January 03, 2006

So Very Reasonable

Whenever I'm traveling and not keeping up with current events—as has been the case over the past two weeks—I tend to pick up a copy of the Economist at the nearest airport in order to catch up. "How nice," I say, "this pretty little newsmagazine has all the international news I need to stay abreast." Plus, of course, it has that British "edge" we insecure yuppies find so enchanting. What's not to love?

The downside is that I sometimes get taken in by the magazine's very subtle and usually quite reasonable-sounding free-market agitprop. For reasons unknown, I find myself nodding amiably when I read: "And that's what makes America so dynamic." Or: "This problem is nothing a bit of market competition can't solve." Or: "Of course, since Marxism is fatally flawed..." (And since I was too busy salvaging what usable chunks I could from my United Airlines "chicken" dinner, I could hardly come up with the usual retorts: "Dynamic for whom?" Or: "That's what we're afraid of." Or: "No it's not.") It's stunning, how charmingly right-wing this pretty little newsmagazine is.

At any rate, that's just a long way of prefacing the Economist's piece this week on the history of wheat, which dives right into the "Green Revolution" in India, and dismisses with a quick backhand any and all environmentalists who criticize the Green Revolution, genetically-modified foods, or what have you:
In 2004 200m acres of GM crops were grown worldwide with good effects on yields (up), pesticide use (down), biodiversity (up) and cost (down). There has not been a single human health problem. Yet, far from being welcomed as a greener green revolution, genetic modification soon ran into fierce opposition from the environmental movement… where it quickly brought them the attention and funds they crave.
Ah, so that's what those environmentalists are up to—craving attention and bilking funds. It sounds so reasonable. Except that many of the criticisms of the "green revolution" and its various children are a bit sturdier than all that.

In the short term, improvements in farming in India in the 1960s staved off large-scale famine, and it's hard to understate that achievement, but looking elsewhere around the world over the past few decades, it's not always clear that green revolutions have improved nutrition and food consumption for all groups of people, especially the poor. (By one count, if you exclude China from the picture, the number of hungry people in the world increased 11 percent—from 536 to 597 million—between 1970 and 1990.) This paper on the Green Revolution by Rachel Bezner Kerr, looking at a variety of case studies, points out that increased yields are often offset by increases in the costs of inputs—farmers have to buy fertilizers and pesticides, for instance. And it's an open question as to whether drops in food prices always help boost food consumption: in some countries, real wages sometimes decrease post-revolution, for a variety of reasons—economic turmoil is one—although the data here is fairly shaky. But it's not outlandish to be skeptical that a "greener green revolution" will be the global panacea promised by the Economist.

And then there are all those other serious criticisms of the Green Revolution and biotechnology and the like, those that have to do with environmental, health, and social matters. Most of these aren't just pleas for attention and funds. It's true, some environmental concerns have faded somewhat over time—the newest GM crops do, in some cases, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which has at least helped slow the damage done in the developing world over the past three decades by those chemicals.

But there's also ample reason to think that the "greener green revolution" touted by the Economist will only accelerate other worrying trends: the displacement of thousands if not millions of small farmers; the expansion of urban poverty; the increased dependency of developing countries on large agribusiness; and the entrenchment of economic inequality. Not to mention the fact that Green Revolution farming techniques—especially the production of fertilizers—are often highly dependent on fossil fuels, which could set the stage for catastrophe if and when global energy prices spike. And so on. There's plenty of cause for concern when countries like China and India are seeing wealth per capita decline year by year, from a sustainable development point of view.

What's so insidious here is that the Economist suggests the debate is between those who care about the environment and those who care about actual people starving to death—that you can only do one or the other. If that was actually the case, then of course I'd side with the Economist. Chuck Klosterman, in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, has a funny series of hypothetical "ice-breaker" questions to ask in awkward settings, one of which boils down to: "Would you kill a full-grown Clydesdale horse by kicking it to death with steel-toed boots in order to free all the political prisoners of the world?" Well, yes, of course I would, and in that sense, I'm not much of an environmentalist or friend of nature, but real environmental issues don't usually work like that.
-- Brad Plumer 2:32 PM || ||