Archive for April, 2008

Overconsumption + No Conservation = Disaster

April 20, 2008

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” [Albert Einstein]

I wonder what now we can do to confront the situation we’re now in. Ecologically, the United States has led the world, but now as other countries emulate to best of their ability our way of life, the world faces wholesale disaster.

On average, something like two acres of the earth is devoted for each American’s consumption. This amount is the total space of resources devoted to feed, clothe, house, educate, transport, and provide retail and commercial space for every American.

We are in a word gluttonous. We’ve overconsumed our way to the top of the capitalistic pyramid. Whole other nations must labor and farm to meet our avaricious ways. Latin America has greatly expanded palm oil plantations in order to cash in on American shift away from transfats, the now-rejected fat which palm oil does not contain. Conversion to mass agriculture has devastated song bird habitats, which has led to a 50% drop in their migratory populations in the US.

I read a paper on the destruction of tropical rainforest worldwide to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for palm oil. Tropical rainforest only covers 2% of the Earth’s surface, but contains something like 1/2 all its plants, animals, and insects.

Biological diversity is vital to sustaining the planet. Looking at bees as an example, a big die-off has many almond growers and other farmers worrying about pollinating their crops. I’ve heard Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) described as a potential cause. See a Der Spiegel article on the possible connection here.

Seeds like those patented by Monsanto contain pesticides inside their DNA, which means animals and insects that interact with them can be adversely impacted in unforeseen ways. Little is know about the impact ecologically of GMO-laced plants. Likewise little is understood about the effects of GMO-products which make their way up the food chain. It’s a safe bet to assume that GMO-products could be dramatically impacting non-GMO organisms by cross-pollination, to the point DNA can create unforeseen complications, like pesticide-resistant weeds.

Monsanto GMO products are genetically engineered to be immune to Roundup, the flagship herbicide from–you guessed it–Monsanto. Breaking with seed sales where farmers could keep seed, Monsanto also requires all excess seed to be returned every season. Monsanto’s seed might continue to grow in future seasons and resist any pesticides other than Roundup. Utilizing an army of lawyers, Monsanto enforces its seed overage rules in elaborate, multi-year contracts it requires from farmers.

Monsanto’s Roundup resistant GMO seeds are the same extension of avarice. Farmer suicides in India are now endemic, one reason is the higher costs of herbicides like Roundup. Farmers can’t keep the seeds and must commit to long-term contracts. One farmer who’s field was laced by a neighbor’s GMO corn upwind took the case to Court and lost. The legal system rarely finds with the independent farmer when they confront Big Ag head-to-head–the latter just have more fiscal and legal resources.

Violating Nature’s Law

Where all these frankenfoods will take us no one knows, which is precisely the problem–uncertainty. In the case of Mad Cow, introducing herbivores to cannibalization by putting meats in their food violated the spirit of the law of Nature. When slaughterhouse are inadequately supervised, we see “downer” cattle making their way into the food supplies despite their open sores and inability to stand, a telltale symptom of Mad Cow’s disease.

We are seeing a brand new disease that has migrated cross-species from pig brains vaporized in a slaughterhouse.  Used to expedite the removal of pork brains, high pressure blowers allowed microscopic bits of brain matter to transit the blood-brain barrier and sicken workers with no known cure.

Again, like Mad Cow, a very unnatural procedure violates Nature’s law. If we weren’t all so committed to valuing logic, maybe we’d be more respectful of Nature’s limits. Odd how the human species can live in denial of the fundamental idiocy of violating Nature’s principles. We ignore the consequences like an alcoholic ignores the night before.

Whoever’s seen Fast Food Nation knows a little of what goes on in the meatpacking environment. I’m not so naive as to believe that the meat on my table is harvested humanely. I get the handouts from the PETA people too.

Whatever the vulgarity of meat and poultry products, I am more angered by mankind’s persistent capacity for greed. The quest to make more profit by harvesting Downer cattle sickens me, as it should all of us. Vaporizing pigs in horrific ways to increase workers productivity even at the risk of biological contamination violates all the principles of labor law, inadequately enforced as it now is, not by chance either–it’s an open secret that regulatory oversight has been diminished under Lil Bush.

The exploitation of public integrity is continuing in the form of federal subsidies for corn. Naturally, the Big Agra companies will make far more than farmers. Of course the myth that farm subsidies exist to benefit the little guy continues in Washington, undoubtedly the product of intensive lobbying by the Big Ag companies.

Yet the use of energy required to grow may be the undoing of the Federal handout. Petroleum prices have risen, but so too have those for natural gas, a key component in fertilizer, which corn–more than any major North American crop–needs in abundance. Some day Senators like Grassey (R-Kansas) will retire, or the cost of subsidies grow to unsustainable levels vis-a-vis the cost of energy. Yes, prices of crops will rise, but so too will the cost of  energy required to produce them to the point the Federal widget factory is losing a nickel a widget, but making up for it in volume.

As good as the corn companies might have it now, petropolitics have begun to change the underlying economic dynamic, making corn less and less viable in the long-term. Ideally, the higher cost of growing corn will lead growers to alternative crops, but nothing we see bears this out. (The Libertarian argument that the market will self-correct just doesn’t hold as we see demand for oil rising even as the price hits $4/gallon for diesel.)

If anything the present government will do as lobbyists command. Absent some strong executive force enforcement of regulations, and a reshuffling of budget priorities, coupled probably with a line-item veto, nothing will change. And why should it? Ethanol feeds the lobbyists’ spending (reaching over $2 billion last year I believe) back to their corporate sponsors in the form of subsidies. Meanwhile Big Oil rakes it in.

Political Link

Because we have a President and Vice President beholden to the domestic energy industry (and their Saudi friends), we’ve abandoned conservation. Instead of praising conservation as a paradigm of efficiency, Cheney has called it nothing more than a virtue, quoted loosely in this article by Thomas Friedman from a few years back.

As a result of non-conservation, we have runaway profits for Big Energy but alongside it exploding costs of energy for the consumer. So now, with Americans consuming more energy than ever, the price of energy going up means we will be confronted by our excess demand. Even our driving habits requires radical revision.

We are too slow to adjust to the new realities of the 21st century, not the least of which is the need for a more efficient economy through energy conservation. While Right wingers can demand ANWR be tapped, the fact is we are and will continue to be dependent on imported oil. As our dollar tanks, so goes up the cost of energy imports.

Even a firesale of our nation’s last undeveloped public treasures won’t stop the constant growth in energy demand we are now experiencing in part as the result of no conservation. The North Slope will only produce 2% of America’s needs for 20 years or so. Then what? If we don’t start reducing our consumption (not only of oil but of everything the earth has and a good chunk of it unreplenishable), we will face even more dramatic price hikes in the future.

Already, easily found sources of oil are running out. We can’t assume that the world is this inexhaustible resource like humans have throughout our existence. To limit consumption, we need to acknowleedge the finite nature of the planet and the ecological impact we’re making collectively. Toxins have been building, like the mercury that now enters the ocean and American streams, delivered from China’s new coal-fired plants that were springing up every week until recently. Man’s biggest impact on the environment could be the releasing the huge sums of methane which lie trapped in northern Canada and Siberia. Methane is a greenhouse gas more damaging than CO2, which nonetheless could warm the peat bogs sufficiently to trigger the release of methane.

What we do impacts someone else, maybe not down our street, but somewhere else, whether it’s decimated tropical forests in Malaysia for palm oil plantations or denuded fields in Latin America. Then there are the dead zones which pop up where major agricultural runoff enters the ocean, depriving any undersea creature of oxygen.

Every year these problems get worse. Looking at Katrina as an example, their effects are closing in on us. The ecological impacts must be collectively addressed or they shall certainly worsen. Nature is finite but man’s inclination to exploit it is immeasurable.

Better to have a plan started and have Americans accept the need for change now then deny the present and future consequences of our overconsumption. Without any leadership on this issue, the US is destined not to lead the world where it must be led, but rather lose the presitge and influence it can wield in setting a better example for the rest of the world.