Another week has passed and we have another US Drought Monitor update. There has been some significant rain in some drought-stricken areas, including southern Wisconsin and southern Minnesota but it has not shown up in the Drought Monitor. This is because the tabulation of drought conditions is based upon several factors, not just what happened in the past week, but how much precipitation occurred in the past month, in the past three months, how much moisture is in the soil, water levels in streams and rivers, etc… With several rounds of rain occurring in southern Wisconsin in the past week and potentially again next week, I think we will see the extreme drought subside in southern Wisconsin. It should start to show up in next week’s report.
Of course, there has been a lot of talk about the drought’s impact on food supply and food prices especially considering some drought developing in a few other places in the world. It is at these times that I give thanks for technological progress in agriculture and free trade. Famine was much more likely in the past because people did not have as good of access to food from around the world. The yield of food per acre was also much less. That is why we will probably not see conditions as bad as the 1930s (in the U.S.) repeat themselves today. The prices for food will rise, but severe and persistent shortages (over the course of several years) will probably not occur. As an asied, I wonder if the price of corn will rise high enough for people (well, mostly politicians) to stop supporting grain ethanol production in the U.S. If people start going hungry, I’ll bet grain ethanol production will shut down pretty quick. Ethanol air pollution would disappear pretty quick as well.
Back to the drought and food prices, the trends that are not working in our favor are population growth and urban sprawl. Back in the 1930s, the population of the U.S. was between 120 and 130 million. Now the population is a bit over 300 million. For the world, the number of mouths to feed has risen from a little over 2 billion in the 1930s to about 7 billion today. Seeing this staggering increase in the population makes me even more amazed at the progress in food production that has kept up with population growth (thank you Norman Borlaug). Of course, this means we probably have little tolerance for widespread drought.
Another potential problem is that so much arable land has been taken over by urban sprawl. Total farm acres have declined significantly in the last few years. In the U.S. I am constantly appalled by all of the prime farmland that is being paved over for sub-divisions, freeways, parking lots, and box stores. At least some areas are reverting back to productive use – such as in Detroit. This discussion dovetails nicely with the blog entry from yesterday and a great comment left by Anthony. His observation of younger people in the Twin Cities is that they cannot see the reasons to live out in a far flung suburb anymore.
They (younger people) seem to be ok with mass transit as well. Which is a good thing! Cars are an expensive hassle and liability. If you live close to work you don’t need a car. Nowadays there are more ride sharing and car sharing companies springing up every day (I have profiled RelayRides and ZipCar before). Now carpooling.com is coming to the U.S.
If you don’t have a family why live in a big house in the suburbs? It is expensive and you will end up spending a significant percentage of your life paying the bank, commuting, and stuck in traffic. I think the changing attitudes of younger generations flows along with the change in economics. In the industrial age, no one wanted to live next to a power plant or manufacturing plant. People who grew up mostly on farms, but then ended up working in the city, had a desire to get back into the country (in a sense) and away from work/pollution, hence the suburban sprawl. Now that we are in the information age, it seems younger people want to be close to information. They grew up in the suburbs and exurbs but now want to be in the “action” which is more toward the urban center. What cultural trends have you noticed? Anything that points toward a more sustainable future?
Have a nice Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
This post was written by jloew on July 26, 2012