08 Nov

My Quilted Research Project or This is Gonna Be Wordy

World Population chart from Wikipedia

World Population chart from Wikipedia

One of the things I really liked about being a graphic designer was wrapping my head around whatever it was that the current client was about. I learned a lot about Braille writing and types of blindness, Princess Cruise Lines’ routes and specials, tourism in Israel, the benefits of easy blood sugar testing, and on and on. The current 12 x 12 Mathematics challenge reminds me of my old work as, so far, I have spent exponentially more time researching than actually creating the quilt visuals or sewing. And because I doubt that all this information I’ve been gathering will actually show on the end product, I share it, and ultimately, a peek into how my brain works on a project, here.

After ditching the quilter’s math idea, I grabbed onto the phrase “You do the math.” It appealed to the ironic side that Terry says I seem to gravitate towards. It begged for some sort of comparison or statistics. For it to be meaningful to me, I figured I should look at women’s issues, or something close to home. It was the writings of Jared Diamond that finally inspired me (I’ve read two books and two articles by him and although he can bog you down with facts and figures and details, in the end I always find myself saying, “wow, I think he’s on to something.”).

According to his book, “Collapse,” First world people consume 32 times more resources than Third World people and produce 32 times more waste. If all current Third World inhabitants adopted First World living standards (a very real desire and a hope held out by relief organizations and human nature) the globe would need to support 12 times the current human impact.

Thomas Malthus, an English economist and demographer, wrote in his 1798 Essay on Population,

“The power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population unchecked, increases in geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”

So, even if high food-producing First World countries were willing to export food on a regular basis to Third World countries, it would not, without effective family planning, mitigate starvation. And, even if world population levels off at double it’s current numbers, we are already living at a non-sustainable level. Diamond askes, if 2.5 billion people are currently malnourished and lining on less than three dollars a day, what do we do with another 2.5 billion, especially when so many people in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa are trading in their lower impact lifestyles for higher impact First World ones? Apropos to today’s food riots in Haiti, a decline in poverty equals an increase in food consumption which then equals raised prices (and that’s just one angle to the problem).

Thought to have been disproved in the 1950s by the Green Revolution, Malthus’ Dilemma is once again rearing it’s frightening head. I’ve found very interesting articles here and here that do a far better job summarizing the problem than I could (also, not about Malthus, but very interesting food issues, here‘s another interesting article).

It’s possible that technology could save us with the next big leap forward (just remember that with solutions inevitably come more problems). In 2002 biotech crop acreage rose 12% worldwide, which might feed an annual 1.5% increase in population, but could it be sustained long enough to support an eventual 33% increase? The advisers at the National Academies paint a grimmer picture, additionally pointing out a decreased use in the pesticides that made the previous Green Revolution possible, decreases in available land in some of the neediest places and poor natural resource management that will impact agricultural yield. They say “A major challenge for the future will be to link conservation and biotechnology.”

Many of the articles I read, including a recent one in National Geographic, praise organic farming. Unfortunately, it currently makes up less than 10% of farming worldwide and between 1% and 9% of farming in developed nations (Sweden is a notable exception with 11% of it’s agriculture organic). Naysayers posit that 100% reliance on manure as fertilizer uses more space than exists: there is not enough space for fields, pastures AND homes (they must not have read the article about rotation where the fields and the pastures are one in the same).

In a 2003 article, the Christian Science Monitor says international agriculture has exceeded demographic increases (disproving Malthus), but can we keep it up? “Starting in the 1700s, Europe fed its burgeoning population by expanding agricultural production, especially in its colonies.” One third of the world’s land is currently cultivated, essentially leaving no more for agricultural use without inviting environmental catastrophe. As an aside, more and more farmland is being used for non-food crops like corn for ethanol, or less efficient food such as grain for cattle being raised for their meat. According to the article, the world’s farmers produce 25% more food per capita than 40 years ago, but the population has nearly doubled. Between 1950 and 1960 US grain yields increased 45%, but from 1960 to 1990 only another 10%. An article from Harvard’s Belfer Center gives similar statistics.

Back to our theme of Mathematics. All this research was to properly be able to visually represent my original inspiration. My quilt will be about Malthus’ original idea — which is mathematical and thusly fits the challenge. As to whether or not the dilemma has or will come to fruition is arguable (I’m tending to think Malthus was right, his timetable was just off by a century or two), but for my math purposes, beside the point.

In order to illustrate some of the information I have been trying to digest, I found projected population information at the UN’s Department of Economic & Social Affairs’ database, and agricultural yield info from the statistics division of the UN’s Food & Agricultural Organization. As with all statistics, it’s what you do with them that tells the story. Numbers don’t lie, but interpretation of those numbers can be manipulated in many ways. I think the research portion of this project is finally over and now, with the help of my Excel savvy husband, I’m off to draft some quilt art.

8 thoughts on “My Quilted Research Project or This is Gonna Be Wordy

  1. I didn’t realize you were a graphic designer! I love doing research for projects, whether it’s illustration or a quilt. In fact in an interview once, I listed research as one of the steps in the process I always use — whether it’s reading articles on the internet about a topic or just looking at different images of the same thing through Gooogle or Flickr.

  2. Whew! My head almost exploded somewhere in the middle of that explanation! I can’t wait to see your quilt. Have you ever read the books by Edward Tufte about the visual display of quantatative information? I think you would love them and they are about exactly what you are thinking about here! I own all three of his books and they are amazing books. http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi

  3. My goodness what a lot of serious research! I look forward to seeing how you fit that lot into just 12 inches!

  4. Great post, Kristin. I think Jared Diamond is onto something too. It probably won’t help with your quilting, but Joel Cohen’s book, _How_
    Many_People_Can_The_Earth_Support?_ is also a very interesting
    read. He goes very deeply into estimates, limiting resources, etc.,
    and ultimately concludes that the question is impossible to answer
    because of our inability to forecast innovation. The scary thing, though,
    is that this is exactly the way people talk about stock market prices —
    everybody knows that someday things will pop, we just don’t know when.
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Many-People-Earth-Support/dp/0393314952

    For an I-cant-tell-whether-he-is-serious-or-not perspective laced with
    dark humor, check out http://vhemt.org/

  5. I remember back in the 70’s everyone was worried about overpopulating the planet and then that seemed to disappear from the discussion. It is terrifying to think of more and more and more people – in the end, the resources of the planet are finite… I’m interested to see how you interpret this in a quilt.

  6. i love the research part of any project too.. i get very inspired during this process, but in this case my head almost exploded just like Terry’s.. maybe it’s just my math allergy. Looking forward to your piece!

  7. That is SO not where I would go. Like you, I tend to start with lists of words and concepts … but instead of then going to research, I go toward the visual… sorting thru images, thinking about the words as I look at other art, searching the words on flickr or google images. I think it must be because I do so much legal research in my work-life, but I rarely want to go toward an intellectual idea in quilt projects. Or maybe I’m just shallow. *grin* But I sure am fascinated at how you approach your work and where you end up.

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