Not Enough of us are Dying.
A Medium contributor claimed in a recent article that agriculture was the cause of the many problems that plague humanity in the 21st century. Not just post-industrial revolution mechanised agriculture, but all agriculture, from when it was first practiced 10,000 or so years ago.
I challenged that claim in a response to the essay. It seems to me that agriculture was the first ‘improvement’ in humankind’s development that allowed more of us to live longer, causing the population to increase. The author of the essay was correct to this extent — being able to feed more people enabled more people to exist. And that has been the trend ever since.
The Industrial Revolution enabled unprecedented increases in productivity, meaning more people had access to more food and the other necessities of life. They lived for longer, the population grew.
Scientists discovered the causes of many diseases. They created sewers and developed ways of treating and distributing water so that it did not transmit the microbes that enabled the spread of epidemics like cholera and typhus. Fewer people died. The population grew.
Medical practitioners discovered ways of increasing immunity to diseases like smallpox and diphtheria. More children survived into adulthood. The population grew.
Twentieth century surgeons discovered ways of repairing or replacing damaged or diseased joints and organs. People were able to live longer. The population grew.
In 1850 a ten-year-old child could expect to live to 55. A century later his ten-year-old descendent, who could be someone like me, born in 1941, could expect 15 more years of life. By the time that milestone was reached, his/her ten-year-old grandchild would confidently expect to live beyond 82.
Most of this increase in life expectation is down to advances in medicine and public health. Experts in the study of life expectancy refer to something called the “health transition”. It occurred earliest in Europe (1770s) and most recently in Africa (1920). It’s the period in which the combination of improved public health and the application of treatments began to increase life expectancy for the population of the region under consideration. Before that time average life expectancy was under 30 (35 for Europe). Afterwards it increased, reaching the 70s in 1970s Europe and 1990s America.
It is still only 50 in Africa but that is set to increase in coming decades.
(My source for the last 3 paragraphs is: Max Roser (2019) - "Life Expectancy". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy' [Online Resource])
All these extra people need to be fed, clothed and housed. Causing massive strain on all the planet’s resources. As the Medium essayist I referred to at the beginning stated, the agriculture required to satisfy that demand is not sustainable. But agriculture did not cause the problem. Not directly.
Agriculture did produce surpluses that enabled people, relieved of the burden of food production, to engage in creative activities. That creativity is what produced the advances in agriculture, in transportation, in thinking about ways of making life better. The consequence of that was more people able to survive and thrive for longer.
That trend increased exponentially thanks to medical advances and improvements in sanitation. If we continue on the course we have followed for millennia we will arrive at a point where the only species on the planet are us and the plants essential for food, clothing and shelter. Sometime before that we will need to begin thinking about ways of limiting the population.
Collectively we humans believe we are superior to all other species. Religions, philosophies, ideologies, may differ in their view of how to set about making life easier for us, how to ensure our continuing superiority.
We worry about the increasing pace of species loss, not because of concern for the lost species but because of the loss of some real or possible future benefit those species might bring us.
We go out of our way to prevent death with our health and safety laws, our road safety legislation, our suicide prevention programs, as well as the many medical and public health advances already mentioned. It is a given that the life of one human being is more important than any number of other creatures.
There was a time when certain members of the human race — the poor, the black, the primitive — were regarded as inferior by some other members. Their lives were deemed less important. If a million Irish peasants died of disease and starvation, few of their more fortunate contemporaries cared.
Today, there are still people who take a similar attitude. Events in Yemen, Syria or Xinjiang, are all the evidence we need to demonstrate the truth of that statement. They are symptomatic of the ‘Chosen People’ syndrome. Leftist Liberals like me are appalled by such thinking. But the time will come when it will be necessary to decide who lives and who dies. Can we find a way of doing so that is fair, rational and just?