01 September 2011

Our Greed Is Destroying the Earth

[This is an excerpt from my first chapter (“Postmodernity and the Double Wall”) in “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text.” I define postmodernity as “the current interconnected, global, neoliberal system of political and economic instruments, institutions and alliances” and the dark side of globalization, namely the quasi-unfettered rule of multinational corporations within this system. The double wall is the grievous social injustice of the current world order (clearly the rich are getting richer, while yearly millions join the ranks of the poorest, over one fifth of humanity) and the environmental havoc wreaked upon our planet by this headlong rush to consume.

I have just spelled out the basics of the environmental degradation of our planet. Then this . . .]

As might be expected, Vandana Shiva is not as sanguine as some about the chances of the present world system’s ability to reform itself. In a recent book (Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit, Cambridge, MA: South End, 2002) she argues that “[t]he water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth” (p. 2). Already a prominent physicist in her native India while in her thirties, Shiva was shocked by the devastation inflicted by the greed of multinationals and their local allies, and particularly the foresting industry in the Himalayas. She recounts:

“Cherapunji in northeast India is the wettest region on earth, with 11 meters of rainfall a year. Today, its forests are gone and Cherapunji has a drinking-water problem. My own transition from physics to ecology was spurred by the disappearance of Himalayan streams in which I played as a child. The Chipko movement was launched to stop the destruction of water resources through logging in the area” (p. 3).

The systematic elimination of the forests triggered a chain of negative results, some more predictable than others: soil erosion, mud slides, flooding of the plains, the unsustainability to the ecosystem due to the firs planted in place of the original oaks, and the beginning of more extreme storms. Indeed, deforestation, industrial agriculture, overmining and aquaculture have unleashed an era of ruthless climate change. In the state of Orissa, Shiva describes the havoc wreaked by the 1999 cyclone: nearly two million houses destroyed; extensive destruction of paddy crops in twelve coastal districts; all of the banana and papaya plantations destroyed; eighty percent of coconut trees uprooted or cut in two, and 15,000 ponds either salinated or contaminated. In addition, the cyclone killed more than 300,000 cattle and, by some estimates, over 20,000 people. Two years later, Orissa experienced its worst drought on record, followed by its worst flood, severely affecting more than six million people.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) involved the collaboration of over one thousand scientists. According to the “Climate Change 2001” report, the climbing temperatures of the earth “will lead to crop failures, water shortages, increased disease, flooding, landslides, and cyclones.” Insurance companies are now greatly concerned about the issue: “The Global Commons Institute has assessed that damages due to climate change could amount to $200 billion by 2005” and that by 2050 “the property damage could reach $20 trillion” (p. 42).

Much of this can be attributed to the avarice of unregulated business and commerce. The multiplication of shrimp ponds (destined for the enjoyment of the rich westerners), for instance, along the coast of India and Bangladesh, account for the systematic destruction of the mangroves that once stood between ocean and land, forming a natural barrier against tides and storms and absorbing the nitrates and phosphates of waters flowing into the ocean. Yet besides industrial greed, one would also have to indict the western drive to subdue nature in the form of dams and large-scale irrigation. Already in the western United States specialists deplore the building of the great dams. In these states, “irrigation accounts for 90 percent of total water consumption. Irrigated land increased from four million acres in 1890 to nearly 60 million in 1977 . . . . These areas are also affected by soil salinity because of salts dumped into rivers when irrigation waters drain.” The rising salinity of the soils decreases the fertility of the soil, and that problem compounds with time. In California’s artificial “green belt,” the San Joaquin Valley, “crop yields have declined by 10 percent since 1970, an estimated loss of $312 million annually” (Shiva is quoting from Marq De Villiers, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 143).

As always, the result of reckless technologies in the hands of corporations and governments that have privatized that which from time immemorial belonged to all people has created the greatest suffering among the world’s poor. Yet, as Shiva shows, a revival of indigenous technologies and community management of water resources is noticeable, and it spells hope for the future. She explains: “cultures that waste water or destroy the fragile web of the water cycle create scarcity even under conditions of abundance. Those that save every drop can create abundance out of scarcity. Indigenous cultures and local communities have excelled in water conservation technologies” (p. 119). A vision urgently needed today is contained in India’s Hindu culture. For Indians, every river is sacred.

Recall that at the heart of the modern (and western) expansionist paradigm launched in 1492 was the idea of collective ownership of the world (due to the superior rights God had granted to Christian kings) and a nascent capitalist ideology—expressed in the initial charters and patents and in the preference of private property over that of community management of the commons—progressively gave birth to the corporations. These, in turn, propelled the Industrial Revolution that empowered the European Empires to establish and exploit their far-flung empires. As colonial independence movements gathered momentum in the early twentieth century, the inherently expansionist tendencies of capitalist accumulation—coupled with growing nationalism in the wealthy states of Europe—created a tension that eventually exploded in 1914, dragging the whole world into Europe’s civil war, and then into a second one in 1939. After WWII, however, what was supposed to have been a process of decolonization quickly gave way to a new kind of political and economic colonization of the so-called Third World—the raw powers of modernity unleashed in two different modes, both equally voracious when it comes to devouring natural resources and polluting the commons of humanity—water and air.

When the Second World collapsed in 1989, the neoliberal, free-market fundamentalist brand of capitalism unleashed in the 1970s now became the ruling ideology of the United States, Japan and their European allies, and the transnational corporations merged back and forth, growing into behemoths and reaching everywhere. Speth in his book (James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004) is cautiously critical of this system, if only, I surmise, because he is an insider who wants to convince American opinion leaders and politicians to change their ways. Indeed, back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to study the “probable changes in the world’s population, natural resources and environment through the end of the century.” Speth, as one of the three members of CEQ, was soon to become its chair. The first part of the report was presented to Carter in 1979 and a separate report by the National Academy of Sciences, the “Charney Report,” bolstered their conclusions. From then on, Speth and his colleagues focused their attention on climate change and in a 1981 report that detailed the potentially disastrous effect of the global production of greenhouse gases and made detailed recommendations for an international effort to curb this trend. Significantly, this report contains a vision of the world that borders on the theological:

“Whatever the consequences of the carbon dioxide experiment for humanity over the long term, our duty to exercise a conserving and protecting restraint extends as well to the community of life—animal and plant—that evolved around us. There are limits beyond which we should not go in disrupting or changing this community of life, which, after all, we did not create. Although our dominion over earth may be nearly absolute, our right to exercise it is not” (Seth, on p. 5, quoting from the 1981 CEQ report).

With the knowledge we now have of the past, as human occupants of this earth and as a species embedded in it and totally dependent on its well-being, we dare not ignore the tell-tale signs of devastation ahead. This is the message that scientists from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program want to pass on to all of us today:

"The evidence is now overwhelming that [rising temperatures] are a consequence of human activities. . . . [W]e are now pushing the planet beyond anything experienced naturally for many thousands of years. The records of the past show that climate shifts can appear abruptly and be global in extent, while archaeological and other data emphasize that such shifts have had devastating consequences for human societies. In the past, therefore, lies a lesson” (Speth, on p. 60, quoting from Keith Alverson et al., Environmental Variability and Climate Change, International Geosphere-Biosphere Program Science Series No. 3, 2001).

[Imagine, if this was in 2001, what scientists are saying today as the data gathered from around the world has become even more ominous! For a helpful (and short) summary, see this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/27/world-warming.]