is likely, unless something startlingly good or something startlingìy bad should happen in the interval, to persist for many years thereafter...

The problem requires simultaneous attack on several fronts-the ideological front, the organizational front and the scientific-technological front. On the ideological front the formidable enemy to peace is nationalism ; for it is in the context of nationalistic thinking that over-population becomes most dangerous. The depth and sincerity of religIOus belief are measured by the sacrifices which the believer is prepared to make for it. At the present time there are probably a thousand men and women prepared two undergo martyrdom for the local national idol, to everyone who would willingly die for his or her belief in God. Of all the motives for mass action, nationalism is, at present, by far the most potent...

A World Food Policy ?

The world's supply  of food can be increased in the following ways: by improving existing methods of production, conservation and distribution; by opening up hitherto unexplored areas of land and sea; and by developing techniques for transforming easily available materials into nourishment, either directly for man or indirectly for his domesticated animals, insects and fungi.

The international Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations exists for the purpose of considering, and making recommendations about, these ways of increasing the world's food supply. The organization possesses no authority, and one of its ambitious schemes-the Orr Plan for a World Food Board empowered to buy and distribute surpluses, to stabilize prices and preserve an"ever-normal granary"   has been rejected by a majority of the governments concerned. But there are other ways of getting results : the delegates to the F. A. O. are extremely competent, and we can certainly count on them, in the years ahead, to do as good a job as the various national governments, to which they are responsible, will permit...

When one looks at a map of the world...shaded according to the density of population, one sees that large areas are almost uninhabited. Most are uninhabited because, under present conditions, they are uninhabitable. In some places the expenditure of more or less considerable quantities of human labor and capital might change the conditions and make the land productive. 

As world population rises and the demand for food yet further outstrips Mie supply, it will become increasingly worth while to spend time, work and money on tasks which, in present circumstances, are economically unjustifiable. And if atomic power can be harnessed without too much danger, and made available at a very cheap rate, many projects at present quite unjustifiable would become matters of practical policy.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Russians have succeeded in thawing out the Siberian tundra and converting it into fields of eye and wheat. Much hitherto barren land in sub-Arctic Asia and America might become productive if this can be done... 

To break the politically dangerous monoplies in fertile territories and in access to the sea, chemists and biologists should be enlisted to collaborate own. a series of Manhattan Projects, not of destruction, but of creation. Thus, the Germans are said to have used a method for converting organic waste produces, such as sa. wdust, into a sugar solution tor the culture of edible yeasts.

Such a technique, if suitably developed, might provide much-needed proteins for those millions who, at present, have two subsist on an unbalanced diet of cereals. And the goal of another of these projects would be the synthesis of chlorophyll, the substance which permits the growing plant to use the sun's energy to convert air and water into carbohydrates.

Up to the present the rulers of the 'World have been ready to lavish time. energy, money and brains upon the development of atomic and biological 'Weapons ; it might be a good thing to use the resources of applied science for the relief of the world's hunger and the removal of one of the principal causes of war.

Natural monoplies in raw materials are even more politically dangerous than natural monoplies in food. When located in the territory of a strong nation. deposits of minerals necessary to industry are a standing temptation to the abuse of military and economic power; when located in that of a weak nation, they are a standing temptation to aggression from abroad.

Research should be deliberately organized for the purpose of discovering universally available substitutes for thes relatively rare and most unevenly distributed minerals. If successful, such research would have two beneficial results: it would break the natural monoplies which are so politically dangerous ; and it would help our industrial civilization to shift from its precarious basis in the exploitation of rapidly wasting assets to a more secure, a more nearly permanent. foundation.

Indusctial civilization is based upon the exploitation of wasting assets by means of man-power and the power generated by coal, oil, gas and falling water. If successfully harnessed, atomic energy will increase the available power to an enormous extent. From this, two results may be anticipated, one unfa, vourable, the other favourable.

To begin with we may expect that increased power will lead to the more effective exploitation and consequently to the more rapid exhaustion of the more easily available supplies of such indispensable minerals as iron, tin, copper, zinc and the like. Atomic energy will permit us to enjoy the prosperity of the spendthrift who lives gloriously for & few years on inherited capital. If this were all that could be expected, the discovery of atomic energy would be wholly disastrous. But fortunately this is not the whole story.

Given an indefimte amount of cheap power, jt will become economically possible to exploit deposits whose low concentration of desirable minerals render them, under present conditions practically worthless.

In other words, the harnessing of atomic power is likely to accelerate the dissipation of what may be called our highgrade capital. but it should postpone the final onset of bankruptcy by making available to industry the low-grade capital which it now costs US too much to spend...

Applied science can... be used in the fight for liberty no less effectively than in the fight for peace. Let us assume, for example, that a means will be discovered for substantially increasing the supply of food. This would have the same kind of result as the discovery of a second New World. It would make life easier for the inhabitants of over-crov.'ded countries and. by doing so, Jt would remove the necessity for some of the centralized and peremptory social controls which must always be imposed when the pressure of population upon resources becomes excessive.

Meanwhile, every day brings its quota of some fifty-five thousand new human beings to a planet which, in the same period of time, has lost through erosion almost the same number of acres of productive land and goodness knows how many tons of irreplaceable minerals. Whatever may be happening to the superficial crisis, to the crisis on the pollitical, or industrial or financial levels, that which underlies it persists and deepens. 

The current almost explosive growtlì in world population began about two centuries ago and will continue, in an probability, for at least another hundred years. So far as we know. nothing quite like it has ever happened before. We are faced by a problem that has no earlier precedent. To discover and, having discovered, to apply the remedial measures is going to be exceedingly difficult. And the longer we delay, the greater the difficulty will be.

Read also Aldous Huxley's articles

A defence of the intellect, December 1993
Defeating the enemies of freedom, October-December 2018

Aldous Huxley

The British novelist and critic Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian Brave New World (1932) which vividly expressed his distrust of politics and technology in the twentieth century through satire.