(long post mainly about the food situation)
I recently finished a big "sprawling" novel from many years ago, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, a BBC Big Read and Oprah's Book Club selection. It's not like many books I read -- that is, it is much less preoccupied with literary style. In other words, it isn't like Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman, or Barth's Sot-Weed Factor, which are not only fine historical novels but also imitate their respective period's literary style so pitch-perfectly to the point of being somewhat satirical about it.
Pillars of the Earth is like an adventure comic book set in medieval times, almost pulpy at times. Follett has no qualms about writing a sentence like "the monk walked down the aisle holding a (some obscure term), which is a (definition of the obscure term)" or "Jack had a brainwave" -- which sounds futuristic rather than old. Still, I enjoyed every bit of it, and it broadened my big view of the Middle Ages, because Follett is fascinated by economic dynamics as well as the deals made between its characters (politics) and their inner lives (superstructure).
One thing I thought about was that insular England in the 12th century, with squabbling "city-states" occupied and beset by the more developed and sophisticated Normans, could not have been too different from 13th century Estonia (well, leaving out the matter of conversion to Christianity). Andrus Kivirähk may take a dark view of Estonian peasants in his novels but the view is of human nature. We all do the same sorts of things in hard times, and perhaps the more conscientious of us develop an elaborate mythology for purposes of theodicy.
Interestingly, there isn't a single "good" character in Pillars of the Earth who lacks major flaws or who isn't willing to resort to some duplicity. And towards the end, Follett suggests that quite a few of the book's "evil" characters, some of who repent, are actually devout Christians who simply believe that the end justifies the means and that they are "God's hand".
Hmm, now that seems awfully familiar thinking of some of our leaders. I hate to use a cliche, but the book does well as a parable for our times, much more than, say, Lord of the Rings. Rather than simplistic good vs evil dualities, this book is more important.
As it takes place in mediaeval times, some of the book is set in times of famine. As in the case of most famines, the environment is only partially responsible. Mismanagement and greed do the rest. Peasants are forced to sell to processing plants far away, or they are tempted to do so by higher prices, just as they are now.
Now you know where I'm going.
I wonder what a pandemic famine would be like today. Would everyone suffer equally, as in Ursula LeGuin's Dispossessed, where the exile settlers on the semi-utopian moon society band together communally until the rain comes again? The answer is obvious. It would probably be more like Pillars, where the lords do just fine and even develop nice cases of gout (in these days we get heart disease and cancer), while the forests fill with outlaws and the highways with itinerant workers dragging bedraggled families.
Are we aready facing a globalized famine (as opposed to one confined to an ethnic group or region of a politically unstable country)?
Right now the world's granary is down to a couple weeks worth of corn and wheat. Those are the stats from the FAO. It keeps on dropping. Much of the food resources has been "promised" to biofuel interests.
Now, if food prices begin to outstrip fuel prices, I think the situation will start returning to normal by itself as suppliers sell to food plants. But as much as I love pure capitalism, it doesn't care about odd deaths in marginalized segments of our world, whereas my Western upbringing teaches me that every life is sacred. And some people are already close to the unsustainable mark (euphemism for starvation).
As of about February, the poorest of the poor (Haiti; Cairo slums) are beginning to run out of food, but they still have enough calories per day to riot. That sounds clinical, but is probably a fair assessment. As they get even less food, the rioters' organization will break down and they will start fighting each other instead of the government, until a strong leader crystallizes and they begin to fight for him, for food. If it doesn't start swinging back, the same scenario will play out in country after country up the economic food chain. This is going to create a feedback cycle of disruptions that will make it harder for the situation to turn back around. Taagepera was just talking about the effect of harder times on Estonia's minorities today. He also said that he doesn't believe the current crisis will get really bad this time, but it is time to think. By the time it reaches Estonia, it could be too late.
There is no point blaming capitalism -- it is human nature. People are fickle and go where the money is. The problem is, how did it get so out of whack, and how to get it to swing back?
Governments in some poorer grain exporting countries -- Vietnam etc -- have stepped in. (In fact government intervention seems to be in vogue everywhere.) In effect, what they are doing is forbidding companies to sell on the free world market, because they are aware that there may not be enough food to go around at home. I don't know if this is very wise in the long term.
Like most people, I do believe that there is enough food in the world to feed the world. The problem is one of distribution and concentration. It's like the classic bleeding-heart example - enough food is thrown away in New York probably to feed one African country for a year. (I am just making this up; but probably true for Cape Verde.)
There is nothing to be done about that specific problem, but the problem is partly a matter of distribution.
But I'm short of ideas. I'll only repeat simple things, like we should all be eating a lot more local fruits and vegetables and avoiding (grain-fed) meat and refined food. Indeed prices for these produce items remain relatively stable. That should be a powerful argument in itself. It is probably a start. Maybe half of us should limit meat and the other half, who simply can't do without a good steak, should limit driving?
Free market principles hold that everything should turn out right if we just follow our self-economizing instincts. Things will return to equilibrium.
The problem with this is, what if things are getting so congested and broken in our world, like atherosclerotic tissue, that we have no choice but to encourage government intervention, like stents, even "authoritarian capitalism", the latest buzzword?