Note: The following letter was faxed to the editor of the New York Times Review of Books on January 20, 1996. Apparently the editor has decided not to print it.


Ronald Bleier

To the Editor of the New York Times Book Review:

Where are the warning signs that we may have already reached the earth's carrying capacity? asks economist, William Nordhaus, in his otherwise favorable review of Joel Cohen's "How Many People Can the Earth Support" (New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1996). The answer is simply: all around us, if we care to look for the signs. Yes, it's true that at present rates of consumption and population growth, we are likely to have sufficient fossil fuels for our energy needs for about a hundred years. But that is simply proof of our technological ability to seek and recover those commodities. It does not measure the ecological costs of recovering and using the fuels; such as in destroyed habitat and in the effects of human based global warming which many scientists believe has begun to take effect.

A more important warning sign which Lester Brown of Worldwatch has been pointing to in books and articles, is the looming world food crisis. Already about 1 billion of the world's 5.7 billion population goes hungry, is malnourished or actually suffering the effects of starvation.

According to Lester Brown, world carryover grain stocks have dropped this year to a new low of 48 days (even lower than the previous low of 55 days in 1973 when grain prices doubled) and world grain prices are now twice as high as a year ago. Nor can we look to the sea for help since all the major fisheries are depleted and the per capita catch falls every year. Moreover, the scarcity of water in many parts of the world has forced reductions in irrigation and as a result, countries which used to grow most of their food must now resort to imports -- putting more pressure on diminishing stocks.

If privileged first world consumers don't yet notice shortages, it's simply because we are, at least for the moment, largely buffered by our wealth and by government subsidies. But if current trends continue, more and more will go hungry in the first world too as prices continue to rise.

Also, another sign that we may have exceeded the earth's carrying capacity are the world's many wars -- more than 30 by one count. And as we continue to grow our population by almost 90 million a year, and as we continue to lose arable land and per capita water supplies, more and more conflict can be foreseen. Ironically, military expenditures and violent conflict tend to create more scarcity.

Finally, Professor Nordhaus may have been hasty in suggesting that "Malthusianism appears increasingly obsolete." Indeed the opposite may be the case. We may have come to the end of an astonishing period in human history ---- from the nineteen-fifties to the late 80s, where technology enabled us to increase our food production at a rate higher than the growth in population. Many signs now suggest that we may be in the midst of a transition back to the world that Malthus described where human numbers are growing far faster than increases in food supply.

Countless civilizations in the past fell as a result, arguably, of overshooting their carrying capacity. The great difference today is that we have become a global village where shortages and political tensions are no longer merely local and where larger and larger circles are likely to be drawn into the widening whirlpool of scarcity and its consequences.