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338  A Final Look Each American farmer feeds an incredible 155 other humans across the globe. Back in 1940, they fed but 19 others, and in colonial America it was a mere 4 persons. The biggest jump was from 72 persons in 1970 to 112 persons in 1980. The second-biggest jump was from 27 persons in 1950 to 61 in 1960.¹ These decades—from 1950 to 1980—coincide with the golden age of irrigation waters from the Ogallala pouring onto the Great Plains. Groundwater pumping contributed mightily to this jump of seventy-four more persons fed by the American farmer in three decades. This modern wonder was accomplished by less than 2 percent of the population, a much smaller percentage than in any other nation in the world. No wonder that many see American agriculture as one of civilization’s great accomplishments, matched in the United States only by participatory democracy, mass production, entrepreneurship, and the national parks. One can argue that American agriculture is the primary support for the nation’s overall accomplishments . In 2012, 2,109,363 farms averaging 434 acres each fed those other humans across the globe. Yet American farmers are steadily growing older. Their average age in 2012 was 58.3 years. In 2012 the number of beginning farmers was down 20 percent to nearly 172,000, who had been operating for less than five years.² On these grounds, we can argue for the continuing expansion of agriculture to serve rapidly expanding global food needs with a claimed “social good” of minimizing human misery by establishing high foodsurplus levels. This strategy seeks to prove the Malthusian formula wrong.³ Americans take pride in their ability to offer their fellow citizens and the world large surpluses that act as buffers against flood, drought, warfare, and other catastrophes that have historically brought widespread poverty and famine. Yet conservation and protection of a final look 339 the resource base, including land and water, have been downplayed and excluded from cost-efficiency calculations. Emphasis is placed on neoclassical concepts of production and efficiency and the laws of supply and demand, which it is believed will serve the general good. This is the centerpiece of the farm bills since 1966. It is believed that scienti fic discoveries and technological fixes will consistently compensate for current declines in soil and water and future environmental problems . This food security approach is used to justify the fastest possible expansion of cropland through intensive use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, mechanized equipment, and energy consumption. Farming is seen as another form of modern industrialization. The Tragedy of the Ogallala Commons Biologist Garrett Hardin first used the phrase “tragedy of the commons ” in 1968.⁴ He and others ever since have used this concept to explain depleted public resources like the Ogallala and to develop countervailing strategies to sustain such resources. The traditional English word commons describes a grazing pasture not held in private hands but instead open to unrestricted and unregulated use. In 1833 the political economist William Forster Lloyd used the example of herders who let their cows graze on the commons. The individual herders acted independently . One or two herders added a cow or two to graze the “free grass” on the land, regardless whether the commons would soon be overgrazed . Without consulting the other herders, they acted according to their own self-interest. Soon, as more cattle were added, the commons reached its “carrying capacity,” with little or no pasture remaining. The herders had no sense of any common good for all users. Their collective action depleted the resource. Each herdsman tried to get his share out of the commons before competitors did. He grazed as many animals as possible for the greatest short-term personal gain. Hardin concluded, “An unmanaged commons in a world of limited material wealth and unlimited desires inevitably ends in ruin.”⁵ The concept of the unrestricted commons, and its descent into the tragedy of the barren commons, offers a number of insights into the Ogallala aquifer and its depletion. Is the Ogallala aquifer a commons? This groundwater aquifer is defined as a free resource. No direct cost is attached to it. In Kansas, 340 a final look Oklahoma, and Texas it belonged to each state and was made available without restrictions except for “beneficial use.” Plains irrigators, like the herdsmen, were proudly independent and claimed free consumption of groundwater. From about 1950 to 1980, they assumed that the groundwater was limitless...


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