The Future is Darkness

Dry lake bed of the present...and the future

Back in the long, long ago, I went off to graduate school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was a jarring experience for me, both culturally (as a northerner born and bred) and climactically. I come from the high desert, where it doesn’t rain very much and most people can’t even spell humidity. I’d lived in Portland, Oregon, where it rains a lot but seldom very hard. In Chapel Hill, it rained heavily (the locals sometimes called the big showers “toad stranglers”) and sometimes it was so humid that the sky turned white.

They also get ice storms in the Carolinas. I’d seen one of two of these growing up in southeastern Washington, but the ones in the Carolinas had a kind of apocalyptic quality. The weather, in general, was a source of anxiety to people. Within the first week that I was at UNC somebody recommended to me that I buy a hibachi because the power was likely to be out for anything up a week at some point during the year. But ice storms had a special fascination for the locals.

One overcast Saturday I found myself heading up to the supermarket in Carrboro (the town that adjoins Chapel Hill) in search of something to eat during the UNC basketball game that was happening later that day. Unbeknownst to me, at some point earlier that day the weatherman on one of the local stations had mooted the idea that an ice storm might come through. The results of this announcement (which proved to be a false alarm) were immediate and pronounced.

When I arrived at the market I was greeted by scenes of carnage. The shelves had been stripped pretty much clean by shoppers each of whom toted two shopping carts filled to overflowing with every sort of foodstuff. The checkout lines had been converted into one omnibus line that stretched all the way around the back of the aisles and almost around to the front door. Before departing to take my custom to the burrito shop on Franklin Street, I paused for a moment to take in the rapidity with which plenty could be converted to dearth.

The possibility of this rare and uncanny experience is viewed by most people a so remote as to place it beyond consideration. But, as the Australian researcher Julian Cribb points out in his soon to be released book Food or War, the security of our food supply is considerably more tenuous than we tend to assume. If food production stopped tomorrow, Cribb notes, we would only have enough supply to feed the world’s population for two weeks or so. The result would certainly be catastrophic.

Cribb’s book fits neatly into a tradition of writers assessing the connections between food and the stability of civilization that runs from Thomas Malthus through Fairfield Osborne and William Vogt, to Paul R. Ehrlich. Malthus’s analysis failed to take advances in the technical (and technological) development of farming practices into account and, while Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) arguably gave his predecessor a better scientific and sociological grounding, his dire predictions have not fared significantly better, at least in most respects.

Having said that, this is by no means grounds for complacency. World population is spiraling toward 10 billion, and the evidence of environmental degradation of the biosphere has never been more extensive and well-documented. Cribb adds a particular urgency to this issue by pointing out the historical connection between food scarcity and war. While his treatment of this topic is a little uneven, his point is nonetheless well taken.

Famine, or the threat of famine, motivates human beings to act with passionate intensity. Cribb reverses the standard direction of causation, arguing that although the common view is that war causes famine, the reverse is as or more often the case. The prospect of declining food security in the coming decades, which Cribb presents with often terrifying precision and thoroughness, raises the specter of dystopian fiction jumping off the page.

The connection between environmental degradation, food insecurity, and armed violence is the narrative arc that gives this book its argumentative power. There are plenty of books on the market (in addition to the myriad scientific studies on this topic) that detail the ways that human agricultural and commercial practices are depleting the soil and heating the planet. Food or War presents the reader with a stark and compelling picture of the ways that these factors could lead to increased geopolitical conflict.

Cribb offers some solutions, or at least points in the direction of things that might be done, from paying farmers more to various changes in the way agriculture is practiced. He does also take account of the role of corporate agribusiness interests in promoting practices that deplete soil and water resources. He also suggests a range of budgetary and policy changes that could, if consistently applied, mitigate at least some of the harms presented by the attempt to scale up our current practices to cope with the rapidly growing human population.

Cribb’s suggestions (and his analysis of the problem) are well taken. But they are predicated on a widespread recognition of the gravity of the threat. As Upton Sinclair once noted, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” A lot of the information that Cribb presents is not exactly new, although he does present in a fashion that is clear and effective, and which ought to be compelling. But the underlying problems are systemic rather than technical.

The threats that Cribb describes are of the existential variety, not only in terms of the looming environmental collapse but also the brutal cycles of violence that are likely to accompany it. The nature of our system is to think in the short term and to view environmental changes as externalities calling for new modes of accumulation. The current situation is particularly dangerous because it is unprecedented, and history suggests that human beings deal poorly with this sort of challenge. Cribb’s work is valuable for the precision with which he describes the problem, particularly in terms of the likelihood that violence and ecological crisis are likely to synergize. Whether human beings will have the wisdom and the will to cope with this before the worst of the crisis arrives is a different question, one whose answers lie as much in our systems as in ourselves.

Photograph courtesy of gamillos. Published under a Creative Commons license.