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Words of warning

August 04, 2007

Re "Don't count out Malthus," Opinion, July 30

I suspect Niall Ferguson's well-reasoned commentary regarding the Earth's ultimate inability to sustain unrestrained population growth will, as usual, be ignored. Our religious leaders and politicians regard population growth as natural, inevitable and exempt from interference. That attitude, along with our free market economy that depends on expanding markets, make any political steps toward reducing population growth inconceivable.

Ralph G. Fisher

Santa Barbara

It is true that demographer and economist Thomas Malthus, barring interplanetary travel or an agricultural revolution, ultimately will be right. To argue, however, that the population predictions of 2050 are undeniably beyond the threshold of sustainability is foolish. Ferguson recommends re-reading Malthus, but perhaps he would do well to read Ester Boserup, who postulates that it is population that determines agricultural production and not vice versa. It is curious that, despite repeatedly faulty presage, from the Club of Rome's forecast of mass famine by the 21st century to the myriad journalists and intellectuals who claim expertise in matters of sustainable development today, a great level of negativity persists. The next generation of mankind is far more innovative than the current, aging generation may believe, a motif that has been repeated throughout history.

Mark D. Sugi

Los Angeles

Ferguson writes: "Some people worry about peak oil -- when we reach the peak of petroleum production. I worry about peak grain." Ferguson should be worried about peak oil, too, because those two concepts are inextricably entwined. Those like Malthus who made dire predictions about overpopulation were derided because their calculations didn't come to pass. Instead of hundreds of millions of starving people, we merely had a few million, and that was owed more to geopolitical problems of food distribution than to the ability to farm. The difference was our newfound ability to use petrochemicals to make fertilizers that increased crop yields worldwide. But once peak oil arrives and the price of these fertilizers doubles and triples, what will happen? A Malthusian scenario is indeed in our future, and it isn't going to be pretty.

Paul Scott

Santa Monica

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