Monday, July 19, 2010

Overpopulation and Food

Not many people know that there was a 19th century historian, Thomas Carlyle, who advocated the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies because the liberation of slaves, he argued, resulted in a drop in their living standards and not having slaves in food production (crop harvesting and so on) would lead to massive starvation as population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply.

Fools come in many shapes and sizes and have been throughout history. Carlyle referred to the study of economics as a dismal science because of his rather narrow understanding of human nature, liberty and capitalism.

I remember somewhere in the past I heard a story about a filthy rich person who made his fortunes in the railroad business in the 19th and early 20th century and prohibited any of his money to be invested in anything other than the railroads after his death.

Because the executors of his estate were compelled to follow the testator's wishes, his money ran out and his estate was liquidated while the 20th century was still a teenager.

I know that it is easy to stand well into the 21st century and look back and point fingers, but the cardinal mistake anyone could make is to underestimate human ingenuity and then rule from the grave. My dad always said that the suit you will be wearing when you move to that small piece of real estate located on the wrong side of the flowers does not have pockets. Let it go already.

Even in this freshly minted century it is possible for one to look back many centuries by looking at other cultures with traditions that haven't changed.

When Carlyle made his rather idiotic statement about slavery, he based it on the constraints of food production of his time. It would have been a cause of witch-burning if I could tell him then how I produce food for my family today.

If I want meat, fruit, salads, bread, cheese and spices for my family, I can enter a weird gadget that whisks us away at 70 miles per hour to a building where all of these products are harvested, prepared, cooked, and assembled in a meal in no more than five minutes. While the weird gadget whisks us home again at an unbelievable clip, we would probably have our meals and be done by the time we get there.

Carlyle would have employed his entire family, with slaves and animals, for an entire year to accomplish what I do in minutes. If I spend more time on preparing and enjoying food, it would be purely for leisure and because of the company.

Regardless how simple feeding one's family and oneself has become, it doesn't mean that it is the end of technological development. We are looking at all the things around us in just as much amazement as the railroad millionaire and Carlyle did.

The answer is not to enslave people to keep a production process affordable, it is the counter-intuitive approach: liberate people so that technological innovativeness can be unleashed. How many wonderful innovations have been lost due to slavery, intimidation and poor education? These are perhaps the most costly of all human behaviors and they are all related.

It is unavoidable that we ask ourselves whether we have outgrown the Carlyles of the world. Is there anyone left today who believes what Carlyle believed? Surprisingly, liberals of today advocate the slowing down of technological development through dumber education and creating subjects not fellow citizens. We should go 'organic' or 'free range' and work the land ourselves so that we can honor and connect with 'mother earth.' I tell you, be careful what you wish for; 'mother earth' can be a terrible taskmaster. But cowards are first to criticize and judge others while they are well fed and safe.

Another thing: the earth is not my mother. I know my mother very well and she is not round and she doesn't spin endlessly around her axis.

Humans are custodians of the planet, not its children. Earth doesn't feed me or care for me. It takes hard work to extract the earth's resources and work them into usable things.

And I don't need slaves to help me with my work, either. I need people who can think and on whose intellect and innovation I can count, hopefully, better educated and more intelligent than what I am, which shouldn't be too difficult.

Capitalism -- individual liberty and the free market system -- will set people free and sufficiently feed them every time it's tried.

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Seeking the truth until I find it.