April 4, 2004
Chicken Little was misquoted. He did not say, “The sky is falling!” What actually happened was that, after surveying much of the same evidence as Richard Manning, David Goodstein, Laurence Kotlikoff, and Scott Burns, Professor Little wrote a thoughtful essay in the New York Review of Books, which concluded: “If we do not drastically revise our wasteful agricultural, energy, and fiscal policies, we (or our children) may well wake up one morning in the 21st century to find that, from the economic and environmental points of view, the sky is falling.” The media, always in search of a sound bite …
Most of us probably believe that the advent of farming was a great stroke of luck, like the discovery of fire, the wheel, and the alphabet. The environmental journalist and essayist Richard Manning thinks otherwise: “Most of humanity struck a bitter bargain over the last ten thousand years, trading in a large measure of our sensual lives for the bit of security that comes with agriculture.” It appears from the archaeological record that wealth and longevity decreased when farming began, and perhaps that much early agricultural labor was forced. The global transition to agriculture was the subject of one the great books of recent years, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Manning’s reconstruction of the prehistoric record in the first half of “Against the Grain” is less scholarly, more literary and speculative, than Diamond’s, but equally fascinating and compelling.
The book’s second half is a jaundiced look at modern agriculture. Historically speaking, Manning argues, agriculture is not farming. Farmers grow food, which usually must be locally sold and consumed. Agriculture manufactures commodities that are used as inputs in other industries or else are intensively processed before being shipped long distances, where they are consumed by livestock or by poor people, to whom they supply just enough energy to continue performing cheap, deadening labor. Like all historical generalizations, this is a simplification, but I found it an original and illuminating one. There is also much arresting detail. Did you know that irrigation now accounts for 70 percent of the freshwater used by humans? That there is a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of fertilizer runoff carried down the Mississippi? That 16 percent of all calories consumed by Americans come from added sweeteners (mostly derived from corn)? That those helpful USDA requirements on food packages have frequently been adjusted according to which agricultural products are in surplus?
I’m fairly sure you don’t know, as I didn’t before reading David Goodstein’s “Out of Gas,” about Hubbert’s Peak. In the 1950s the oil geologist named M. K. Hubbert, using slightly unorthodox methods, predicted that US oil production would peak around 1970. Few people believed him, but he was right. Recently other scientists have applied his methods to predicting the global peak. Their consensus: between 2010 and 2015. After that, demand will outstrip supply, resulting in shortages and price inflation. Natural gas will help, but not for long. Likewise coal: using too much of it risks making the planet uninhabitable. Tar sands and shale oil are even less practical. With the clarity and dispassion of a practiced teacher (he is a distinguished physicist and vice-provost at Caltech), Goodstein explains all this and outlines the alternatives: nuclear power, solar and wind power, conservation. “No matter what else happens,” he concludes, gently but insistently, “this is the century in which we must learn to live without fossil fuels.” There will be no SUVs in 2100.
Like Hubbert, Laurence Kotlikoff is a methodological innovator. An economist at BU, he has pioneered “generational accounting,” a way of analyzing the finances of a family, company, or government over long periods. (His co-author, Scott Burns, is a syndicated economics columnist.) Applied to the finances of the post-Bush-tax-cut United States, the results of generational accounting are … well, words fail. The country is, at the moment, “technically bankrupt.” To pay off our government’s present and future liabilities would require a combination of tax increases and benefit reductions so painful that many readers of the book (and, needless to say, most politicians) will choke over them. So, naturally, they won’t happen, or only in watered-down form. Nor, the authors acknowledge, will their own fairly drastic proposals for Social Security and Medicare reform. Instead, we will print more money – there’s quite a bit of inflation in our future, they predict, along with much other unpleasantness. Of course, economic predictions are a dime a dozen these days, but it would be unwise to scoff at Kotlikoff and Burns’s doom-saying. Three Nobel Prize-winning economists have contributed enthusiastic blurbs to “The Coming Generational Storm.”
“Dead zones” in the oceans, dwindling fuel supplies, a financial hurricane – could Professor Little have understated the case?