Human beings need a better solution than pond scum

WestWordsWEBSometimes we find provocation in the oddest places. Most recently for me, it came from reading Dan Brown’s best-seller, “Inferno.”

Brown is known for being controversial. His best-known novel, “The DaVinci Code” suggests that Jesus Christ was married to Mary  Magdalene.

Now comes “Inferno,” another thriller that runs from clue to clue based on Dante’s “Inferno.”

I don’t want to give away the plot here, but an underlying theme — the provocative part — is that the human race is just like pond scum. The idea is that pond scum grows on the surface of a pond, drawing its nutrients from the vegetation growing on the bottom. Eventually, the scum is so successful that it blots out all the sunlight that the bottom feeders need to survive. Without nutrients, the pond scum then goes extinct.

Brown suggests that the human race is edging ever closer to the same kind of extinction. In spite of our “best” efforts — abortion, birth control, one-child government policies, government-induced famines, wars, etc., — global human population keeps growing.

Population experts estimate that it took almost 12,000 years for human population to go from 1 million to 1 billion. The 1 billion mark was reached around 1830, and then, it doubled by 1930 to 2 billion. Today, it is more than 7 billion, and estimates are that it will be somewhere between 9 billion and 10 billion by 2050.

While Brown comes up with a clever alternative, which I won’t reveal here, it goes against the instincts hard-wired by evolution in every species trying to survive in a still hostile environment.

Brown’s concern takes us back to the arguments 200 years ago of Englishman Thomas Malthus, who famously warned that population increases are limited by the level of subsistence. Eventually the world will become so crowded, that existence will be limited by misery and vice.

Malthus has been proven wrong for 200 years thanks to science and communication.

In 2012, for example, South Dakota winter wheat yields averaged 50 bushels per acre. Compare that number to the 6.5 bushels/acre the Dakotans averaged in 1900 and the 14.5 bushels in 1961.

The same kind of improvement applies to corn. From 1860 to 1935, U.S. corn yields averaged 25 to 30 bushels per acre. Yields then began a steady climb to 50 in 1960 and 80 in 1970. Yields haven’t been below 100 bushels in this century, and peaked at over 160 bushels/acre. Even last year’s drought still produced average yields of 120 bushels/acre.

By chance, just before reading Brown’s thriller, I finished “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley, who has a different take on how our species is doing.

Ridley believes, to quote a promotional piece for his book, that human beings are “not only wealthier, but healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal than they have ever been.”

Unquestionably, pessimism persists and often seems to prevail at times. That probably goes back to the first 40,000 years of human existence, when we were all scientifically illiterate and, to paraphrase 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish and short.”

Ridley argues that 99 percent of humans today are better housed and fed than ever.

He attributes human progress to the fact that we have learned how to trade goods and services productively with each other by trusting one another more than our forefathers did.

It hasn’t been individual inspiration that has moved us to this happier state, but everybody working for everybody else, using our collective intelligence to evolve by trial and error.

Granted, knowledge is not limitless. When humans know as much as God, we will hit the wall. However, we have a ways to go on that score.

If one thinks about the pond scum analogy for a while, it makes one wonder what the big deal is about transforming our health care system.

Liberals support Obamacare because the old system left too many people without health insurance. That’s not the same as being without health care, but the result is that those with insurance were paying a lot more to cover those without, and some uninsurables were going without food in order to pay for needed medicine.

Meanwhile, conservatives say that Obamacare will end up being more expensive and result in worse health care.

If we are little more than pond scum, either way, isn’t that what we want? More people starving to death or delaying care because of the cost until it’s too late vs. less access and poorer quality of care?

Either way will help hold down population growth. More people will die young.

And that raises the question of what’s wrong with chemical weapons or neutron bombs? Either would kill thousands or millions of people without ruining the infrastructure. At least we wouldn’t go extinct — or so the theory goes.

The only thing I haven’t figured out is, if pond scum keeps going extinct, why do we still have pond scum? Like newspaper columnists and best-selling authors, it just keeps resurfacing.

Unlike every “solution” to limiting population growth so far — or even Brown’s proposal — at least Ridley’s collaborative approach offers hope that a solution can be found that doesn’t force people to do something they don’t want to do. A cure that goes against our survival instincts will never be permanent.

Tom West is the general manager of the Peach. Reach him at (320) 352-6569 or e-mail

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