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Economics in the Age of Abundance

BERKELEY – Until very recently, one of the biggest challenges facing mankind was making sure there was enough to eat. From the dawn of agriculture until well into the Industrial Age, the common human condition was what nutritionists and public-health experts would describe as severe and damaging nutritional biomedical stress.

Some 250 years ago, Georgian England was the richest society that had ever existed, and yet food shortages still afflicted large segments of the population. Adolescents sent to sea by the Marine Society to be officer’s servants were half a foot (15 centimeters) shorter than the sons of the gentry. A century of economic growth later, the working class in the United States was still spending 40 cents of every extra dollar earned on more calories.

Today, food scarcity is no longer a problem, at least in high-income countries. In the US, roughly 1% of the labor force is able to grow enough food to supply the entire population with sufficient calories and essential nutrients, which are transported and distributed by another 1% of the labor force. That does not account for the entire food industry, of course. But most of what is being done by the remaining 14% of the labor force dedicated to delivering food to our mouths involves making what we eat tastier or more convenient – jobs that are more about entertainment or art than about necessity.

The challenges we face are now those of abundance. Indeed, when it comes to workers dedicated to our diets, we can add some of the 4% of the labor force who, working as nurses, pharmacists, and educators, help us solve problems resulting from having consumed too many calories or the wrong kinds of nutrients.