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300 Million Hungry Mouths To Feed

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 18, 2006

Sometime Tuesday, it is believed that the 300-millionth American was born — or perhaps, immigrated, legally or illegally. The almost complete silence on that matter illustrates how America’s traditional sense of optimism about the future has been replaced by uncertainty.

In 1967, the population broke 200 million, and it was a major national event. President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech on the theme of American “greatness” and the audience interrupted it to burst into applause at the precise moment that a giant “census clock” that had been erected in the U.S. Department of Commerce hit the milestone. Life magazine sent teams of photographers across the country to capture the birth of the 200-millionth American — a boy in Atlanta was the chosen one.

This year there was…nothing.

In 1967, it was clear that a growing population was a hallmark of growing prosperity and growing power. Fertility and robustness went hand in hand. Population growth created a youthful, progressive society that would do great things. It had just been in 1964 that the New York World’s Fair had opened, and it seemed perfectly appropriate when Walt Disney designed for General Electric the GE Carousel of Progress with its famous theme song, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”:

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of ev’ryday
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away

Man has a dream and that’s the start
He follows his dream with mind and heart
And when it becomes a reality
It’s a dream come true for you and me

So there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of ev’ryday
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Just a dream away

I was a little boy when my parents took me to that World’s Fair, and I still remember the infectious optimism of that song and the way the attraction portrayed American history as a story of technological progress bound to continue.

Even then, there were worriers about over-population but, for the most part, Americans, like Walt Disney, were optimists and felt that although people might consume resources, they had brains and hands as well as mouths and that this great country could overcome any obstacle.

There are many reasons for the silence this year. Immigration is a hot button issue, and we’ve dealt with it here, here and here.

After a burst of immigration at the turn of the century, the U.S. had placed tight limits on immigration in the early 1920’s. So by the early 1960s, there had been a 40-year process of consolidation. Today we are in the throes of dealing with a wave that will change America as surely as the immigrant wave at the turn of the century changed America. So population growth is a sore point.

But, beyond that, America in the 1960’s was still a society basking in its victory in World War II. With traditional economic rivals decimated, America bestrode the world stage in a way no power ever quite had.

We had our problems, of course: The Cold War was on, the Korean War had terminated in a stalemate, Vietnam had become an issue, race relations and civil rights were enormous domestic challenges.

Yet there was a national self-confidence that we would collectively deal with these problems. That our capabilities were endless. We were the nation that would and could “pay any price, bear any burden”, and before the decade was out we would have a man walk on the moon — as if to say to ourselves and the world, nothing is if impossible.

Today we are richer, more powerful, more technologically advanced than in 1967, but we are more afraid as well. The problems we face, such as terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, do not seem amenable to being fixed regardless of our technology.

When I was a baby, my mother thought nothing of leaving me in a carriage outside as she ran into a store. And when she was a girl, our country was poorer still, but her family thought nothing of putting her alone on a Subway from Brooklyn to be met in Manhattan by her grandfather.

Today both actions would be considered abandonment and you could get arrested. You wouldn’t want to do it anyway because maybe some crazy person will come kidnap your child.

It is the unsettling nature of reality today that leads to a boom in “comfort food” so people can remember a time when they felt safe. Even much of the artisanal food movement, Slow Food and early organic movement was a retreat into the comfort of doing basic things, even if hard. It was a recoiling against the coldness and technological imperatives of the modern day.

It is said we have another half century or so before we hit the 400-million mark, but that assumes North Korea or Iran or some terrorist doesn’t decide to set off a bomb and kill a lot of people. Or the Avian flu doesn’t turn into the new black death. It is easy to be pessimistic.

The basic problem is that Walt Disney saw the future in terms of technological achievement. But technology is neutral; it can be put in the hands of good or evil. As we have lost consensus over ideas, such as “the Melting Pot”, we have lost certainty in our ability to mold good Americans. In 1967 what would one day be my middle school still offered “Civics and Citizenship”. By 1974 it had turned into Social Studies. There is a significant difference between the purposes of these courses.

There are 300 million hungry mouths to feed now and that is our job. With changing ethnicities, religious profiles, tastes and preferences, the food we sell will change. But the food industry does not exist separate and apart from the country, and we cannot prosper as an industry if we do not prosper as a nation. That is why the immigration debate has to be about more than who will pick the crops.

Our decision-making process in this democracy is often convoluted and, in studying the American founding, I can’t help but think that the quality of our leadership has declined over the years. Still, as Churchill reminded us, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others…” and as Abraham Lincoln told us, this country surely is “the last best hope of man on earth” so it is worth making it work.

GE has dropped its sponsorship and the Carousel of Progress is now in Orlando and runs only occasionally. But Disney keeps it going and my children still love it… so do I. Let’s give a tip of the hat to the 300-millionth American who got here just yesterday. We are counting on you in ways you’ll never know.

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