State Of The Nations - III The Environment
By Jim Miles
03 April, 2009
The first part of this series looked at the overall context of the economy, the war on terror, and the environment. The previous section focussed on the military with its ties to terror and the economy globally. This final section looks at the environmental consequences of our consumptive society and some solutions that could be made for a long-term solution.
The military effects on the environment are obvious to anyone giving it even a small amount of consideration. The many chemicals range from depleted uranium through to the by-products of the white phosphorous used by the military of Israel and the U.S., or to the chemicals purposely spread to destroy vegetation and human life. Unexploded ordinance is a lasting legacy of any military campaign, a legacy that effects mainly the people who work the land and the children who will be attracted to anything curious and new in the terrain. The destruction to civic structures that help society control some of the adverse effects of the environment can significantly alter landscapes, as witnessed by the sewage running into the Tigris River in Baghdad and the drying of the marshlands of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers. The sewage lagoons of Gaza, the lack of clean running water in most areas, the loss of energy for heat, light, fuel, and refrigeration and storage are further effects of the interaction of the environment and society in a war zone.
It’s not just global warming
The earth’s resources are finite. They are being fought over and consumed at a rate that is not sustainable. It is a problem that goes well beyond the most publicized problem of climate change. It is interesting that in a supposed free trade world, the military has to be such a big part of the effort to control resources. It is a complete and full contradiction without any gray areas. Even without resource wars, given the artificially created demands of western society, we would rapidly deplete many resources and continue to increase the levels of pollution, environmental damage, species extinction, climate change and other environmental disasters that are occurring. It simply cannot continue.
And yet what do most governments – at least those of the United States, Canada, and Europe - advocate when financial problems arise? Go shopping, create more debt, and get the markets moving again. A moving market’s main purpose is to harness the wealth of that consumption, to keep the top echelon corporate citizens well fed and powerful. The main impetus of government efforts in the U.S. is to provide handouts to the people who created the current financial decline in the first place. By providing guarantees to those who will buy up the great debts incurred by themselves, guarantees that make it a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition against the tax payers, the markets will theoretically be freed up to increase debt, get consumer consumption going again, and re-establish the “American dream” of consumptive affluence.
But it is global warming
Climate change is the big issue, even though it has mostly been pushed aside by the understandable daily worries of people wondering where there next pay cheque might be coming from. Global warming is a direct result of our current lifestyle, and not just from the energy demands for heat and light and running our now archaic automobiles. It recedes further back from people’s awareness to the creation of all those things that manufacture the cars and other goods that we consume, and further yet to the materials and energy required to harvest the resources.
It also recedes from attention because the warming is occurring most rapidly in the northern regions, out of sight, yet the consequences are evident everywhere, mostly reported as isolated weather events in local regions. Australia’s Murray-Darling River basin is suffering a seven year drought, propelled by a small but obviously significant average temperature increase and the destruction of billions of trees adapted to the dry climate to be replaced by less adaptable agricultural products.
Each time I read current articles on climate change, the pattern seems to be that yes it is happening, and each time the rate of it happening appears to be increasing much faster than each previous prediction indicated. We are seeing global warming occurring as more droughts spread in the drier regions, more violent and powerful storms happen in the wetter regions, and the Arctic ice cap is rapidly shrinking. Somewhere there may be a ‘tipping point’ – the climatic equivalent of the biological ‘keystone species’ (see below) – where after that there is nothing we can do but watch the spectacular effects of a rapidly changing climate.
The air we breathe, the water we drink
There is so much that is invisible, unfelt, without odour, that soaks into our environment from all the agricultural and industrial chemicals we produce, from all the by-products of our energy demands, and from all the by-products of all the materials we consume. These chemical products float through the air, affecting not only the climate, but also the rest of the landscapes of land and water as they settle out. Other chemicals are added directly to the water system, from the daily flush of chemicals down the sinks and drains of our homes, to the more massive chemical washes from industries requiring great quantities of water such as the tar sands extraction in Alberta to the pulp and paper industry world wide.
All these chemicals infiltrate our bodies through the water we drink, the air we breathe, the foods we eat, and the chemicals we take to altar our physiology (a basic description of drugs). We know terribly little about the adverse results from this ingestion, both short term and long term. Many of the chemicals are carcinogenic, causing cells to go on a reproductive rampage that destroys the host. Others change the genetic structures that control other diseases and that control reproductive capabilities. Fortunately our bodies have so far appeared to be surprisingly resilient to these chemical invaders. Again the question needs to be considered if there is a disease that could eventually take advantage of all these changes and decimate the human population beyond its point of recovery, or at least beyond the point where society as we know it would continue to exist.
So who care about other species, of what importance is a frog or butterfly, as long as we have our chickens, cattle, pigs and other domestic animals and plants to help us survive? That would be well and good if we truly understood all the inter-relationships of living resources and the environments of earth, air, and water in which they live. But we do not - we are not even close to fully understanding all the relationships. What we do know is that the relationships are everywhere and perhaps more intertwined than we are aware, that the loss of one particular species may not present significant problems, but the loss of many can and will change the landscape (to take it to its full conclusion with humanity, visualize how quickly the landscapes of cities and farms would revert back to “nature” if the human species died out).
Another problem with species depletion is that of biological resilience. The more kinds of any plant or animal there are, the more likely that group – be it grasses or hoofed animals - will be able to pass on similar genetic material that creates better adaptability for climate changes. Again, so why should we care? Imagine a world in which there is only one type of wheat, only one type of rice, domesticated grass or rice that feeds the majority of the world’s population. Should that be destroyed by blight, a parasite, or some insect running rampant because perhaps its predators in turn have been destroyed, then the world – at least the human world - would face catastrophic starvation.
Many of our medicinal and chemical products for food are derived from natural resources. The loss of any material that has not been studied and researched could be a loss of natural knowledge that could aid our survival. There are so many unknowns about how plants and animals fight off parasites and insects. What benefits might come from knowing the resilience of sharks over all the eons of biological diversity? What allows certain animals to hibernate from drought and cold that might prove useful to mankind either for health reasons or food storage reasons?
A similar problem arises if somewhere along the line a ‘keystone’ species becomes extinct. What would happen if the current malady affecting bees - with several possible causes ranging from environmental chemical pollution directly influencing the bees or the pathogens that feed on them, or the environmental changes influencing their abilities to cope with new situations – destroyed the world’s species of bees? Nothing short of a great agricultural disaster would occur, both for us and for any and all other species that rely on bees to pollinate plant seeds. Perhaps there is an even greater over-arching keystone, one that we cannot see yet, one that perhaps may never be seen, a bacterial form, or an oceanic phytoplankton that disappears, that may tip the scale on the vast majority of global species.
Those same ideas have an impact on the human species. The loss of indigenous people’s knowledge of their environment, of the plants and animals that have specific benefits or dangers (that could be used for medicinal purposes) leaves another gap in our ability to grow and develop as a species within a relatively sophisticated culture. The higher concentration of people in urban environments, leaving fewer and fewer individuals to harvest the land mechanically, creates another situation where rapid and significant change would altar most people’s prospects of survival.
This presents a rather gloomy outlook on the current state of global environmental health. There will be many naysayers and deniers of these possibilities, similar to the group of naysayers and deniers that argued about cancer not being caused by cigarette smoking who then moved over to the anti-global warming lobby. There will be many more who simply cannot worry about any of it because they are so caught up in the effort to survive from day to day that none of this seems relevant to them.
Those that can think about it, those that should think about it, are those of us that live in the relatively wealthier side of affairs and have the leisure time and the comfort zone from where alternatives can be considered. We need to make the proposals that need to be looked at in order to create an alternate sustainable future, where a global culture does not include invasion and occupation of other people’s territories, where we are not destroying our own environment, where cultures and societies can live through fair and equitable trade on the basis of needs for life and the advantages of a rich culture, and where the consumptive greed created by the wealthy elite for their own aggrandizement and wealth is eliminated.
Coming up with solutions is the easy part. Implementing those solutions is decidedly much more difficult.
It could be impossible when the full range of human emotions are considered - of the biologically built in short-sightedness that helped our ancestors survive in an all ‘natural’ world, of the sociobiological interpretations that indicate that humans are designed to fluctuate between altruism and deadly hostility as mechanisms for survival. These emotions, now combined with a technology that is both remote and hugely threatening, will not be easy to control.
Impossible or not we will not know without trying. We are so proud of our ‘sophistication’, our rise above the other animals of the world that we see ourselves as separate from them, as separate from the environment (and here we have much to learn from the remaining indigenous peoples of the world, who’s culture in sum, is the land). We are so proud of our technology that allows us to avoid many diseases and food resource problems that put limits on human survival in the past. For all our talk of freedom, democracy, civilization, and progress, our actions that include warfare, domination, and subjugation of other people tell quite a different story.
The limits on survival remain, simply extended further away from our everyday existence. All that technological craftiness remains but a veneer over our basic instincts for survival that have not changed. If we are truly intelligent creatures, we will recognize our emotions for what they are, over-ride some of our basic emotional reactions, and arrive at some common sense globally intelligent solutions for our current problems.
As the symbolic centre of the war on terror, with Hizbollah along the northern boundaries, with Hamas – although democratically elected – declared a terrorist group along with the rest of those living in the Gaza strip, and with Iran still flourishing archaic rhetoric against the west, Palestine becomes one of the first areas that needs a valid solution.
One solution, certainly not satisfactory to all, but perhaps accepted by all, would be to have Israel return to the Green Line making an independent state of the Palestinian West Bank that has open borders and open airways for full international free trade. Similarly in Gaza, the Egyptian border should be opened for full trade and the air space and coastal water space opened up for full independent control of the Palestinians.
The existing settlements in the West Bank can remain – but only as infrastructure deeded to the Palestinian state as a beginning for reparations for the occupation’s destruction of current Palestinian infrastructure and theft of agricultural and water resources. This would eliminate the Jerusalem problem, and provide a form of acknowledgement of territory taken illegally by military occupation. It would not say much about the right of return, but being an independent state, Palestine could self-regulate the in flow of returnees while using the international court system to adjudicate just compensation for land taken over beyond the proposed UN agreement of 1947.
Easy proposal, lots of variations that could be suggested, not likely to happen. Not without a huge influx of pressure from the U.S. and its acceptance of international law in a world needing multilateral negotiations and adjudication to save us from ourselves. In a financial vein, if the U.S. provided as much aid assistance as it does to Egypt and Israel, the Palestinian economy would be able to resstructure itself quickly. Not much can be done without the U.S. coming on board, and while they are not the only culprits, they are the biggest and most powerful, the most needy for a change, and the most able to implement the changes and influence others to do so should it finally recognize the necessity of doing so. With this root cause settled, the drive towards ‘terrorism’ would greatly decrease, and it would naturally tie in to having the U.S. military return home.
Take the military home.
It is as simple as that. Take the military – all of it - and go home. Not just from the Middle East, but also from everywhere around the globe. Do not leave behind any special ops or CIA personnel or other underhanded manipulative operators or any unmanned bases or secret weapons caches. NATO should go home and stand down. Do not trade armaments with any countries especially those that are non-democratic regimes denying all opposition. Wait for an invitation to return, when perhaps the technical expertise for agriculture or infrastructure would be required - become a part of the global community rather than its lord and master.
Most U.S. oil imports now come from Canada, and Canada will not turn U.S. markets away, even to the extent of stupidly signing an agreement (NAFTA) that gives first rights to the U.S. above Canadian oil and gas needs should a shortage arise. Venezuela still sells oil in spite of the ignorant and bombastic rhetoric against them. All countries will continue to sell oil to the U.S. as they need the financial resources to feed, educate, and support their own societies.
Energy and markets
That introduces the idea of the market. It may be difficult buying oil on an open market that is highly idealized but never operational, but that in turn gives greater impetus to other matters of great talk, of becoming independent of foreign energy resources. Those resources will eventually run out anyway, the time to start changing is now. The automobile industry is in its death throes and rightly so. Let it die. Support industries that offer considerably more environmentally friendly alternatives such as light rapid rail. Yes there will be lifestyle and societal changes as U.S. as well as some global cultures and social geography are determined by its created need for the automobile.
The ultimate market change is to do what is not happening now – allow the major financial corporations to fail as if it truly were a free market society in which all players played equally. That, combined with the decline of the auto culture, will have a large impact on society and go a long way to establishing a basis of saving the environment that is absolutely essential to our survival. Further, a new ethic of saving for purchases rather than burying oneself in debt for ‘stuff’ will be required. The world of finance needs to be regulated, to control the levels of debt available, to allow the transparency and openness that the financeers and corporate bosses call for but seldom if ever implement.
After having deconstructed the failing financial corporations and the automobile industry, start reconstructing an environmentally sustainable economy. If the U.S. is really as exceptional as it claims to be, the highly touted technological expertise, and the financial savings of not carrying an overseas military empire nor a highly consumptive economy can be combined to work progressively to assisting in a real ‘greening of America’ and not leave it as just more lip service towards an undefined goal.
Join the international community
Rather than dominate the globe and suck up all its wealth for the comfort of a very few (where one per cent of the population currently controls thirty-eight per cent of the wealth and the top ten per cent control seventy – one per cent of the wealth, while the bottom forty per cent own less than one per cent of the wealth), the recognition of international laws and agreements in all areas will assist not only the U.S. but much of the rest of the world. This goes well beyond stopping torture at Guantanamo and stating that the U.S. will live by international standards. All international laws need to be attended to.
Nuclear proliferation, the Kyoto Accord, the World Court (the International Court of Justice), the UN, arms limitation talks, small arms gun control, the Geneva Accords, and many other international accords have been made weak or useless by the unilateral U.S. actions that have either abrogated them, ignored the international applications altogether, or operated with them in complete double standards. Joining the international community as a level player will decrease or eliminate the need for a huge military, and will decrease the need for other countries to maintain their respective military regimes.
Adjust to the new financial paradigms
This is the current monster coming out of the closet. As indicated earlier, the current solution of supporting the purchase of debt with full loss protection for those that created the mess in the first place can only add to the debt burden of the U.S. Will the Chinese continue to support U.S. debt if it sees the dollars value eroded by the inflation of printing money to cover the debt? Or, if U.S. assets no longer support the value of the dollar making its value to the creditors worthless? The financial system needs restructuring. Free market capitalism is not free and it does not work. An alternative is required.
That restructuring, beyond what is required internally within the U.S. for its banks and financial corporations, should include the elimination of the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank as they currently operate. A world bank under the auspices of a truly democratic and reformed UN (no security council, with a global ‘cabinet’ responsible to the general assembly) could provide financial services for much of the world as it restructures away from a consumptive market into sustainable markets. Corporations need to be fully constrained and held responsible to the environment by an international governing body under the auspices of the UN, under international control, rather than operating outside of it, with no allowance to pillage the earth for the wealth of the few. Trade by all means should be supported as fully as possible, but fair trade, including the free flow of technological information for industry, medicine, and agriculture that helps individuals and nations survive sustainably on an increasingly narrow margin of existence in an increasingly crowded world.
Many of the solutions are easy to suggest. They are not the only possibilities. Most of them will not be easy to do, as they require large paradigm changes in how the world is viewed and how the nations interact with each other. There are incredible hurdles to overcome but they are not out of reach if the full weight of our technological knowledge and common sense is applied towards solving them. Global finances need to be restructured. Global militaries need to be constrained and reduced, not just for the U.S. The triple threat of an endless war for resources, the destruction of the environment, and the huge imbalances created by the corporate financial systems of the world leave all societies subject to major adjustments whether they are willing to make them or not. Malthus was not wrong; he has only been delayed for a while.
Global structures need to be reinforced, rebuilt, or created anew, otherwise all of us will find ourselves in a world decimated by environmental decline and increasingly hostile militaries. A just and fair distribution of wealth is required, and limits need to be placed on the consumptive habits of our current society. If we cannot make the changes, they will be forced upon us, by the military of one country or another combined with the serious effects of a changing climate and the co-opting of dwindling resources by the wealthy few. Better that we make the changes ourselves for the equality and betterment of all.