In our Big Question—what's the worst that could happen?—Robert Guest argues that it's famine, which permanently destroys lives...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
I once went without food for 24 hours. It was not much fun. I was in a West African rainforest, where journeys sometimes take longer than expected. By the time I found a village with a shop, my stomach was howling and I was feeling wretched. I bought a bread roll and a tin of sardines. It was the most delicious meal I have ever tasted.
Because I am a pampered citizen of a rich country, that’s the closest I have ever come to starving. Which is to say, not close at all. But over the years as a foreign correspondent, I have seen real hunger, and it is ugly.
In Angola, I saw children so desperate that they foraged in rubbish heaps for their breakfast. And they were not the worst off. Some kids did not have the energy to forage. Instead they sat listless on plastic mats in a foul-smelling refugee camp, barely surviving on the aid rations that hadn’t been stolen by men with guns.
I saw even worse hunger in the Afar region of Ethiopia. There, the soil is arid and the government taxes away any surplus the peasants might save in good years. Malnutrition is the norm; and when the rains fail, it quickly tips into starvation. One time I visited, the hot sand was littered with dead livestock. In one village of 100 homes, 13 people had perished in the previous month. Muhammad Hassan, a peasant with sunken, cavernous cheeks, told me simply: “We need food, or we’re going to die.”
Hunger makes people stupid. The brain, like any organ, requires nourishment. Children who are deprived of food grow up stunted mentally as well as physically. This robs them of any chance of fulfilling their potential. The chronically malnourished are doomed to live half-empty lives, struggling to imagine anything beyond the battle for subsistence.
So the worst that could happen would be for mankind to lose the Malthusian race between population growth and food production. So far, technology has outpaced demography: crop yields have risen faster than the number of mouths to feed. The world has suffered some terrible famines in modern times, but only when a political cataclysm, such as a war or a Mao Zedong, has ruined the harvest.
My worry is: can we keep squeezing ever more calories out of the same amount of soil? I suspect the answer is yes—adequately-fed humans are ingenious, and their ingenuity keeps them adequately fed. But the climate is changing in unpredictable ways, and we will have to be paranoid to survive.
What do you think is the worst that could happen? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Edward Carr on war, Irving Wardle on cultural erosion, Clive Stafford Smith on fear, Kah Walla on Africa unfulfilled and Ann Wroe on our imagination.
Robert Guest is the business editor of The Economist and author of "Borderless Economics"
Picture: Famine, from Dürer's woodcut "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", 1498 (Scala)