Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good. —Hannah Arendt
The World Bank announced recently that food prices are rising, not as the result of a natural disaster devastating crops, but gradually, steadily, inexorably. Since 2000 the global price of wheat has increased 200 percent, food of every kind by 75 percent. Most Americans haven’t noticed the change, but thirty-six countries now require aid to prevent their poorest citizens from starving. The causes are not sluggish transportation, antiquated machinery, or stagnant production. The world harvest of wheat, rice, corn, and other staples has shown no decrease in recent years. The total farm area allotted for wheat in the United States expanded by 6 percent during 2008. But there are now more consumers than ever before, especially in China and India, as rural people move to manufacturing centers to earn a wage and buy food rather than grow it themselves. It is not as though millions of acres lie fallow, just waiting to be plowed. Expansion in the wheat crop comes at the expense of land set aside for conservation over the last few decades. As one buyer of wheat asked, “Do we want to eat, or do we want to worry about the birds?”
The rising price of food is not a sign of inadequate economic growth. It might be a consequence of growth itself. We are not used to thinking about growth as producing scarcity. Growth has been the solution to scarcity, the amplification of all the factors that improve our lives—more land cleared for wheat, more oil extracted for gasoline, more copper and wood pulled out of the hills for homes. Over the last three centuries, the people of the Western world have defined progress as more of everything. Even though it is no longer viable to think about the economy apart from the limitations of the earth, that very distinction is built into our faith in economic growth.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, political economists began to make the claim that human industry brings forth natural abundance. They meant that human labor invested in the earth earns back its wage with a profit. Adam Smith set the pattern in The Wealth of Nations when he wrote that prices rise “in the progress of improvement.” Higher prices indicated that people lived longer, gave birth to more children, lived better, and thus placed greater demand on supply. But what would happen if the cost of bread and milk increased until it could go no higher? Simple, chirped Smith, “more land and more industry would soon be employed to increase their quantity.” Economic growth partakes in this magical thinking: the capacity of the environment remains constant at infinity. The dream of eternal abundance is as old as Eden, but Smith’s sense of the inevitability of abundance came from distinctly modern ideas about how the universe works.
Rather than go back to Eden or Gilgamesh for the origins of what now presents itself as a crisis, I have been looking at more recent sources: the words we use to help us visualize very complicated things. The natural order is too immense to hold in mind, so we simplify it with metaphors. According to the writer Eva Feder Kittay, metaphor “makes use of one linguistically articulated domain to gain an understanding of another experiential or conceptual domain.” Unlike a simple comparison, a metaphor does more than liken disparate things; it allows us to say that the nation is a house divided or that all the world is a stage. Richly descriptive images do not quickly dissipate. Sometimes they serve as working models of reality.
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