A densely written critical analysis of the current approach to ending world hunger, calling into question the optimism of such technocrat philanthropists as Bill Gates.
Rieff, whose most recent book was a memoir about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag (Swimming in a Sea of Death, 2008), has returned to the broader themes of his earlier books (At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, 2005, etc.), this time focusing on the global food crisis. After first describing the crisis and its multiple causes, the author concludes “that the central question is how to reform it if, indeed, it is not too late to do so.” At the core of the book is a chapter titled “Philanthrocapitalism: A [Self-]Love Story,” which charges that private business, the most politically influential, least regulated, and least democratically accountable sector, is currently entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry. The author disputes the view that the political, social, and cultural challenges of the global food crisis can be overcome if only enough money and intelligence are applied. He asserts that “the fundamental problems of the world have always been moral not technological” and that “farming is a culture, not just a means of production.” Rieff provides no ready answers to the food crisis but argues that we must start looking at the problem in a different way. He has clearly done his homework, and the text is rife with references to, and commentary on, the books and essays of others. What is missing is clarity; too often, Rieff builds his sentences like a set of Russian nesting dolls, obscuring an idea by folding in multiple subordinate clauses and parenthetical asides. This is not the most effective approach for this kind of book, which requires sharp ideas expressed clearly; end-of-chapter summaries would have helped general readers.
A basically pessimistic assessment certain to be disputed by those working to solve the problem.