Address by Daniel Quinn, Kent State University, Earth Day, 1998


A few days ago I was feeling depressed and said to my wife, Rennie,

“I don’t see why I should give THIS speech at Kent State University. Why can’t I talk about something that will send everyone home with warm, fuzzy feelings and smiles on their faces?”

“Well, why don’t you then?” Rennie said. “Why did you decide to speak on this subject in the first place?”

“Because it’s the most important subject in the world right now,” I told her.

“But why do YOU have to tackle it?”

“Because no one ELSE is tackling it, at least not for the general public.”

“Then I guess you’re pretty well stuck, aren’t you?” Rennie said.

I thought I’d start with this little story, just to let you know what I’m doing here.

The Phrygian sage Epictetus said: Everything has two handles, one by which it can be carried and a second by which it cannot. The sage who stands before you here today says: There’s a third handle on the other side, but it can only be reached by people who realize they’ve got a third hand to reach with.

I think the reason people invite me to speak at events like this is that they vaguely sense, from reading my books, that I have a third hand I use to grab at things that most people only use two hands on.

They want to see what a three-handed man will make of whatever theme they’re exploring—whether it’s social investment, health care reform, or the future of business in the 21st century.

Ours is an obsessively two-valued culture. For example, we have all sorts of two-sided games—chess, checkers, tennis, boxing, pool, and so on—all sorts of two-sided team games—bridge, football, baseball, soccer, basketball, and so on. And we have all sorts of any-sided games (poker, baccarat, track events, skiing events, and so on). But we have no three-sided games of any kind. You will never see three teams take any court or field anywhere.

Our justice system is intrinsically two-valued. There must be prosecution and defense, plaintiff and respondent—one winner and one loser, always. Everyone HATES a hung jury.

Everyone takes it for granted that there are exactly two sides to every argument. When it comes to abortion, for example, there’s the pro-choice side and the pro-life side, and people who haven’t chosen one of these two sides don’t represent a third side, they just don’t represent any side at all. The same is true of issues like animal rights, capital punishment, and drug legalization.

The media play an important role in shaping reality into two-sided events. Very often two-sidedness isn’t clearly evident in developing situations. The fundamental news-gathering process helps to clarify—or manufacture—that desired two-sidedness. If one expert says that X is wonderful, the reporter is expected to find another expert who will say that X is terrible—or that Y is much more wonderful than X. This is, to a large extent, what makes the story NEWS.

When it comes to “the environment,” it hasn’t been so easy to polarize the community. Where do you send a reporter to get a quote AGAINST clean water? Or AGAINST clean air? Obviously EVERYBODY wants clean water and clean air. The issue had to be recast into one that doesn’t put everyone on the same side—and so it was. After a lot of pushing and pulling, a lot of tweaking, a way was found to represent the interests of the environment as being opposed to the interests of PEOPLE. This is kind of mind-boggling but that’s how it’s shaken out. You can’t be for people and for the environment—you’ve got to “choose sides.” This is an interesting example of taking a thing that originally presented only one handle and rotating it so as to expose two handles—thereby putting the third handle completely out of sight.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union started when I was ten years old, so I watched the whole race from beginning to end. I’m sure you all know how it went. We made an atomic bomb, they made one. We made a hydrogen bomb, they made one. We made an intercontinental ballistic missile, they made one. We pointed twenty missiles at them, they pointed thirty at us. We pointed a hundred at them, they pointed two hundred at us, and so on. It was a race with no finish line (except catastrophe). Apparently it was a race no one could either win or quit.

As you’d expect, the arms race presented two handles. You could take one of two positions. If you were a Hawk, you said Better dead than red, and if you were a Dove, you said Better red than dead, and every presidential candidate had to talk tough enough to placate the Hawks but also nice enough to placate the Doves.

Then in the mid-sixties there appeared a generation of children who didn’t value either of these two handles. They were sick of the arms race, and they began groping for a third handle on this whole thing. In fact, they began to look like regular three-handed monsters. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago police waged war on them, and the mayor gave out orders to “Shoot to Kill.” A couple years, as I’m sure you all know, more of the three-handed monsters staged a protest against the invasion of Cambodia right here at Kent State University. After National Guardsmen killed four of them, people began to understand just how dangerous these monsters were. It was time to start shooting on sight when you saw people exhibiting signs of three-handedness.

But the youngsters of that generation ultimately failed to find the third handle they were seeking. It was found—and it probably had to be found—by a Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said to us, “I’m going to do something really nasty to you. I’m going to deprive you of an enemy.” He ended the arms race the only way such a race CAN be ended—by pulling out of it.

Everyone in the world knew the arms race was dangerous—globally dangerous, mortally dangerous—to the entire human race and to the planet itself. I’m here to talk to you today about another race, no less globally dangerous, no less mortally dangerous—to the entire human race and to the planet itself. In some ways it’s even more dangerous than the arms race—first because almost no one is aware of it, and second because almost no one wants it to stop.

I’m talking about the food race—the race to produce enough food to feed our growing population.

There are people in the world—calm, intelligent, reasoning people—who believe that we’ve already gone over the limit, that even our present population of six billion can’t be fed sustainably on this planet. I have no evidence that they’re right—and I certainly hope they’re wrong. But the six billion is not nearly as alarming as the twelve billion that we will be in your lifetime if we go on growing at this rate.

Now—of course!—there are two handles to this thing. I recently read an Associated Press story that reported that food scientists are confident that they can WIN the food race. By the time there are twelve billion of us, they’ll be able to FEED twelve billion. That constitutes a win. SO: Not to worry, folks. The scientists are confident that food will ultimately triumph over population. That’s one handle.

The other handle is the one the Union of Concerned Scientists has grabbed. In their “Warning to Humanity,” they say: “We must stabilize population,” which is of course unarguable. But then they go on to say, “This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.” I’m afraid that grabbing this handle is an act of faith that has virtually nothing to do with science, but it’s easy to do, because it means that, really, nobody has to do anything but pray that someday, through some magical, unknown process all nations of the world will improve social and economic conditions and adopt effective, voluntary family planning.

It has been my misfortune to saddle myself with the really thankless task of bringing into view the third handle on this issue. This is a simple and well-known biological fact—well known at least to biologists and ecologists—that a food race like the one I’ve just described can no more be won than the arms race could be won—and for the same reason. Because neither race has a finish line—except catastrophe. You can’t win an arms race with your enemy, because every advance you make in your weaponry will be answered by an advance in your enemy’s weaponry, which of course must be answered by an advance in YOUR weaponry, which stimulates an advance in THEIR weaponry, and so on in a never-ending escalation.

And in the same way, food cannot win any race with population, because every advance in food production is answered by an advance in population. This isn’t a statement that is happily or readily accepted by most members of the public, because, I’m afraid, most members of the public don’t really understand the connection between food and populations. I’m therefore going to take a minute to explain that connection.

If you fence off a shopping mall parking lot, put a bull and a cow inside, along with a bale of hay every day, you will soon have three or four cows. But no matter how long you wait, you will NOT have thirty or forty cows—not on one bale of hay a day. If you want to have thirty or forty cows, then you’re going to have throw ten bales of hay over the fence. Of course they also need water and air—but all the water and air in the world will not turn three or four cows into thirty or forty cows in the absence of those ten bales of hay. You can’t make cows out of sunshine or rainbows or moonbeams. It takes hay.

Now when you have your forty cows, you don’t have to start throwing eleven bales of hay over the fence. If you just want forty, then ten bales is plenty. There isn’t going to be a famine among these cows just because you stop at ten bales—there just isn’t going to be any population growth. On those ten bales a day, those forty cows are NEVER going to turn into four hundred. But if you WANT four hundred cows, then you’ve got to provide more hay, and you’re going to end up buying a hundred bales a day to feed those four hundred cows.

Now the exact same thing is true of humans. Fence off the parking lot, toss in a man and a woman and a couple bags of groceries every day, and before long you’ll have a family of four. But those four will NEVER turn into forty if all you’re throwing over the fence is a couple bags of groceries a day. Can’t happen. Because people are just like cows—you can’t make them out of sunshine or rainbows or moonbeams. It takes corn flakes and bananas and hot dogs and split pea soup and raisin bread and broccoli.

If you want these four to turn into forty, then you’re going to have throw twenty bags of groceries over the fence instead of two. And when you get those forty people, if you decide that’s ALL you want living in this parking lot, all you have to do is keep throwing twenty bags of groceries over the fence. There’s not going to be a famine. Twenty bags of groceries fed these forty people yesterday and they’ll feed them today. On these twenty bags of groceries, the population is going to be stable at around forty people. But if you change your mind and decide you want 400 people living in this parking lot, then all you have to do is start throwing a couple hundred bags of groceries over the fence instead of twenty—and by golly, eventually there WILL be 400 people living in that parking lot.

There WILL be, but our cultural mythology says there doesn’t HAVE to be. According to our cultural mythology, forty people COULD make up their minds to remain forty. It could of course happen. It’s imaginable. But on this big parking lot we call the earth it never HAS happened.

It didn’t happen last year, obviously. Last year we increased food production, gave ourselves two percent more groceries, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent.

The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. I could stand here all day repeating that sentence 10,000 times—because that’s how long we’ve been increasing food production, starting back there in the Fertile Crescent. Last year we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. THIS year we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. NEXT year we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—and there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. And the year after that we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—and there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. But ONE OF THESE YEARS we’ll increase food production by two percent—and our population will NOT grow. That’s what our cultural mythology says.

For ten thousand years we’ve been increasing food production to feed an increasing population—and for ten thousand years our population has grown. Every single “win” in food production has been answered by a “win” in population growth. Every single one. But, according to our cultural mythology, this doesn’t have to happen—and one of these years, magically, it will not happen. The magic will presumably be that all nations will achieve improved social and economic conditions and adopt effective, voluntary family planning, just like the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends. This magic didn’t happen last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that—but one of these years, by God, every guy on earth will put on a condom and super-glue it in place and it WILL work. One way or another, there will come a year when we increase food production—and miraculously there won’t be an answering increase in population to consume it.

Our cultural mythology explains why it was vitally important for us to increase food production last year. We HAD to, in order to feed the starving millions. Everyone knows that. But, oddly enough, we increased food production to feed the starving millions, and guess what? The starving millions went on starving. The population went up—but the starving millions didn’t get fed. And of course we know why it’s vitally important to increase food production THIS year. We’ve got to do that in order to feed the starving millions. We WILL increase food production this year—there’s no doubt of that—but is there anyone in this room who believes that the starving millions will be fed, this year, for the first time in living memory? I guarantee you, my friends, that by year’s end this year, the starving millions will still be starving—and I guarantee that our population will have grown by two percent.

But of course our cultural mythology tells us it doesn’t HAVE to be this way. It was this way last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that—and it will be this way this year and next year and the year after that and the year after that. But one of these years, according to our cultural mythology, we’ll increase food production and by God those starving millions will get fed and our population won’t grow a bit.

Let me explain why those starving millions are not getting fed. Every year here on this parking lot we call earth, the human population grows by about two percent—all segments of it grow by two percent. This means that there are more blue-eyed people here this year than last year—and more brown-eyed people. It means there are more red-haired people here this year than last year—and more brown-haired people. It means there are more people here growing up well fed—and more people here growing up hungry. The starving population goes up just like all other populations, and producing more food can do NOTHING BUT produce more starving millions. We’re not making hunger go away by increasing food production, we’re just creating more and more people to go hungry. Increasing food production actually INCREASES the number of hungry people, the same way it increases the number of rich people, poor people, tall people, short people, smart people, and dumb people.

The most horrific element of cultural mythology that has to be dealt with on this topic is the notion that if we DIDN’T continue to increase food production—year after year after year—we would face mass starvation. I think at the base of this notion is the strange idea that our population explosion would continue to run on—even if there was no food to fuel it. This is rather like thinking that the engine in your car might continue to run even if the gas tank was empty or like thinking that the lights in this room might keep on burning even if the electricity was turned off.

But though I say this, I know from experience that very few of you believe it. Let me give you an example that I hope will convince you.

There are about 50 people in the Quinn clan, counting myself and my wife, all my siblings and all my wife’s siblings, all their children and grandchildren, and all my children and grandchildren. Last year the Quinn clan consumed a certain amount of food, and let’s say that they’re going to have to subsist on the same amount of food this year—and next year and all the years after that, forever.

Just as in any representative sample of the population, quite a few of the clan are past the age where they can or want to have more children and quite a few haven’t yet reached the age where they can or want to have children. But of course there are a few who are of an age to want to have children. This doesn’t mean they’re all pregnant at once, of course. In any given year, what you’d expect is that about two percent of the clan would be pregnant—in this case, that means one woman. But let’s not make it too easy for me. Let’s say she has twins. Now we have to feed fifty assorted people and two infants on the same amount of food that last year we fed fifty assorted people. Of course the same odds that apply to birth apply to death, but again I don’t want to make it too easy for me. I’m going to say that two are born to the Quinn clan but none die. Of course these infants don’t need the same amount of calories per day as a longshoreman. Let’s say, just to keep the numbers round, that the fifty of us have to come up with about 2000 calories for the two infants every day. That means each of us is going to be short about forty calories a day—three ounces of orange juice.

Now, this is what I want to know. Does this sound like mass starvation to anyone here? Are there people here who feel they’d be starving if they missed a couple of swallows of orange juice a day? I know I certainly don’t.

But what about next year? Let’s say that the same damn thing happens. A new pair of twins, no deaths. Wow, we’re really in trouble now. With last year’s twins to support and this year’s twins to support, each of us is going to be giving up a whole glass of orange juice a day! Now, once again, does this sound like mass starvation to anyone here? Are there people here who feel they’d be starving if they missed a glass of orange juice a day? I know I certainly don’t.

But of course I can’t go on weighting the statistics against me forever. Birth isn’t the only fact of life. The population of the Quinn clan isn’t going to go on growing forever. There are going to be deaths as well as births.

But the point I want to make is that in two years of even abnormally high births, offset by no deaths, there has been no onset of famine. Not even a hint of starvation anywhere. But let’s continue to weigh things against the Quinn clan and see what happens. Five years pass, twins every year, no deaths at all. Now, instead of 50 mouths to feed there are 60. Let’s say that when we started out at 50, each of us was receiving, on the average, 2500 calories a day. At a population of 60 we’re now down to about 2100 calories a day. That piece of double fudge chocolate cake is out of our lives as a daily treat—but of course we’re still nowhere near starvation. Even so, it may be time to have a clan conference where we go over the basics of family planning. I’m missing that piece of double fudge chocolate cake and don’t want to have to follow it up next year by giving up a spoonful of jam every day.

What I’m trying to point out here is that capping the Quinn clan food supply does not produce instant famine. It doesn’t produce famine at all, and it’s instant effect is negligible. We have plenty of time to begin talking about family planning. We’re not—simply NOT—plunged into a food crisis.

There are just no grounds for thinking that a failure to increase food production would result in global mass starvation. But people who are deeply invested in the food race will continue to make this claim, just the way that people who were deeply invested in the arms race were forever claiming that the commies would surely overrun the world if we relaxed our militancy for even one minute.

We’re in the midst of a food race that is as deadly to us and to the world around us as the arms race was. In some ways it’s even more deadly, because, after all, we and the Soviets never actually unleashed all the weapons we created. The catastrophe didn’t come to pass.

And as far as I know, not a single species became extinct as a result of the arms race. It’s quite different with the food race. It’s estimated that upwards of two hundred species a day are being forced into extinction by the inexorable expansion of our population.

Right now—and I want to leave you with this clear picture—our food race is converting our planet’s biomass into HUMAN mass. This is what happens when we clear a piece of land of wildlife and replant it with human crops. This land was supporting a biomass comprising hundreds of thousands of species and tens of millions of individuals. Now all the productivity of that land is being turned into human mass, literally into human flesh. Every day all over the world diversity is disappearing as more and more of our planet’s biomass is being turned into human mass. This is what the food race is about. This is EXACTLY what the food race is about: Every year turning more of our planet’s biomass into human mass.

The arms race could only be ended in two ways. It could be ended by a catastrophe, a nuclear holocaust. Or the participants could walk away from it.

Luckily, that’s what happened: The Soviets called it quits—and there was no catastrophe.

The race between food and population is the same. It can be ended by catastrophe, when simply too much of our planet’s biomass is tied up in humans, and fundamental ecological systems collapse. And if we refuse to abandon the race, it will end that way—probably not in my lifetime, but very probably in the lifetime of many of you. But the race doesn’t have to end that way. It can end the way the arms race ended, by people simply walking away from it. We can say, “We understand now that there can be no final triumph of food over population. This is because every single win made on the side of food is answered by a win on the side of population. It has to be that way, it always HAS been that way, and we can see that it’s never going to STOP being that way.”

The strange thing is that many people HATE hearing all this—yet I’m clearly pointing out a path of possibility and hope. I’m not a doom merchant, my compass is set firmly on success. Our population explosion is a problem we CAN get a handle on, provided we all start reaching for it with that third hand.