tag: Big Business

Nov 2010

I’m Lovin’ it

Commercial advertising directed at children is one of the great evils of our age. Benjamin R. Barber’s excellent book, Consumed, examines the phenomenon in detail and presents sobering evidence that the aggressive marketing of consumerism is infantilising adults while simultaneously stripping our young of their childhood; ultimately commodifying even the bonds between human beings so that interpersonal relationships are becoming ever more pathological as new generations are forced to identify more with brands and media imagery than with family or friends.

Gregory Bateson’s work on what he calls deuterolearning (or “learning to learn”) suggests that serious social, cultural and psychological damage can be done when this process is perverted by those seeking to manipulate the development of the psyche for commercial or political gain.

Which is why, despite the fact that California may have let us all down with their failure to pass Proposition 19 yesterday, at least they’ve gotten one thing right this week. The city of San Francisco has passed a law ensuring that fast-food chains are now prohibited from giving away free children’s toys with unhealthy meals. This, by now ubiquitous, trend is a marketing ploy that frankly, is not a million miles away from child abuse.

McDeath logo

After all, the intention of this strategy is to link extremely unhealthy food with the receiving of fun gifts in the minds of children. It is a craven manipulation designed to generate profits at the expense of the health of children. And let’s remember, children are particularly susceptible to this form of emotional and psychological manipulation as they are still learning to learn. Indeed, all marketing aimed at children is no less than a conscious attempt to subvert the development of the young mind and train it to be a less critical consumer. When the marketing involves a product that is so unhealthy, it’s all the worse.

So well done San Francisco, and here’s hoping other places quickly follow suit.

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Nov 2010

The US Midterms: a dimebag of hope

Well, it looks like the Democrats are going to take a pasting in today’s mid-term elections. Hardly surprising really. The hope and optimism that Obama brought with him into office was so great that he was always going to fall short when it came to delivering on it. A combination of genuine disappointment and being comprehensively outmaneuvered in the media appears to have shifted public opinion against his administration and, by extension, against the Democratic Party.

US politics offers us an object lesson in how people can be manipulated to act against their own longterm interests (it’s the same in every modern captialist democracy, of course, but the United States is so big and powerful that trends get magnified making them easier to identify).

Take the healthcare issue for example. It was the central plank of Obama’s campaign. He spoke about it in almost every speech he made during the run-up to the election. And yet a combination of corporate financial muscle and Republican propaganda seemed to convince the very people the plan was aimed at helping, that it was some kind of socialist hidden agenda being foisted upon America without a mandate. Low-income Americans with no healthcare have been actively denouncing their newly-acquired ability to see a doctor if they get sick. People who, should they find themselves with a serious illness, would have previously been faced with a choice between crippling debt or no treatment are campaigning against “ObamaCare Socialism”.

“America’s not about hand-outs”, they cry, “it’s about working your way to the top!” It seems to me that tens of millions of low-income Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that they’ll be rich one day. That “the top” has room for all if they only work hard enough. So instead of working towards a more equitable society, where even the poorest are taken care of, they instead adopt right-wing quasi-libertarian beliefs that only benefit the wealthy. The rich and powerful have engineered a deluded populace to support their lavish lifestyles… a nation of turkeys campaigning for an early Thanksgiving.

The thing is, every society in history has taken good care of those at the top. There’s nothing unique about that, despite the belief of many Americans that they are in some way socially advanced. Seems to me that a truly Great Society is one that also manages to take care of those at the bottom. Feudalism is alive and well and proudly living in the Unites States. It just has better P.R. these days.

In the end, big business forced Obama to water-down a healthcare plan that had been approved by a majority of US voters. If ever there was an example of how capitalism subverts politics, that was it.

In fact, a mere two years after being elected on that issue (he was elected for many reasons, of course, but healthcare was his number one rallying call), the Democrats are actively distancing themselves from it. Bizarrely in half a presidential term it’s gone from being a vote-winner to a clear vote-loser. As usual, The Onion succinctly captures the current mood among US Democrats with their article, Democrats: ‘If We’re Gonna Lose, Let’s Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We’ve Made’. The only reason for this is the massive Public Relations machine that the US Right set in motion.

It’s sad how easily people can be manipulated into self-destructive behaviour.

No Victim No Crime sticker

No victim no crime
Vote 'Yes!' on Prop 19

My one hope for today’s elections is, it goes without saying, the possibility of California passing Proposition 19. While it’s far from perfect, it might well prove to be the first substantial nail in the coffin of our clinically insane War on Some Drugs. If it is defeated, it will again demonstrate the incredible ability of people to act against their own best interests. Despite the high-profile donations to the pro-legalisation campaign, they are being matched by the anti-Prop 19 campaign. And who are the major backers of the anti-Prop19 campaign? Interestingly, it’s the alcohol industry.

But of course.

We’ll soon know the results of the mid-terms and whether California has voted sensibly on the cannabis issue. A Democratic wipeout is pretty much a given, though it may present a silver lining… some of those Tea Party weirdos are bound to damage the US Right when given a national stage upon which to perform. And the Californians might make it a day to remember for good, as well as bad, reasons. Celebratory bong, anyone?

Well, here’s hoping!

UPDATE 3/11/2010: Well, the Dems lost the House of Representatives and saw their Senate majority whittled down to less than a handful. I’m not suggesting the Democratic Party are anything other than corporate mouthpieces, but the lurch into loony territory currently underway in the Republican Party means the Dems are a marginally better option at the moment. People with Sarah Palin’s view of the world running America? Not a happy thought. On top of all that, the Californians couldn’t even answer a simple Yes/No question correctly. I’m genuinely disappointed by this as it would have presented a real challenge to the madness of our War on Some Drugs. In the end, when asked “do you wish to continue acting in a dangerously psychotic, self-destructive manner?” more than half of Californians replied, “Yes”.


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Aug 2010

Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s governing coalition (Kingsnorth: Back from the dead?). Actually, you know what? I’m just going to start referring to the current UK government as a tory government. The presence of the Liberal Democrats*, just like the involvement of the Greens in the government here in Ireland, is an irrelevance; a technical footnote rather than a meaningful truth. The only impact they have on the government is to allow the dominant party to float policies they always wanted to, but that might be unpopular with their own hardline supporters. So here in Ireland, for instance, we’ve had a carbon tax ostensibly as a result of the Green presence in cabinet. In reality, Fianna Fáil wanted an alternative revenue stream to help with the crippling deficit and were delighted to find one they could blame on someone else.

So let’s start again…

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s Conservative government. Prior to the election they had unambiguously stated that under their administration, any new power stations would have to meet a strict Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

This would mean the carbon emissions rate of all electricity generated in our country cannot be any higher than that generated in a modern gas plant. Such a standard would mean that a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country.

More than that, this pledge wasn’t merely a campaign promise (a term which, let’s face it, has become little more than a euphemism for “bullshit”), it actually made it into their Programme for Government (PDF file).

We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

As Merrick says, that’s clear, definite and unequivocal.

Three days ago, however, they admitted their pledge to introduce an EPS was basically just a lie to make them look more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Despite the unambiguous nature of their promise, they have shelved the EPS and will no longer be introducing legislation to implement it. Instead they will “open a consultation on the idea in the autumn with the results being presented to parliament as a white paper in the new year.”

Be under no illusion, that’s just a diplomatic way of abandoning the idea. It’s the modern political equivalent of holding a press conference and shouting “suckers!”

Of course, you could argue that anyone who believed a tory government would really implement a strict EPS kind of was a bit of a sucker. Sorry. But the fact is, it was pretty obvious that this policy would be unpalatable to any right of centre government in current circumstances.

Climate Change: nothing to do with us

See, the title of this post — Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change — expresses a very real tension that now exists at the heart of modern civilisation. As we lurch towards a looming energy crisis precipitated by the global peak of conventional oil production, many of the steps we might take to cope with that crisis will directly conflict with many of the steps we might take to deal with Climate Change (note: I read an analysis just this morning which suggests that “during 2011, OPEC’s spare capacity may be completely eroded”. This is a serious problem indeed, and will torpedo any economic recovery politicians and economists tell us is underway right now.)

Examples of this conflict are too numerous to mention, but include widespread deforestation to clear land for biofuel production, the draining of peat bogs and marshland for the same reason, increases in coal use (and the mind-bogglingly damaging coal-gassification process) to make up for shortfalls in oil and gas, the exploitation of oil shales and tar sands (also an incredibly damaging resource from an ecological perspective) and so on. All of these attempts to mitigate the energy crisis will result in the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change.

Yet we are ploughing ahead full steam with them. More than that, politicians who made explicit promises to restrict the damage that coal burning might do, for example, are abandoning those promises without even trying to deliver on them.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. In the case of coal-burning power plants in the UK, the government has realised that new electricity generation needs to be brought online within the next few years. The only alternative would be to mandate higher energy efficiency and ultimately a reduction in consumption. It is simply easier, politically, to contribute to Climate Change than it is to speak unpopular truths to the electorate. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that politicians will always choose the easy option above the right one. It’s almost a job requirement.

See, Climate Change is too intangible a problem to be blamed on any single government. And they know this. Power cuts, on the other hand, will always be blamed on the government of the day. So Cameron (and his counterparts in damn near every other party… let’s be under no illusions here, Labour would do precisely the same if they were in power) much prefers to contribute to an ecological disaster that can’t be pinned on him, than try solve a political one that can.

It’s a measure of the moral cowardice of the man and of the entire political establishment.

An energy crisis is looming folks. It’s very real, and it’s not far away. But we seem willing to burn down the entire planet rather than accept a change in our outrageous over-consumption. And this is despite the fact that our over-consumption doesn’t even seem to be making us all that happy.

* I’m well aware that I reluctantly endorsed a Lib Dem vote in the May election on the single-issue of electoral reform. In retrospect, I was wrong. A vote for the Liberal Democrats turned out to be a vote for an undiluted Conservative government and I would never knowingly endorse such a thing. Sorry about that.

AFTERWORD: those wonderful people over at The Onion have recently published a very funny, albeit darkly funny, article about our oil use. Check out: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe

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May 2010

David Byrne to sue the Governor of Florida

David Byrne is currently preparing a lawsuit against the Republican Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, for the use of Road to Nowhere in a political campaign. Check out the full story.

Besides being theft, use of the song and my voice in a campaign ad implies that I, as writer and singer of the song, might have granted Crist permission to use it, and that I therefore endorse him and/or the Republican Party, of which he was a member until very, very recently. The general public might also think I simply license the use of my songs to anyone who will pay the going rate, but that’s not true either, as I have never licensed a song for use in an ad. I do license songs to commercial films and TV shows (if they pay the going rate), and to dance companies and student filmmakers mostly for free. But not to ads.

I’m a bit of a throwback that way, as I still believe songs occasionally mean something to people — they obviously mean something personal to the writer, and often to the listener as well. A personal and social meaning is diluted when that same song is used to sell a product (or a politician). If Crist and his campaign folks had asked to use the song, I would have said no — even if they had offered a lot of money, such as I have been offered in the past for ad use (though I’ve always turned these offers down).

Byrne is one of my favourite artists, as regular readers will know. The fact that he has made, and continues to make, records that mean more to me than almost any others is further enhanced by his remaining one of the few artists who have resisted the lure of commerical advertising. One can only imagine how much money he’s been offered for the use of certain songs in his back catalogue and deeply admire his artistic integrity. For me, hearing a song or piece of music in an advert almost always destroys it. So given the importance of his music to me personally, I hope and pray he maintains his stance.

Go David!

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Apr 2010

Irish housing stock update

Just a quickie. In my recent post (The next great wave of Irish emigration) about the collapse of the Irish property market and the mountain of debt it has created for us all, I suggested that there’s “an estimated quarter of a million newly built houses and apartments standing empty”. I must apologise as my estimate was somewhere between 20% and 40% out. It turns out, according to the most recent data, that in fact the number is “believed to be between 352,414 and 301,682”.

That’s a whole lot of vacant houses for a nation of 4.4 million.

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Apr 2010

The next great wave of Irish emigration

For about 12 years starting in the mid-90s a bunch of private business concerns decided to buy large tracts of land in Ireland (particularly around Dublin) and “develop” them by building luxury apartments and hotels. Competition was high because every property developer in the country had bought into the same delusion. Somehow they convinced themselves that this was a no-lose proposition. Property values shot up. Greenfield sites in the Dublin commuter belt increased in value by a couple of hundred percent within a few years. And brownfield sites in the city centre rose by even more. It was sheer lunacy.

Which, in itself, wouldn’t have been a problem. No, it became a problem when this small group of developers succeeded in convincing the banks and the government to join their party. And so together, the bankers, speculators and developers — breathlessly urged onwards by politicians tripping over themselves to rezone land and dismantle regulatory frameworks — dragged the nation relentlessly into a deep dark hole. Massive loans were granted based on absurd valuations and overnight a mountain of debt appeared in Dublin’s financial district.

The half-dozen or so sane people left in the country shook their heads ruefully and suggested that there was only one way for this to end… the same way all collective delusions end… with a bone-shaking return to reality and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of course nobody listened. We were labelled doom-mongers and pessimists. “Shut up and let me enjoy the party”, they’d say, and we’d wince as they shovelled another gramme of future debt up their nose. It’s gonna be one hell of a come-down, we’d mutter as they gave us dark scowls and dismissive gestures. “Come down?! Don’t be such an arsehole”, they’d yell, “I can keep snorting this stuff forever”.

Sadly, there the drug analogy ends. A hangover or comedown may be managed via the skillful application of hair-of-the-dog. Not the case with a property crash. Especially not one that happens just prior to an energy crisis. The Irish people find themselves slumped, sweating and groaning, on the bathroom floor. The economy flushed to get rid of the stench. All that remains of it is a foul stain on our shirt and a few nasty dried flecks stuck to our hair. Ugly reminders of our willingness to trade our future and that of our children for a few years of hedonism.

You see, as was entirely predictable… indeed inevitable… property prices crashed. And how! The Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, which has become something of a symbol of the insanity that gripped the nation, has seen an 88% drop in valuation since the bubble burst. Purchased for €412 million in 2006, it has recently been repossessed by the bank that provided the loan and is for sale for €50 million. There are no interested buyers.

There are now an estimated quarter of a million newly built houses and apartments standing empty in “ghost developments” around Ireland. This, in a country with a population of four million. Safe to say the prospects for a recovery in the Irish residential property market aren’t good. In fact, probably the only remaining positive aspect of the property boom is the new nomenclature that has sprung up to describe the folly. Ghost developments sounds pretty cool, but even better is ‘Zombie hotels’, which is the phrase being used to describe the dozens of brand new hotels that are slowly choking the life out of established businesses. The massive over-capacity is forcing equally massive rate cuts. Good news, you might think, for the consumer but it’s crippling the entire sector and — as is so often the case — the good news of short-termism often doesn’t stay good for very long.

But hang on a second… rewind a bit to the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend. Did I say “repossessed by the bank”? Let me rephrase that… it has been repossessed by the Irish government who have generously agreed to absorb pretty much all of the hundreds of billions of euro worth of debt injected into the Irish economy by a small number of greedy fools. The people responsible for creating our ghost developments and zombie hotels aren’t — it seems — the people responsible for dealing with the consequences. It’s been suggested that every person currently alive in Ireland will have to pay €2,000 per year for the next 70 years in order to clear the total liability that’s been shouldered by our Fianna Fáil / Green coalition government. And given that not all of us have another 70 years to live, we’ll be bequeathing a massive burden to the next couple of generations.

You’re welcome, kids.

As soon as this all sinks in — and for most, it really hasn’t yet — expect to see the next great wave of Irish emigration.

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Apr 2010

UK Digital Economy Bill

Last night the British parliament enacted a thoroughly regressive piece of legislation. Called The Digital Economy Bill (DEBill), it is ostensibly designed to — amongst other things — prevent internet file-sharing. In fact, what it actually does is allow large corporations to legally victimise individuals based on nothing more than suspicion. Once again the representatives of the people have sold them out to appease the power of private capital.

And people say the coming election actually matters? Fact is, who ever gets into government, it’s Big Business who stays in power.

According to DEBill, corporations are permitted to monitor the nation’s internet connections and demand that anyone suspected of filesharing be disconnected. Yes, warning letters must be sent out first, but the fact remains that there is no actual burden of proof involved. If your IP address is spoofed, or WiFi network hacked, or computer compromised by a custom trojan*, say goodbye to your net connection. If your 14 year old kid continues to download music without your knowledge, say goodbye to your net connection. If you share your own home movies or music with others and can’t prove that it’s your material (in this case there is a burden of proof… but it’s on you; you must take the issue to court at your own cost), say goodbye to your net connection.

And this has happened in a climate where the Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms, claims that “[b]roadband is no longer considered a luxury — it has become an essential service delivering social, commercial and economic benefits”. A climate where Gordon Brown insists that “the internet is as vital as water and gas” (hyperbole certainly, but he said it, not the anti-DEBill camp).

So Britain now has a Labour-driven law designed to allow corporations to legally withdraw essential services from individuals on the basis of suspicion of wrongdoing.

But of course it wasn’t just Labour who passed the law. It pretty much had all-party support. The tories were firmly behind it. And while the Liberal Democrats claimed to oppose it, they couldn’t be bothered to show up for the vote, let alone the debate. This is supposed to be the liberal party, the one that in theory would be most opposed to this kind of corporate power grab, and yet less than a third of their MPs were present in parliament to speak or vote against it. While Nick Clegg and his liberal democrats jet around Britain talking like they’re an alternative to the two large parties, their actions tell a somewhat different story.

Creativity is The Enemy

Politicians are constantly lamenting the perceived public apathy with politics. Young people, they say, are disconnected from the political process. But here we have a bill that’s arguably of particular interest to young people and yet anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings last night would have seen a handful of disinterested and ill-informed MPs in a half-empty room acquiescing to the wishes of big business. If even the professional politicians can’t be arsed to attend a vote on important legislation, is it any wonder nobody else is interested in the bloody process?

UPDATE: It appears that the office of Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain, is under the impression that IP (as in IP address) stands for “Intellectual Property”. I just don’t know what to say about that. Am I the only one who believes that perhaps MPs should actually understand the laws they are passing? That part of their job should be to research things before they legislate on them? Rather than merely being rubber-stamps to the whims of capital? Perhaps that’s why so few MPs showed up to vote… they were too ignorant to grasp the importance of the bill and too damn lazy to do anything about that fact. (via antonvowl on twitter)

* how long before such trojans are maliciously let loose in the wild by script kiddies… carrying a silent payload of a stripped down torrent client and instructions to download the album or movie of the moment?

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Mar 2010

The collapse of British Airways

John Band has a good analysis of the current British Airways strikes over at his place. It’s well worth a read.

He opens the piece by pointing out that BA’s “business model is unsustainable”. This is true in the sense that he describes it. But it’s also true in another sense; one that’s shared by the airline industry as a whole. Some within the industry have begun to belatedly wake up to this fact. A month or so ago, Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) had this to say…

The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.Richard Branson | Quoted in The Guardian

Of course, anyone who has been aware of the peak oil problem for longer than ten minutes will find themselves shaking their head in dismay at Branson’s statement. His belief that five years represents enough time to prepare for “the oil crunch” is roundly contradicted by every serious analysis of the problem that’s been carried out to date. Most famously (and arguably most authoritatively) the Hirsch Report, carried out by the US Department of Energy, has this to say about the length of time required to prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of peak oil.

Mitigation Efforts Will Require Substantial Time

Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Even taking this into account, there’s a very real possibility that — with regards to the modern airline industry — the problems presented by peak oil simply cannot be mitigated. Even if we had two decades, which appears not to be the case, there’s just no alternative fuel for modern commercial aircraft.

Let me stress that nobody sane is suggesting that oil or jet fuel will disappear overnight. Peak oil will result in a gradual reduction in crude oil production capacity of between 3% and 6% per annum. This will, however, be more than enough to cause massive economic upheaval of the kind that will certainly overshadow our current credit crisis*. More specifically, it’ll be enough to put an end to mass air travel in anything like the form we presently enjoy.

Put bluntly, British Airways is part of a dying industry. Flying millions of people around the world in jet aircraft is unsustainable in the short to medium term and while some form of commercial air travel will surely remain available to the extremely wealthy, the industry will soon be a tiny fraction of its current size.

I like to imagine a future — say a hundred years from now — where we have successfully weathered the twin storms of resource depletion and Climate Change. Where we have achieved, almost certainly through terrible suffering and struggle, some kind of balance with our environment. Where we have adopted an ethos and a lifestyle that allow us to look towards a sustainable future. And in this future, I imagine our great grandchildren flying across oceans in magnificent solar-powered airships.

But that’s science-fiction. A speculative future that becomes less and less likely every day we persist in ignoring the need for it.

* I happen to believe that peak oil had a part to play in precipitating the current crisis, but it was mostly a result of breathtaking folly and greed within the global political and financial establishment.

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Jan 2010

The essential disconnect

It’s not part of my brief to go, I’m quite satisfied with what I hear and what I see on video with the standards of the factories. It’s the job of the buyers and the ethical trade team to visit the factories.

That’s how we do it. How we keep it all going. A clothing retailer. A supermarket. A chain of petrol stations. A million other things. That chain of insulation. Our delegation of consequence and responsibility. The essential disconnect.

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Jan 2010

2010: A year of global famine?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about something that appears to be getting little or no media coverage… namely the fact that last year saw some of the lowest crop yields in recent history. And that’s on a global scale. US yields in most staples fell dramatically, as did — from what we can tell, given the lack of transparency involved — yields in China.

South America and Europe were slightly down on expectations while Africa and Asia turned out well below predicted numbers. And Australia had a disastrous year. It’s worth noting that this covers both northern and southern hemispheres.

Now, it seems to me that these reductions in harvests across the entire globe may well be connected in some way to Climate Change (both in terms of the weather affecting crops and in terms of one of the half-arsed solutions we’ve pursued; agrofuels). But I don’t want to get into that particular argument right now, so let’s say for the sake of discussion that the low yields are entirely unconnected with global warming. The point is that whatever the cause, it has happened.

We all know that historically speaking, famine is (by and large) a product of inequitable distribution rather than actual shortages. “It’s politics rather than reality”, as a friend of mine used to say. And it’s probably true to suggest that the world would not face famine this year if every resident of the wealthy nations ate only what they genuinely needed, wasted little and allowed the surplus to be consumed by the world’s poor.

But that’s not very likely. Because the nature of food shortages, indeed the nature of food (the annual — occasionally bi-annual — production cycle coupled with the disparity between the length of time required to produce food; months; and the length of time we can go without the stuff before severe problems manifest; days) means that we tend not to become aware of the problem until it’s too late to deal with it. It’s little consolation to a hungry person in June that there may be enough wheat to make bread in September.

The indications from the articles I’ve been reading are that there will be widespread food shortages in 2010. I’ve been following this story as it developed (a long way below the mainstream media radar) throughout the last few months, and an excellent summation of the situation has recently been published here: 2010 Food Crisis for Dummies. I recommend you read it.

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