Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Monocultures and math...

I finished Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and it you liked Blink and Tipping Point, I recommend this one, as well. Gladwell gets up the noses of many economists because he doesn't wait for massive studies with scrupulous academic rigor before suggesting anecdotal information can teach us something.  While his work is not drawn from thin air, I think the popularity of his books arises largely from clever insights delivered in time for real people to use them, unlike say, the Ag Census.

One of the more intriguing arguments he offers is Asian children do better in math in part because their language for numbers makes more sense and because of the astonishingly difficult life of wetland rice farmers.  

By positing that success in mathematics can be correlated strongly to effort - not IQ as much as we think - the rice monoculture provides Asian children with a strong cultural ethos of hard work being rewarded. His description of rice-growing is eye-opening, but my summary would be: rice is a crop that rewards virtually every marginal and long term expenditure of effort with higher yields. More work = more reward. It seems this formula is more consistent than with most other crops - i.e. less weather variability, extremely high labor requirements, long-term benefits from meticulous effort.

As a result, Asian children, primed by an ethic of relentless effort, spend more time on tough problems, and usually end up getting to the right answer, whereas other children will quit after less time due to frustration. Because Asians are taught and believe effort will get results, mathematics at least is right up their alley. So at least, Gladwell theorizes.

But Gladwell can make that argument far better than I can.  It was my sudden realization of the favorable light the world holds of the rice monoculture and the contrast to the more common uneasiness with a corn monoculture here.

Rice captures energy and maximizes carbohydrates for wetlands farmers in Asia.  Corn is unsurpassed in capturing harvestable energy on Midwestern farms.  Yet the former is never singled out as an environmental sin, while lack of diversity is a big knock on corn farming.

Of course, the comparison is complicated by all kinds of other factors, especially the failure of industrial farms to adequately justify their operation and instead trying to hide behind agrarian symbology and popularity.  But my uneasiness with all-corn farming may be lessening by this under-my-nose example of another monoculture that seems to work long term.

I'm not saying monocultures don't have costs, but those need to be carefully calculated including all externalities rather than simply deciding it makes the countryside too boring.

1 comment:

From Virginia said...

I also enjoyed reading Outliers. His bottom line that there are always environmental influences that contribute to our success (the Beatles, Asians, Bill Gates, Jewish lawyers et al) simply reinforces the scriptural view point that we are all recipients of grace (I Cor. 4:7) and that self made men are non-existent.

Regarding rice farming, it is also often overlooked as a major source of methane emissions, but sure feeds millions of people. Everything has an impact and is interconnected.