Thursday, October 22, 2009

Water, Food, Lebensraum, and Pollution

by Richard Crews
The world's major ills or dangers can be grouped under four headings: water, food, Lebensraum, and pollution. I would like to take a stab at summarizing each of those. That is on the "physical" level.

Before I take that on, I would like to discuss briefly a profound and subtle "meta-physical" problem. One that has significant implications for the future of humanity and planet Earth.

Throughout history there has been a tension between, on the one hand, the greed, lust, competitiveness, and self-interest that are probably derived from our animal heritage--evolution, competition among (and within) species, survival of the fittest, ecological-niche selection and domination, etc.--and, on the other hand, "the better angels of our nature" [Abraham Lincoln]. It is reassuring to recognize that the rule of law tempered with mercy, social tolerance, and inter-community cooperation (at every level up to international) have wider purchase today than they did 100 or 500 or 1,000 years ago. There does indeed seem to be "a long arc of history that bends toward justice" [Martin Luther King].

But despite those "better angels" and that "long arc," there persist in the world today widespread ethnic violence including genocides, and the disparate distribution of food and wealth so that some (like us) live in obscene profligacy while billions live in desperate poverty and misery. Moreover, torture and mayhem are endemic in some societies and occasionally seem to raise their ugly heads even in the best of circles.

There is no quick cure for this problem, but there are several factors that can help gradually bend the arc. One is awareness of the problem--to keep the tension between our animal heritage and our better angels always in mind, both philosophically, long-term and also day-by-day (even hour- and minute-by-minute) in orchestrating our words and actions. Another is the willingness to take a stand whenever the opportunity arises against cruelty and bullying, whether it is in the punishing of a child; unnecessary, unfair, and ineffective penal code and practices; predatory business and banking; or simply the ebb and flow of slights in daily life (which people, when they are subjected to them, multiply and pass on).

Water: Each day a billion people don't find safe drinking water. Worldwide underground water tables are sinking--some places where a well once needed to be only 15 or 20 feet deep now cannot reach water hundreds of feet below the surface. And the hydrological cycle (evaporation, cloud formation, rain, river run-off, etc.) that once supplied humanity and the dry earth with bountiful clean, fresh water is being increasingly disrupted and distressed by wasteful irrigation, deforestation, desertification, civil waste, etc.

The "cure" for this problem is to recognize in law and cultural practices that clean, fresh water is not "free." People should be charged for its use and penalized for its misuse (such as in watering lawns, spraying farm fields, dumping contaminants into clean water, etc.). Of course, paying appropriately for water is a general concept change; implementing it would have many specific implications and local variations.

And, yes, agriculture, like many other activities, is a business, that is, a conduit from which the businessperson makes a living by chipping off part of the passing wealth for passing it along effectively. The true cost of water should be passed on to the ultimate consumer, in agriculture and in other activities that use water ("use" in the sense of reducing available clean, fresh water by contamination, dispersion, evaporation, etc.).

Food: More than a billion people in the world are hungry--day after day they fight starvation, malnutrition, and a hundred diseases made worse by lack of nourishment. Buckminster Fuller alerted us decades ago that there was enough food in the world; the problem causing scarcity was poor distribution (in other words, predatory business practices). Designing equitable distribution needs to be part of the solution to the worldwide hunger crisis.

But production needs to be "fixed" too. Norman Borlaug and the "Green Revolution" turned Mexico, India, and elsewhere from net grain consumers to net grain exporters. But the chemically stimulated monoculture he espoused are not ultimately ecologically friendly or sustainable. Now that the killer corporation Monsanto owns (and enforces) patents on the grain seeds of life, and big-tractor economics makes small farms uneconomical, an enormous revolution--in farming practices; seed, fertilizer, and water use; genetic modification and adaptation of food plants; and patterns of meat consumption--needs to find its way around the world.

Lebensraum: This term, meaning "room to live" in German, raises horrible historical associations of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. And in using it here, those are exactly the associations I wish to invoke. There are scores of places around the world where huge populations (often numbering in the millions) have been displaced from their homelands. They are refugees, Many live in crowded tent camps at the mercy of NGOs and the international community; many, in urban squalor; many, in more or less awkward integration with other populations.

This is a complicated, many faceted problem in search of solutions--through education, health care, family planning, immigration reform, and so much more. Ethnic violence, genocide, and refugee-ism are not "solutions" we can live with. On the one hand, they are morally reprehensible, and on the other, left under appreciated and untreated they will not heal and go away, they will fester and grow.

Pollution: Of the land, atmosphere, oceans--by a myriad of chemicals that are designed for their potent biological (and chemical and physical) properties, some in vast quantities (millions, even billions of tons), well beyond the capacity of the Earth to decompose, dilute, disperse, or otherwise "handle" them. We have seen the warnings of "Silent Spring," acid rain, the ozone hole, Chernobyl, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, global warming, etc. The Earth's systems were once so much more vast than any puny human activities, that we could not destroy our Mother. Now our human efforts threaten to overwhelm the Earth's bounty and equilibrium mechanisms.

This is also a complicated, many faceted problem in search of solutions. Ultimately, the only answer may be sophisticated and comprehensive regulation by agencies like the FDA and EPA to curtail and correct malevolent (or unwitting) business and cultural practices.