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Meat And Potatoes In The Coming Decades

By Peter Goodchild

29 June, 2012

A farmer with a potato patch of 50 square meters will yield 20 kilograms of potatoes and 20 kilograms of meat. Enough to keep us going until we get to the next farm.

It's always a matter of keeping an eye on the mathematics. But the mathematics seems to lead to only one grand total, and it's not the one we may have been hoping for. Let's even assume that the human population stays at a "plateau" (like the one said to be true of oil production) of about 7 billion, more or less, for the next few decades, with famine preventing any upward swing. The CIA and the FAO give slightly different figures, but they both say there are about 15 million square kilometers of arable land on this planet, which is pretty close to 10 percent of the world's total land surface. That means there are about 470 people per square kilometer of arable land -- "do-able" in post-petroleum times, but only in extremely ideal circumstances.

The catch to farming is that the one doing the plowing isn't necessarily the one doing the eating. Beginning about 5,000 years ago in the Near East, it was realized that in order to get any kind of harvest, there had to be one person doing the plowing and perhaps one other person keeping an eye on the horizon. That's how city-states arose: a powerful government can protect (or exploit, if you prefer) the farmers. Hence the development of "civilizations" in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and so on. After a war between city-states, it was customary for the male inhabitants of the losing city to be put to death, and impalement was one of the most common forms of killing; the Assyrians were especially fond of this method. Much of the Old Testament gives a good picture of the wholesale killing of defeated enemies.

But those were in the days when global population was small, and natural resources were abundant. Nowadays even the so-called arable soil is impoverished, there are no more rich deposits of iron or copper ore, and the population is enormous. This is going to be a rather competitive situation. Everyone will be trying to squeeze onto that 10 percent of arable, and much of the population will be unable to do the farming because they will have been conscripted into the armies.

To use Herodotus' favorite expression, the living will envy the dead.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild[at]gmail.com


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