Overpopulation and Asimov

I have a profound respect for Dr. Isaac Asimov and his work. He exhibits many of the characteristics as a writer, scientist, and human being that I value. Many know Asimov only as a science fiction writer, but he is one of the few to have authored a book in almost every heading of the Dewy Decimal system. In particular I find his non-fiction science essays enlightening, even decades after their publication.

One particularly fun essay is “The World of 1990,” first published in the January 1965 issue of The Diners’ Club Magazine and later included in the collection Is Anyone There? From the beginning Asimov knows that he is on shaky ground.

Predicting the future is a hopeless, thankless task, with ridicule to begin with and, all too often, scorn to end with. Still, since I have been writing science fiction for over a quarter of a century, such prediction is expected of me and it would be cowardly to try and evade it.

He focuses largely on what he considered to be the inevitable overcrowding of the Earth. This fear permeates much of his fiction, but is perhaps most visible in The Caves of Steel, in which the entire population of the Earth lives in a dozen or so domed cities sprinkled across the surface, whereas the rest of the land mass is robotically farmed to feed humanity. He forecasts a world much like the one he wrote about in The Caves of Steel, but Asimov’s yard stick for overpopulation doesn’t connect with citizens of our time.

There are now rather more than three billion people on Earth. For the three leading nations of the world, the population figures are now roughly 700 million for China; 250 million for the U.S.S.R., and 200 million for the United States.

What will the situation be a generation from now, say in 1990, assuming that we avoid a thermonuclear war? It is virtually certain that the population will have increased by at least 60 percent. The population of the United States, for instance, may have reached the 320,000,000 mark.

Asimov breaks with the shorthand to write the population of the United States long form in order to emphasize that 320 million is a cataclysmic number. But is it?

The United States Census Bureau places the US population of late 2016 at 325 million people, with world population at 7.3 billion. This clearly places us in Asimov’s nightmare period of the future, with overpopulation and food shortages an ever present problem. Of course, excepting pockets of poverty, the vast majority of the world does not contend with overpopulation and food shortages (and where that does exist it is largely due to factors beyond humanity’s ability to feed all its members, but that’s another story entirely). Asimov’s fundamental miscalculation comes from two points; one being that he didn’t foresee the advances in genetically modified food sources, and the other being that he possesses an interesting personality quirk.

Asimov wrote “The World of 1990” in the early stages of what would later be referred to as “The Green Revolution,” a period in the 1960s though 1970s that saw drastic increases in agricultural science driven in part by the fear of a rapidly expanding human population. The father of the Green Revolution was Norman Borlaug, a microbiologist who specialized in horticulture (the applied science of plant growth). The roots of the Green Revolution started in 1944, when Borlaug went to Mexico to head up a well funded initiative to increase wheat production in the country; part of an economic development partnership between the government and the Rockefeller Corporation on behalf of the United States. Wheat crops in Mexico had been devastated from 1939 to 1941 by an outbreak of stem rust, a fungal infection that various common wheat varieties are particularly susceptible to. Borlaug’s team selectively bred a variety of wheat species, and by 1970 Mexico was the world’s major supplier of wheat, having gone from an importer to an exporter of the critical food source.

Borlaug led an aggressive campaign of selective breeding to create high-yielding varieties of grain. The key to his thought process was what came to be known as the Borlaug Hypothesis: increasing the productivity of agriculture on existing farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. Asimov felt that almost all land on Earth would be converted to a massive robotic farm. Borlaug saw the same problem as Asimov; if we can’t increase yield on existing farms then we’re going to have to deforest the planet to accommodate the human population. Asimov didn’t foresee that crop yields could be so radically increased – almost nobody did.

Borlaug went to India during the Bihar Drought of 1966 and worked with his team planting new strains they had developed in Mexico, often working in the field with artillery flashing in the distance from the India-Pakistan conflict. His initial crop yields (the amount of food per acre of farm land) were the highest ever produced in South Asia. By 1968 India was self-sufficient in wheat production. After that there was no stopping the Green Revolution, and it looked like the world wouldn’t starve to death. Fifty years and a few billion people later we’re still doing okay in that regard. As a result of his work, Borlaug is attributed with saving the lives of over one billion human beings and in 1970 received the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor that he thought was a hoax when he heard the news.

So how did Borlaug do it? One of the key features is called dwarfism, the genetic trait that causes wheat (or other grains) to grow shorter and thicker stalks. Thicker stalks mean the plant can support the increased weight of more grain, which is good because shorter stalks mean more of the plant’s energy is available for growing seeds. This also allows the plant to more readily take up fertilizer, the use of which further increases yield. Selective breeding allowed for grains that mature faster, making it possible to have two complete harvests (planting to mature grain to harvesting) in a single growing season; this alone doubles the yield. These modifications also necessitate a move to “intense farming,” which is the need to rely on irrigation and fertilizers and is the enemy of the organic farming crowd. To his critics Borlaug would often respond with an explanation that heritage crop yields can not feed the existing world’s population (something that everyone understood in the 1960s), so which third of the Earth’s population do you want to cull?

Reading Asimov it’s easy to think that he was overly worried about overpopulation, and he was an outspoken advocate of a restricted birth rate as the most humane option to control the population. The truth is that overpopulation – right after global thermonuclear war – was one of the largest sociopolitical threats facing humanity in the mid-twentieth century. The threat of thermonuclear war is easy for us to understand because we still live with it, but thanks to Norman Borlaug and others we don’t often get concerned that the Earth currently houses nearly seven and a half billion people.

I mentioned that there was a second thing that got Asimov thinking about living in mass underground or domed cities while robots farmed the land. Isaac Asimov was a self described claustrophilic – he absolutely loved enclosed spaces. For Asimov, the ideal life would be one lived underground in close quarters and exposed to artificial sunlight. Knowing this can help you understand much of his fiction, where characters live in hollowed out asteroids, windowless space stations, or massive caves of steel, while never objecting to a lifestyle that so many would find dystopian. Like Lovecraft’s aversion to sea life, an author’s personal psychological preferences are injected into their fiction almost without thinking. This is just one of the many ways that fiction can help us understand one another, which will be increasingly important if we ever do start living in domed mega-cities.


About Andrew Porwitzky

Dr Andrew Porwitzky is a professional scientist, comic book junkie, and freelance writer. He is also on Twitter way too much.

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