Sunday, April 27, 2008

Global Food Crisis

This week, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Josette Sheeran called for "urgent action to tackle the 'silent tsunami' of rising food prices which threatens to push more than 100 million people worldwide into hunger."

The PBS broadcast, News Hour reported a stern warning from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others ... and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world." More than 34 countries experienced protest, unrest, or food riots within the last month.

Today, the Washington Post began a multi- part series, Global Food Crisis: The New World of Soaring Food Prices, with at least four daily reports, online videos, chats, and background information.


Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

It's refreshing to see the analysis acknowledge that "No single factor can be blamed for the global food crisis. An unlucky confluence of events over the past several years contributed to soaring prices." This is important: too often a crisis involving food supply and prices is attributed to some sort of Malthusian-Darwinian reductionist explanation (one that does little credit to either Malthus or Darwin, but especially the latter). With all due respect to the late Garrett Hardin, who taught at my alma mater and lived not far from us, we need to be vigilant when it comes to assessing long-term policy proposals intended to prevent similar crises as, alas, neo-Malthusian "solutions," have in the past proven all-too-tempting: One recalls Hardin's suggestion that we issue licenses for reproduction, sold on the open market, as well as his triage-inspired "lifeboat ethics" in which the poorest of nations are allowed to perish. Hardin, along with Paul Ehrlich, viewed the so-called developing nations as "locked in an updated Malthusian dilemma of numbers and land" (Robert C. Paehlke). How utterly wrong-headed such an explanatory picture was and remains, is found in a book by another professor from my alma mater (and whose home I happened to help re-model back in the days when I was working as a finish carpenter), William W. Murdoch's The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). Indeed, I trust you'll indulge me if I proffer some titles that should count for "background" reading for those attempting to understand what ails us, granting the peculiar confluence of factors in the present crisis may be novel in their synergistic effects.

First, we need to put the consumption habits of Americans in proper perspective, as Jason Epstein does when discussing the work of Michael Pollan in the New York Review of Books (March 20, 2008), freely available at Pollan's website:

In addition, the works of Juliet Schor are essential:
-The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1998).
-Do Americans Shop Too Much? (2000).
-(With Douglas Holt as co-editor) The Consumer Society: A Reader (2000).
-Born to Buy: The Commercialized Society and the New Consumer Culture (2004).

Next, we should forswear succumbing to economic and political myopia and place this crisis within a framework built from the materials of global distributive justice in conjunction with a sophisticated environmentalism, although the following titles largely focus on the former (the latter can be gleaned from my bibliography for 'ecological and environmental worldviews' posted at Ratio Juris):

-Bardhan, Pranab. Scarcity, Conflicts, and Cooperation: Essays in the Political and Institutional Economics of Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
-Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Distribution. New York: Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
-Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
-Dasgupta, Partha. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
-Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
-Dreze, Jean, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
-Hurrell, Andrew and Ngaire Woods, eds. Inequality, Globalization, and World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
-Kerbo, Harold R. World Poverty: Global Inequality and the Modern World System. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
-Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

4/28/2008 8:46 AM  

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