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Durham: A regression of ag technology equals peak supervillany


When you hear the “1960s,” what comes to mind? Hippies, drug culture, and free love? The women’s lib movement?

It was also a steaming kettle of social and political upheaval: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the shocking assassinations of beloved (and controversial) political figures.

But something else also permeated the zeitgeist: unshakeable predictions of gloom and doom. Too many people, too few resources. Mass famine and starvation was on our figurative and literal plates — to be served up at any time.

Thomas Malthus was the first fanboy back in 1798. Time for a revival.

Paul Ehrlich rebooted the bandwagon with his book “The Population Bomb” (I call it PoBo) in 1968. Maybe everyone was just too fatigued to critically evaluate it. But they bought into it, hook, line, and sinker. Population control, or else. China one-child style if necessary. Heck, even films of the time took a decidedly dreary view: “Soylent Green” in particular (spoiler: Soylent Green is people!).

The bandwagon was in motion — one that continues rolling today — but agriculturists saw the latent “bomb” as a challenge to be defused and overcome, not something to concede defeat to. One architect of that counterculture of the mind was Dr. Norman Borlaug — The Father of the Green Revolution. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for saving over a billion (with a B) people from starvation. How? By researching how to intensify and squeeze as much ag production per acre as possible. His legacy continues to this day. I was pleased to see him immortalized in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall!

Image by Tim Durham

But that’s reality. Back to fiction for a second.

Previous columns have outed me as a shameless superhero/sci-fi nerd. While watching Marvel’s latest blockbuster “Avengers: Infinity War” (warning: spoilers ahead), I saw some Malthusian parallels. That’s not to suggest that Disney condones population control — far from it. In fact, the message is clearly against extremism in any form, and trying to face adversity headlong, not submit to it.

Basically, the flick centers around the Avengers trying to contain an imposing figure named Thanos. Thanos is a self-styled eco-evangelist. His homeworld, Titan, is a ravaged wasteland — a victim of resource exhaustion. This led to untold suffering among his people. With these ghastly images seared into his mind, he resolved “never again”. He made it his mission to travel the galaxy and dismiss (OK, randomly kill) half of the population of each planet to rebalance the universal eco-equation.

As it stands, he’s already godlike, with a dedicated corps of eco-zealots. But with some fabled stones — embodying the primordial power of creation itself — he can attain his goal in an instant. He collects these stones and consolidates their power on a fitted gauntlet. With a fingersnap [poof] he presides over an immaculate (de)conception on a universal scale. It’s shocking and poignant. A number of beloved Avengers turn to dust before our eyes. Not a crowd-pleaser.

Thanos, you’re an intergalactic PoBo bro cut from the same cloth as Ehrlich and Malthus.

What are his motivations? It’s not machismo. In his view, he’s executing the unspoken will of the universe — a preemptive errand of mercy. His burden alone to bear.

So when it comes to population here on Earth, just how many are too many? We’re at roughly 7.5 billion right now, with UN demographers projecting perhaps 10 billion by 2050. Are we on schedule for an explosion?

Some say that we’re already past our carrying capacity and in overshoot mode. Basically, we’re on borrowed time. The thing is, carrying capacity (cc) is dynamic. The threshold moves up or down based on our ability to reduce resource use and boost farm efficiency. We’ve been raising the cc with every innovation.

So is it a matter of too many people and too few resources, or being too dense to recognize the spectacular success of modern agriculture?

Did it never occur to Thanos that he could conjure up a Borlaug-esque miracle rather than condemn 50 percent of universe’s population? We’re doing just that with every technological advancement. But inexplicably, there are calls for us to regress and use inefficient methods like organics and forego pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid seed, and GMOs.

But more food means exponential population growth! Not so. Population is slated to contract come 2050, a result of contraception and female education. Already, many countries are panicking because there aren’t enough young citizens to pay the social welfare benefits for retirees!

The problem is that Thanos (and his philosophical acolytes) dwell incessantly on the problem. Instead of relying on hysterics and fractured logic, solution-driven visionaries like Norman Borlaug and other real-life superheroes tackle the existential challenge of our age: leveraging ag science to improve quality of life for everyone. Thanks to them, we don’t ever need to agonize whether there’ll be enough food on our plates. History has vindicated their efforts. Feast, not famine.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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