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See Inside May 2009

Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse



Per-Anders Pettersson Getty Images

One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change. Typically we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Much of the time this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and people are simply blindsided by events such as today’s economic crisis.

For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could make us heed a warning so dire—and how would we go about responding to it? We are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes that we are virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand: Sure, our civilization might devolve into chaos—and Earth might collide with an asteroid, too!

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