Fear and Rice

A year ago, panic buying of toilet paper had begun. Grocery store shelves had been stripped of dried beans and rice. When a herd mentality, driven by fear of the unknown, begins to evolve, intelligence tends to slip beneath the surface, replaced in full view by emotion. But panic buying and hording and other such reactions to the emerging pandemic were not stupid. They were rational responses to a chaotic environment. We did not know quite what to expect, but in the event the supply chains for food and sanitation were interrupted, we wanted to be prepared.

Repeated circumstances in which at least a subset of the food supply chain has been interrupted have not taught us well. When strawberries are in short supply, we wish we had planted a bed several weeks earlier. When zucchini and yellow squash are not available, we wish we had put in a large vegetable garden at the beginning of the season. But we have no strawberry beds did we install a large vegetable garden. We did not plan for sustainable sources of protein, either, when thoughts of survival disturbed our unreasonable expectations of an unending food supply.

What might have happened if we had finally heeded the call of logic? What if we’d put out strawberries, planted a huge vegetable garden, and raised a few chickens for eggs and protein? If we had planted and raised and tended on a massive scale, many sectors of the agribusiness market, especially small operators, might have folded. Unintended consequences borne of what I might call responsible independence. The economy is an extraordinarily resilient social structure, but that pliancy is available at the cost of rippling fragility. Consider what might happen to the automotive industry if, suddenly, the demand for cars evaporated. Or to the oil industry if inexpensive, competitively productive alternatives to gasolines and plastics were to come onto the scene.

In a more ideal world, collaboration would reveal “unintended consequences” before decisions are made and actions taken. But in a competitive world, the victor takes the spoils, regardless of unplanned and unimagined consequences. Collaboration, though, in which the collective good is the desired outcome, would tend to examine (to the extent possible) potential outcomes at least several effects deep.


Today’s sky is drab, wet, and unappealing. It is not a day to go walking, but I suspect I will, anyway. My creativity is languishing at the bottom of a sterile barrel. Bah!


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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