In the twentieth century major advances in medical technology came, immunizations and sanitation provided much of what was necessary for a vast expansion in the human population. But, what was needed most were changes in agronomy, in the production and distribution of food. When that happened, human population exploded.
In the year 1000 C.E. it is estimated that there were two-hundred and sixty-five million people living on Earth. The entire population of the world dis little more than double by the time Plato is writing six-hundred years later.
In 1900 C.E. the world population was approximately 1.6 billion people. The population had risen by a factor of three over the course of nine-hundred years.
Between 1900 C.E. and 1950 C.E. we added about nine-hundred million more people. Many societies, in the non-industrialized world were experiencing famine, and then, a radical change in the science of agronomy took place, facilitated by an American named Norman Borlaug. Genetic engineering of crops, and chemical fertilization began to rapidly improve crop yields. The population of the world grew to a staggering seven billion people; nearly tripling in the space of fifty years[i], between 1950 and 2000 C.E.
Norman Borlaug was given the Nobel Peace prize in 1970, for teaching the world to feed itself. ‘“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,”’ ‘the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize.’ ‘“We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”’[ii] Nevertheless, it remains true that food scarcity is the easiest way to move a city, a state, or a nation from progress to chaos, from restfulness to unease the abundance of food has not brought peace to the world, just more people. As Plato said, food is the first of our needs, with it the state will grow, without it there is nothing.
In the same time frame that Norman Borlaug’s contribution to agriculture, agronomy,and the world’s food supply, was making an impact on the global population, those same advances were making a significant impact on corporate profits.
For instance, in 1950, Minnesota’s Cargil corporation had annual revenues of four-hundred and twenty-three million dollars.[iii] In the period of time that we are talking about; 1950 – 2000, when the world’s population tripled, Cargil’s revenues grew by two-hundred and fifty times, and all of the machinery of the world governments turned around it.
There is an ancient saying:
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”[iv]
Plato imagined philosopher-kings and queens, a golden-class who did not own private property, and did not taint their virtue by coming into contact with coin; idealism. However, he did not have the tools to imagine how we could actually arrive at the place where wisdom and justice do in fact govern, not wealth. Even the most innocent and the best intentions, like those held by men such as Norman Borlaug; to feed the hungry, are milled into profits for the power brokers, the food financiers and the keepers of grain.
Everything eats. There is no life without food. Its abundance, or its scarcity directly determine the quality of human life. There is great competition for it; not only for basic foodstuffs but for the luxuriant foods as well. There are many of us who are comfortable with the idea that farm hands go hungry so they can pick coffee beans for the breakfast table in American and European homes. This is not the justice that Plato envisioned, though it is perhaps what he expected.
The question remains to be answered, and I cannot do it here. How do we change the cycle of commerce when the pattern for it was set in our culture so many thousands of years ago, and when the pressure to continue to produce, to keep the machinery humming, is so great; when, if the gears grind even a little bit, entire nations starve, not because we don’t have the food, but because we cannot get it to where it is needed most?
How can we ensure that everyone we are able to feed can also have clean water, medicine, electricity, heat, and education?
Can we give every person in the world peace and freedom, security and the opportunity to spend some part of everyday reflecting on their lives; and the time to pursue those interests which can genuinely bring them joy and satisfaction? Or will we human beings become the victims of our own success?
[ii] Norman Borlaug, Plant Scientist Who Fought Famine, Dies at 95, By Justin Gillis, Published: September 13, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/business/energy-environment/14borlaug.html?pagewanted=all
[iii] Cargil, Trading the World’s Grain, by Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., p. 740, University Press of New England, Hanover, 1992.