Overpopulation and scarce resources

Harry Harrison was born on March 12th, 1925. When I met him in 1984, he was dividing his time between the Republic of Ireland, where he enjoyed tax free status as a creative writer, and his flat in Brighton. He grew up as an American, but lived in many countries and eventually took Irish citizenship.

He was a prolific writer of science fiction, producing the “Deathworld” series and stories featuring “The Stainless Steel Rat.” His 1966 novel “Make Room, Make Room” brought him to popular attention when it was adapted into the 1973 movie, “Soylent Green,” starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson. It is set in a grim and grimy New York, vastly overcrowded as the world’s population has exploded, leading to a shortage of resources and food. People are fed on bland vitamin blocks produced by the all-powerful Soylent Corporation, and made of soybeans and plankton. The exception is the new Soylent Green, which we discover at the end of the movie is made of recycled people.

It didn’t happen. He set his story in 1999, and although the world’s population did reach 7 billion, as he predicted, it did so 12 years later. This was not the disaster he foretold, and the world did not run out of resources or food, or become so impossibly overcrowded that people had to sleep on the stairs of apartment buildings. Nor did services collapse.

Just as Harry was writing his doom-laden story, the Green Revolution was getting under way. Norman Borlaug was pioneering new technologies, including high-yielding varieties of cereals, especially dwarf wheat and rice, plus chemical fertilizers and irrigation, all combined with new farm management techniques that hugely boosted farm productivity and food production. We didn’t run out of food.

Julian Simon won his famous bet with Paul Erlich that resources, far from running out, would become relatively cheaper as new extraction technologies, combined with the development of substitutes, made their supply outpace demand. Copper, for example, that Erlich thought would run out, was replaced by optical fibre cables for many of its uses, and now has a bigger reserve supply than it did then.

Harry was greatly amused when I suggested that although we’d probably never construct the “Transatlantic Tunnel” he wrote about in another of his stories, we might well bridge the Bering Strait and go overland to America the other way round.

The dystopia of “Soylent Green” never came about, and almost certainly never will. The chances are that there’ll be enough food and resources produced by new technologies, including lab-grown meats and graphene. And we won’t need to recycle the bodies of dead people into nutritious protein blocks.