Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Elegy in Fragments

I receive news feeds on various issues from several sources. Every morning I get up and check my email, and see as many as 30 or 40 related news items on climate change, economic policy, energy, international events. I call it my in-box of doom, because so often the news is truly frightening, or achingly sad. And every once in a while, this vast grief of prose turns into poetry. That happened yesterday when Roel sent me this statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

""The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change," Ban said in a Washington Post opinion column.
UN statistics showed that rainfall declined some 40 percent over the past two decades, he said, as a rise in Indian Ocean temperatures disrupted monsoons.
"This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming," the South Korean diplomat wrote.

"It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought," Ban said in the Washington daily.
When Darfur's land was rich, he said, black farmers welcomed Arab herders and shared their water, he said.
With the drought, however, farmers fenced in their land to prevent overgrazing.
"For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out," he said.

A UN peacekeeping force may stop the fighting, he said, and more than two million people may return to rebuilt homes in safe villages.
"But what to do about the essential dilemma: the fact that there's no longer enough good land to go around?""


Think about those words. "For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out."

Think about how mystifying it must be to see the water stop coming and the food run short and know that other people are making this happen. Where does your anger go, except to the person next to you?

I read recently an interview with a Bangladeshi peasant who lost his farm and his land to flooding. He will now live in a slum, and eat and drink what he can get, in a house that is not his, rather than farming the land his grandparents farmed. He said, "I am told that all of this is because of electricity, but I promise you, I have never had even a single light bulb?"

How many lightbulbs have I had? Have you?

Roel appended a prose of statistics to append to his own elegaic observation "What will peacekeepers do in Darfur? Grow food? Make land?"

What indeed? I can grow food. Apparently, we can flick a switch and stop the rain. But I can't make land, and I cannot make it rain.

Here are some numbers. That the drought in Australia comes with only 10% less rain - but that higher temperatures and increased evaporation mean 70% less water. Rainfall in sub-saharan Africa decreased 40% in 20 years. That 1/3 of all arable land has been rendered unusable or is in immanent danger of doing so from poor agricultural practices. That in the last 50 years, the population of Africa has tripled.

That yesterday, here in America, we made 5 BILLION gallons of ethanol from food people might have eaten. And today we'll do it again. And again. Energy independence, you know.

That today each one of us will turn on a light switch, throw some clothes in the dryer, toss on a load of laundry, and a man without a lightbulb will wonder if he lost his land because it was his fault.

And when it is our turn to learn what it is like not to have enough food and water, where will the fighting break out?

I once wrote that peak oil and climate change aren't the end of the world, that life goes on. And it does - for some of us. And for the rest, a small and endless, and desperate series of apocalypses ensues.

We did this. We have to fix it. What will we do?



Anonymous said...

If we had used our land to grow food instead of ethanol, the food would not have gone to those who need it. Food surplus doesn't help without a food distribution system, and our is mostly capitalism with a side order of international aide.
-Brian M.

RAS said...

This bugs me every day, Sharon. And when I read stories like this:

I feel even worse.

roel said...

Sharon, thanks for your kind words. I’d like to add a few details. First, we don’t produce 5 billion gallons everyday, it’s every year. Daily: some 13.6 million. That’s still a lot...

But in 15 years, according to Congress, US ethanol production should be 36 billion gallons. Sure, in 15 years we want some to be cellulosic ethanol, but to date no-one’s ever made any on a significant scale, though we’ve tried for 50 years.

And while there is some truth in saying that not all that corn would or could be eaten by people, it hides a bigger truth, and one that too easily buys off our guilt. Corn ethanol is a large factor in today’s rising grain prices, which are largely set in global markets. Which will mean that while there is a group that has no land and water for food production, there’ll be a much larger group that simply can’t afford to buy food anymore.

The Green Revolution, the dawn of chemical fertilizers, has raised food production. And that has allowed population numbers to surge. But he Green Revolution has also destroyed a third of our arable land; you put in chemicals, and the land becomes like a junkie, life is drained out of it.

So now Africa has to feed 3.5 times as many people as in 1960, on 2/3 of the land it had then. That means less than 20% per capita of what was available 50 years ago. That is mitigated somewhat by food-aid, cutting forests, and applying ever more chemicals, but that’s not enough, and besides, all hugely destructive.

That is a scary picture in itself. But that’s not all, now there’s this: sub-Saharan Africa lost 40% of its rainfall in 20 years. 3.5 times as many people, farmland per capita down by 80%, and now half of the water is gone. To top it off, Peak Oil will cut fertilizer supplies. Scary.

With world grain reserves at a historic low, we do need to think this over. Our present market model is simple: we sell to the highest bidder. Most likely, that is a US mom driving her kids to a fast-food joint, not an African mother desperate to feed her kids anything at all. Well, that’s just too bad. Have money, will live.

Until we change that economic model, things can only get worse. First for the African mother, but eventually also for the US mom. Less land+less rain+less fertilizer=much less food.

Dave said...

Hi Sharon,

I don't know what we can do that will work, other than lead as you're leading, and teach, something perhaps even harder to ship than food. I know many of us have seen this over the years, but reading about "The Man Who Farms Water" has stuck with me.

I wonder how applicable these techniques are to Darfur.

thanks again Sharon.


Dave said...

Forgot a link.



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Anonymous said...

And I just finished reading an article about the stable of vehicles that someone in a neighboring town keeps- a Corvette, Jeep Wrangler, Hummer H1 and more- and the guy said, "People ask me why I got the Hummer. Because I can. Know what I'm saying." Yes- I know what you're saying- you're a total asshole- guess I couldn't have written that article....

So what do we do? Our country is full of these people who see no problem with their actions- and don't associate the drowned farmland in Bangladesh or the crisis in Africa with their lifestyle.....

I'm not a religous person so I don't know about the classical idea of a "Judgement Day"-but it seems like a good idea.....

jewishfarmer said...

Roel, thanks so much for correcting me on the amount of ethanol, and also for beating me to the punch about the relationship to food prices and ethanol.

Moreover, globalization is a large part of the problem even outside the immediate question of food prices. Africa could feed Africa, as Lappe, Rosset and Collins have documented in _World Hunger: Twelve Myths_ were it not for its prior commitments to export food to the rich world. For example, 78% of all malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses. For example, in the 1980s, during the famouse Ethiopian famine, Ethiopia was still exporting food to the rich world.

We all know how much local food, and the movement of local surpluses matters - we have systematically destroyed the ability of nations to feed themselves, but also for them to turn to their neighbors with surpluses.

Ethanol is implicated in this not only because of the rising food prices, but also because we are still eating meat, and drinking corn syrup sweetened drinks, etc... that is, we're now even more dependent upon the importation of food, often from countries that could feed themselves but don't. The Sudan is not presently one of them, but many of the Sudan's neighbors run regular food surpluses, and could sell those things at reasonable prices on markets, if they weren't committed to sending them to us, or using their land to produce luxury crops instead of dinner.


Dave said...

Good morning Sharon,

It's a fascinating point we're competing for the food from African states, even while we overall enjoy a surplus. Our efforts at redistributing food tend to concentrate on taking grains from countries of the West and shipping them to dubiously governed states which use food to tighten their control. While we can't readily fix broken governments, perhaps humanitarian efforts could focus on purchasing food in Africa for distribution, priming the pump, so to speak.


Chile said...

Dave, thanks for that link. The article was fascinating and inspiring!

Zach said...

... perhaps humanitarian efforts could focus on purchasing food in Africa for distribution, priming the pump, so to speak.

The MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) adopted that policy years ago, for just these reasons.


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