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Popular Science, April 1923, p23, A Future Desert Food Factory 33

Food was in crisis. Food was always in crisis. A freeze, a drought, a blight, a simple miscalculation in planting meant that crops weren’t there to be harvested, sending food stocks down and food prices up. Failed farmers had few good options. They starved, or sold their children, or bound themselves in servitude, or moved to the cities or to other countries. Rising food prices encouraged farmers to plant more, in fact to overplant, sending wholesale food prices plunging and bankrupting farmers who borrowed their literal seed money from the banks at the beginning of each growing season. And that led to more rounds of farmers losing farms. Farming was hard, dirty, neverending work in the best of years. The best and brightest kids on the farms saw better opportunities elsewhere. Cities had been a draw since antiquity, but the industrial revolution dusted the landscape with sprawling cities that engulfed countrysides.


Cities grew wildly during the 19th century. In 1800, not a single city in the world, except possibly Beijing, held one million people. By the end of the century more than a dozen did. The great capitals of Europe – Berlin, Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg – had as many as three million mouths to feed. London, the colossus, held 6,400,000. London was as big as New York and Chicago combined, but they threatened to surpass it with the floods of immigrants arriving in America at the rate of a half million per year from 1890 through 1910. Manufacturing jobs may have paid pittances, in often horrifying and literally deadly conditions, but these bits of something offered opportunities superior to the nothingness of a failed farm. Growing cities had a doubled effect. Not only did their jobs lure workers away from farms, but their expansion kept driving the farms farther away from the heart of the cities, where the greatest concentrations of people lived. And a third effect soon manifested. Animals had always lived alongside people in urban settings while small, sometimes communal, gardens provided fresh vegetables. This also changed after industrialization. As late as the 1850s, cows lived in squalid shacks and fed on grassy commons in the midst of the slums from London to Boston, but a series of diseases wiped out these populations. Food now had to thought of as simply a commodity, to be brought by cart, rail, and ship from distant locations in ever-increasing and unceasing amounts to a consuming but not producing population that was scheduled to double in a few short decades. Food was in crisis. And, humanity… well, it was doomed.

If the availability of food governed the possible size of humanity, it was inevitable that attempts would be made to place a number on humanity’s doom. Those numbers tended to be of staggering size. The very words for numbers larger than a million -- billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion -- don’t arise until the 1680s or 1690s, at about the time when the emergence of a more modern and recognizable discipline of quantitative science made them necessary as part of investigations into the vastness of nature and the cosmos. Extrapolations of these numbers were larger still. The Future is a storehouse of largeness and no deep psychoanalyzing is necessary to understand how much of the attraction of the Future is due to the way it looms in size over our tiny selves.


Therefore it is altogether appropriate that the first estimation of the world’s absolute maximum population comes from Anton Van Leeuwenhoek. Telescopes of modern design are credited to the Dutch in the first decade of the 17th century but three quarters of a century passed before microscopes were added to the scientific arsenal. Only perfectly curved lenses gave clear results, so while an army’s movements didn’t suffer greatly from imprecision, tiny objects blurred beyond recognition. Leeuwenhoek started as a draper’s assistant, using magnifying glasses to study each fiber and weave for the best fabrics, and then became a surveyor, acquiring mathematical techniques that could also be applied to optics. Ten years of work went into learning how to grind lenses properly, given the limitations of the day – his genius was that of Edison, 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. The secret was miniaturization. Leeuwenhoek’s lenses were a bare one millimeter (1/25 inch), creating magnificent clarity as long as the object was correspondingly small.  His announcement of the discovery of “animalcules,” what we today call microorganisms, rocked the scientific world in 1676. He ground the lenses for at least 500 microscopes in his lifetime, achieving magnifications greater than any of his contemporaries. He looked at everything – insect antenna, split coffee beans, muscle fibers, and every type of human and animal secretion. He once left his socks on for two weeks so he could look at what accumulated between his toes. [Carper, Learning Through History]

In 1679 he sent the Royal Society of England a letter in which he proclaimed that in the “milt [ejaculate] of a cod,” could be found at least 150 billion (150,000 million) sperm, more than the possible number of humans that the world could hold. His logic was simple. He looked at the most crowded country in Europe, his own Holland, estimated the number of people per square mile, and then multiplied by the estimated number of square miles of land area on the total globe. That gave him a maximum of 13,385,000,000 or about twice the number living in 2010.


As first try estimates go, this was excellent. It also implies that the theoretical maximum can’t be the actual maximum because, as he wrote, the entire earth “cannot well be so inhabited.” Holland imported much of its food and other necessities, having no room to house that dense a population and provide for them simultaneously. The land area of the world as a whole must be completely self-sufficient. No amount of shuffling goods back and forth compensates for the planet-wide crowding.


All later estimates of the point at which the crowding inevitably turns into starvation are mere sophistications of Leeuwenhoek’s insight. At a joint meeting of the Geographical and Economic Sections of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Leeds in 1891, for example, E. G. Ravenstein kicked off the modern era of population demographics with a paper entitled “Lands of the Globe Still Available for European Settlement.” In it, he wrote off the tropic bands as not suitable for the white man, and realized that the steppes and deserts could never be as productive as the temperate regions. Making suitable adjustments for maximum production per square mile, he announced a figure of 5,994,000,000. The best estimate for world population at that time was 1,468,000,000, giving a comfortable margin before crisis set in.


Or was it comfortable? Was it ever plausible to assume that every square mile of the land area of the Earth could be exploited to produce the maximum amount of food? And how large was that margin in a world of continuing growth? Starting from the end of the 18th century, the image of food in the future was the subject of a constant battle between pessimists and optimists.

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