Global Warming Is Just a Symptom
by Michael I. Niman
Suddenly everyone’s an environmentalist. That’s because, unlike any other political movement, this one packs the punch of immediacy. We can dawdle on about war. Millions of lives can be lost, and bad will can spread chaos and violence around the world. But we’ve been here before. And as a species we’ve more or less survived the political hells that we’ve created.
The environmental situation is different. The doomsday scenarios are mounting and the emerging reality appears to be more catastrophic than the warnings. The time to act was 60 years ago, when almost no one was aware of the problem. Then there was another opportunity to act 30 years ago, when environmentalists started sounding alarms.
There were small moves in the right direction during the Carter presidency, though these were more in response to the 1970s energy crisis and our dependency on foreign oil then they were to global warming. The Carter administration created tax incentives for renewable energy, established mileage benchmarks for auto makers and even put solar panels on the White House roof.
Then the crisis was “over.” Reagan, as one of his first acts in the White House, ordered the panels removed from the White House roof. Cheap oil was back, followed by an ecocidal orgy of large cars, far-flung suburbs and big-box stores full of cheap (thanks to foreign sweatshops and inexpensive, oil-based transportation), consumable crap.
Rather then decrease our carbon footprint in the face of global warming, we increased it, with fossil-fuel-based emissions rising in the US, according to the Federal Energy Information Administration, by 18 percent from 1990 to 2004. It’s almost as if the Baby Boomers, prime consumers for SUVs and Harley Davidsons, were taking a “We’ll be dead anyway, so let’s party” attitude toward the crisis.
Pacific Garbage Patch
Meanwhile the oceans were being depleted of fish and filled with garbage. A few hundred miles off the coast of Hawaii lies the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an almost Texas-sized drifting slick of plastic debris caught in a swirl of ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre.
This area would historically accumulate assorted flotsam and jetsam, which would organically break down. Today it’s a world of cigarette lighters, tampon inserters, shipping “peanuts,” plastic bottles, plates and so on. This area now has six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton. Autopsies on dead sea turtles in Hawaii have found as many as a thousand pieces of plastic in one turtle’s stomach. The North Pacific Gyre is one of five similarly sized garbage vortexes scattered around the globe.
Fish that survive in our dying oceans are being harvested to extinction to feed an ever hungrier planet. A 2006 academic study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science documents that a third of global fisheries have declined by 90 percent, with a worldwide collapse of all fish stocks likely within 50 years if current trends continue. Again, it’s an orgy of consumption as dying generations of people suck the last fish from the sea, in effect licking the oceanic plate clean before whining for dessert.
The above scenario only accounts for over-harvesting of fish. A potpourri of pollutants is creating oxygen-depleted dead zones and toxic inedible fish, thus complicating the matter. Massive changes in ocean temperatures and currents as a result of global warming will likely cause more damage to this fragile ecosystem upon which all life depends.
Food for cars, not people
I can go on with the doomsday scenario, but let’s take a break and move on to some of the supposed solutions. There’s the Toyota Prius, brought to us by the same “green car company” that gave us the ravenous, gas-sucking Toyota Tundra and a whole line of Lexus SUVs. While I admire the good intent on the part of Prius owners, driving any fossil-fuel-powered car at this stage of the game (and admittedly, I drive a gas-powered car too) is as futile as pissing into the wind.
Then there are the alternative biofuels, which, depending on the crop and method from which your ethanol and biodiesel are derived, can either add to or reduce carbon emissions. But biofuels are nothing more than a fantasy to allow us to dream of continuing what sociologists call the non-negotiable, auto-dependent, American way of life.
Biofuel production means turning food into fuel—in a world where, according to the United Nations, 854 million people suffer from malnutrition and where 16,000 children starve to death every day.
George W. Bush’s stated goal of reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent during the next 10 years would require the production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol. This would require 320 million tons of corn—close to half of the supply grown in the world today. It could also come from sugar cane or a host of other foodstuffs. What this means is that wealthy, first-world consumers will be in direct market competition with poor, third-world consumers, with our demand for fuel driving up their costs for food. In essence, much of the world’s poor will no longer be able to afford corn—the main staple in their diet.
Since sustainable biofuel crops prove less profitable then unsustainable tropical crops such as sugar cane, we can expect to see more deforestation in the tropics as demand for biofuel increases. Displacement of local food crops to grow biofuel crops for export translates into more hunger. Displacing forests to grow biofuel crops means less natural photosynthesis, and hence more carbon and more global warming.
Large-scale commercial agriculture in the US is currently dependent on oil-based fertilizers. As such fertilizers increase in price with the increasing scarcity of oil, the agri-industry will be tempted to go for quick profits, growing fuel crops unsustainably. James Howard Kunstler, speaking to the Commonwealth Club of California, quotes a Pennsylvania farmer, who warned, “It looks like we’re going to take the last six inches of Midwest topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks.”
Kunstler went on to explain that “disruptions to world grain supplies by the ethanol mania are just beginning to thunder through the system. Last month,” he reported, “there were riots in Mexico City because so much Mexican corn is now already being diverted to American ethanol production, that poor people living on the economic margins cannot afford to pay for their food staples.”
Windmills offer another false panacea. Ignoring for the moment the issue of chopped birds, windmills may very well power our new, energy-efficient home lights and maybe even our communication and entertainment systems. But put simply, there isn’t enough real estate available to build enough windmills to keep us rolling into suburbia in our new electric cars. It takes considerably more energy to move a 2,000-pound object then to light your living room. And nuclear power is off the table, as it has proved to be more of a threat to global survival then even global warming. (See my previous column, “Know Nukes,” Artvoice v6n15).
The population bomb
So what is the answer to our mélange of apocalyptic environmental problems? I’m not going to walk away from this one and leave you hanging with another doomsday column. The solution is out there. It always has been. It’s population control. If we had held population growth in check over the last century, our global carbon emissions would be a fraction of what they are today. Let’s look at the numbers. According to the US Census Bureau, global population in 1800 was about one billion people. By 1900 it grew to 1.7 billion. Today it’s well over six billion people.
Population growth, however, isn’t just a simple factor of people having “too many” children. Wealthy, industrialized nations actually have negative population growth while poor nations have almost exponential population growth. This is because, absent any government-supported social safety net, having lots of kids is the only path to economic security in your old age. By relegating most of the world’s population to poverty, the corporate-dominated global economy guarantees a steady supply of cheap labor to fill our Wal-Marts and Targets with inexpensive, dangerously produced products. This poverty, in turn, guarantees population growth in poor countries, where hunger and malaise encourage a migration to industrialized countries, where migrants eventually buy cars and begin to produce first-world levels of carbon and other pollutants, while providing cheap domestic labor for upper-class consumers.
In essence, population growth is a byproduct of global social inequality—the same social inequality that allows people in the industrial world to consume obscene amounts of the world’s resources and produce almost all of its pollution.
Yes, the problem is population growth. But to address it, we need first to address a global economy that structurally exploits half the world for the material benefit of the other half. This means that one way or another, our consumerist orgy must end.
And within the first world, we need to actively control population growth. Science and history have both shown that climax populations collapse on their own. This is one effect we’re about to see with global climate change. To address climate change, we need to address first-world population growth—to breed fewer Prius and Tundra drivers. For some reason, sustaining life on earth through population control has not become part of our “pro-life” culture. We look at our SUV-driving neighbors in disgust, but we give a pass to our friends who chose to raise four or five children, while vilifying women who choose to have an abortion.
Each child born in a first-world country, given present cultural circumstances and expectations, represents another likely car owner, another portion of a home that needs to be built, heated, air-conditioned, furnished and so on. Every birth avoided, either through abstinence, effective birth control or abortion, represents a savings of millions of tons of greenhouse gases and other wastes while conserving scarce food and fuel resources.
If we’re seriously pro-life and want to see the planet survive, we need to get a handle on the population explosion. Ultimately, it’s runaway population growth that’s at the center of our unfolding environmental catastrophe.
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous Artvoice columns are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and distributed globally through syndication.
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v6n18: All Aboard the Ghost Train (5/3/07) > Global Warming Is Just a Symptom
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds