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Balancing food, weather, and population

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Aijaz Rahi/AP

(Read caption) Students in traditional garb ate breakfast before performing at a celebration of India’s independence in Bangalore, India, last month.

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Cyclical or secular? That’s the question economists, historians, climatologists, farmers, consumers – just about anyone with an interest in the future, which is more or less everyone – are trying to answer. 

During bad times, the idea of cyclicality is encouraging. We can ride out hardship because prosperity is just around the corner – although we also can’t relax when things are looking up because the economy is sure to head south again. 

A secular change, on the other hand, means we’ve entered a new era, which is swell if that era is prosperous and plentiful – the two-decade “great moderation” that started in 1985, for instance. But secular change can also mean we get locked into sluggishness and scarcity as far as the eye can see. That’s the worry that has accompanied the Great Recession that began in 2007 and persists in many sectors of the world economy.

The drought that has gripped the agricultural heartland of the United States, Russia, Australia, India, and other food-producing regions of the world in 2012 (see this current Monitor cover story) has a cyclical/secular dimension. If the climate has changed, drought could be the new normal, with big implications for consumers, especially in poor countries. But parched conditions could also just be a bad patch of weather similar to the great droughts of the 1930s, early 1950s, and late 1980s. Tree-ring data indicate droughts even more severe than those in the 1930s occurred in pre-Columbian North America.

If that seems cyclical, there’s still a secular dimension. The 21st-century combination of global population and global trade is unprecedented. Never before have 7 billion people lived on this planet (with 2 billion more on the way by 2050). Never before have far-flung markets been so interconnected. 

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