POPULATION EXPLOSION AND
A PLANT-BASED DIET
WHY DO WE HAVE A POPULATION EXPLOSION?
Our species has been on the verge of extinction many times. The latest low point came with the explosion of the volcano known as Toba in Sumatra around 74,000 years ago. Ash was dumped on much of the world, and huge amounts of sulphur dioxide were released into the atmosphere. The climate grew cold and dark. The human population was reduced from an unknown level, probably in the millions, to a few hundred or even a few score reproducing women in one area in Africa. I would hypothesize that Toba gave rise to the legend of the Deluge of Noah, followed by the death of most of humanity. (See Quest for the Historical Deluge, page 55.) Before Toba humans had spread to many parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, but all populations were wiped out or later died out except those in Africa. We are all descended from a small group of African Bushmen. Bushmen once lived throughout Africa, but retreated to the Kalahari, a desert no one else wanted, until governments discovered diamonds in the desert.
World population grew to around one million to 20 million around 12,000 years ago, 200 million by the time of Jesus, 1.0 billion around 1804-1840, 2.0 billion by 1927, 3.0 billion by 1960, 4.0 billion by 1974, 5.0 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 1999, and 6.6 billion by 2007. (Estimates vary for the early years.) Our numbers have increased a thousand fold in 12,000 years, from around 6.6 million to 6.6 billion. Our numbers have tripled since 1930. There are approximately 133 million births and 53 million deaths per year world wide, for a net increase of around 80 million people per year. It is considered inevitable that world population will rise to around 10 billion before it levels off around 2050 and perhaps begins to decline. Perhaps as a result of our near extinction at the time of Toba, we have an instinctual urge to reproduce aggressively. Maybe we always had that urge. What changed and set off the population explosion starting around 12,000 years ago was the discovery of plant and animal agriculture, which enabled us to give up nomadic life and settle down. More food meant more people could live in more compact communities. Disease remained a countervailing factor.
According to Jean Jacques Rousseau (died 1778) half of all children in his day died by age eight. As clean drinking water and sewer technologies were developed and as medical technology advanced, infant and child mortality dropped, and the rate of population growth increased even more. Our genes were programmed to urge us to have as many children as possible to overcome high mortality rates, but because mortality rates have dropped, we must learn to control this instinct.
There are estimates that we could feed five times as many people well if we fed them a vegetarian diet. In feeding 16 pounds of grain to a cow to make one pound of meat, fifteen pounds of soy and corn are wasted. If you fed the grain directly to humans, there would be a lot more left over for humans. As discussed elsewhere, feeding the world a vegetarian diet would greatly decrease environmental degradation. Animal herding contributes to desertification. Lands receiving low rainfall are strikingly different when there are no domesticated animals grazing on them. Cattle trample areas near streams and wells, as they travel there to drink, causing erosion and crop destruction. Cattle, sheep, and goats, kill trees. They eat new saplings and thus prevent trees from growing back after fires or after humans have cut them down. Often a poor and hungry country must export the animal protein it produces to service the country’s foreign debt. Animal domestication enriches the few but impoverishes the many.
The United States has ruined the rural economies of the Third World with its massive subsidies to U.S. growers of corn, wheat, soy, and cotton growers. Small farmers in Third World countries cannot compete. Nor, by the way, can the Third World compete in meat, dairy, and egg production, because crop subsidies are indirect subsidies to the growers of the animal products. The rural economy of the Third World is destroyed, so villagers emigrate to the big cities and to the United States. The way to get the Mexicans and Central Americans to quit coming here and to go home is to change our crop subsidy system.
Feed five times as many people on a vegetarian diet? Yikes! says the ZPG member. ZPG is Zero Population Growth, a middle-of-the-road group that believes we should slow and stop the increase in population and eventually level it off at some level higher than our present level. Yikes! Says NPG, Negative Population Growth. These guys are more radical than ZPG. They believe we should stop growth now and reduce the human population dramatically, even down to two or even one billion people or even less. Yikes! they both say. If we could produce enough food to feed five times as many people on a plant-based diet, then switching to a plant-based diet would allow the population to quintuple. This is an unfounded fear. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it is nevertheless a fact that well-fed people are more likely than hungry people to limit the number of children they have. Parents on the edge of starvation will have more children if only to provide more family labor and support them in their old age. Further, there are constraints on population other than food constraints. Space, energy, material resources, pollution, and global warming also act as limits on growth. All should be fed. All should be fed well. Hunger and starvation should not be used as tools for reigning in population growth.
HOW DIET RELATES TO POPULATION GROWTH
If ample food were available at reasonable prices, people would be freed from their desperate quest for food. They would have more time and energy to perform productive labor or obtain education—including education about family planning. Population stabilization correlates directly with the economic and educational level of women specifically and society generally. In terms of food production—with vegetables fed to people instead of animals—a more vegetarian world would be able to feed people better.
Some of my ZPG friends have said that what I propose—switching to a plant-based diet to feed people better and thus promote smaller families—is too indirect a method of population control. A few have employed the ghoulish logic that they don’t focus first on feeding people better because if people ate better, fewer would die, and thus the population would increase even more. They have said that I should focus on condoms and not cuisine.
I disagree. While contraceptive education cannot be ignored and is a fundamental component in the effort to reign in population growth, dietary change is equally important in the long term. My thesis is that dietary change towards a green diet would civilize society generally and make it more healthy, sustainable, and prosperous, and that contraceptive education would be more teachable and more effective in such a society.
A person concerned about the population explosion should take both lines of attack—contraceptive education and dietary change. They are not mutually exclusive; they complement each other. The connection between population and diet is indirect but definite and multifactoral.
Already half the land surface of the earth is taken up by animal grazing and growing grain to feed to them. Animal husbandry reduces soil fertility, contributes to erosion and desertification, and pollutes water supplies. Those poor who improve their lot have a tendency to adopt the meat eating ways of the middle class. This will only increase our assault on the land and wild animals, reduce soil fertility, and pollute more waters.
People will generally be more prosperous when land is more fertile. Prosperous people are more secure economically. People who are economically secure will feel that most of their children will survive, and so they will be more willing to limit the number of children they will bear. Prosperous people will be more able to afford birth control technologies. Prosperous people will be more educated and more capable of understanding the reproductive process.
For all these reasons, a vegetarian community has much more potential to be prosperous and reign in population growth than one that herds and keeps animals. General prosperity has lowered population growth rates in richer countries; rising prosperity is doing the same even in countries still poor.
But what about the fact that Western countries consume the most animal products but have the lowest rates of population growth, while Africa eats the least animal products and has the highest rates of population growth? Does meat eating reduce European population? Does relative vegetarianism increase Africa’s growth rate? The answer again is that population growth is multifactoral. Western nations control their populations better because they are richer and more secure that their offspring will survive, and in spite of the fact that they eat more fat and are thus more fertile. They have enough money to buy contraceptives, and the education to understand how to use them. Poor nations have problems with population growth because they are financially insecure and less educated. Europeans can husband animals without completely wrecking their environment and economy because in most of Europe there is consistent rainfall, something lacking in much of Africa. The best way to reduce insecurity in poor nations, especially those which are prone to desertification, is to give them food security, and that comes easiest when animal husbandry is reduced or eliminated.
Another important factor is the relatively free access to abortion in richer countries. If women in richer countries gave birth to all the children they abort, the statistical picture would be very different. Fertility rates may actually be lower in the poorest countries, but with relatively few abortions, overall growth rates are higher there.
Vegetarian girls enter puberty several years later than other girls. Vegetarian women enter menopause several years earlier than other women. Women who eat a low-fat diet remain relatively infertile for significant periods of time following childbirth, whereas those who eat a high-fat diet become fertile sooner. Thus, vegetarian women experience lower average fertility over the course of their lives. A small change in fertility can result in a significant percentage change in population growth, which cam result in a big difference in total population over a long period of time. (See the section of this book entitled Eating Animal-Based Foods: Earlier Puberty, Later Menopause, p.250.)
Some worry because the population of some European countries is actually falling. “With so few children coming along, who will finance Social Security?” they ask. The solution is to raise the retirement age, reduce benefits, raise Social Security taxes, raise general taxes, or raise the maximum income level on which Social Security taxes are imposed. Richer nations should encourage their populations to fall because they consume much more in resources and energy than the poor of the southern nations. We should have a United Nations treaty in which the richest countries particularly agree to reduce their populations.
I declined to renew my ZPG membership a few years back. ZPG is too single-minded an organization. It sings a one-note song and focuses too narrowly on contraceptives and abortion rights. It fails to fit population control where it belongs, into a comprehensive economic, environmental, and dietary framework.
THE OTHER POPULATION EXPLOSION
There are two population explosions. The first is the explosion in the number of human; the second is the explosion in the number of domesticated food animals, most of these animals spending part or all of their lives in factory farms. There are 15 billion such animals, not counting fish raised in fish farms. (Some say the number is closer to 40 billion.) Of this 15 billion, around four billion are large animals— cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses. Pigs produce 20 pounds of fecal matter and urine per day, beef cattle 80 pounds, dairy cattle 120 pounds. Chickens are smaller and produce less waste per “unit,” but because there are 48 billion chickens slaughtered yearly, chickens too produce a lot of waste. When the waste is stored in “lagoons,” it seeps down into the water table and pollutes wells. When there is a heavy rain, “lagoons” overflow and untreated waste goes into rives and estuaries, killing millions of fish at a time. Human waste must be treated, but factory farm waste can be dumped on the commons. These are 15 billion animals (some say 40 billion animals) that would not be alive if our world ate a green diet. As the Chinese and Indians get richer, they are following our unhealthy pattern, feeding ever more grain to animals and eating more animal-based foods. All factory farming of animals should be banned. This is a position that non-vegetarians environmentalists should support. We should all agree that industrial production of animal products should be banned and that animal products should only be grown on family farms, or in back yards, as in the case of chickens. By the way, Seattle is unusual in that it is legal to raise up to three chickens there in your back yard.
BECOMING CONSCIOUS ABOUT OUR NUMBERS
Most people are only vaguely aware of population issues. No president has ever addressed the nation on the subject. Neither major political party, neither “Republicrat” nor “Democan” — tweedle-dum and tweedle-dumber on this issue — has made population control a campaign issue. This is nothing less than an outrage against environmental reality.
When population control is discussed, it is usually treated as something that should happen somewhere else, off in Africa or Asia. To the contrary, each country — and each region of each country — should reign in its own population growth. If a rich country like the United States cannot control its numbers, how can we expect poor countries to do so? We consume far more resources per person than people in poor counties, so small population gains here have a greater environmental impact than large gains in poor countries. The Republican and Democratic parties are both capitalist, and it is the stated or unstated policy of each that world population should continue to rise at a moderate rate. It is part of traditional capitalist theory that a growing population makes rich people richer: It increases the number of consumers, which increases sales. It increases the number of workers, which keeps down the price of labor. This is a half-truth and at the same time an outright lie: It is a half-truth because even if a growing population were good for the economy, it would only be good in the short run. And it is an outright lie because it is not good to hold down the price of labor — because low wages and poverty tend to cause higher population growth along with many other problems.
In the long term there is no moderate or acceptable rate of population increase because time continues infinitely into the future. Moderating the rate of increase does not solve the problem, it only defers it. If we stop population growth at some time in the distant future, we will be stopping it at a higher level than if we stopped it now, and the strain on the physical environment will be ratcheted up to a higher level and stay there for a longer time. It would be easier to stop population growth now than it will be to stop it in the future. If we stop population growth right away, we will be able to do it through education instead of resorting to something like the mandatory one-child method which the Chinese have used, which would impose great stress on legal and constitutional systems.
TAKING CONTROL OF OUR POPULATION
What does education about contraception have to do with diet and animal rights? They are two sub-themes under the main theme of this book, which is taking responsibility for the overall moral and physical well being of our species and planet and the Eleventh Commandment, Do unto other species as you would have them do unto your own. We should leave room for other species to live instead of occupying every square foot of the planet. Contraception is a means of population control, and so is conversion to a green diet. The title of my book is “What to Serve a Goddess,” but the subtext is “How to Serve a Goddess.”
After the explosion of the Toba volcano some 74,000 years ago, the human population was tiny, and the world was a garden. We are enjoined in the Bible, Talmud, and other holy books to return the world to its Edenic state. An Eden would have a clean environment and a low population and be free of strife. Thus, population control is not just an environmental issue but also a theological and ethical issue. This is not a book just about food; it is a book about how to civilize the world, with eating right being one of several interlocking and vital component of the civilizing process. Because of the high fat diet most of us eat and because of the high hormone levels in animal based foods, children are reaching fertility at ever younger ages and women are more fertile for more years. There is a direct relationship between diet and population increase. Right loving and right eating are two aspects of right living. The urge to reproduce is a powerful instinct within us. If we did not posses this instinct, there are times when we would not have survived as a species. The only way to curb this urge is to bring it into full consciousness. Fertile people who engage in sexual activity without using effective contraceptive measures are not so much misbehaving as acting out a powerful and unconscious biological imperative. In terms of reproduction, we are “on automatic,” and we must get off “automatic” soon. We are descended from a long, unbroken line of people who were interested in sex. Ironically, we are most repressed about this most interesting of subjects.
Many people believe the lie that there is something wrong with a person who has not had sex at an early age. Many people believe the lie that a person is a fool not to have sex every time the opportunity presents itself. They believe we should “do it” first and deal with the consequences later. I talked with Army recruiters when I was 18. They told me how great it was to be in the service because on weekends there was cheap beer and quick sex. They boasted of their lowest-moral-common-denominator value system. This was one of the reasons why I did not do my patriotic duty and join up. The recruiters were wrong: It is good to wait to have sex until you have found a partner who will stick with you and the children you may create. Forty percent of all children in the United States do not live with their fathers. Their parents should have been doing something other than having sex, and that is a practical and not a prudish position to take.
My dear departed, fuddy-duddy dad believed the quaint notion that keeping the young ignorant about sex was an effective way to keep them from having sex. The exact opposite is true: Ignorance is the best way to guarantee kids will get into trouble. Those who have been taught family planning at home or in school have less sexual activity and produce fewer unwed children. Prudish and absolutist prohibitions won’t work; open and frank education does work. Parents should educate their children about sex, but most are uncomfortable doing so, feeling perhaps that any mention of sex is an endorsement of it, and probably feeling that any discussion of sex will lead to a discussion of their own sex lives. Most parents procrastinate, thinking at each stage that their children are too young to learn the facts of life and love. Kids who eat the typical American high-fat diet enter puberty at 12 or nine years old, or even younger. Time slips by, and all too quickly, the kids are having intercourse. That necessary parent-child conversation has not happened.
In our sex-saturated society, where children have incomplete and erroneous information about sex, they should learn the facts of life and love in great detail and learn these facts before puberty. Once puberty starts, the hormones take over, and two instincts are invoked: the instinct to mate and the instinct to distrust and move away from parents as part of the maturation process. After puberty begins, children will be a lot harder to talk with. All questions should be answered and at every age level, but more than that, parents should take the lead and educate. I would propose that on each birthday parents explain to the child where he or she came from, in greater detail each year, starting with how a sperm from daddy and an egg from mommy became the child. Because parents are repressed when it comes to talking with their kids about sex, schools should teach the facts of life and love. Otherwise kids will learn about sex from other kids. I learned some pretty ridiculous things about sex from kids at school.
We should actively encourage no-child and one-child marriages. The only child has the benefit of greater personal and financial resources and is usually sound emotionally.
Love making is the most sublime experience life has to offer, but it is also very serious business: It can produce a new human. Intercourse is said to be “the knowledge of good and evil,” perhaps because the child produced may do good or evil, depending on the strength of the triangular relationship between father, mother, and child. Intercourse is the joining of two bodies, minds, and spirits. It should be considered one of the sacraments. We are wrong if we treat it as sport.