When cruising down the road in my bus, I occupy myself by listening to the chatter on talk radio. It helps keep me awake. This past week, some panjandrum was talking about the new, revised, estimation for human population by, if I recall correctly, the end of the century. The good gentlemen said the estimated number has been increased from 9,000,000,000 souls to 10,000,000,000. That’s quite an overburden of human beings. In his sonorous voice, this man went on to say that feeding such a hoard is problematic.
I remember that back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, over-population was a big issue. Modern medical technology had been brought to the benighted nations of the 3rd world with the result that most people stopped dying before their fifth birthdays and lived well into reproductive age. And reproduce they did. Where a married couple might produce ten live births, of which eight died, now only one might die, leaving nine children to feed (and, in their tuns, reproduce). It was easy to see the Malthusian Horror looming in the distance. Well, along came the green revolution with its new fertilizers, pesticides and grain stocks. We had food coming out the ass. Goodbye, Mr. Malthus.
But the Green Revolution has just about reached the limit of its capabilities and is being overtaken by population increases. The man on the talk radio offered, as a solution, industrial farming. National commitments to vast acreage planted with one, and only one, crop — “monoculture” it’s called. The product of this monoculture would provide the principal source of nutrition (Gad, imagine bowels of Wheaties for breakfast, lunch and dinner). In response to the host’s concerns, the guest pooh-poohed the very notion that some pest could come along and wipe out one of these crops, leaving billions to starve to death. More modern technology, he asserted, would do away with such a pestilence before it really got started.
Then I recalled what happened in the 1950’s and 1960s back in Minneapolis, where I was raised. When Minneapolis was founded, the land was as flat as a board. The people baked under an unrelenting sun and were miserable. “Let’s plant some fast-growing shade trees,” said the city fathers. The tree they chose was the big, beautiful elm. They planted them by the score to the exclusion of every other candidate. Oaks grew too slowly. Poplars didn’t give enough shade. And so on. This reliance on elms was a form of what today we’d call monoculture.
Soon, elms were everywhere and, boy, did they do their jobs. Cool shade was abundant throughout the city and all its surrounds.
Then along came a little bug that carried on its little body, a little fungus called opioatoma ulmi, more commonly known as Dutch Elm disease. It was a true plague. It infected and killed every elm tree in sight. Dutch Elm disease was first observed in North Dakota and it spread like wildfire. The elms had no natural defense against it; they died by the thousands and were cut down. Modern technology took a crack at killing Dutch Elm Disease, but nothing worked and the blight continued to spread unchecked. There was nothing to do but stand there and watch the elms die. Oh, there were some holding actions that delayed the disease here-and-there, but Dutch Elm disease was unstoppable and it continued ravaging the land. Today, a half-century later, Dutch Elm Disease is present in all states but those few in the desert southwest. Where Dutch Elm Disease is present, elm threes are not.
In Minneapolis, there was a wonderful park of large, shady elms near the place where I grew up. A visit there some years ago revealed a heath of stumps. All the trees were gone. Minneapolis once again bakes under the summer sun as it waits for new, different trees to grow.
So much for the wisdom of monoculture. So much for Modern Technology.
If the guest on the talk show seriously believes that some blight won’t come out of nowhere and wipe out a monoculture of wheat, corn or what have you, he’s a piss-poor student of history. All it will take is one little bug or one little spore and, poof, it’s all gone. Millions, perhaps billions, will starve to death. Take a look at the photos of dying African kids, those with the bloated bellies, withered stick-like limbs and scores of flies crawling in their eyes. Now image every single American dying that way. Then multiply that number by three and you get an idea of what the wiping out of a proposed monoculture will do. Just as we thought nothing would wipe out our monoculture of elm threes, so we think nothing will wipe out a monoculture of cereal grains. This is pluperfect idiocy.
There are only two solutions to forfend this terrible future. One it to limit our numbers. Pills, rubbers, vasectomies and tubal ligation must be encouraged and made available to all in hopes we can get back to supportable numbers before the crash comes.
The second is to diversify, both in what’s grown and where it’s grown. Grow many things in many places. To that end, a new movement seems to have arisen. Rather than being duplicative, I invite you to visit a site Jo found hopeful. Check out Midwest Permaculture and see what they have to say. As Jo likes to root around in the garden, she always keeps an eye out for things that can prove useful to her. One day, she grabbed my elbow and said, “Merlin, take a look at this website I found.” So I did, and it got my attention. While at first blush, this Permaculture thing may seem the creature of woolly headed liberals and cranks, it is actually be founded on good, solid science. Moreover, it’s producing sustainable and repeatable results. From what I saw, Permaculture may be something that will work to avoid catastrophes of unimaginable proportions.
Guess I’ll go get my shovel and rake.