Burning Down The House: Land, Water & Food (first published on zerohedge.com April 2015)
I’m sure when Talking Heads wrote ‘Burning Down The House’ that they didn’t exactly have financial collapse and environmental degradation in mind. Although with a verse like “Hold tight wait till the party's over. Hold tight we're in for nasty weather. There has got to be a way. Burning down the house” it’s hard not to see that song as strangely prophetic.
What we are now doing to the planet and to human society is exactly that – burning down the house while we are still living in it. Everyone needs fuel, especially during a bitter winter, but only a mad man starts deconstructing the house in order to burn bits of it in the stove or fireplace.
Almost as mad as that is stealing bits of other people’s houses to burn, but that at least is not soiling your own doorstep – well not at first. In a world of limited resources and limited space we’ve now reached the point where raiding our neighbours’ houses is the same thing as raiding our own house, because the net effect is the same – disaster on an unprecedented level.
Of course it’s easier to live in denial and keep on cannibalising the world’s vital resources at an ever-increasing rate and pretend that it’s business as usual, but in reality it is anything but that. The alarm bells from commentators from all sectors: science, economics, religion etc. are getting louder and more frequent, better argued and with the raw data to back it up, but we are still not listening.
Of course, the alarm bell was being rung fifty or more years ago by people such as Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1957(1), the now retiring Lester Brown(2) and the late Rachel Carson(3) (author of Silent Spring). Nobody really listened that well back then, although governments paid lip-service to these troublesome do-gooders. Now we know that what they said was entirely true, that we are headed for disaster and yet will still only get the tired old lip-service, as before or Koch Brother inspired denial.
The evidence is clearly there that we are depleting all of our resources far too quickly, especially the land we use to produce food and draw raw materials from(4). In part a consequence of this, the fresh water supplies that are even more vital are also being depleted way too fast. Devastation of the land, especially deforestation exacerbates water loss and soil erosion. Couple this with increased damming of rivers, pollutant run-off into rivers, fracking and mining and you’ve a recipe for a water crisis, which will, in turn, lead to a food crisis(5).
Without fresh water we cannot participate in agriculture – this is the basic fundamental industry that keeps most people on this planet alive. Of course, a few people subsistence farm or hunt and gather still, but this is a tiny, tiny fraction of the human population. The rest of the world relies on increasingly intensive agriculture to provide vegetables, grains, fruit and also meat for the several billion people that are busy doing something else with their time.
Although this is now a major catastrophe in the making – the current wisdom seems to be to gear up for water wars (metaphorical or actual), rather than making a cooperative effort to save or increase our existing water resources and manage the use of water to reduce ridiculous wastage levels(6).
Governments and corporations are well aware that this is the new problem around the corner, or rather already here. The typical, unfortunate response seems to be competition, not cooperation(7). Competition, of course can only end badly for most countries, and may indeed be the undoing of the entire human race, plus a whole raft of other species.
The recently banned, film ‘Under The Dome’(8) highlights this problem of water pollution and over-use in the unstoppable march of China towards economic supremacy. In the end it is unlikely to be the Americans or any other country that will bring China’s economic miracle to an end – it will be the collapse of the environment that will force them to stop the machine. Bad air, bad water, bad land and total reliance on imported food will inevitably take its toll.
Of course these problems are not restricted to China, China is simply the canary in the coalmine. Across the Middle-East, Asia, Africa, southern Europe, USA and central and southern America there are increasing difficulties relating to the basics of food, water and the condition of the land(9, 10).
While many of us are worried about ‘the economy’, whether or not we can afford that holiday or a new car; perhaps we should be more worried about what we are going to eat and drink in a few short years from now. Those of you familiar with Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy Of Needs’ will realise that iPads, holidays and fancy shirts will all go out of the window once our basic needs are in danger.
When our basic physiological and security needs are threatened then all else seems relatively insignificant. If this happens en masse, particularly on a global scale then the consumer economy that we all accept as the norm is likely to disappear almost overnight.
Although we all know that something must be done about the environment, that concern has still failed to translate into concrete action. It’s almost as if we’ve noticed the chip-pan fire in the kitchen but continue watching the TV, hoping that it will go out by itself. Well the fire is not going to go out by itself, it has already spread to half the house(11) and we are still on the couch, chatting about what we should do next.
James Carville came up with a great slogan for Bill Clinton’s election campaign – “It’s the economy, stupid”, to great effect. Well, I think a new variation on that phrase is long over due, as without the basics of life there is no economy and no house left to throw in the fireplace. I wonder if you can guess what that phrase might be? Suggestions welcome.