Every three or four years, the Globe and Mail writes a truly depressing piece on the death of the family farm. The latest one came out in December and it listed some alarming facts: While the value of land, buildings and equipment has skyrocketed, the price of wheat is exactly where it was in 1980. The average Canadian spends only 11 % of income on food and the number of farm operators has dropped to less than 1 % of the population.
The article ended with the gloomy prediction that with driverless everything coming soon, “We will no longer have any farmers at all — only ‘food production.’”
This same newspaper runs an article about the death of Canadian theatre about as often as it mourns the passing of the family farm. Theatres are closing, actors have no work, we have no standing on the international scene. You would think that after a half century of supervising this death watch on the family farm, the theatre, book publishing, the nuclear family, small business, the climate and the economy, all of these subjects might at least have the decency to expire. But they just won’t.
Last month, my kids gathered at the dinner table using FaceTime to celebrate my daughter’s 30th birthday and for the first time, I heard them agree they weren’t interested in trying to buy a house because they all expect the planet to shake off the human species like a bad cold over the next forty years. I was caught flat-footed by this quiet acceptance of the coming apocalypse. But my wife pointed out that the two of us have not had to sit through as many classes on disappearing species, melting ice caps, dwindling forests, rising carbon levels and general climate gloom as they have. You really can’t blame them for taking the dark view.
I remember being pretty nervous about the state of the world as a young man. I grew up with the atom bomb, acid rain and stagflation. My parents were also gloomy about the future of mankind. They grew up during a Great Depression and a world war. My grandfather graduated from medical school the year of the Spanish Flu epidemic. He ruined every dinner party for the next 60 years with his lectures on the inevitable pandemic to come and the collapse of world food supplies.
As a rule, humans tend to think their own time is the worst the world has ever seen. Perhaps the record for bleak thinking was reached during the 1300s when Europe moved into the Little Ice Age. Cooler temperatures were a shock to people who had become accustomed to the balmy conditions of the Medieval Warming Period. Several centuries of ideal weather had lulled the population into a state of relative calm. Vast new acreages of marginal land submitted to the plough, the food supply tripled and so did the population. When temperatures suddenly dropped and crops began to fail, the food supply shrank while the number of mouths to feed remained the same. The famine of 1315 to 1322 killed six million people and a lot of the survivors decided that the world must be coming to an end. Doomsday images appeared on the walls of every church in the land. Then the Black Death struck. People were so ground-down physically and mentally by that point, they barely had the energy to fight back against a plague. By 1360, Europe had lost a third of its population. An artist named Durer would soon draw a picture of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
But the world did not end. Astonishingly, agricultural output recovered completely within 10 years and Europe began an economic rocket ride that, in spite of several notable interruptions, continues to this day.
As a writer, I try to help people feel better about the world and I do it by reminding them of the neighbourhood they live in and the voices of people who have passed through hard times and learned to watch for a break in the clouds. There is an old saying among sailors that the weather is a great bluffer . . . and human society is a lot like that. The world has always seemed about to be engulfed by the storm . . . until suddenly it isn’t.
At the on-line birthday party, I reminded my children that it is never a good idea to put all your money on one square of the roulette wheel. You only get one apocalypse by definition and humans have been terrible predictors of anything, let alone the end of the world. It’s better to step back and take the long view because you always come up against one indisputable fact.
Things really could be a whole lot worse.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.