This is, of course, right from the start a proof of Godwin’s Law. Someone’s going to mention the Nazis at some point, so why not start out that way? Yet there is a truth in here, that there’s a strong connection between the policies some environmentalists urge upon us and the reason that Germany invaded Poland twice last century.
In both WWI and WWII there was a desire for “Lebensraum.” Something which was, at its economic root, the desire for enough land to feed the people and thus be, become, or remain a Great Power.
No, really, there’s a connection with environmentalism here, provided by an interesting recent paper, which tells us that rises in agricultural productivity reduce conflict. Stated as baldly as that, it probably needs a certain amount of unpacking.
The underlying idea is obvious and simple enough. If agricultural techniques and productivity are static, then there’s a hard limit to how many people an area of land can support. Have more people than that and some of them will starve. So, if you’re an ambitious sort of warlord, hoping to rule ever more people, then you’ve got to go and conquer more land. And even if you’re not a warlord, there will be times when a large family or tribe will become more than a little covetous of their neighbor’s fields.
This is, at heart, what that concept of Lebensraum was. Varied Germans (and it was Imperial as well as Nazi ones) noted that Britain, for example, had the colonies to get food from, America had masses of land, and so on. Therefore, Germany needed to have lots of land to have lots of Germans and be a World Power. So why not invade Poland?
This calculus changes entirely if farming productivity rises. In an economic sense, we’ve just built more land. That’s how economists think: If we can now get four tons of wheat instead of two tons from the same acre, then that’s the same as having twice as many wheat acres. It’s clear that if agricultural productivity keeps rising, then we’re creating more land continually, thus the pressure to invade someone else’s land decreases at the same rate.
In short, better farming reduces war.
It has actually been said that if the improvements in agricultural productivity of the 1950s to 1970s had taken place in earlier decades then that hunt for that Lebensraum would simply never have taken place. Why conquer when one can achieve the same effect with a few chemicals and tractors? Well, perhaps, there will always be those who lust for the process of conquering and glory, but perhaps not enough to drive entire societies to it in the absence of perceived necessity.
Which brings us to those environmental ideas of organic farming and the like, practices which are notably more extensive. That is, they require more land to produce the same amount of food. But having less land increases the risk of war, in order to own and control that land and the associated food production.
If we deliberately reduce our use of productivity-enhancers such as pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified crops, then we are in an economic sense reducing the amount of land we’ve got.
Yes, obviously, there’s a certain deliberate extremism in my argument here. But there's a little bit of truth. It is indeed fair, when harangued about how we really all should be eating organic food, to ask “Why do you want us to invade Poland? Again?”
Well, enjoyable at least to ask that, even if it's not entirely fair.
Tim Worstall (@worstall) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.