May 20, 2011

Did you know that at this moment “ . . . 175 million Indians are being fed grain produced from wells that will be going dry?”

In China the same is true of 130 million (Climateprogress.org). So, about 305 million people in just two countries will face the effects of water depletion at some point in the not too distant future. By way of perspective, the current population of the USA is 310 million.

But we’re talking about people in other countries, so it’s no big deal. In a nation with a congress and many state governments currently being run by the Grand Old Party of Me, the repercussive effects of water depletion in foreign states takes a backseat to saving families from same-sex marriages, protecting health care from stem-cell research and (most of all) sheltering the rich from taxation — although those issues will become moot with a global water shortage.

But wait! Lester Brown, who reported those water-depletion statistics, continued, “The tripling of world wheat, rice and corn prices between mid-2006 and mid-2008 signaled our growing vulnerability to food shortages.”

Did you get that?  He didn’t say “the growing vulnerability of others.” He said, “our growing vulnerability.”

Brown is the author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. The BBC has called him “one of the great pioneer environmentalists.” He is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.  Brown emphasizes the geopolitical effects of fast-rising grain prices noting that “the biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries,” and one that could “bring down civilization.”

The last I knew we were part of civilization . . . though with the popularity of reality TV, you’ve got to wonder.

In fact, compared to barely comprehensible self-promoters like Sarah Palin and fact-fabricating Republican celebrities like Michelle Bachmann, Lester Brown’s voice is very small. Palin and Bachmann utter inanities to huge audiences for big money all day long while Brown, who actually has a brain filled with accurate and vital information, is unknown to (probably) 90 percent of the USA. Being famous, stupid and/or amoral in the land of the free is not unusual — take Rush Limbaugh . . . please.

Just the other day I heard NPR’s Terry Gross interviewing Lester Brown. I happened to be tooling down the interstate, guzzling gas like about 62 million others because an efficient American mass transit system is still just a visionary dream hoping to be sprung by a new enlightenment after being held hostage for decades by the oil industry.

Brown said in that interview that South Korea has been buying our grain and storing it. I wasn’t aware that this is unusual, but given the fact of impending water depletion brought on by global climate change and its causal effect on the availability of grain, nations are responding accordingly.

“ . . . what they’re trying to do,” says Brown, “is to corner part of the U.S. grain supply before it gets to market, and this represents an entirely new stage in the effort to try to secure food supplies by individual countries.”

It’s the free-market in action. Wave enough money in the face of most humans, including farmers, and they’re going to jump at the opportunity to sell their product to whoever antes up. It’s a no-brainer. If South Korea is doing this now, other countries will not be far behind. China and India have a lot of mouths to feed, after all, and, as noted above, at least 305 million of them are now consuming grain being irrigated with water being sucked from aquifers that are not replenishable.

But Lester Brown has been fighting ignorance for some time. Once described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” he’s been persistently thinking and gathering info about what we’re doing to the planet. As far back as 1978, he warned in his book The Twenty-Ninth Day of “the various dangers arising out of our manhandling of nature . . . by over-fishing the oceans, stripping the forests, turning land into desert.”

“But it’s such a big ocean,” troglodytes say. “And there are so many fish, and what’s a few more acres of deforestation here and there? Big deal.”

Brown’s simple comeback is, yeah, it’s a big deal. He states the obvious when he observes that when nations are buying American grain at attractive prices and drawing down our own reserves, it’s time, Mr. Free-Market USA, to “admit that the waters around you have grown (to flip a metaphor)” and that we’re all in this together. It’s time to realize that Wall Street will not save you from environmental collapse because Wall Street has no sense other than more-money sense. The beings of this planet are joined in one ecosystem. If the system collapses, we all collapse. No bailouts.

In a recent blog post, Brown enumerates the trends that have made our march of so-called progress unsustainable.  Besides falling water tables they include “ . . . rising temperatures from increasing greenhouse emissions (which bring) crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, rising sea level and shrinking mountain glaciers.” If it doesn’t soon become clear to enough of us that such trends lead to tipping points and dead ends, we’ll have more to worry about than what young narcissists on “Jersey Shore” are up to.

In a nutshell, what Lester Brown is saying is that what we’re doing is not sustainable — for us. The planet will go on without us the way it went on without dinosaurs. It’ll be just fine. It’ll roll through the cosmos, doing what it does, nurturing whatever life forms may survive our profligacy. The evidence of humanity on the other hand may be nothing but fossils.

As a very modern he-man tardily admitted to a poor little fish in a poem:

I die by the bounty I squander
you die by the damage I’ve done


by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent


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