Change and Newton’s Laws of Motion

It has been said that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.  I would add a third certainty–change.  Change is inevitable.  Nothing remains constant.  Life on the planet earth is always moving.  Individual people and animals are born and die.  Seeds sprout in new places and old trees fall over and decay.  The flow of life is dynamic and constantly evolving.

Isaac Newton, a seventeenth century physicist, is credited with developing three basic laws of motion.  Newton’s first law of motion, also called the Law of Inertia, states that an abject at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in uniform motion tends to stay in uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.  His second law explains the change in motion in relation to the amount of force applied to an object.  The third law says that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

While Newton’s laws deal with actual physical objects and their motion, they also can be applied to change in a broader sense.

Over the last century, agriculture on the plains of the Midwest has undergone many changes.  Early settlers farmed using animal power and a great deal of manual labor.  In the Red River Valley, Bonanza farms came and went.  Since the middle of the 1900’s farm size has gradually increased.  According to some analysts, such growth in size is inevitable and unstoppable.  In many ways, increasing farm size brings economies of scale and possibly increased profitability.  The sky seems to be the limit.

So, what does farm size have to do with Newton’s laws of motion?

Agriculture in the twenty-first century simply cannot remain the same.  How those changes will look is conjecture at this point.  Some things, however, seem obvious.

First of all, energy will never again be as cheap as it has been, regardless of the source.  All of agriculture is dependent on energy inputs.  Along with increasing fuel costs, fertilizers and chemicals will be more expensive.  As more seeds are owned by fewer and fewer companies, the price will rise.  Since agriculture and food processing and distribution are major contributors to the production of greenhouse gasses, changes will be required in how food is produced and marketed.  Federal farm supports will change either because urban taxpayers will become fed up with what they see as an expensive program which benefits a few or the payments will be ruled to be contrary to the trade agreements our government has entered into.

According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, we tend to resist change.  We would rather continue on with what we’re doing.  We prefer to continue on until some other force acts on us.  All of us will  persist in what we’re doing until the government, our banker, or possibly our customers tell us we have to do something different.

Understanding Newton’s First Law requires us to understand momentum.  Momentum is the tendency of a body to continue moving in constant direction at a constant speed.  Momentum is defined in physics as the mass of the object times its velocity or its speed in a particular direction.  The bigger abject and the faster it is moving, the more force it takes to change direction or to stop it.

The bigger a farm, the more difficult it will be for that operation to adapt to the changes which will be required of it.  If an operation has invested heavily in expensive, high tech, specialized facilities, it will be difficult to adapt to new economic, political and climate conditions.  Who will be able to change production practices more quickly, a 5,000 cow dairy in southern California or Organic Valley’s cooperative of small family farmers?  While the number of cows may not be very different in either of these operations, the momentum is different.

I once went snorkeling on a coral reef in Hawaii.  I was amazed at how quickly the schools of tiny fish could change direction. Instantly, they would dart as a group back and forth.  It struck me that a much larger fish might have the same mass as the total mass of the school of much smaller fish. The larger fish, however, is at a disadvantage because it cannot change direction as quickly.

When we consider what kind of development might be sustainable here on the Northern Plains, we might do well to consider Newton’s laws of physics.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains