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So Many People . . . How Will We Feed Them? : WORLD WAR III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, By Michael Tobias (Bear & Co.: $29.95; 656 pp.)

November 27, 1994|Marc Lappe | Marc Lappe is the author of seven books on genetics, environment and public health policy, most recently "Evolutionary Medicine" (Sierra Club). He is the new director of the Center for Ethics and Toxic Substances in Gualala, Calif

Apocalyptic visions of the end of humankind are nothing new. Mathematician and amateur sociologist Thomas R. Malthus began the modern tradition with his famous "Essay on the Principles of Population," published in 1798. It was Malthus's view that human populations would inevitably increase in geometric progression and therefore must of necessity ultimately outstrip their food supply, a resource which can only increase arithmetically. Many others have continued in this vein, not least of whom is Paul Ehrlich who drafted his "Population Bomb" as a response to the sense of imminent collapse of the world's support base through population pressure.

Michael Tobias follows in this melancholy if not misanthropic tradition by writing a lengthy and complex treatise that is a distillation of a lifetime of thought and action concerning the human condition. But "World War III" is a treatise with a difference. It provides a thread of hope, offering a new vision about how humankind may ultimately come to peace with Nature.

World War III, in Tobias' account, is humankind's struggle with nature--and people are winning.

In defiance of Malthus's logic, the food supply for humanity--or at least those with the wherewithal to afford it--continues to keep pace with our rate of increase. Much of this vaunted success is the result of the "Green Revolution" in which researchers selected varieties of wheat, rice and corn with disease resistance, high yields and easy "harvestability." A recent news story announced a further genetic improvement in rice strains, leading to a 25% increase in production without the need for more fertilizer. With these new advances comes the ability to support at least another 450 million people a year. Isn't this enough, you may ask?

Tobias's answer is a vehement "No!" Food crop enhancement is just another strategic move in a war of attrition. Where there were once immense plains of wild grasses and diverse legume foodstuffs, there are now mono-cultures of corn or wheat. The African veld is now pockmarked with fields of corn, much as is the Argentine pampas and our own native grasslands in the Midwestern prairies. What were once vast plains supporting a balanced ecosystem of ungulates and herbivores have been supplanted by vast, monotonous tracts of cereal crops. The devastation of the tropical rain forest by the relentless push of population pressure is by now a well told story.

This continuing devastation of the ecosystems of the planet is the greatest peril represented by the superabundance of its most profligate large species, Homo sapiens. Our incursions into the thin life of the planet are in truth a war "against the future." Our pillaging of the biosphere will produce a radically reduced biodiversity.

If our own survival is a victory, it is a sullied one at best. In winning, we are killing the planet. Our continuing survival has come about at the expense of species diversity and the stability of the web of life on the planet as a whole. In this war, the victors (even the next generation) will inherit a much impoverished planet, devoid of the species richness which ensures balance and perhaps survival of the whole. The costs to retrieve the essential balance and integrity of life on the planet when humankind is 40 billion strong will eclipse all contemporary expenditures for ecosystem restoration. Tobias sees our blindness to these consequences as akin to the denial of the early symptoms of a cancer patient whose ultimate illness will be incredibly costly and drain his remaining resources. And like the cancer patient, Tobias believes that we have only a very short time to muster our resources for the end game.

Tobias believes that the war to protect biodiversity will be won or lost in the next few years. Protecting the web of life will require herculean efforts from the wealthy who above all others must greatly curtail their population growth. In championing this view, World War III is more akin in spirit and focus to E.O. Wilson's "The Diversity of Life" than it is to either Malthus or Ehrlich. Like Wilson, Tobias perceives the duty to maintain biodiversity as a moral requirement of planet stewardship.

But Tobias has the breadth of experience as a political scientist and participant in population conferences that allows him to put this perspective into a world view that eclipses that of Wilson. Unlike other contemporary social reformers, Tobias sees the origins and solutions to this dilemma as going beyond a simple interplay of political and economic forces of supply and demand.

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