The rise, fall, and rise of disaster

The threat of disaster keeps retreating, but that doesn't mean it's gone.

By , Guest blogger

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    Wheat nears harvest condition in a field near Lebanon, Kansas. Wheat prices have risen to double what economists forecast five years ago.
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The US Department of Agriculture may have some usefulness. Projecting future prices isn’t one of them. In 2005, it looked five years ahead and saw a bushel of wheat selling for $3.50. Last week, the price rose to more than twice that much.

Why? God himself is to blame. Not since 1880 has Russia been so dry. And not since Napoleon’s invasion has Moscow suffered so much soot. The government banned wheat exports and prices shot up to their highest point in 51 years. In the curious way that one thing lead to another, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign grew out of the French Revolution like a forest fire out of a careless barbecue. The revolution stirred up enemies on all France’s frontiers. When Napoleon had finished with them all, he had to reach farther – all the way to the banks of the Moskva River – to get his fingers burnt.

But the Revolution may never have happened without the summer of 1789. That was God’s work too. That summer was the opposite of the Russian summer of 2010. Europe was cold and rain-soaked, believed to be the result of the explosion of the volcano Laki in Iceland. The price of bread in Paris rose 67% in 1789. The average laborer only made about 20 sous a day, barely enough to buy a loaf of bread. The intellectuals may have been stirred by the Enlightenment. But it was high bread prices that gave the mob an appetite for revolution.

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One of the awake observers of this period was a young Anglican clergyman named Thomas Malthus. While the rest of the intelligentsia imagined a world of industrial and social progress, Mr. Malthus peered down to the bottom of a dark well. Ten years after the French Revolution, he published his Essay on the Principle of Population. His point was simple, obvious and modest: populations can grow faster than food production. This led to the idea of a “surplus” of humanity, which was practically a Christian heresy. It presumes that God is a jackass, something that occurs to the average man about once a day, but which is a rare thought for a member of the clergy. Everything in nature is bounded by limits and hounded by failure. Trees don’t grow to the sky. Bull markets don’t last forever. And every step people take in life brings them closer to the grave. God told man to be fruitful and multiply. Was he just setting him up for catastrophe?

But the Malthusian limits keep getting pushed back. Even after nearly two centuries and 6 billion more people added to the human population, most people can still multiply without worrying about mass starvation.

Paul Ehrlich published his Population Bomb, in 1968. But his prediction was as big a bomb as Malthus’s. Populations didn’t outrun food supplies. Instead, output per acre doubled in the ‘green revolution’ that followed – rising faster than the number of people. If people starved, it wasn’t God’s fault. And now, Le Monde reports that obesity may be a bigger health threat to the poor than starvation.

Forty years ago, experts said the world was running out of oil, too, with only 40 years’ worth of reserves. They predicted disaster. But huge new discoveries of deep reserves have been made since then. Four decades later and the world still has 40 years’ of reserves. The only a disaster was for those who were counting on buying it at $10 a barrel.

And now, the alarmists are on to other worries. Water, for example. Not that there isn’t plenty. The seas and rivers are full of it. But getting the right kind of water to the right place is going to be expensive.

Peak water…peak oil…peak food…peak this, peak that. After so many alarms with so few fires, many people think they can put away the fire extinguishers. Higher prices draw forth more supply…and substitutes. The limits seem to recede forever.

But the threat of disaster hasn’t disappeared; it is just retreating in good order like the Tsar’s troops…waiting for the worst possible moment to strike. There is only so much arable land. There is only so much water. There is only so much energy to move food and water. Man has been growing food for 12,000 years. Surely, he’s reached capacity, no? Experts see disaster coming again. The undeveloped world is still multiplying – and with much larger numbers. The population of the earth is expected to add nearly 3 billion people by the middle of this century. On that basis alone we’d need another “green revolution” to keep up with it. But since the mid-90s there’s been little improvement in farm output. In fact, people have eaten more than they’ve produced for most of the last decade. And as people get richer, thy change their eating habits. Grain is fed to the cows and pigs; people want meat. China’s consumption of pork, for example, increased 45% between ’93 and 2005. The need for grain multiplies 5 times faster than the people they are meant to support; a calorie from grains takes only about 20% of the inputs needed to produce a calorie from meat.

Is the world running out of wheat? No. There will be plenty of wheat available. But probably not at $3.50 a bushel.

But every half-empty glass is also half-full. The summer of 1789 was a disaster for plants in Europe. But with so much volcanic ash in the air, the sunsets were uncommonly pretty.

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