Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Must-read

A Sober Earth Day
By Sylvia L. Mayuga
First Posted 05:44:00 04/20/2008/ Most Read

“The end of the world as we know it,” is how Michael T. Klare, an American professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, describes our presently crisis-hobbled home planet. His new book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, is disturbing but highly recommended reading for realists.

The sooner every last gas-guzzling, fuel-dependent one of us understands the big picture this book projects into the future, the better are our chances for collective survival. As the American journalist Adam Hochschild put it in his review of Klare’s book: “Four centuries ago, as the conquistadors roamed through South America, it was the search for gold that drove the clash of empires. A hundred years later, as the great powers fought over the West Indies, it was the quest for land that could grow sugar cane. Today the key commodity is oil.”

The first hard fact in this big picture is that the era of relatively abundant oil supply is over. The global economic expansion it literally fuelled over the past six decades post-WW II is in fact what created the First World club composed of the United States and its allies in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. That status quo is changing as fast as oil prices are continuing to climb to “peak oil” – over $110 a barrel at this writing, with $20 to $30 a barrel last seen in 2003 receding to the realm of legend.

Part of Michael Klare’s thesis is that the reality of dwindling global oil supply supersedes ideology in ways that capitalist versus communist ideologues could not have imagined 20 years ago. Profound changes are underway in the present economic and political world order, he writes, and everyone, rich and poor, had best be ready for them.

At this point of world history, when more people in the world have learned to want it all, putting on farmers’ eyes would help everyone think over a second hard fact: the close interconnection between producing our suddenly shockingly expensive food and the now severely threatened conditions for producing and bringing it to our dining tables. And nowhere is the impact of global warming and climate change on agriculture more dramatically illustrated than in the recent closing of what was once the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere.

That mill in Deniliquin, New South Wales, Australia was processing enough rice for 20 million people worldwide, reports the New York Times, until the last six years of drought reduced Australia’s rice crop by a staggering 98 percent, causing the collapse of the country’s rice production and the closure of the Deniliquin mill last December. That was one of the major factors in the doubling of world rice prices over the past three months, it turns out.

This event also counts “among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production,” just as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its climate change report last July. It would take science another 15 to 20 years of study and experimentation to link short-term weather changes to long-term climate change beyond doubt, the Times reports. But Australia’s “unusually severe drought is consistent with what climatologists predict will be a problem of increasing frequency.”

The IPCC scientists in fact “predicted that even slight warming would lower agricultural output in the tropics and subtropics.” That’s not even taking into account “newer findings that global warming could reduce rainfall and make it more variable.” The prospects could be worse, in other words, given the increasing incidence of freak weather worldwide.

That this could hurt agriculture to the point of crippling goes without saying. The present food crisis is a foretaste, but this is apparently only the beginning of radical worldwide changes upon us now. One of them, Michael Klare projects, will be a “tidal shift in power and wealth from energy-deficit states like China, Japan and the United States to energy-surplus states like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.” Early signs are already upon us of this shift that will “affect the lives of everyone in one way or another – with poor and middle-class consumers in the energy-deficit states experiencing the harshest effects.”

That means the majority of us, dear readers, so read the rest of Michael Klare’s article summarizing his book and its exposition of conflicting global urgencies – and think of the delicate balances everyone of goodwill needs to strike in their lives, beginning right now.

This is not cheerful Sunday reading, but the best reason to stay with this is that everyone’s little bit would help alleviate the crisis – if not by starting to raise what food one can in one’s own backyard, then by finally making lifestyle decisions to become part of the solution, starting with drastically cutting down on the use of fuel and gasoline. It’s taken 30 years for everyone to feel the urgency of the ecologists’ motto to “live lightly on the earth,” but now we find ourselves standing together under a merciless sun beating down in high noon.

There’s a sound bite from Achim Steiner, president of the United Nations Program for the Environment, in his opening speech to the international gathering on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Johannesburg this week, that’s well worth pondering on Earth Day: "We need everyone's perspective…there is no simple answer to the challenges of twenty-first century agriculture."

That applies to the rest of a survival mode in the early 21st century. There is, however, some comfort to be drawn from the human creativity already at work on new solutions to address our multi-dimensional crisis, from food to energy. The ignorance, greed and heedlessness that brought us to this point are part of human nature, but so is the creativity coming up with solutions to ease a path of radical change from which there’s no turning back. May they catch up with the speed of crisis.

*photos courtesy of and cosmos magazine

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