Sunday, March 14, 2010

Food for Thought

The May 2009 issue of Scientific American Magazine included an article entitled Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization? The author, Lester Brown, made a cogent case for an affirmative answer to that question.  Rising demand in combination with eroding soils, environmental changes brought on by global warming, and the depletion of non rechargeable “fossil” aquifers means that wide spread food shortages are a virtual certainty in the very near future.  When this happens, already unstable third-world governments will collapse like dominos and the global economy will disintegrate, leading to a worldwide crisis that could unravel the threads of modern civilization.  After some considerable arm-waving about how we need to make “a monumental shift away from business as usual,” Brown offers technical solutions that are sweeping in terms of the policy changes involved, but that essentially leave the status quo intact.  He includes such things as cutting carbon emissions by 80%, stabilizing global population at eight billion, magically eradicating poverty, and reversing the destruction of forests, soil, and aquifers. 

There are at least two potentially erroneous implicit assumptions woven into Brown’s discussion.  One is that the disintegration of civilization is necessarily a bad thing, something we should prevent at all cost.  It is an open question as to whether modern civilization is truly worth preserving to begin with—an open question that is very likely to have a negative answer when all is said and done.  Not only is the disintegration of civilization ultimately unavoidable, but it is something that we should be actively facilitating, something that we should be directing all of our efforts toward bringing about in a way that does the least amount of long-term damage.  Looming political and economic crises generated by food shortages might just be the catalyst we need to redirect our collective attention toward the humane dismemberment of the global corporate system.  Another implicit assumption that Brown makes is that the problems that he outlines are not in fact inevitable consequences of civilization itself.  Civilization is the root cause of aquifer depletion, overpopulation, poverty, soil erosion, global warming, and forest destruction.  It’s not how we do civilization; it’s civilization itself.  And it’s not just our modern civilization, either.  Civilization is destructive by definition.  All civilizations have generated these kinds of problems.  The difference is merely one of scope.  The destruction caused by the great civilizations of the past was (relatively) more localized.  The ancient Egyptian civilization, the Mayan, the ancient Greek or Roman civilizations were not global in their reach.  And, of course, they were not industrialized; they were powered largely by human labor, an energy resource with a far smaller environmental footprint than fossil fuels.  The point is that the serious problems that Brown claims will eventually lead to the disintegration of civilization are themselves natural byproducts of civilization.  But Brown is right about one thing: food is the keystone of civilization.  It has been the keystone and thus the Achilles heel of every civilization.  As such, food production and distribution should be the primary targets of our efforts to redirect the status quo toward ending civilization’s destructiveness by intentionally ending civilization itself.  

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