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7/7/2008

The Parable of Planet Earth

In 1522, the eighteen remaining members of Ferdinand Magellan's crew completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Two hundred and seventy-six years later, Thomas Malthus wrote his "Essay on the Principles of Population," hypothesizing that human population would one day be limited by the planet's capacity to produce food. But it wasn't until August 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, that global awareness truly came of age. A new measure of humankind on a small planet became terrifyingly obvious that day. The interconnectedness of all society clarified, and a new kind of thought became fashionable: united nations, world banks, and think tanks. This was the prelude to the awakening of environmental awareness.

In the aftermath of World War II and the explosion of that first atomic bomb, it became increasingly important to know the future. In quiet, secretive settings, brain trusts like the Rand Corporation and the Brookings Institute appeared, fastening teams of powerful minds on the problems of the future, plotting economic, financial, and agricultural strategies for all variety of socio-political scenarios, stretching them out to the end of the century and into the next millennium. At the end of all those extrapolations were global population, petroleum reserves, food supplies, and nuclear war. During the 1950s, behind the closed doors of these mystical think tanks, it gradually became evident that the momentum of industrialization could overrun the carrying capacity of Earth. If the public hadn't fully understood the finite nature of our world by 1960, you can be certain the most powerfully positioned leaders of world commerce had gained an appreciation for the ultimate value of oil, timber products, and water rights.

The dreaded Malthusian premise came of age in the first decade of the Cold War, and the edge of civilization began to show in the reflection of the future. Like the CIA's part in toppling renegade regimes in the Middle East or Latin America, this became the kind of knowledge that was kept out of the public's sight as long as possible. Position needed to be secured. Economic strategies accessed. World food resources evaluated. But the situation could not be hidden. It became as obvious as the smog in LA, the smell of the Hudson River, and the growing epidemic of cancer worldwide. In 1962, Rachael Carson published her expose on the dangers of DDT, "Silent Spring." The age of environmentalism was underway. The globe had become but a village.

These were still relatively na´ve times, and in 1968, as the world population growth rate peaked at 2.19 percent, Paul Ehrlich published his best-selling benchmark alarm "The Population Bomb." A new plateau of consciousness was surfacing in humanity. We were becoming self-conscious of our own fertility–and destructivity. In that same year, a group of concerned scientists and businessmen from all over the world formed the Club of Rome to initiate "A Project on the Predicament of Mankind." They funded an MIT research team, headed by Dennis Meadows, to create a computer program to model the impact of civilization on Earth's ecosystem. Trends in population, industrialization, food production, pollution, and nonrenewable natural resources were plotted into the next 100 years. In 1972, this work was published under the title of "The Limits to Growth." Nine million copies were sold in 24 languages.

With no changes in the economic and environmental polices of those times, the MIT model projected a complete economic and/or environmental collapse before the year 2100. Despite the wide sales, the report was heavily criticized and labeled just another doomsday projection. The CIA found it provocative enough, however, to solicit an independent investigation of the situation in 1974. Their report, "Potential Implications of Trends in World Population, Food Production, and Climate," declassified in 1976, issued an equally bleak prognosis that concentrated on the economics and politics of dwindling world food supplies: "There would be increasingly desperate attempts on the part of powerful but hungry nations to get grain any way they could. The population problem would solve itself in the most unpleasant fashion."

In this same era, the United Nations began to ease into its present position as the prime steward of global management, not just in politics, but as overseer to population growth, food distribution, and agriculture. In 1974 when drought and low grain harvests brought dramatic increases in world food prices, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sponsored its first World Food Summit in Rome. Following a trend initiated in the 1950s for industrializing agriculture, now referred to as the Green Revolution, the summit called for a renewed program of increased use of petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation to answer world food needs. This second coming of the Green Revolution produced monumental gains in worldwide grain production over the next thirteen years.

World grain reserves, our best defense against food shortages and one of the surest measures of world food security, climbed to records heights during those thirteen years, peaking in 1986 at 130 days–that is, enough grain to feed the world for 130 days. Then in 1988 an enduring drought across the grain belt of the United States cut harvests by nearly a quarter. Grain reserves hopped and skipped through the next ten years before settling into an era of steady decline that has yet to be reversed. A grave environmental truth was gradually revealing itself, industrial agriculture was not sustainable.

One hundred thousand square kilometers of arable farmland is lost to erosion and salinization each year due to industrial farming methods. With seventy-five million new inhabitants added to the population of planet Earth annually and essentially no more available arable land to add to our croplands, the inevitable is obvious; grain reserves will steadily become harder and harder to maintain. In 2006, reserves fell below the 60-day security level for the first time in 30 years. Two years later, a drought in Australia, a growing middle-class in Asia, and a large scale conversion of wheatfields to corn for ethanol production created a world wheat crisis. Wheat stocks fell to the lowest levels in sixty years and the price of a bushel of wheat topped fifteen dollars. Though wheat stocks have rebounded since the winter of 2008, overall grain stocks have continued to fall and now stand at a mere forty days–and the cost of a loaf of bread has doubled from what it was three years ago! Grain production, sustainable grain production has never been more important than it is today. Clearly it's time to reevaluate the way we tend the land.

World Grain Stocks

The Earth is telling us a story, a parable. It's the story of humans living on the planet. Like all parables it contains a moral, a simple and basic truth. A species can outrun the resources of a planet. We are watching that play out now like a Greek tragedy. But the story is still incomplete. The ending is up to us. We either learn to live on Earth in balance with all the other living things or we trash the place with waste and greed. If we can't change the way we live and our civilization does enter into collapse, we must at least hope that our tragic legacy, the failure of industrial society, survives and serves as a profound and lasting lesson for those who follow to study and learn by.

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