The world today is on the verge of a major food emergency, provoked in part by Russia’s attack on Ukraine but more broadly by the damage heat from global warming is doing to crops worldwide. This is both a crisis and an opportunity.
Let’s start with the basics. Food is the raw material that makes people. More food, more people; less food, fewer people.
This is a basic law of nature. The insect-eating bird population around us, for example, is a fraction today of what it was 20 years ago because its food — the insect population — has been decimated by pesticides and loss of habitat (their food source), over the past few decades.
Pick any species and the law of nature is the same: more food produces population growth while less food shrinks population (often in brutal ways). It’s why areas like desert and scrub that produce little food were, over the past millennia, lightly populated, whereas areas rich with food like forests and seacoasts carried large human populations.
Throughout our lifetimes (and the past four centuries) human population has steadily grown because we hadn’t yet hit the new ceilings the agricultural and industrial revolutions gave us to produce and distribute food.
However, this halcyon era is coming to an end because of the climate crisis, provoked by 60 years of senior executives in the fossil fuel industry lying to us and buying off politicians while making trillions pouring their poisons into our atmosphere.
This should not shock us when it happens all around us and millions are starving and homeless, although it almost certainly will because most of the human race has lived for so long within the food abundance created by the widespread use of fossil fuels starting in the 19th century.
Humans reaching the limits of food’s ability to sustain population is not a new story; it’s as old as humanity itself.
As I wrote in Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture, eight hundred years ago a group of Melanesians sailed to the islands they called Aotearoa and we now call New Zealand. When they first arrived, around the year AD 1200, humans had never before inhabited that island paradise.
Food was everywhere for the taking, particularly a large flightless family of birds called the moa (similar to ostriches). There were so many of the birds, and they were so easily approached, that the archeological record shows that during the first few hundred years of occupation the islanders didn’t even need weapons.
No bows and arrows, no spears, no specialized weapons of any sort can be found in the archaeological record from those early times: the birds and many other large animals were so docile that people simply walked up and clubbed them to death with a stick or broke their necks.
A dozen different species of New Zealand moa birds, weighing from under fifty to over five hundred pounds each, provided meat and eggs well in excess of the food needs of the initial Melanesian explorers.
This abundance of food led to a golden age of peaceful human population expansion on New Zealand. The few dozen initial settlers became hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, all feasting on the huge moa birds.
As their populations grew, the Māori killed the moa in huge numbers: in the Otago District, an ancient killing field was found at Waitaki containing more than ninety thousand moa skeletons. The bones suggest that the birds were clubbed or their necks were wrung.
While this is the largest moa boneyard, several other similar ancient sites have been discovered around New Zealand in the past few decades: as many as a million moa birds, representing hundreds of millions of pounds of meat, were killed by the early settlers, now known as the Māori (or “moa-eating”) people.
The Māori population grew and over the next 300 years Māori people spread all across the 103,000 square miles of New Zealand. They lived in peace and harmony, convinced the gods had intentionally brought them to this island and thus showered them with its blessing of a seemingly unlimited supply of food.
But, as inevitably happens to cultures who think they can defy nature, the times of moa for the Māori came to an end. Their moa feast lasted for three to four hundred years but came to an abrupt end with the death of the last moa bird and thus the final and total extinction of all twelve Moa species.
The islanders then began eating other local animals, and in short order they exterminated or brought to the brink of extinction the huia, takahe, and kakapo, all birds ranging from the size of modern chickens down to the size of pigeons.
Along the coast, Māori people hunted the three-ton elephant seal to extinction within those first four hundred years, exterminated the half-ton sea lion (Phocartos hookeri), and from all but the most remote regions wiped out the three-hundred-pound New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri).
Turning to fish, the Māori soon endangered even the ubiquitous snappers, as the archeological record shows the fish skeletons and the hooks used to catch them declined in size rapidly over a hundred-year period following the extinction of the moa.
The easily killed large animals all exterminated, the Māori turned to what were considered famine foods by their seafaring ancestors: roots, tubers, frogs, ferns, rats, and small birds. Along with this change in their diet came a dramatic shift in Māori culture.
Around AD 1400—roughly four hundred years after their initial colonization of New Zealand—the Māori people began building fortresses and constructing tools for organized warfare. The forts, called pas in the Māori language, proliferated across the island.
The primary cultural values of Māori society shifted from cooperation to fighting and killing other humans for the scarce resources left on the island. The arts of war became elaborate, and each community spent enormous time and effort making their pa an impenetrable fortress. Shortly after birth, Māori boys were dedicated to the god of war.
Over the next two hundred years, the Māori’s war-bent culture achieved an uneasy stability. They had moved from population explosion in the face of huge food resources to near-famine conditions, then to farming sweet potatoes in the lowland valleys and building forts for standing armies.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to reach New Zealand and encounter the Māori people, just weeks after he had mapped nearby Tasmania. On December 16, 1642, he wrote in his journal about his one and only encounter with the Māori.
He sent a small group of his men out in a cockboat to meet the natives. Without warning, the Māori attacked Tasman’s sailors as soon as the boat was close to their canoes:
“In which fray three of the Zeehaen’s men were left dead and a fourth owing to the heavy blows mortally wounded. The quartermaster and two sailors swam towards our ship and we sent our shallop to meet them, into which they got alive. After this monstrous happening, and detestable affair, the murderers left the cockboat drift, having taken one of our dead in their canoe and drowned another.”
What Tasman discovered was that among the Māori protein was in such short supply that they had passed the last human cultural barrier to a food source: cannibalism.
Tasman watched helplessly as his one crewman taken alive by the Māori was beheaded on the beach. The Māori recovered the bodies of the others and roasted them. Horrified, Tasman named the cove Murderer’s Bay and sailed away, never to return.
This story of humans wiping out the resources that sustain them has been repeated over and over again throughout human pre-history. It’s far more the norm than the exception.
For the first few hundred thousand years of our history (more or less) modern humanity worldwide was limited to an estimated 5 million or so humans. As Daniel Quinn would say, we “lived in the hands of the gods,” repeatedly booming and busting our own local populations as we spread to new territories, discovered new food supplies, and then depleted them.
Here in North America the arrival of humanity around 15,000 years ago coincided with a mass die-off of large, easily killed food animals including:
three types of ground sloths
several species of horses
four species of pronghorn antelopes
three species of camels
several species of oxen
Scientists are still debating whether changes in climate or the human over-hunting “Pleistocene overkill” was most responsible for the extinction of so many animals in such a short period; odds are it was both, as this was toward the tail end of the Ice Age and the climate was rapidly changing.
As David J. Meltzer chronicles in his brilliant new book First Peoples in a New World: Populating Ice Age America, multiple DNA-identified groups of humans moved across North and South America over the following ten thousand years. Many of them simply vanished, their DNA gone forever, leaving not a single descendant to this day.
This boom-and-bust cycle has been the story of humanity since the first modern humans began migrating out of east Africa across that continent, up through the Middle East into Europe and Asia, and across the frozen Barents Sea to the Americas.
Periodic famine has been the norm for humanity throughout most of our history. We find new lands or new resources, exploit them mercilessly until they’re exhausted, then fall back into famine and war until a new homeostatic culture/lifestyle is achieved.
It’s the most logical explanation, some anthropologists argue, for why Native American societies placed such a high premium — reported in the era of first contact with Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries — on sustainability. Their distant ancestors had wiped out local food supplies producing famine, inter-tribal conflict, and war.
Most of the subsequently-rebuilt cultures and systems of governance were intentionally designed to prevent a repeat of those traumatic experiences. The most well-known of those is the Iroquois Confederacy that Ben Franklin so admired.
Which brings us to today.
While the agricultural revolution increased the world’s population — because farming is so much more efficient at producing food than hunting and gathering or even pastoralism — we’d still only reached a bit over a half-billion people worldwide when Europeans first arrived in North America.
The subsequent industrial revolution — powered by fossil fuels created by hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis (fossil fuels are simply fossilized plants) — dramatically ramped up our ability to grow and transport food.
Thus, we hit 1 billion people in 1800, 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1986, 6 billion by the turn of the century, and today are on the verge of 8 billion people.
Fossil fuels were turned into fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to grow more food on the same amount of land. They power our planting and harvesting machines, allowing a single person to do a job that previously would have required hundreds, each driving a horse or ox.
In 1820, for example, 72 percent of the American workforce were farmers. By 1850, because of the Cotton Gin and new plowing technologies, that number fell to 64 percent of the American workforce. In 1920, as gasoline- and diesel-powered internal combustion engines began showing up on farms, only 30 percent of us worked on farms. Today, farmers are fewer than 2 percent of us.
And, like the Moa birds, the era of cheap fossil fuels and a stable climate that enabled 2 percent of us to feed the other 98 percent is drawing to a close. Fossil fuels are getting harder to find and more expensive to produce, while climate change is reducing crop yields, melting glaciers that are the source of irrigating rivers, and drying up above-ground reservoirs.
We are stumbling — seemingly oblivious — into the bared teeth of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch driven by humanity itself. We are walking straight into it and pretending it’s not here.
And it’s changing how we live, how we govern ourselves, and the nature of relations between nations.
Already, hundreds of millions have become climate refugees and radical weather is destabilizing governments around the world: the Arab Spring, for example, started because the desert across north Tunisia and Syria had moved south and wheat farms were turned into scrub-land, causing the price of that staple food to explode.
A Tunisian falafel street-vendor lit himself on fire in protest, triggering uprisings across the region. The Arab Spring and its subsequent democratic collapse in Egypt and now Tunisia are harbingers of things to come in other parts of the world.
The growth of a food supply parallels the growth of a population. It’s one of the few laws of nature that has always applied to humans, even though we ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist.
The agricultural and industrial revolutions, by increasing the available food supply, exploded the world’s human population. Over the last two hundred years, advances in medical science and hygiene have additionally reduced the death rate while a whole variety of technologies have increased our food output.
But, like the Māori, we’re approaching the end of the free ride. Food, energy, and housing are starting to get very expensive; most of the world has already leaped into this maelstrom.
This isn’t run-of-the-mill inflation: it’s what happens to an economy when a basic commodity — in this case, the most basic commodity, food — becomes scarce.
The entire GOP refuses to even discuss climate change, while they and Joe Manchin stuff their pockets with fossil fuel money. Meanwhile, the end-stage crisis that’s been building ever since the fossil fuel companies learned this was coming and started aggressively lying to us about it — while funding the Reagan Revolution — has arrived.
What happened to the Māori, or Native American communities who overhunted 10,000 years ago, was local. This is now planet-wide. There’s no place left to go and start over.
If you thought it was a disgusting spectacle to see the Bundy family stealing federal lands and water at gunpoint, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Water wars between states and regions are just around the corner, and soon large parts of America will begin to lose population as their water supplies vanish.
Will we, like the ancient Maori, devolve into an authoritarian and war-based society? Or will we, like the Iroquois, Hopi, and Wendat people, make a conscious decision to live within our means, stop destroying our environment, and fine-tune our governmental systems to meet the needs of all of our citizens?
We are not without resources, and it’s always a mistake to bet against human ingenuity. On the other hand, we are facing an unprecedented level of avarice mobilized by billionaires and corporations with more power and wealth than the world has ever seen.
Will they win, and, in the process, set human civilization back millennia? Or will humanity prevail over the forces of greed and destruction and help salvage our biosphere while reinventing our culture and world?
The hour is late, but, scientists tell us, not too late. Our fate — and that of the planet — is still in our hands.