For my write-up today on Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, my main theme will be trade-offs.
On pages 137-138, Gore discusses the Third World. Gore says that there are impoverished Third World countries that are seeking to finance their debts through selling exports, by taking the land that they used for subsistence farming and using it to produce “monocultured hybrid crop varieties” that they then sell abroad. Gore acknowledges that this approach has “temporarily conquered hunger in a few of the Third World nations”, but he does not believe that it addresses the problem of the “wealthy elite” owning “a huge percentage of the productive land.” Moreover, Gore says that the “higher yields” of crops “often cannot be sustained over time”, for “pests and blights catch up with” the crops and “overirrigation and overfertilizing take their toll on soil productivity.” Gore also critiques development programs that are funded by “international financial institutions” because he believes that “in too many cases they turn out to be wildly inappropriate for the culture or ecology of the region in which they are placed.”
On page 141, Gore talks about trade-offs in terms of pesticides. Pesticides kill pests that are harmful, but also helpful pests. Gore refers to a story that was told by environmentalist Amory Lovins about how a pesticide in Indonesia that was used to kill malaria-spreading mosquitoes also ended up killing wasps that “controlled the insect population in the thatched roofs of the houses”, with the result that “the roofs all fell in” (Gore’s words). The pesticide also poisoned a number of cats, which resulted in an increase in the rat population and a bubonic plague epidemic.
What could be done instead? Would debt forgiveness of Third World nations help the situation? How about supporting Third World leaders who would redistribute the land and allow it to be used for subsistence farming? Would a land Sabbath allow the soil to rest? And how would one solve the problem of malaria? Would using a less-powerful pesticide do the job? Some of what I have just listed have their own weaknesses: they result in less productivity and wealth for the nation. But would that matter, if people are able to support themselves by growing their own crops?
Are there perfect—-or, if we can’t aim that high, better—-solutions?
(UPDATE: On page 322, Gore talks about such things as increasing “the productivity of small farms with low input agricultural methods”, environmentally-friendlier technology, and crop rotation.)