Friday, April 6, 2018

One Fact from the Wizard and the Prophet

I'm about 200 pages into Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet. It explores the two world views that occupy the opposite ends of the climate change debate: the belief that we should solve our problems using technology vs. the belief that we need to live within limits, that growth cannot be unending.

Many cool facts I never knew are explained along the way (for instance, do you know how long humans have been wearing clothes and how that was figured out?), but for today I just want to share one meta-fact.

Mann describes two modern American farmers he interviewed, one growing a thousand varieties of near-organic vegetables on 500 acres (with 40 workers helping for part or all of the year), the other growing only wheat and corn on 1,200 acres with 1.5 employees and a million dollars worth of equipment and a lot of fertilizer and pesticide. That's a familiar contrast, though the clarity of Mann's description of the vegetable farm is particularly well done.

These two types of farmers are treated very differently in our country:
[The corn and wheat farmer] was able to take advantage of a host of incentives and subsidies provided by the state of Illinois and the federal government: land-tax incentives, depreciation allowances, crop subsidies, and so on. [The vegetable farmer] couldn't, because almost everything he planted was not on the official state list of eligible crops. And he didn't devote sufficient acreage to those on the list that he did plant to qualify as a grower. On the official, regulatory level, it was as if his farm didn't exist.... many of the supports were intended to promote the acquisition of machinery, rather than labor. He might get a special low-interest loan to buy a combine, but not to hire a human being (p. 214).
The facts I never knew about that reality were these:
These policies are not accidental. Beginning with the end of the Second World War, most national governments have intentionally directed labor away from the land... Farm work was seen as "stagnant" and "unproductive." The goal was to consolidate and mechanize farms, which would increase harvests and reduce costs, especially labor costs. Farm workers, no longer needed, would migrate to the cities, where they would get better-paying work in factories....

There were downsides—cities in developing nations acquired entire slums full of displaced families. But in many places, including most of the developed world, the countryside was emptied. In the United States, for example, the proportion of the workforce employed in agriculture went from 21.5 percent in 1930 to 1.9 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of farms fell by two-thirds (p. 214).
As someone who grew up in a rural farming area and spent her young adult years during the Farm Crisis, I never realized the changes underway were the result of policy in quite this way. The changes had seemed natural to me, rather than policy-induced. And even once I knew of the crop subsidy policies (maybe after reading Michael Pollan), I still thought they were just wrong-headed rather than intentional social engineering.

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