How to Deal
With the Priests
Paul NickelBack when the earth was still cooling, priests discovered the usefulness of the dread Apocalypse to frighten and direct people's petty ways into better ways. At least that's what H. L. Mencken speculated in one of his Prejudices series, back in the 1930s. Malthus and Ricardo caught on to the scary quality of Too Big a Population and Running Out of Land, and a little band of zealots has worked it to death. It's been a good run for them: Lester Brown's Worldwatch, Erlich's Population Bomb, Ian McHarg's Idiot Man, and all the rest of the neurotic bunch that fears urban sprawl and running out of rich farmland.
The new priests are, frankly, a bad lot. Being a birthright Seventh Day Adventist, a lapsed agnostic, and a former intellectual, I don't scare easily anymore because the Adventists practically invented and copyrighted the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the End of the World, Food Nuttiness, and a lot of other screwy but presently acceptable concepts. Brown says we are running out of just about everything, especially prime farmland, and damn soon, too, if we don't watch it, buddy.
I don't see that we're running out of anything except brains. Maybe we need some people to buy and eat the vast food surplus of the world, people to buy and use the fallow and abandoned farmland in this and other countries, or people to buy and use the abandoned or locked-up forest land that now covers usable farmland. We need people to buy all that surplus grain we'd like to sell but can't because most other countries have surplus food too, and I'm talking China, Japan, and the Arabs here.
If we're so close to starving, how come we're so rich? (We have about doubled our real income and spending-per-family since 1950.) If we're so rich, how come we're scared? And how can we "lose" prime farmland? It goes someplace, right? Round up the usual suspects. Priests at it again?
The urban-sprawl people lost some of their zip and furrowed, brooding brows when the U.S. population stabilized and the federal highway program was finished and they had forgotten that they were wide-eyed with horror about the wall-to-wall D-12 Cats scraping our new subdivisions, shopping centers, and toll-free highways. You remember the D-12s tread-to-tread, scraping their way south from San Francisco to San Diego, from Boston to Norfolk, and from Pittsburgh to Chicago, leaving housing, shopping centers, and roads in their wake.
Same thing when driving from Detroit to New York. This is an empty country, not a filled-up one. There is nothing disappearing that I can see except unprofitable farms. Back when we used to help feed the world we needed a lot of land. Now the world is increasingly self-sufficient and interconnected, and we trade in food. Most countries now feed themselves and export the remainder. Even Ethiopia has lots of usable farmland --- at a price for developing it. (If you pay the price you can grow anything anywhere, and if you're hungry, you'll pay the price. The Saudis are busy growing expensively irrigated wheat on desert land, exporting it, and tapping expensive ground-water to irrigate pasture to feed cows to produce expensive milk so they'll be self sufficient. Both could be bought cheaply abroad, but they like to be self-sufficient. It is just a matter of money.)
So there's Brown and Worldwatch getting the word by staring straight into the sun, smiling, and passing the word to us on stone tablets --- the true word that is directly opposed to what one sees. Do we have a problem? Did Brown lose his marbles or is it me? If we're poor, how come we're rich?
Brown uses single-factor analysis and deductive logic and holds everything else constant like other nutty economists do. He grabs onto a high rate of something bad --- like erosion --- holds everything else constant, and runs Pennsylvania right out of topsoil sixty years from now. Look up the Cornucopia Project (Rodale Press) for your own state and see how soon you are slated for disaster. The priests again.
Single-factor soil analysts people are a-thirst to bring the bad news to you, me, and the King. Journalists, C-minus students all, thrive on the hype of single-factor analysis and it does sell books.
We have a stored surplus of grain, as do Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Our cropland acreage dropped thirty percent because no one wants to grow stuff on it. Why do Brown and Rodale ignore this? Whatever happened to the 40 million acres that were released to feed people when we no longer needed to grow food for draft animals? Is that part of the surplus now?
We live in a nearly empty land, not wall-to-wall agriculture as in China, where wheat is grown right up to the rails. Michigan alone has about one-third more timber maturing each year than it can harvest and sell. Suppose we cleared and used that land for production. And then there's Minnesota, Wisconsin and lots of other states that have excess timber and grazing land as well.
But, you ask, what if we had a drought, or the Ogalala Aquifer dried up, or a global warming trend toasted over our Breadbasket? The truth is it wouldn't go dry everywhere and most likely a new breadbasket would start up north, in Canada and Siberia, where it's too cold and there's too short a growing season. Or we might go to double-cropping; or we might even import the stuff. Remember the Bureau of Reclamation that irrigated the West?
We might even remember that the present productivity of farmland is rising as we add capital to the land, capital and subsidies. Add a few brains and we tech-fix fans can do about anything. Want to put a beer on the moon? Go to Mars? Lord, how we love the priests!
Admittedly, I'm wrong-headed having been born and bred among those strange social deviants, the Seventh Day Adventists; before they turned out to be right about vegetarianism, and the evils of smoking, and drinking; and before the ACLU said they shouldn't have to salute the flag.
The Adventists were and are used as controls for medical research on pure Mormons, and the Adventists own the priestly Apocalypse. They were on hill- sides at night, back in the 1880s, dressed in white sheets waiting to be scooped up to heaven and saved by the Big Hand.
What I'm saying is that when you grow up with the Apocalypse practically a part of daily life, the lost-farmland boys can't make you excited, specially when they confuse single-factor analysis with reality, ignore the data, and don't want to deal with the real wealth we have, ingenuity in the form of "smarts."
Our real problem is failing to use resources and capital to employ poor people in visibly useful ways so they have a bit of stake in the system and can send their kids to college where teachers like me can get hold of them and jump-start them into rich, purposeful, and satisfying lives. Then, in case we don't teach them how to think well or deeply, they can go to work for Brown, Erlich, Rodale, or Cornucopia. It's a full life.
Maybe we read this unreal stuff to scare ourselves like children at the horror movies. Scaring ourselves while sitting in warm, safe places, eating warm, buttery popcorn.
Simon Julian says he's the only one who says we aren't really running out. He wrote The Resourceful Earth. He's the only one saying it. Buy it. Don't give the priests your money.Paul Nickel is a teacher and planner who lives in the midwest.