Scientific American now has frequent articles on the cutting-edge between science and technology and world problems. The problem that concerns the plurality of these articles appears to be food-- growing it more quickly, with more calories, on less arable land, to sustain a growing population of hungry poor. The articles never address why we need to do it, just how. With a world already straining under the weight of 6.6 billion souls, that unspoken question needs some air.
First, the reasons for feeding the poor go beyond simple compassion. Any developing country, it's said, goes through a baby-boom on its way to stability. Infant mortality drops a generation before fertility does, and the only decent way through it is to continue to provide food security and women's education, and trust that it will resolve itself. Second, a significant part of the reason these baby-boomers are so poor is that we made them that way-- by colonizing them, extracting their resources, and changing their climates. They deserve our support. Finally, we already have the capacity to feed everyone. Like smallpox, starvation could be a thing of the past, if we just collectively decide to do it.
Even so, these arguments may be insufficient. Limits to Growth predicted a catastrophic population collapse, which we might read as the result of expended watersheds in areas like China and India. As long as our political will to help doesn't keep track with the number of poor, we are doing little more than maintaining their poverty. As climate refugees multiply, the West risks being a huge Israel to the world's Gaza Strip: the hordes will come knocking, and when we don't let them in, they will die, hate, fuck, and kill.
Whether we can ride out the world's booms, and what will happen if we don't make it, are questions ultimately of science and innovation. However, one possibility that we must be aware of is that failure in 20 years will be far worse than failure now. When a system has been systematically pushed beyond its natural boundaries, with each step making the chronic strain worse, it can collapse far more catastrophically than it previously would have been capable of.
Feeding the hungry without limits is not humane. It disregards their future generations and the world they live in. We need to cultivate a worldview that holds neither the human being alone nor our time as central, but recognizes that we are part of a vast web of life, stretching across species and centuries.
Of course, standing aside while people die is similarly unconscionable. I think that a third option exists. Aid is already given with strings attached, and it's time to make those strings into composite ropes of steel. One possibility is to concentrate aid into distinct sustainable community projects. If we only have enough money to support a hundredth of the population, then construct a fair system for selecting that hundred and provide them with truly good infrastructure, extensive education and sustainable livelihoods. And give them high walls, because they're going to need them.