EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Selling Our Future: Introduction

From time to time I go back and read about earlier civilizations that declined and collapsed, trying to understand the reasons for their demise. More often than not shrinking food supplies were responsible. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil—the result of a flaw in their irrigation system—brought down wheat and barley yields and eventually the civilization itself. 1

For the Mayans, soil erosion exacerbated by a series of intense droughts apparently undermined their food supply and their civilization. For other early civilizations that collapsed, it was often soil erosion and the resulting shrinkage in harvests that led to their decline. 2

Does our civilization face a similar fate? Until recently it did not seem possible. I resisted the idea that food shortages could also bring down our early twenty-first century global civilization. But our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy forces me to conclude that if we continue with business as usual such a collapse is not only possible but likely.

The historic grain price climb in the last few years underlines the gravity of the situation. From mid-2006 to mid-2008, world prices of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans roughly tripled, reaching historic highs. It was not until the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 that grain prices receded somewhat. But even then they were still well above the historical level. 3

The world has experienced several grain price surges over the last half-century, but none like this. These earlier trends were event-driven—a monsoon failure in India, a severe drought in the Soviet Union, or a crop-shrinking heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. The price surges were temporary, caused by weather-related events that were usually remedied by the next harvest. The record 2006–08 surge in grain prices is different. It is trend-driven. This means that working our way out of this tightening food situation depends on reversing the trends that are causing it, such as soil erosion, falling water tables, and rising carbon emissions.

As a result of persistently high food prices, hunger is spreading. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to reduce hunger and malnutrition. In the mid-1990s, the number of people in this category had fallen to 825 million. But instead of continuing to decline, the number of hungry started to edge upward, reaching 915 million at the end of 2008. It then jumped to over 1 billion in 2009. With business as usual, I see a combination of the projected growth in population, the planned diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, spreading shortages of irrigation water, and other trends combining to push the number of hungry people to 1.2 billion or more by 2015. 4

Rising food prices and the swelling ranks of the hungry are among the early signs of a tightening world food situation. At a time when progress is seen as almost inevitable, this recent reversal on the food front is a disturbing setback. More and more, food is looking like the weak link in our civilization, much as it was for the earlier ones whose archeological sites we now study.

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1. Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 13–21.

2. Guy Gugliotta, “The Maya: Glory and Ruin,” National Geographic, August 2007; Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Group, 2005); Postel, op. cit. note 1, pp. 13–21; Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

3. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Soaring Food Prices: Facts, Perspectives, Impacts, and Actions Required,” paper presented at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy, Rome, 3–5 June 2008; historical wheat, corn, and soybean prices are Chicago Board of Trade futures data from TFC Commodity Charts, “Grain & Oilseed Commodities Futures,” at futures.tradingcharts.com/grains_oilseeds.html, viewed 16 January 2009; current wheat, corn, and soybean prices are Chicago Board of Trade futures data from CME Group, “Commodity Products,” various dates, at www.cmegroup.com; rice prices from Nathan Childs and Katherine Baldwin, Rice Outlook (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service (ERS), 11 June 2009), p. 26.

4. U.N. General Assembly, “United Nations Millennium Declaration,” resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 8 September 2000; FAO, “1.02 Billion People Hungry,” press release (Rome: 19 June 2009).


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