In 1999, as the millennium approached, a joker on the Internet proposed newspaper and magazine headlines announcing the apocalypse. Wall Street Journal: “Dow Jones Plummets as World Ends.” Ladies Home Journal: “Lose Ten Pounds by Judgment Day.” And, my favorite, from Sports Illustrated: “Game Over.”
Seven years later, we know that there wasn’t even a minor Y2K crash, let alone Armageddon. But the media still loves professional doomsayers, as evidenced by the Washington Post’s recent decision to publish a hysterical column by Lester R. Brown, an environmental activist who heads the Earth Policy Institute.
Like an ancient oracle who tries to predict the future by reading the entrails of slaughtered animals, Brown warned that “we may encounter the same fate that brought down great civilizations of the past.” In particular, he pointed toward “a leading indicator of the unraveling of our global civilization.”
The last time I spotted a leading indicator of the unraveling of our global civilization, I simply changed the TV channel away from Jerry Springer’s show. Problem solved.
But that’s not what Brown was talking about. Instead, he claimed to foresee our horrible destiny in something else entirely: corn prices.
Brown is upset that farmers are finding a new market for what they produce: “The business of transforming wheat, corn, soybeans, and sugarcane into fuel for cars instead of food for people [has become] hugely profitable.” Brown is especially distressed by this fact: “a market free-for-all dominates, with commodities going to the higher bidder.”
Oh dear! Farmers selling what they grow to buyers who can pay for it? Where will it all stop? Growers might produce material that people actually want! Consumers might begin to make decisions based on nutrition and taste!
Clearly, it’s time to take a deep breath and recognize that the leading indicators of the unraveling of our global civilization just aren’t what they used to be.
The fact that we’re learning how to turn plants into fuel is an unalloyed good: It boosts rural economies, creates new sources of energy that are better for the environment, and lessens our dependence on foreign oil.
The laws of supply and demand tell us that when demand goes up, prices will rise. And to be sure, new uses for traditional crops are already spurring great demand.
Brown frets that poor people will be priced out of the marketplace: “It is a battle between the world’s 800 million automobile drivers, who want to maintain their mobility, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people, who simply want to survive.”
Mobility vs. survival: This is the very definition of a false choice. Does Brown seriously think that if we somehow decreased mobility, poor people would eat more food? Perhaps he envisions a system of eco-friendly rowboats and horse-drawn carriages sustaining the world’s economy. Yet I have a funny feeling that the world’s 2 billion poorest people wouldn’t fare well if we suddenly turned back the clock on technological progress.
And that’s what the bio-fuel revolution, now in its infancy, is all about: technological progress. In the New York Times, the head of a genetics company recently speculated what may be in store: “You could turn Oklahoma into an OPEC member by converting all its farmland to switch grass,” he said, referring to a prairie-state plant that holds enormous promise as an alternative fuel source.
A corollary of the rule that increased demand leads to increased prices is that producers respond by increasing supply–and that’s exactly what’s happening in the world of agriculture. Universities and corporations are pouring enormous research-and-development resources into experimental crops that can produce bigger harvests. Earlier this month, one company suggested that drought-tolerant crops may push yields in dry regions up by as much as 40 percent over the next decade.
The bottom line is that we’re both growing more crops and finding more uses for them. Level-headed environmentalists and humanitarians, I suspect, can see that this is a good thing.
This isn’t the end of the world–it’s the beginning of our future.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology. (www.truthabouttrade.org)