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by Larry

December, 2016

Peaks of Plenty

A few years ago, Warren Buffett pointed out that the entire supply of gold in the world, though considered precious and often having greater monetary value than all the producing agricultural land in our country plus many of our most fruitful, successful corporations combined, could if put together in one place be a little peak that would occupy less space than the inside of a football stadium and would actually contribute little to the efficient workings of our industrial or nutritional operations. There are a number of ways that the values we put on things might be ironic or questionable. All the food grown in the U.S. and its processing, distribution, and sale encompasses about 10% of our workforce. The same figure for a peak made up of all the armaments, missiles, ships, planes, tanks, guns, and other armaments we create and the people they provide employment via contracts, defense departments, the military, police forces, etc., would be at least 60%.

Despite this discrepancy, and in recent years a tendency of our population toward increasing obesity, we actually produce far more food than we can consume. Thus, there are mountains of edible calories that we waste each year or that accumulate in vast piles waiting for potential distribution at some indefinite point in the future. There is in fact so much food that we could, theoretically, provide every man, woman, and child on the planet a greater than subsistence level of nourishment, except for irrational geopolitical and economic constraints. One wonders if all that defensive hardware would still be essential if most everyone had enough to eat for their children and themselves.

In my childhood years, there was a very popular song being played a lot about this time of year, Burl Ives' version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Per Wikipedia, "The 2008 extended adaptation for children by Gil McLachlan tells the story as a child's dream, the last stanza being:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you're going on a holiday
Your birthday comes around once a week and itís Christmas every day
You never have to clean your room or put your toys away
There's a little white horse you can ride of course
You can jump so high you can touch the sky
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

Well, by these 2016 holidays, we have in some ways attained that level of abundance. Consider that the average person consumes 0.31 pounds of sugar daily, for it is even in our so-called healthy foods. With over 300 million of us in the U.S., that is a small mountain of more than 47 tons of sugar consumed daily. If other folks around the world eat equivalently, the daily sugar intake peaks at close to 1000 tons, an annual mountain of sugar weighing over 700 million pounds. In reality, we probably need about 5% of that amount of sugar consumption, perhaps less.

Our grains production is huge as well. Unlike in past years, though, the excess is not routinely stored. Storage silos are full, so the surfeit of grain is often just dumped into piles on the ground. Despite great malnourishment in some areas, there is a glut of wheat and other grains production around the world. One reason for the use of corn to make ethanol is that we cultivate far more of this kind of grass seed than we can consume, even with cornstarch, corn syrup, and corn-based alcoholic beverages being ubiquitous.

Tea Time Picnic on the Moon with Gromit and Wallace, from "A Grand Day Out" (

A remarkable mountain exists made of cheese. We no longer have to go to the Moon for the commodity. Commercial plus government stockpiles of extra cheese if combined would now form a mass weighing nearly 100 million pounds. Another nearly 30 million pounds of excess butter are in cold storage.

Though little Myanmar turns out to be the most giving nation in the world, at least toward the end of each year a beautiful tradition in this country is to be especially generous toward those less well off than ourselves. On Monday, 12/19, at the school where I volunteer I saw a large room full almost to the ceiling with gifts of toys, blankets, clothes, diapers, storable foodstuffs, kitchenware, etc. These were donated items that are given out each December to the many needy kids and their parents or grandparents in that part of town. Here the library cards show there are, in my school, no kids called Larry or Bill among the hundreds of students, but quite a number with the names Jesus and Mary.

In NYC, there is a multi-year custom of giving too. Among many other active charities, there is the Winter Wishes program in which scores of thousands of kids get Santa gift answers to their request letters.

Wonderful as are our many examples of surplus and of charitable largesse, all such peaks of providential plenty are puny, compared to the mountains of plastic we throw out, most of which eventually are washed out and make their ways out to huge gyres in the ocean, some as big as TX, where broken down bits of plastic now exceed by six to one the ocean plankton. We are creating seas that are far more plastic than alive with organic matter. The consequences of extra carbon and plastic in the world's immense marine waterways are uncertain, but the changes they are creating are occurring far more quickly than evolution normally accommodates.

Were one to consider the vast numbers of humans and the global accumulations of food and waste, on the one hand, and of scarcity and strife on the other, it is hard not to be concerned that our big brains are not serving us well. Surely an equivalent number of microbes in a Petri dish full of agar and other plentiful resources would not do worse.

Still, in this season of sharing, their is hope that this species may overcome the worst impulses of its nature and be both better stewards of our plenty and good providers for all our less fortunate, until at length peace and joy might truly reign upon this pearly world.

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