Monday, April 28, 2008

The Ecological & Political Economy of Hunger

About a week ago both Frank Pasquale and Deven Desai had blog posts at Concurring Opinions on the global "food crisis." Yesterday, Susan Schneider posted on this topic as well at our network member blog, Agricultural Law. I agree with Frank's focus on inequality as a normative dimension that should be central to any causal account of the impact of the rise in food prices. In this case, the descriptive and normative are inextricably intertwined, facts and values are bound up with each other, as in the natural and social sciences generally (although more so in the latter). I'm not denying the value of objectivity and descriptive desiderata for the social sciences, only pointing out that our (necessary) distinctions here cannot be hard and fast. I'll go into this on another occasion. For now, in addition to endorsing Frank's take on matters, Deven has rightly pointed out that in the main this problem is not "new," only conspicuous or exacerbated by an inauspicuous conjoint configuration of several causal variables with one or two precipitating factors. But it's the ecological, socio-economic and political environment that provides the specific structural elements that are responsible in the first place for the principal variables at play, that allows them to be causal variables. It's our lack of attention to these structural elements that finds us surprised by recent events, and it's our intimate familiarity with the conditions and privileges of affluence, with its corresponding habits of conspicuous consumption, that permits or prompts many of us to blithely forget, ignore or deny the socio-economic conditions experienced by the poor and about-to-be poor, or those afflicted with the psychological insecurity and fears that attend living just beyond poverty.

Susan cites the Washington Post's series that is attempting to explore the nature of the current crisis in-depth, or at least more systematically than the sound bites we've grown wearily accustomed to. I commented on her post as follows:

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 (or here).

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.

In addition to the above, let me add a few titles relevant to treating the salient ethical questions and moral topics associated with the structural roots of the current food crisis:

-Chatterjee, Deen K., ed. The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
-Cullity, Garrett. The Moral Demands of Affluence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
-Goodin, Robert E. Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
-Mayfield, Jamie. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
-Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2006.
-Sen, Amartya. On Ethics and Economics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1987.
-Unger, Peter. Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Update: Three more posts treat our topic, the first and second, are by Rebecca Bratspies, a veteran of both the Agricultural Law and Biolaw blogs, and now a member of IntLawGrrls, where she has a helpful piece on the "'predictable' food catastrophe", while at Biolaw she links to Sen's classic study of famines and entitlement relations. As Sen wrote, "Viewed from the entitlement angle, there is nothing extraordinary in the market mechanism taking food away from famine-stricken areas to elsewhere. Market demands are not reflections of biological needs or psychological desires, but choices based on exchange entitlement relations. If one doesn't have much to exchange, one can't demand very much, and may thus lose in competition with others whose needs may be a good deal less acute, but whose entitlements are stronger. In fact, in a slump famine such a tendency will be quite common, unless other regions have a more severe depression. Thus, food being exported from famine stricken areas [e.g., the Irish famine of the 1840s and Bangladesh in 1974, as well as several Indian famines] may be a 'natural' characteristic of the market which respects entitlement rather than needs" (pp. 161-162). Our third post, "Global Food Crisis," comes courtesy of Ezra Rosser of the Poverty Law Prof Blog. Ezra has some great links, including several to World Bank sites.

[T]the focus on entitlement has the effect of emphasizing legal rights. Other relevant factors, for example market forces can be seen as operating through a system of legal relations (ownership rights, contractual obligations, legal exhanges, etc.). The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.
---Amartya Sen

Update No. 2: See the article by Fred Magdoff in The Monthly Review, May 2008 (Vol. 60, No. 1): "The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions." Finally, this piece by Walden Bello from the June 2, 2008 issue of The Nation, "Manufacturing a Food Crisis," makes plain the links between institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the current food crisis. Perhaps I should note here that I think these institutions are capable of reform and thus can be harnessed toward the ends of global distributive justice. For one such argument, please see Robert Hockett, "Three (Potential) Pillars of Transnational Economic Justice: The Bretton Woods Institutions as Guarantors of Global Equal Treatment and Market Completion," in Christian Barry and Thomas W. Pogge, eds., Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005): 90-123.


Blogger Frank said...

This post brilliantly ties together the most important ideas and issues here...I'll be sure to comment on it Co-Op soon. And great picture! One of the few people who matches the title of a topical book on the crisis, "Stuffed and Starved"...and who's nicely satirized in Pink's video "Stupid Girls".

4/28/2008 11:57 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Thank you Frank. I was a bit worried that the discussion was too general and abstract, as I did not identify the specific catalytic economic policies and practices that caused the current crisis. Still, some cannot resist invoking Malthusian perspectives, as Richard Posner does in proclaiming that he does not believe the causes of the food crisis are "a refutation of Malthus, whose insights have relevance to the modern world." Indeed, he's anxious to demonstrate that relevance, going so far as to state that "We may be seeing the beginnings of an attenuated Malthusian response in Egypt, where there have been riots recently over food prices."

It is rather interesting to recall that Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society... was intended to refute the "perfectibilist" theories of Godwin and Condorcet, hence the conclusion of his argument was "AGAINST the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness and comparative leisure, and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families" (emphasis added). Malthus' desire to establish this conclusion, his belief in its assumptions about human nature and the human condition, appear clearly contrary to the assumptions of the Founding Fathers, which are far closer to Godwin and Condorcet in this regard, as stated in the Preamble to our Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As Gary Becker noted at the Becker-Posner Blog, "Malthusians have turned out to be wrong in the past when they extrapolated from events like food price inflation to prophesies about world catastrophe-witness the embarrassingly wrong predictions in Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb about the impending mass world starvation in the 1970's due to what he considered vastly excessive world population growth. They are also wrong about this current food price rise because it has nothing to do with population growth, and is only a little related to the rapid expansion in world incomes in recent years."

Incidentally, there's a nice analysis of Malthus' argument in a a book that "aims to help college students to think critically about the kind of sustained, theoretical arguments which the commonly encounter in the course of their studies:" Alec Fisher's The Logic of Real Arguments (1988): 29-47.

4/29/2008 9:05 AM  

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