Modern Transportation and Food: How Carbon-based Fuel Kept the ‘Third Horseman’ in Check
“Anti-petroleum activists would have us give up on long-distance trade and the food security inherent to the reliance on multiple suppliers based in a wide variety of geographical locations. Far from keeping the third horseman at bay, their carbon dioxide obsession will bring him back with a vengeance.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (1940) is generally regarded as the most historically accurate book of her Little House on the Prairie series. It tells the story of how her family and the other inhabitants of DeSmet, South Dakota—but then the Dakota Territory—narrowly avoided starvation during the severe winter of 1880-81. That year, after a lean harvest, a series of blizzards dumped more than 11 feet of snow and immobilized trains on their tracks, in the process cutting off the settlers from the rest of the United States.
As their meager supplies ran out, a rumor spread that a sizeable amount of wheat had been raised and was available within 20 miles of their snow covered houses. Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, along with a friend, soon risked their lives and eventually succeeded in bringing back enough food to sustain the townspeople through the rest of the winter. With the spring thaw the railroad service was reestablished, abundant food was delivered and the Ingalls family enjoyed a long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.
To 21st century readers, “The Long Winter” is as a valuable reminder of how common and lethal crop failures and geographical isolation once were before the advent of modern farming and transportation technologies. Indeed, two additional footnotes to this true story are that Almanzo Wilder’s parents had to leave the town of Malone in Upstate New York in 1875 due to crop failures. And secondly, soon after the winter of 1880-81, three years of drought and prairie fires forced most of DeSmet’s settlers to relocate their farms and homesteads.
Fortunately for the Ingalls and their neighbors, they had one huge asset over past communities that had struggled with significant food shortages: Their connection, even if temporarily unavailable, to the rest of the world through the railroad. While it is hard today to imagine how much of a game-changer the railroad once was, suffice it to say that before its development, moving heavy goods over 30 miles of land was as expensive as shipping them across the North Atlantic on a sailboat.
The railroad made it possible for landlocked farmers to specialize in and export what they were good at and to rely on others for their remaining needs, in the process delivering more abundant food at a cheaper price It also encouraged them to produce more than what they would need for their own consumption as they could reasonably expect to sell their surplus to distant markets rather than seeing them go to waste.
Without the capacity to sell to distant consumers, it is doubtful that the farmers within reach of Almonzo Wilder would have generated a significant grain surplus in the first place. And once the snow melted, the railroad immediately brought in large quantities of food from other regions. Without this connection to the rest of the world, the Ingalls and their neighbors would have had to struggle with the “lean season,” the period of greatest scarcity before the first availability of new crops.
That cycle was typical of agricultural communities that produced most of their own food. For instance, in England the late spring, and especially the month of May, was once referred to as the “starving time” or the “hungry gap” while in Africa’s tropical Sahel region the period of greatest hardship lasted from May to August.
Unfortunately, a seemingly endless supply of local food activists are now determined to encourage most people to limit the sourcing of their food supply to a small radius, such as 100 miles, from their homes. Failure to give up on the petroleum products that make our modern agribusiness and transportation infrastructure possible, they warn, will result in nothing less than a climate apocalypse.
Yet, these “locavores” are somehow oblivious to the fact that the “Apocalypse of John,” written nearly 2000 years ago, had as one of its main protagonists a “third horseman” who carried a pair of scales to weigh bread during famines and who came in riding announcing grain prices that were about 10 times more than what people normally paid.
Long before humanity could be accused of altering our planet’s climate through the burning of carbon fuels, it turns out, unseasonable heat or cold, excessive or insufficient rainfall, floods, insect pests, rodents, pathogens, soil degradation, and epidemics that made farmers or their beasts of burden unfit for work regularly brought the third horseman (famine) to town.
Widespread hunger and famines only became a memory with the advent of long distance trade, first in trading powerhouses such as the Netherlands and Great Britain in the age of sail and later in other parts of the world with the advent of the steamship and the railroad. Not surprisingly, the key to a reliable food supply turned out to be the ability to move economically the surplus of regions with good harvests to those that had experienced mediocre ones. Of course, a region that experienced a bumper crop one year might have a mediocre one the next.
As the economic and science writer Jane Haldimand Marcet observed in the early nineteenth century:
We occasionally import corn from different parts of America, from the shores of the Baltic, and those of the Mediterranean seas. Now, it is very improbable either that we should be in a state of warfare with those various countries at the same period of time, or that they should all be afflicted with a dearth of produce in the same season.
There is much greater chance of a scarcity prevailing in any single country than in every part of the world at once. Indeed, facts have fully demonstrated, that when the weather is unfavorable to the crops of one country, it is almost invariably found to be favorable to those of another. I believe no single instance can be produced of a simultaneous failure of the crops throughout the whole commercial world.
Unfortunately, most of us have an inherent propensity to root for the home team and to believe that local producers will be more dependable in times of political crisis and economic collapse than foreigners who only cater to the highest bidders. Yet, as humanity’s history makes painfully clear, all local farmers will struggle through bad years, no matter how good, dedicated or subsidized they are.
Anti-petroleum activists would have us give up on long-distance trade and the food security inherent to the reliance on multiple suppliers based in a wide variety of geographical locations. Far from keeping the third horseman at bay, their carbon dioxide obsession will bring him back with a vengeance.
An earlier and slightly different version of this column was originally published in The Drill (January 1, 2014).
 Jane Haldimand Marcet, Conversations on Political Economy; in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained, 6th edition revised and enlarged (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827). Chapter: CONVERSATION XX.: Continuation of FOREIGN TRADE.