Susan Albert's Reviews > Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilization

Empires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser
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's review
Aug 02, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: climate-change, economics, energy-depletion, food-agriculture, nature-environment
Read in August, 2010

The most comprehensive book to date on the history of food systems and their important (and usually neglected) role in the collapse of civilizations. "The lesson from history," the authors write, "is that big civilizations are built on ground no firmer than the mud under their rice paddies. They, and we, are slaves to food."

Food empires? The authors are talking about the networks of a civilization's farms, plantations, orchards; its imports from abroad; its processing plants; and its distribution channels. The larger and more complex the civilization, the more complex the food networks must be--to the point where they deplete existing resources of soil and water, then falter, then fail. Interacting with climate variables and local geological factors (volcanoes, earthquakes), food empires are far more fragile than they appear to the people who live within them, who often take their available food for granted. When these systems fail, the civilization begins to fall apart, usually with a whimper rather than with a bang.

And our own industrial food empire? Despite our "advances" in technology, our food supplies are as fragile as those of the Romans, Mayans, or medieval Europe. But now, the problems are global, and every nation under the sun is facing soil depletion, water issues (including fertilizer pollution), and a dangerous dependence on limited fossil fuels to grow, process, and transport food. The result? "Modern agribusiness has the potential to translate a dry month in Brazil into red ink on a ledger in China into an empty shopping cart in New Jersey. There are no buffers left."

And no easy answers. Local food, slow food, bioregional systems that "nest" within a global trading network. But "easier posited than done," as the authors admit. What's really needed: a public insistence that their politicians begin to acknowledge and address these crucial issues. Again, easier posited than done.

What I like about this book: its breadth, inclusiveness, new-paradigm thinking, engaging writing. I also admire the authors for not trying to pull last-chapter rabbits out of the hat when it comes to solutions. Their message: don't expect answers to be handed to you on a plate.

What I dislike about the book: its hop-skip-jump presentation, which reminded me of the TV series "Connections." But even this choppy organization has its advantages: readers must actively participate in the authors' arguments in order to follow them. Lazy or uninvolved readers won't want to bother--but then, they're probably not the authors' intended audience.

Bottom line: an extraordinarily important book that offers important insights into a global challenge facing not just one country but all civilizations. I hope, by the time you finish it, you'll have decided that your lawn might be put to better uses than growing grass.
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