Each citizen of our nation has their own preferred locus of malevolence on which to blame the ills of the world. For some, it’s the military-industrial complex, emblemized by the sneer of a Cheney on the television screen. For others, it’s the broadly defined liberal elite, the “lamestream” media, or the indolent welfare queen. But in this time of drought and general governmental malfeasance, I prefer to lay our problems squarely at the feet of where they belong: the brutal tyranny of the almond. This small nut may at first seem harmless, but a much darker reality lies behind its unassuming husk. Despite their mild flavor and broad popularity, almonds are a perfect representation of what ails American society. They are hugely water intensive, requiring a gallon of water per individual nut. They are grown by powerful rural interests seemingly unaccountable to the normal flows of majoritarian politics. And most importantly, Americans are largely either apathetic or ignorant of the secret power wielded by the allies of the tenaciously vile crop.
By now the statistics about water-intensive agriculture have been widely disseminated, partially as a response to the mandatory water restrictionsannounced by Governor Brown last week. But it bears repeating precisely how greedy the almond is for water that could otherwise be allocated to other use. A recent report indicated that fully 10 percent of California’s water is diverted to agricultural consumption by almonds alone, an effective tithe on our natural resources that must be regarded as absurd. Though 82 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, the plant originates in southwest Asia, where yearly precipitation is much more regular. Like so many other crops currently grown in the Central Valley, the almond is an uneasy transplant that requires enormous amounts of irrigation to be economically viable. Fascinatingly, in response to these recent bouts of what has been crudely termed “almond shaming,” a counteroffensive has been launched in the media to try and persuade us to leave the poor and humble nut alone. It remains to be seen whose arguments will carry the day, but I suspect that the almond cabal and their media enablers may finally be on the defensive.
More broadly, it is my opinion that the almond should be regarded as a symbol of a much greater flaw in the American polity: the disproportionate clout yielded politically, economically, and culturally by rural interests. The United States has one of the most malapportioned legislatures in the world due to a Senate that gives Wyomingites 70 times the voting power of Californians. Though the frequent counterclaim raised to this statistic is that the equal representation of states is a sacred trust passed down by the founding fathers, the inconvenient fact is that both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton thought this apportionment scheme foolish, and only acquiesced to the Connecticut Compromise as a grubby necessity for ratification. Furthermore, in the long years since 1790, the population gap between the smallest and largest state has grown six-fold, flushing any semblance of original intent down the drain.
The tragic illogic of agricultural subsidies is reinforced by Presidential candidates traipsing around Iowa every four years, and the Hawkeye State maintains its customary grip on the ambitions of our politicians. Whenever objections to agricultural domination are raised, they often seem to be met by an impressionistic appeal to the memory of the yeoman Jeffersonian farmer, the old touchstone of “real America” many miles past the city limits. Witness the rolling farmlands that punctuate every candidate’s homespun political ads, ignoring the fact that Americans and their forebears abandoned their farms in droves, often in explicit pursuit of urban opportunity. There is no inherent nobility of the farmland, just as there is no inherent virtue in any type of landmass, despite our bizarre cultural conditioning to believe otherwise.
Taken together, all of these biases toward rural areas remind one of nothing so much as the “rotten boroughs” that plagued the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. The rotten boroughs were essentially empty land that nonetheless received parliamentary representation due to old medieval town charters in a scheme that privileged acres above people. It took a series of reformers to stamp out that antiquated system, and I expect nothing less will be necessary in this country. It is therefore only a slight exaggeration to say that Americans live in thrall to agricultural produce, among which the almond can be regarded as the ultimate tyrant. And in the way of Americans throughout history, the only appropriate response must be to declare “Sic Semper Tyrannis” at last. Anything else would be simply nutty.
Jack Weller, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.