In the United States today, only about four percent of our 218 million people are farmers. These four-out-of-a-hundred — these few food producers — constitute a lifeline from which hungry millions dangle, largely unaware, over a valley filled with the sharp stones of disaster.
And — like the rest of us — the farmers themselves are hooked into the life-support systems which supply our daily water, electricity, and oil . . . umbilical cords that pump vitality into our bodies and cities. These few lifelines are the true framework of our free press, secret ballot, education, art, and the entire long list that makes up what we like to call our rights and our civilization.
It’s the same the world over. Smaller and smaller groups of men and women are responsible for the continued existence of a large percentage of the earth’s people. And, while we breed our populations ever higher, we continue to reduce — in the name of efficiency — the number of supports upon which these huge multitudes depend.
What Lies Ahead?
Never before has man edged out on such a tightrope . . . blindfolded and precariously teetering toward an increasingly uncertain future. We can’t foretell the outcome, because we have no historical precedents to guide our chart makers. It’s much easier to look back and study how humankind used to live . . . and — when we do so — we see two facts clearly: Those were days of smaller populations, and there was less dependence upon others for the necessities of life. When we look forward, we realize how difficult and unpleasant it will be to follow our present trend . . . how impossible it will be for us to live like ants yet think like individuals.
In my garden, a number of fat, green caterpillars battle me for possession of the tomato plants. These hornworms are marvels of single minded efficiency as they eat their way along the stems and leaves . . . moving slowly but surely on their many sets of feet.
Could those multiple feet be compared with the broad base of support which maintained our ancestors in the days before water mains, power plants, OPEC, and gigantic cities? History shows that we humans have moved steadily toward greater and greater dependence upon fewer and fewer “feet”.
Are we not now in a position similar to a juggler who balances on one leg while he concentrates his desperate attention on keeping more and more brightly colored discs in the air? Have we specialized and bred ourselves into a job and out of a living?
Not long ago, we built bomb shelters in our back yards. Gradually — however — we stopped all that, perhaps because we came to see just how vulnerable we really are to a heavy rain, a short drought, or a snowstorm . . . let alone an atomic attack. Even a minor traffic accident can block a freeway and quickly turn it into a mass of belching metal monsters full of helpless humans who gasp poisoned air.
No . . . we don’t need atomic death and destruction to bring us to a standstill. All it takes these days is a faulty switch to plunge New York into a lightless, riotous crisis . . . the existence of our oversized cities hangs by so slight a thread. Just as we now lose scores of lives when one airplane goes down, so will we soon lose millions of lives when — inevitably — one city does go under.
Compare this present balancing act to our society of just decades ago . . . when smaller populations were spread thinly over large areas. In those days any family or group could suffer terrible catastrophes, yet not pull all others down with them. The farmers of our recent yesterdays could successfully weather many more mistakes than are allowable for today’s technicians . . . or cities. Rural societies were like the multifooted caterpillar. Modern man is like the one-legged juggler: One step . . . one slip . .. and our whole complicated civilization can come tumbling down.
On a Short Rope
In my boyhood, our Pasadena street had a single vacant lot which received the grass clippings and pruning’s generated by our Saturday labors. Consequently, it had the richest soil in the neighborhood and grew a thick crop of mallow and wild oats each spring. Then an old man, from somewhere outside our ken, brought a goat and tethered it in the center of the rich green lot. The rope was long and gave the goat the freedom to eat almost anywhere it wanted to. Later, the man brought two more goats, and each tether had to be made shorter to prevent tangles as they moved about.
In just such a way, we’ve been forced to shorten our own lines of freedom and choice, as our numbers have increased on this green earth. . . our vacant lot.
And yet our problems are small compared to those that our grandchildren will face as we pass on to them our brilliant (but rapidly tarnishing) “solutions” in science, medicine, engineering, and agriculture: those ticking time bombs that will be their awful inheritance.