Scientific Prophecies of Food and Fuel Production, 1929–89

All Against All: Scientific Prophecies of Food and Fuel Production, 1929–89

Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence gasometer.jpg

Peter Boysen-Jensen's Social Gasometer. Boysen-Jensen, P. Die Stoffproduktion der Pflanzen. Gustav Fischer, 1932, p. 59.

"All Against All: Scientific Prophecies of Food & Fuel Production, 1929-1989" presents a series of case studies in the methods by which social (economists and demographers) and natural (agronomists, geologists, and ecologists) scientists in Germany and America quantified and predicted future food and fuel production between the Great Depression and the end of the Cold War. This study utilizes the archival materials and published works of a range of scientists and commentators to construct a narrative of the transformations that Malthusianism and secular anticipations of imminent apocalypse have gone through in the twentieth century. Changes in elite technical predictions interacted with the decisions of political, economic, and military elites as well as the hopes and fears of the masses, against the backdrop of national conflict and cooperation over primary exportable resources. These conflicts and coalitions were motivated in part by the expectation of a scarcity (or abundance) of animal and machine fuel at home or in prospective military or economic partners, more or less subordinate. Adam Lawrence's work was comparative along three axes: between German and American science, between social and natural scientists, and between food and fuel prophecies.

For example, the Ertragsgesetz was conceived by the German agronomist Eilhard Alfred Mitscherlich in the early 1930s. The Gesetz was embodied by the equation, log A-y=log A-c(x+b), where A is the hypothetical upper-limit of a given crop's yield (in kg), y is the actual yield in a given Feldversuch, x is the amount of a given nutrient added at a given time, b is the amount of that nutrient already present in the soil prior to addition, and c is a constant dependent upon the specific nutrient in question (phosphorous, nitrogen, and potash/potassium in Mitscherlich's studies). By plugging numbers into x, c, y, and b, the hypothetical upper limit A could be predicted. With this goal in mind, Mitscherlich and company conducted 27,000 Feldversuchen on a range of different cereal and root crops in 1936 with the funding of the German Potash Syndicate and IG Farben. Mitscherlich claimed verification of his agronomic law, and the equation became a prophecy of far greater potential yields for German staples than were actually being realized. In Germany, this fit with economic expectations of Germany's capacity to endure at least two years of war under blockade conditions. In America, however, the equation led the 1930s “agrobiologist” OW Willcox to conclude that war could be avoided once the dreams of full bellies embodied by the term “A” were realized, given that nations went to war first and foremost in a struggle to secure adequate basic resources for their population's physiological and mechanical energy needs. Meanwhile, the German ecologist Heinrich Walter put the Ertragsgesetz to work in what once had been German Southwest Africa, in an attempt to estimate the plant matter that could be coaxed forth from the soil of the region he still called by its pre-WWI colonial name, once it was returned to German control. In the postwar era, Walter became central to ecological efforts to estimate the total photosynthetic production of the planet, estimates which would themselves become central to predictions of a coming Malthusian apocalypse among ecologists, geologists, and other natural scientists from the 1960s through the 1980s. Each chapter of "All Against All" focuses on a different predictive tool, and each tool, like the Ertragsgesetz, was similarly inextricable from the military and economic alliances and confrontations of the twentieth century.