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Gouldiana Rising

Warren D. Allmon, Patricia H. Kelley, and Robert M. Ross, eds., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 400 pages, $34.95, hardcover.

Stephen Jay Gould, best known to the general public for his nearly three decades of regular essays published in the popular magazine Natural History, was prolific and, although he always emphasized that he was a tradesman, specializing in paleontology and evolutionary theory, he was nonetheless a polymath, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, and a variety of sciences, both social and natural. The vast body of work he has bequeathed to the literate public — the Republic of Letters, as he affectionately called us — is filled with gems of insight, fascinating observations, and no shortage of controversy. No one who has read Gould with care can avoid noticing his abiding love for learning and teaching, his unbridled enthusiasm for grappling with nature’s mysteries, and his fascination with humanity in all of its many forms. In many ways, Gould’s writing was deeply personal, demonstrating one man’s struggle to understand the natural world and our place in it. However, in other ways, Gould, the man, remained elusive and inaccessible to those who only knew him through his writing.… | more |

The Serious Obama

Bolivarian President Hugo Chavez really made a clever remark when he referred to the “riddle of the two Obamas.”… | more |

A Species in Danger of Extinction

Today I would have liked to speak about the extraordinary “Paz sin Fronteras” (Peace without Borders) Concert held at the José Martí Revolution Square 24 hours ago, but the stubborn reality forces me to write about a danger that threatens not just peace but the survival of our species.… | more |

The Globalization of Agribusiness and Developing World Food Systems

The issue of the global concentration of agribusiness is crucial to the future of the food systems of developing (and poor, non-developing) countries. These countries have been a target of corporate investments from the outset of the industrial food system. This process has been uneven — at different times corporate investment has focused on one or another part of the food system. Today, this uneven and often uncoordinated foray of metropolitan corporate capital is still subjugating the agriculture and domestic food markets of many developing countries, particularly smaller, peripheral ones undergoing rapid urbanization, to the needs of global agribusiness. For some of the larger developing countries, however, national capitalists are the principal force behind the emerging urban food system. In addition, the state has been playing a key role in the consolidation of the urban food system in certain emerging economies.… | more |

An Overview of the Food and Agriculture Crisis

“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.

In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.… | more |

Food Wars

In 2006–08, food shortages became a global reality, with the prices of commodities spiraling beyond the reach of vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flatfooted, with the World Food Program warning that its rapidly diminishing food stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency.… | more |

The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective

The “world food crisis” of 2007–08 was the tip of an iceberg. Hunger and food crises are endemic to the modern world, and the eruption of a rapid increase in food prices provided a fresh window on this cultural fact. Much like Susan George’s well-known observation that famines represent the final stage in an extended process of deepening vulnerability and fracturing of social reproduction mechanisms, this food “crisis” represents the magnification of a long-term crisis of social reproduction stemming from colonialism, and was triggered by neoliberal capitalist development.… | more |

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Vanishing Peasantries and the Specter of a Global Food Crisis

Likened to a sudden tsunami, reports of declining staple food availability and the possibility of a world food crisis first appeared in the international press in late 2007.1 Sub-Saharan Africa, with its deepening need for disaster food relief in arid and war-torn areas, was most vulnerable. The economic viability of western donors’ food aid to the continent was increasingly being stretched. As food riots flared in various Asian and Latin American cities, urban food riots also began surfacing in Africa, alongside the perennial threat of rural famine.… | more |

Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries

India has had a growing problem with food output and availability for the mass of the population since the inception of neoliberal economic reforms in 1991. A deep agricultural depression and rising unemployment rates resulting from “reform” policies have made the problem especially acute over the past decade. There has been a sharp decline in per capita grain output as well as grain consumption in the economy as a whole. Income has been shifting away from the majority towards the wealthy minority and a substantial segment of the population is being forced to eat less food and wear older clothing than before. This is exacerbated by the current global depression, which is further constraining mass consumption because of rising unemployment.… | more |

Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time Is Done

The push for “free trade” in agriculture first took hold in the 1980s. It was part of a package of policies and investments that moved food and agriculture systems away from government control (too often centralized and unresponsive) toward private ownership. Ironically, private ownership has led to an even more centralized and tightly controlled food system. Local communities have been left more disempowered than they were before, and, increasingly, developing country national governments have found themselves disempowered, too. This essay considers what advocates of free trade promised developing countries, what actually happened, and what some alternatives might look like.… | more |

Reducing Energy Inputs in the Agricultural Production System

Oil, natural gas, coal, and other mined fuels provide the United States with nearly all of its energy needs at a cost $700 billion per year.1 Since more than 90 percent of its oil deposits have been depleted, the United States now imports over 70 percent of its oil at an annual cost of $400 billion.2 United States agriculture is driven almost entirely by these non-renewable energy sources. Each person in the country on a per capita consumption basis requires approximately 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents to supply his/her total food, which accounts for about 19 percent of the total national energy use. Farming — that portion of the agricultural/food system in which food is produced — requires about 7 percent and food processing and packaging consume an additional 7 percent, while transportation and preparation use 5 percent of total energy in the United States.… | more |

Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty

Global forces are challenging the ability of developing countries to feed themselves. A number of countries have organized their economies around a competitive export-oriented agricultural sector, based mainly on monocultures. It may be argued that agricultural exports of crops such as soybeans from Brazil make significant contributions to the national economies by bringing in hard currency that can be used to purchase other goods from abroad. However, this type of industrial agriculture also brings a variety of economic, environmental, and social problems, including negative impacts on public health, ecosystem integrity, food quality, and in many cases disruption of traditional rural livelihoods, while accelerating indebtedness among thousands of farmers.… | more |