Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I'm not sure what the heck the Democratic nomination campaign is all about these days -- if anybody can clue me in I'd appreciate it -- but if either candidate is looking for a good issue they might consider this little problem of impending global famine. Not that it's up there with lapel pins or bowling, but it may demand the attention of the next president nonetheless.

Lester Brown, who has long been something of a gloomy Gus (and I know it's really Morning in America) offers a succinct analysis of the problem. This is not a temporary problem. It's a long-term, secular (as the economists say) trend. The planet is running out of stuff -- water, land, topsoil, petroleum, atmosphere. As Brown puts it:

Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Food security will deteriorate further unless leading countries can collectively mobilize to stabilize population, restrict the use of grain to produce automotive fuel, stabilize climate, stabilize water tables and aquifers, protect cropland, and conserve soils. Stabilizing population is not simply a matter of providing reproductive health care and family planning services. It requires a worldwide effort to eradicate poverty. Eliminating water shortages depends on a global attempt to raise water productivity similar to the effort launched a half-century ago to raise land productivity, an initiative that has nearly tripled the world grain yield per hectare. None of these goals can be achieved quickly, but progress toward all is essential to restoring a semblance of food security.

This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before. The challenge is not simply to deal with a temporary rise in grain prices, as in the past, but rather to quickly alter those trends whose cumulative effects collectively threaten the food security that is a hallmark of civilization. If food security cannot be restored quickly, social unrest and political instability will spread and the number of failing states will likely increase dramatically, threatening the very stability of civilization itself.

Y'know what? He's right. Maybe we ought to be talking about this, just a little bit. It might be important.

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