Monday, April 9, 2012

The Vanishing Farmer

A fascinating report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, issued about a year ago, shows data on agricultural (and other sectoral) employment for a 40 year period by leading industrial countries (link). I came across the report in trying to get at reasonably current and accurate estimates of employment in Agriculture.  Here is a graphic that provides a look at this sector:


What we see here is the gradual disappearance of the farmer across a selection of countries from the industrialized world. I’ve charted data from 1973 (rather than 1970), because values were missing for some of the countries in the first year of this series. Food is basic to humanity, yet in the technologically advanced societies represented in this sample, only 2.6 percent of total employment was required for its growth for the group in 2010, a significant decline from 1973 when the average was 8.7 percent.

In 2010 the United States employed 2.2 million people in farming, down from 3.6 million in 1973. It surprised me to discover that Japan employed more people in farming in 2010 (2.4 million) than we did; it also employed more in that sector in 1973 (6.8 million).  The lowest percentages belong to the United Kingdom—the first of the industrialized countries.

Now what we’re really seeing here is actually the massive deployment of fuels, chemicals, machinery, and automation to the basic industry of humanity. I put fuels first because all else depends on them. Everything today is stamped by the great mark of the Age of Fossil Fuels. And as these disappear  by this century’s end, a reversal of these trends is certain.

Yes. The same trends are visible also in the other categories covered by this report. Employment as a percent of total has also declined in Industry and Manufacturing as a part of that. All the gains in these countries have been in Services. And unemployment has increased in each.

The paradox is that “the end” is still too far away, hence the loud voices are shouting Growth, Growth, Growth. No one minds the barely heard voices crying in the wilderness: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. The Great Transition is too far away. Our timid leaders find it far easier to hold up tin gods for us worship—human ingenuity that will (deus ex machina, literally) save us before it is too late.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe because I saw the damage done to my grandparents, my mother, and her aunts from working as sharecroppers in Texas I am less enamored of farm life.

    It is essential to our society to farm, but the less people engaged in the drudgery of farm work, the more are freed for more creative pursuits...

    such as writing Blogs or responding to them.

    Or, perhaps, studying the physics needed to make the next great leap in energy technology that makes fossil fuels as obsolete as the charcoal that came before it, and the wood before that.

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