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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Profits and Progress BY GREG MOSES THE CASSANDRA CONFERENCE: Resources and the Human Predicament Edited by Paul R. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988 330 pages, $14.95 ANOTHER MYOPIC season of balloteering having come and gone, its gentle massage having soothed a few kinks of suburban discomfort, our master bedrooms retrenched against straying threats of disruption, one is tempted to just lie back and let it be. You know, let George do it. Then, it’s Monday in America, and one has to mind the morning’s alarm. Stock market’s down, dollar’s falling, and 400,000 drug tests will soon be required. They could have warned us about all this before the slumber party, but knowing us, we’d have said to hell with it anyway. Reaching for the snooze button, we think we’ll just call in sick. And we are sick as any addict. But let George reap piss by the bucketsfull; he won’t find traces of our most fatal fix. For the peculiar malaise of our century is an insular blockheadedness which sees progress wherever it looks. Especially in the profit motive. Everything must be run like a business. Profit alone is truly satisfactory. Profit generates progress, and progress abounds. How long has it been like this? A few centuries ago folks would labor 1,200 hours to produce a hectare of corn \(about twoin his essay, “Industrialized Agriculture and Natural Resources” collected from the proceedings of the 1985 Cassandra Conference at College Station demonstrates that in terms of energy those folks of the Eighteenth Century earned a return of eleven kilocalories for every kilocalorie exerted. That’s a return of eleven to one, but that’s not profit. For profit, one measures returns not on energy, but in cash. And profit has taken over production of our cornfields. Greg Moses, who worked for five years as a broadcast journalist in College Station, is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Texas. As late as 1983, says Pirnentel, we had managed to cut to ten the number of laborhours per hectare. As we know, a lot of people in the meantime were “relocated” from farm to factory. And to replace all those hands on the farm, profit substituted machinery, diesel fuel, gasoline, chemical fertilizer, lime, insecticides, herbicides, irrigation, artificial drying, and electricity each of which generated a profitable sideline of its own. As a result of all this progress, the actual energy exerted upon a hectare of corn has risen from 716 kilocalories in 1700 to 10,537 in 1983. While progress dislocates human hands, it also gets us hooked on enormous quantities of “profitable sources of energy.” Therein lies the worrisome addiction of our age. Of course the hectare itself has been made more exhaustively productive. Whereas the hectare of 1700, with its long labor and crude machinery, produced 7,500 kilocalories of cornfed energy, the hectare of 1983 produced 26,000 kilocalories. But the ratio of return, in terms of energy invested, has plummeted. As we have noted, the farm of 1700, with all its hands, produced a return of about eleven-to-one. Today’s farm, on the other hand, with all its giant machines and chemicals, does well to produce a return of three-to-one in terms of energy, and the trend suggests further decline. As Pimentel writes: These analyses emphasize the efficiency of human power in crop production compared with the highly mechanized system of 1983. It must be stressed, however, that in terms of economic inputs and outputs the highly mechanized system is the most profitable. This is because, at present, 1 labor kcal is significantly more expensive in dollars than 1 kcal of fossil fuel. Which we may translate as meaning that the efficiency of human power is contrary to the need of profit’s fix. The Cassandra Conference was organized to honor Texas A&M’s former Dean of Geosciences, the late Earl Cook. In a list of nine principles, published in 1982, the year before he died, Cook wrote, “The industrial revolution can be defined as that period of human history when basic resources, especially nonhuman energy, grew cheaper and more abundant.” Given that definition, writes Cook, the industrial revolution is ending. In the face of such historical closure, Cook urges new measures of efficiency. After all, whatever profit may measure, it does not measure wise labor. Every employee knows this. “Real wealth is by technology out of nature,” writes Cook. “The appropriate human objective is the maximization of psychic income by conversion of natural resources to useful commodities and by the use of those commodities as efficiently as possible.” Thus, he argues, “The appropriate measure of efficiency in the conversion of resources to psychic income is the human life-hour, with the calculus extended to the yet unborn.” Are the accountants of profit listening? Meanwhile, back in Iowa, worldhistorical headquarters for corn production, half the topsoil has been lost in the past one hundred years. And if we ask what kinds of remedies are proposed to end such decimation, Pimentel selects the highly instructive case of one new technology known as “no-till.” This process “entails leaving crop residues and weeds on the soil surface, thus protecting the soil from rain and wind erosion. The technique is effective and may reduce erosion rates up to 100 fold.” The latter measurement courtesy of a 1975 assessment by the United States Department of Agriculture. But wait as early as 1976 Pimentel had reported the rest of the story. In order to make “no-till” work, “two to four times more chemicals must be applied to control weeds, pest insects, plant pathogens, slugs and mice.” Funny how that “no-till,” praised 100-fold by the USDA, turns out to double our need for certain profitable substances. Pimentel states his conclusion in the style which truth assumes within a milieu of profit: Of major concern is the substitution of fossil energy for the degradation of land, water, and biota resources so that high levels of crop production can be maintained and even augmented. The effect of this has been to mask the basic problem, that of ,resource degradation, and postpone the implementation of preventive measures. By not recognizing the problem now, the nation is slowly “mining” our valuable nonrenewable resources by substituting a nonrenewable resource, fossil energy. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19