I met my friend Dr. Eric Zencey, the author of VIRGIN FORESTS, at the GNH USA conference earlier this year. He talked about sustainability and economics, and suggested that we consider the financial crisis an environmental one. From time to time he sends me an absolutely dazzling idea for a story that I simply don’t have the outlet to do. Here with his permission I excerpt his latest. As I read it I thought about how Bhutan is trying to bolster its economy by increasing tourism, in the hopes of creating jobs, while meanwhile, there simply isn’t enough paying work to go around now that people are flocking to the cities from the farms: A whole new underclass is being created.
Dr. Eric writes: “The untold story of this summer’s unprecedented weather (floods in Pakistan and China and Burkina Faso, heat wave in Russia, drought in Sub Saharan Africa) is this: several national granaries have been destroyed this year, and probably taken “off line” for longer. Maybe forever. Conclusion: unprecedented weather, almost certainly the result of climate change, is reducing the agricultural productivity of the planet. Combine this with the oil spill in the Gulf, which halted protein harvests there. No one has put these two story threads together to show this conclusion: gradually, systematically, human action is reducing the capacity of the planet to feed us.
“It seems that policy makers like Jacques Diouf, Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and even NGOs like Oxfam, are still engaging in old-think; the way to decrease hunger is to promote economic development, including increased use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides. That path isn’t sustainable.
“(The push for more growth and development is consistent with the UN’s official acceptance, a few decades ago, of something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve: the idea that ecological degradation increases as countries develop, but then stops and reverses as countries become wealthier and choose to “buy” a cleaner, less degraded environment. This conservative idea leads to the conclusion that expanding economic growth solves ecological problems, so we have to grow-grow-grow. The trouble is, the EKC has been THOROUGHLY discredited; it just doesn’t work that way. You can model the US experience with an EKC, but only if you overlook the fact that US environmental quality began to increase when laws were passed, laws whose effect was to encourage companies to shift the ecological footprint of US consumption to other nations with less stringent laws.)
“So you get calls for increased economic development as a way of feeding hungry people–as if the problem were that they don’t have the money to buy food. A whole-systems view suggests that if you want to end hunger, you have to work to limit population to the food supply that can be sustainably harvested.
“A NYT article reports that “more than 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural parts of developing countries.” Wouldn’t rural areas be where the agriculture is? Why are these people starving? The traditional take on it goes, “they starve because they’re poor, so we have to help them develop so they have money to buy food.” But a tougher question is, “What happened in these regions that keeps their agricultures from feeding their populations?” Asking it that way leads you to answers like globalization –the production and export of market foods at the expense of indigenous staples–and steady population increase in the face of volatility in food production. Some of the volatility is natural–there are always droughts and floods–and some of it is man-made, as the severity of these “natural” phenomena increase with climate change.”