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China, Population, and Famine
March 30, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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"But little by little a worse age came
lack-luster in its color;
and the madness of war, and the evil greed of having.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, [Rolfe Humphries, translator]

China plays a critical role in the slow-motion apocalypse. In the last 30 years its population has leveled off and the economy has grown rapidly. China now has the world's second largest economy, but hundreds of millions of its citizens still aspire to the level of consumption associated with the middle classes, or even working class, of the United States of America or Europe. Until about 1990 China contributed very little to the increase in carbon dioxide that is driving global warming, but now its increasing energy consumption is one of the main drivers. The government has shown itself to be authoritarian but competent. The government understands the dilemmas of Chinese history, science including global warming, population, and economics. But like all of us, it is in a bind.

"Studying Chinese history on a large scale, we perceive that paroxysms, such as that which ended the Mind dynasty and those which first shook and then overthrew the Manchus, can generally be traced to a gradually increasing pressure of over-population on the national food supply, which is the immediate and inevitable result of any considerable period of peace and prosperity." — J. O. P. Bland, China Under the Manchus (1939)

The relatively few Americans who have read about recent Chinese history can typically name two famines, both blamed on Mao and the Communist Party: that during the Great Leap Forward, and that associated with the Cultural Revolution. But neither of these famines are particularly spectacular compared to the famines under Mao's predecessor Chiang Kai-shek, or the Manchus or any prior dynasty.

China is large enough that during its history local famines were an annual affair. The Manchu conquest led to a population decline to about 55 million people according to the first census they took, a figure about the same as the Han census in 1 A.D. Under the Manchus the population grew to 75 million by 1681 and 400 million in 1842. Then the nation was convulsed by the Taiping rebellion. By 1862 the population had fallen to 261 million. Before that, between 1810 and 1830, four great famines had starved about 45 million people.

The Chinese Communists were able to win the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek largely because they had a reputation for treating peasants fairly and seeing that everyone was fed. The Great Leap Forward was an object lesson in the difficulties of rapid capital accumulation, no matter how benign the intent.

Today China is a net food importer, but could feed itself if it had maintained the more Spartan, mainly meat-free diet of the past. That may change with global warming. Most dangerous of all, there is no guarantee that, if crops fail widely across China in a particularly hot year, there will be bumper crops from other nations available for import. But that is true even of the United States.

So a wise policy in China would be to gradually reduce the population to something more sustainable, perhaps the 400 million figure from 1842. Of course since 1842 crop yields have improved, driven mainly by heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticides. The problem is no one knows what yields will be like as temperatures increase. Having spare capacity, resilience, and perhaps three years of food in storage seems like a good idea.

Instead the government is focusing now on the other horn of the dilemma: the shortage of young people to do the work. It is not an acute shortage yet, there is still unemployment in China. But because of the one-child policy and the discovery by women that one child is plenty, the number of seniors is increasing in proportion to the number of people of working age. There are better ways to address that issue than forcing women to have children they do not want. It will be interesting to see what policy the government adopts as we get further into the two conflicting trends in demographics and climate change.

China has become a wealthy nation, so like England during the Irish Potato Famine, it may be able to buy its way around a famine, at least at first. Poor nations that are already major food importers, or suffering from famine, will be the first to see significant population decreases. This kind of population decrease will do little to slow global warming because the people who die are low-carbon intensity consumers.

One would think a rational person would choose birth control over famine, but instead politicians and even scientists indulge in fantasies about increased food production. Or making everyone vegetarians. Or windmills and solar cells.

Today the more enlightened governments are just beginning to take actions that should have been taken 30 years ago. A global one-child policy might save us, especially combined with decreasing energy usage per person. Instead we will see half measures, and Famine will restore a temporary balance. If governments fall due to public anger about hunger, they deserve too.

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