Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Feed the world? Or not? A moral quandary.

When I retired two years ago, I planned to enjoy my time the same way many other retirees do: by starting a garden. In a small patch of land I set out to grow enough fresh food to feed Amy and myself. La la la, oh happy times.

Turns out it’s a lot of work growing food. With one problem after another, I never could grow enough to feed us (now you know the secret to our slim figures). I was feeling bad about myself for my failure. What was I doing wrong? I knew that we had at least as much land and water and fertilizer as a small family farmer anywhere in the world did—a family of five in Somalia, for example. How do they feed themselves when I can’t? Hmmph!

So I jealously looked into their secrets for gardening success, and it turns out they don’t have any. Their secret is to go hungry, or fight their neighbors, or become pirates, or die.

I looked into the issue some more, and found out some unpleasant things. For instance, there are currently about a billion people going hungry. Each year about 8 million people die directly from hunger, and many times that number are dying indirectly from the results of food shortage: everything from weakened immune systems to shortage-based civil wars to atrocities going under the name of ethnic cleansing.

How was I supposed to enjoy my retirement with so much suffering going on? What a bummer!

So for the past couple of years I’ve been working on solving the world hunger problem. In that time I’ve developed “fertibeaux”. Fertibeaux is both a fertilizer and a sequence of cultivation techniques that can greatly increase the productivity of almost any kind of land (I’m leaving out the technical details of fertibeaux for reasons that will become apparent shortly). With fertibeaux, an acre of good soil can easily produce enough food to feed ten families (25 if they are vegetarians). Even under the worst conditions (sandy, alkaline soil fed with scant, salty water) fertibeaux, and a lot of hard work, can grow a lush crop that would put a Kansas cornfield to shame.

These two years of development and experimentation have convinced me that with fertibeaux we can easily feed our world of 7 billion people ten times over. No problem. We could feed 70 billion. No problem.

No problem?

Then I saw the problem. Just as I was about to publish my fertibeaux results, gleeful that I’d solved yet another worldwide catastrophe and could finally enjoy my retirement in peace, I saw the problem: Because we will be able to comfortably feed 70 billion, I’ve no doubt that the population will quickly balloon to 70 billion. It should take about 100 years. It might be a tad unpleasant then, with so many humans filling the land that there won’t be much space for any other species. But so be it. Most of those species are already doomed anyway.

The problem comes when we’ve depleted the most important natural resource that is fundamental to fertibeaux (and which I’m keeping a secret), which should happen in, oh, about 100 years.

The way I figure it, here’s what happens if I release my secret fertibeaux: world hunger is solved; next year 1 billion people will be saved from suffering, as will many billions for the next century; 100 years from now there will be 70 billion people happily living on fertibeaux-based crops, then they’ll run out of fertibeaux; 101 years from now most of those 70 billion will die of starvation (although the exact causes of death will be listed as “disease” or “civil war” or “ethnic cleansing” or “biofuelicide”).

So here’s my ethical dilemma. Do I release fertibeaux now, and so relieve suffering for 1 billion people next year and many years after that? Or do I destroy all knowledge of fertibeaux and save the lives of 70 billion people 100 years from now?

Retirement is ethically challenging.


  1. A lot could happen in a hundred years. A pandemic could wipe out the population. Climate change could send us to fimbulwinter. I.e., plenty of things might wipe out the human race before lack of fertibeaux. You might as well solve world hunger this week.

  2. It's also like playing lotto.

    There's a 1 in a billion chance that little Jane is the next Einstein. They can cure diseases and fix government and give us unlimited free/clean energy. If we have 70 billion people we may have 70 of them, all improving our lot. So when you win $100 playing lotto, what do you do? buy more tix!

    You can't win if you don't play.