Global Suicide Pact:: The Darfur Engine, Pt 3
by Natasha Chart, Mon Aug 25, 2008 at 02:34:47 AM EDT
Suicide (n) - The most preventable type of death.
This is the ongoing story of a species whose leaders have a death wish, and whose members at large mostly don't. Also, sometimes they got to wondering what should be done about a large geopolitical concentration of fellow beings operating under the brand name "China".
"China's rise and ongoing transformation are the global story." - Bob Costas, who went on to point out that the country is home to one-fifth of humanity, commenting on the close of the Beijing Olympics, August 24, 2008.
"So who will be Tibet's Charlie Wilson? Who will bring the Chinese empire to its knees? Who will stop it from devouring the Earth's resources, sponsoring genocidal regimes, displacing its own people by the millions and keeping them in the dark about events within their own country?" - Glenn Hurowitz, April 14, 2008.
"China has become the world's leading polluter, and also continues to be one of the worst, if not the worst, human and worker's rights offender on the planet. However, considering that we imported 200 billion dollars in goods from China in 2004 (the most recent year for which I could find a figure), or about 10% of the entire Chinese economy in 2004, we are hardly in a position to criticize. Whenever you consume 10% of another nation's economy, you are giving more than tacit approval to the means by which that produces its economy." - Chris Bowers, August 9, 2008.
After reading that Glenn Hurowitz article back in April, it occurred to me that the leaders of China, whatever their faults, probably have one main goal in mind all the time: don't be another Russia. Don't let the country dissolve into an overtly kleptocratic enterprise whose young citizens' main choices are often between joining the mob, selling anything to leave, and drinking themselves to death.
China's leaders want half of their 2050 population to be able to have a car and travel abroad. They want to lift 80 million of their people out of poverty.  While they're trying to get to there from here, why should they listen to us?
Without meaning to diminish what's going on in Tibet and Darfur, I don't think it's right to wish Russia's fate on an entire country in collective punishment for their leaders' actions. I don't think it will help.
On the other hand, China's probably headed down that path all on their own. But it's nothing to smirk about. We're going to end up wherever they do.
Water is life. Even when we don't have to think about it. China doesn't have the luxury of not thinking about it.
... Diversion schemes for irrigating crops and dams for flood control, without careful planning, have in some cases reduced flows to a trickle, or worse. The Yellow River, at the heart of China's wheat- and maize-producing area, is a grim example - once one of China's main arteries, water flow now no longer reaches the sea on about 200 days of the year. Expected temperature rises in the region due to global warming add to frightening prospects for China's food production. ...
Beijing itself is already sinking under the weight of its water needs. Residents of Florida won't be surprised by their situation:
... Beijing itself is quietly sinking. With much of its surface water fouled by pollution--and a population that has exploded from 2 million in 1948 to 18 million today--the city relies on groundwater for most of its needs. But drought and overpumping are rapidly depleting the area's underground aquifer, causing sinkholes that have destroyed factories and homes. Subsidence is threatening sections of the Beijing-Shanghai railway line and parts of the city's international airport. "Subsidence security" is a major issue. ...
But then, as they don't have the luxury of avoidance, neither do we.
... Less than 0.1 percent of the stored ground water mined annually is replaced by rainfall.
Water tables are dropping a meter or more each year beneath a large area of irrigated farmland in north China ...
The Ogallala Aquifer that supplies agriculture, industry and home use in much of the southern and central plans states has an annual overdraft 130 to 160 percent in excess of replacement. This vitally important aquifer will become unproductive in another thirty years or so. The Ogallala Aquifer is the irrigation source for much of the American breadbasket; when it becomes unproductive, the US heartland will go dry. ... 
Fun. And as the water goes, so goes the food.
To the extent that [Spook Country is] an American novel of its time, I think it's necessarily a novel of political paranoia. Cyberpunk's got it right. In Neuromancer--although it's never dated in the book, I always assumed it was happening around 2035--you glimpse the United States, and it's not that great a place. There doesn't seem to be any middle class. There's nothing between these post-human superrich people and the Street, with a capital S. Nobody's ever more than one door away from the Street. It's quite grim and maybe it's become a kind of cliché, but on the other hand, it's exactly like Mexico City. It's really similar to a lot of the Third World. And so I think that the cyberpunk future, if you want to generalize it, is a future in which globalization really does work both ways, and everybody--unless they're very, very, very rich--winds up getting to be part of the Third World. -- William Gibson
Doesn't sound fun, you know. What you've got to ask yourself is, 'What are the odds that I'll be one of the post-human superrich, as opposed to a landless peasant?' For me, I can already guess the answer to that one.
When no one wants to buy a person's work, and their government is going bankrupt, and their work can't be turned to growing food to tide them over until better times because they have no access to land, what then? When the oil that's been floating suburbia becomes too expensive and the corporate jobs dry up, how do you think everyone's going to fare?
And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the olive oil and the wine." -- Revelations 6:6, note that a denarius represented about a day's wages when this text was written.
Probably, average people in the US will do about as well in the coming shocks as average people in Asia during this present food crisis, which is to say, not well. We will all, sooner or later, face sharp declines in our standards of living and the shrinking, if not disappearance, of the middle class. According to the previously linked article, global food prices had gone up 43 percent by March, sparking food riots all over the world.
Would it surprise you that agribusiness profits have grown scandalously high as another 100 million people began going hungry over the last six months? You could read the following excerpt as the story of present-day Haiti, Africa and the Phillipines. Or, you could read it as a foreshadowing of what could happen anywhere:
... Look at Haiti. A few decades ago it was self-sufficient in rice. But conditions on foreign loans, particularly a 1994 package from the IMF, forced it to liberalise its market. Cheap rice flooded in from the US, backed by subsidies and corruption, and local production was wiped out. Now prices for rice have risen 50% since last year and the average Haitian can't afford to eat. So people are taking to the streets or risking their lives to journey by boat to the US. Food protests have also erupted in West Africa, from Mauritania to Burkina Faso. There, too, structural adjustment programmes and food-aid dumping have destroyed the region's own rice production, leaving people at the mercy of the international market. In Asia, the World Bank constantly assured the Philippines, even as recently as last year, that self-sufficiency in rice was unnecessary and that the world market would take care of its needs.  Now the government is in a desperate plight: its domestic supply of subsidised rice is nearly exhausted and it cannot import all it needs because traders' asking prices are too high. ...
It's not like there's no food. It's that much of the food that's grown is being held against the decline of the dollar, the currency everyone's been using as the standard for international trade. We could consider this a test run for when there literally isn't enough to buy, as opposed to there not being as much money with which to buy it.
Then there's the land to grow it on. In a previous postin this series, I highlighted land use figures from a 2002 soil science textbook. In the fifty years before the book was written, about 43 percent of the vegetated land on the planet has been degraded by human activity.
Do you know where your food comes from? Do you know where it would come from if it was no longer dirt cheap to ship it to you? That's a question the Chinese are going to be asking themselves in the not-so-distant future, also.
... China is diverting its water to factories and cities to produce the wealth needed to import food rather than grow grain itself.
... China is continuing to expand consumption fast. If it reaches the same living standards as north America, as it aspires to do, then in 30 years its projected 1.45 billion people would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the 2005 world grain harvest. ...
And China, like the developed nations, like everyone, is increasingly turning to an industrialized agriculture model that's pushing the planet to its limits. As well as coming to its limits in how well it can feed us. I don't think I could explain it any better than this concise summary that appeared in the Air University Review in 1983, looking at global resource availability:
... A worsening ratio of people to arable land will bring about greater dependence on chemical fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals and on plant breeding for higher yields.
In regard to dependence on chemical pesticides, the study looks for an increase in pesticide-resistant insects, based on California's experience where, of 25 species each causing crop losses in excess of $1 million per year, 17 are now resistant to one or more types of pesticides. Modern plant breeding also brings with it a different kind of danger, because breeding for high yields is based largely on the use of uniform, inbred strains; and the most inbred strains appear to have become weakened in their natural resistance to diseases and insects.
The report points out that the corn blight which struck the U.S. corn belt in 1970 illustrated the vulnerability of genetically identical monocultures. This use of inbred strains, along with the predicted disappearance of the genetic material of thousands of species of plant life (possibly 20 percent of all species on earth), may in the long run prove more serious than the problem of higher prices for petroleum-derived fertilizers and chemicals. ...
Our food comes from plants that we protect from insects with fossil fuel products that are running out and that the insects are growing resistant to, anyway. Worse, we're wiping out plant strains that have natural resistance in order to grow the ones that have very little. Evolution in action.
Diversified, decentralized agricultural methods as practiced before the implementation of modern cropping systems, mixed with the latest research and crop breeding, could perhaps offer a way out. They can offer an end to the destruction of valuable biological diversity, an end to the emptying out of rural lands, an end to the pesticide treadmill, and significant reductions in water use. But who will manage those more diverse farms?
The Chinese government plans to move 500 million rural residents to the cities by 2050 , They think, I suppose, that they can just import what they need later. If you've been following along, you might wonder who they're going to import from, and it might be difficult to import food from the US.
The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60. The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 5.8 percent in 2002. ... Who will be growing our food 20 years from now? - "Peak Everything" by Richard Heinberg, 2007, New Society Publishers
Without a course correction, we're all going to end up in the same place. Hungry. I wonder how everyone's going to act, besides badly.
I Wear The Ruin Of Tibet and Darfur On My Chinese-Shod Feet
... and marinate in Chinese-made cloth most of my waking hours. The electronic devices that are at the center of my days come from all over, but also from China and its claimed territories. I sit on furniture they made there, from bolts to upholstery.
People are worried about China's unrestrained resource use, but that resource use was not originally ramped up to meet the insatiable consumer demands of the Chinese peasantry. Their resource use clothes me, entertains me, provides for the people who feed me and also make what I can't produce for myself.
Me and you and everybody we know.
It's true that now the Chinese are starting to consume more. To want cars and more clothes and better gadgets. Would we be so unkind as to begrudge them what we've enjoyed?
Unfortunately, it's not a choice. Developing nations can't have what we enjoyed. Whether we'd deny it to them or not, and even if we solve the water and food problems. The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, explains (pdf):
- In the past three decades, one-third of the planet's natural
resources base have been consumed.
- The U.S.has 5% of the world's population but consumes 30% of the world's resources and creates 30% of the world's waste.
- 80% of the planet's original forests are gone.
- For every one garbage can of waste you put out on the curb, 70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream just to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the curb.
I could say that "this has to stop," and you might come over all Lebowskian and say, 'oh, well, that's just, like, her opinion, man.' But the reason it has to stop is that it will stop. It can't continue. Won't.
... For some 30 years the United States, with less than 300 million people, less than 5% of the world's population, had consumed one-third of the world's resources. That was now changing rapidly as China, with 1.3 billion people, had overtaken America in the number of people with mobile phones, television sets, and refrigerators.
... China only wants one car for every two people, but one day, if it has three cars for every four people -- U.S. style -- it will have 1.1 billion cars. In 2006 there were 800 million cars.
To provide the roads, highways, and parking lots to accommodate such a vast fleet, China would have to pave an area equal to the land it now has planted with rice. It would also need 99 million barrels of oil a day. Yet the world currently only produces 84 million barrels per day and is unlikely to be able to increase this by much. ... 
Sooner or later, using resources in the way that we do is going to end. It can end because we run into the hard wall of finite fuel, materials and land, or it can end because we decide to do things differently.
If it goes down the first way, it will be peasantry everywhere, for almost everyone, forever. For those people who survive the drastic decrease in our global standard of living, that is, and the lucky ones will have land. I trust that I don't need to further detail why landless peasantry sucks. There will never again be enough resources on the planet to fuel the development of a global industrial civilization. Though if we plan for it, instead, if we live in such a way that we don't hit that resource wall, we could have nice lives, everybody could be taken care of.
That's up to us, in the US and the other developed nations, in large part. We might have influence over China's behavior, but we own ours. And why should China have the burden of figuring a way out of this mess?
China's pulling towards a lead, but they're still running in our rat race. They're still playing the same, stupid game we inherited from the people who turned the whole world into their slave farm.
All the "Free Tibet" stickers and Darfur demonstrations in the world wouldn't make as much difference as transforming our consumer economy. If the people in the Chinese government woke as one tomorrow and decided that they'd let Tibet be self-determining and that they'd stop supporting the Sudanese government, it would not stop the oppression and brutality built into the operating plans of our consumer economy. It would not stop the inevitable fate of that global consumer economy as it is, the engine that's consuming Tibet and the Congo and Colombia.
But this consumer economy will stop. The best chance we have to do good is to decide right now, while we still have resources and time, what will come after.
Glenn Hurowitz, in the article linked above that started these considerations, suggested that the Tibetans should take another look at Gandhi's tactics.
I can't say if that will work for the Tibetans or not, though I'm sure and certain that people in the United States need to take another look at Gandhi's tactics.
Gandhi understood that to criticize a system based on violent class oppression, he needed to give up class oppression. He understood that to criticize an exploitive extraction economy, he needed to participate in a fair, local economy, to create demand for one, if necessary. He understood that when an economy is based on blood money, to change it, you have to find ways to refuse to cooperate.
The British owned India, but Gandhi decided that he would act as though that weren't true. And then one day, it wasn't. Who owns us that shouldn't? What should we do about it?
Certainly, the answer isn't to find one guy to spearhead an effort attacking China as a financial and manufacturing behemoth.
Because it probably isn't any man that will bring China down. It will be the land, in her sorrow and desolation, in her exhaustion. I won't be cheering, though. I mean, Russia was brought down, and what is there to show for it but a country that can barely feed itself, losing population, falling apart.
Is that what we want for China? A billion people more broken and suffering than before? If that's what we want for them, what do we think will happen to us?
How can a society intentionally built on plannedobsolescence in a finite world possibly avoid a sticky end? How could we ever think we'd escape without a scratch if one of the world's key suppliers of manufactured goods went down the rabbit hole for good?
We can have abundance, sufficiency and autonomy, all of us together, or we can all eventually come to live in Darfur.
 "Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change" by Paul Brown, 2007, Reader's Digest. Or, as they say at the Fafblog, "Global Warming: How F*cked Are We? The answer may surprise you! But only if you thought the answer was "not f*cked," 'cause it turns out we're pretty f*cked."
 "Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture" by Dale Allen Pfeiffer, 2006, New Society Publishers.
Other GSP installments:
Transnational Maoism - Hating on the game.
Darfur Engine, Pt 2 - The long burn.
Darfur Engine, Pt 1 - You didn't think the Chinese had no precedent, did you?
Amish Takeover - Apocalyptic dystopia? No thanks, I'd rather have a civilization.
The Efficiency Trap - Energy flow in living systems and their origins.
The End of Cheap - Political reality, meet physical reality.