Can a Green Economy Save a Drying Planet?
Now let me explain why I even bothered to write this piece. It's true that, if you're reading the mainstream press, each of the droughts mentioned above has gotten at least some attention, several of them a fair amount of attention (as well as some fine reporting), and the Australian fire storms have been headlines globally for weeks. The problem is that (the professional literature, the science magazines and a few environmental websites and blogs aside) no one in the mainstream media seems to have thought to connect these dots or blots of aridity in any way. And yet it seems a no-brainer that mainstream reporters should be doing just that.
After all, cumulatively these drought hotspots, places now experiencing record or near-record aridity, could be thought of as representing so many burning questions for our planet. And yet you can search far and wide without stumbling across a mainstream American overview of drought in our world at this moment. This seems, politely put, puzzling, especially at a time when University College London's Global Drought Monitor claims that 104 million people are now living under "exceptional drought conditions."
Scientists generally agree that, as climate change accelerates throughout this century (and no matter what happens from here on in, nothing will evidently stop some form of acceleration), extreme weather of every sort, including drought, will become ever more the planetary norm. In fact, experts are suggesting that, as the Washington Post reported recently, "The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems."
Now, no one can claim beyond all doubt that global warming is the cause of any specific drought, or certainly the only cause anyway. As with the Texas drought, a La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific is often mentioned as a key causal factor right now. But the crucial point is what the present can tell us about the impact of a global pattern of extreme weather, especially extreme drought, on what will surely be a more extreme planet in the relatively near future.
If global temperatures are on the rise and more heat means lower crop yields, then you're talking about more Kenyas, and not just in Africa either. You're probably also talking about desperation, upheaval, resource conflicts and mass out-migrations of populations, even--if scientists are right--from the American Southwest. (And in case you don't think such a thing can happen here, remember Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath or think of any of Dorothea Lange's iconic photos of the "Okies" fleeing the American dustbowl of the 1930s.)
Right now, the global economic meltdown has massively depressed fuel prices (key to farming, processing and transporting most crops to market) and commodity prices have generally fallen as well, including food prices. Whatever the future economic weather, however, that is not likely to last.
So here's a burning question on my mind:
We're now experiencing the extreme effects of economic bad "weather" in the wake of the near collapse of the global financial system. Nonetheless, from the White House to the media, speculation about "the road to recovery" is already underway. The stimulus package, for instance, had been dubbed the " recovery bill," aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the question of when we'll hit bottom and when--2010, 2011, 2012--a real recovery will begin is certainly in the air.
Recently, in a speech in Singapore, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, suggested that the "world's advanced economies"--the US., Western Europe and Japan--were "already in depression," and the "worst cannot be ruled out." This got little attention here, but President Obama's comment at his first press conference that delay on his stimulus package could lead to a "lost decade," as in Japan in the 1990s (or, though it went unmentioned, the US in the 1930s), made the headlines.
If, indeed, this is "the big one," and does result in a "lost decade" or more, here's what I wonder: Could the sort of "recovery" that everyone assumes lies just over a recessive or depressive horizon not be there? What if our lost decade lasts long enough to meet an environmental crisis involving extreme weather--drought and flood, hurricanes, typhoons and fire storms of unprecedented magnitude-- possibly in some of the breadbasket regions of the planet? What will happen if the rising fuel prices likely to come with the beginning of any economic "recovery" were to meet the soaring food prices of environmental disaster? What kind of human tsunami might that result in?
Once we start connecting some of today's drought dots, wouldn't it make sense to try to connect a few of the prospective dots as well? After all, if you begin to imagine what the worst might look like, you can also begin to think about what might be done to mitigate it. Isn't that more sensible than looking the other way?
If the kinds of hits regional agriculture is now taking from record-setting drought became the future norm, wouldn't we then be bereft of our most reassuring formulations in bad times? For example, the president spoke at that press conference of our present moment as "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" (emphasis added). On an extreme planet, no such comforting "since the..." would be available, nor would there be any historical road map for what was coming at us, not if we had already run out of history.
Maybe the world we knew but scarce months ago is already, in some sense, long gone. What if, after a lost decade, we were to find ourselves living on another planet?
Feel free, of course, to ignore my burning questions. After all, I'm only an amateur with the flimsiest of credentials from Google U. Still, I do keep wondering when the media pros will finally pitch in, and what they'll tell us is on that distant horizon, the one with the red glow.