“To find the corpses of your beloved in the debris;
to find the air and the water exploding;
to be waned by scoff lapse;
to be thrilled by the dark before solar collapse;
to be elated over a storm’s zing or the raining stings in the spring;
– these are some of the rewards of testing nature’s ire”
One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change. Conventionally we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Most of the times, this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and people are simply blindsided by events such as today’s economic crises, food crises, fuel crises, pollution, exemplified overpopulation, booming global temperatures, rising sea level, intensifying storms, waning green cover and global freshwater famine –invading synchronically.
For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could make us head a warming so dire –and how would we go about responding to it? We are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes, displayed by news channels as ‘End of the World in 2012’, that we are virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand. Sure, our civilization might develop into chaos –and our planet might collide with an asteroid too!
Since past 2 years, I have excogitated global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions and impact on the planet and humans. The combined effects of those trends and the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and societies. Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy –most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures –forces to conclude that such a collapse is possible.
PROLIFERATE: THE NEW HUMAN NATURE
From the first glimpses, one is almost certain to be qualmish of demographics, or –for purpose of mental hygiene and financial gain –to somehow manipulate the uneasiness or distrust in order to shy away from the truth of overpopulation and what it means for all of us. Yet the numeric verities are not easily obscured or eluded. Leafing through countless tomes of statistics, one’s impatience and scepticism turn to real alarm. The sheer weight of numbers known vaguely to be human beings, the burden of their illimitable data, and the substantial meaning of out impact, escalate in the psyche at a speed approaching four human births every second, over fourteen thousand per hour, nearly one hundred million per year, begging for a quality of life that is increasingly impossible to satisfy. As other species quietly, rapidly, fade away and the imbalance of human numbers continues to escalate, a hint of substantial personal peril surfaces, as if one’s life were suddenly held hostage by cosmic forces totally out of control. Yet unlike, say, a hurricane, we alone are to answer for this situation. Only we can ameliorate, and hopefully reverse, the debacle of our unrelenting proliferation.
Early ecologists explained the growth of the population of animal species, including humans, through an S-shaped curve –which starts slowly, then rises steeply and then becomes almost constant. Bacterial population growth, however, was explained under J-shaped –which starts slowly, rises really sharply and then falls like world trade centre on 9/11. The obnoxious rise in the human number has lead to the crash of all the pre-calculations to give rise to new stories by our pens. Our relentless rising numbers have pushed Earth to a threshold, where even a minor change can lead to the collapse, the world has never seen.
Use of condoms in countries with high false “orthodox” feelings, like in India for example, is less thereby unprotected sex leads to the rising numbers, especially in low-literate areas like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where each couple has over 6-7 descendants (By no way I want to pinpoint any particular state). But in the most alarming, existential sense, contact with overpopulated human world easily dispatches reflective individuals toward unrelieved darkness, mired and subsumed in quantities, zeroes, and decimal points beyond their ken. No single capability can circumvent this unimaginably teeming future. Overpopulation, from the perspective of the individual, can be thoroughly debilitating. Panic, escapism, homophobia, wrath, persistent forlorn and bitter fatalism are all patterns associated with today’s unprecedented densification of human beings. The humdrum surface of family planning is imprinted with every living miracle, every child, but also totally conceals the lurking horrors of human impact. The term “family planning” and its politically correct intentions conceal something like one hundred million sex acts a day. But then, beyond the few moments of carnal pleasure, comes the biological truth: The universal contractions, the chasm of darkness out of which the human miracle tastes the honeyed light and fresh air. These merciless moments are generating more and more humans to bring the things up whose anatomy and aftermath has been mentioned in later stages.
But the casual observer will be struck by the unthinkably acute whorl of pain directly beneath and to all sides of humanity’s fertility and global pestilence: the collision course, long in the making, between human and the biosphere and the final results. For purpose of absolute clarity, I call it “WORLD WAR III”. But unlike the previous two wars, this is the final war. Einstein rightly said,” I don’t know with what World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and pebbles”.
HYDROPANDEMONIUM: CRISIS IS ON
Humanity is furiously engaged in World War III at this time. Our increasing numbers are bearing down on Earth’s finite resilience. We are using nature as ammunition for our many struggles amongst ourselves (economic, political, cultural, etc), while directly assaulting and outmanoeuvring her every flank. The relentless rise in human population has generated a new surge in mankind for food to eat, land for shelter and water for hygiene and drinking. To support such a large amount of population, millions of hectares of land are being wiped off daily, which definitely has lead a marked decline in land’s water binding capacity to replenish groundwater reserves.
One hundred and ten thousand cubic kilometres of precipitation, nearly 10 times the volume of Lake Superior falls from the sky onto the earth’s land surface every year. This huge quantity would be enough to easily fulfil the requirements of everyone on the planet if the water arrived where and when people needed it. But much of it cannot be captured, and the rest is distributed unevenly. More than half of the precipitation that falls on land is never available for capture or storage because it evaporates from the ground (more due to rising temperatures) or transpires from plants; this fraction is called green water. The remainder channels into so-called blue water sources –rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers –that people can tap directly. Farm irrigation from these free-flowing bodies is the biggest single human use of freshwater. Cities and industries consume only tiny amounts of total freshwater resources, but the intense local demand they create often drains the surroundings of ready supplies.
At an average, every human on this planet requires 1 million litres for drinking, hygiene and growing food. These are just minor stats of what exactly we exploit. 11,000 litres of water is consumed in making your 1 pair of denim jeans, 10 litres of water in making an A4 sheet that you waste like hell while photocopying or printing, jute industry consume tons of water daily for processing and no need to mention how alcohol industry is consuming the holy fluid to generate beer, wine and whisky. Things are clear, we need to decrease the consumption or find some alternative; just closing eyes out of problems, won’t provide the solution.
Providing adequate water is especially challenging in drier, underdeveloped and developing nations with large populations because demand in those areas is high and supply is really low. Rivers like Nile, Yangtze and the Great Ganges are not only overtaxed, they also now regularly peter out for long periods during the year. And the levels of the underground aquifers below New Delhi, Beijing and many other burgeoning urban areas are falling. Every year, even in the developed countries like the United States, the lakes record their ongoing declines with successive, chalky high water marks left on their tall canyon walls like so many bathtub rings.
Given the difficulties of sensibly apportioning the water supply within a single nation, imagine the complexities of doing so for international river basins such as that of the Jordan River, which borders on Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian areas and the Jordan, all of which claims to be shared, but limited, supply is an extremely parched region. The struggle for freshwater has contributed to civil and military disputes in not only these areas, but they are quite common within the different states of the same nation as well (Indians are well aware of such instances from Haryana, UP and Bihar). Only continuing negotiations and compromise have kept this tense situation under control so far, otherwise, we would have been witnessing “BATTLE OF WATER”.
In countries like India, China and other Asian and American countries facing near drought are being forced to opt for irrigation, taking water out of the land to fulfil their need for farms and personal use. Usually aquifers are replenishable, but some of the most important ones are not: the “fossil” aquifers, so called because they store ancient waters, are not recharged by precipitation. In China the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Over pumping has used up most of the water in a shallow aquifer there, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.
But water shortages are even more worrying in India. The margin between food consumption and survival is more precarious. Millions of irrigation wells have dropped water tables in almost every year. A World Bank report says that 20% of India’s food supply is produced by mining the ground water. Stats wise, 175 million Indians consume grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon be exhausted. The continued shrinking of water supplies could lead to unmanageable food shortages and conflicts. Irrigation is not just the right to way to act, as to pump water deep from the wells, requires a huge amount of energy, sometimes more than 50% of total electricity produced by burning fossil fuels, which are again adding to rising temperatures, another reason of water shortage. So, biggest challenge is irrigation, which is also leading to salting of coastal aquifers leading to so many more serious problems which are beyond a normal farmer’s imagination. The international communities can reduce the chances of a global water crisis if it puts it collective mind to the challenge. Solving the water problem will not be easy, but we can succeed if we start right away and stick to it. Otherwise, much of the world will go thirsty.
CLAMOR OF MILLIONS: ANYONE TO LISTEN?
Untimely precipitation at uneventful places, flooding unsullied communities and slaying away unalloyed food for millions- aren’t they a daily news now. You can blame global warming and forget, as food is easily available to you, though sometimes at little higher costs. If ignorance was a solution, probably India would have been the richest in the world. In six of the past nine years world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks. When the 2008 harvest began, world carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) were at 62 days of consumption, a record low. In response, world grain prices in the spring and summer of last year climbed to the highest level ever.
As demand for food rises faster than supplies are growing, the resulting food-price inflation puts severe stress on the governments of countries already teetering on the edge of the chaos. Unable to buy grain or grow their own, hungry people take to the stresses. But if the food situation continues to deteriorate, entire nations will break down at an ever increasing rate. We have entered into 21st century, an era of geopolitics. In 20th century the threat to international security was superpower conflict; but now it’s failing states. It’s not concentrating powers, but its absence that’s alarming. Nations fail when national governments can no longer provide personal security, food security and basic social services such as education and health care.
Agriculture faces a catastrophic future; crop production in declining and could cease altogether if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation and the decline in soil fertility. In the past 40 years, the world has lost nearly all its forests in places with scanty rain and much of its top soil, forcing the countries to import more than half of its grain. The most persuasive environmental threat to food security –rising surface temperatures –can affect crop yields everywhere. In many countries, crops are grown near their thermal optimum, so even a minor temperature rise shrinks the harvest. A latest study suggests that –for every rise of one degree Celsius, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 12 percent. Some experts point to genetically modified crop strains as a way out of our predicament. However, no genetically modified crops have led to dramatically higher yields; moreover, playing with nature is surely not a wise thing to do, when genetics of the food we eat alter.
The recent merging of the food and energy economies implies that if food value of grain is less than its fuel value, the market will move the grain to the energy economy. That double demand is leading to an epic competition between cars and people for the grain supply and to a political and moral issue of unprecedented dimensions. The recent surge in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it unlikely to reverse without a reversal in trends themselves.
Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Iraq, Rep. of Congo, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, etc. –these are just a few examples of the nations in the world where numbers are going the wrong way and are closest to collapse. When governments lose their monopoly on power, law and order begin to disintegrate. After a point, countries can become so dangerous that food relief workers are no longer safe and their programs are halted; in Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, deteriorating conditions have already put such programs in jeopardy. They are of international concern as they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons and refugees, threatening political stability everywhere.
On the other hand, a dangerous politics of food security is coming into play; individual countries acting in their narrowly defined self-interest are actually worsening the plight of the many. Russia and Argentina have banned their wheat exports, in hopes of increasing locally available food supplies and thereby bringing down food prices domestically. Vietnam, the leading rice exporter, banned its exports for several months for the same reason. Such moves may reassure those living in the exporting countries, but they are creating panic in importing countries. In response, importers are nailing down bilateral trade agreements locking up future supplies. Soaring food prices and spreading hunger all over the world are beginning to break down the social order, leading to arm race which is directing the human to an appalling finish.
Since the current food shortage is trend driven, the environmental trends that cause it must be reversed. To do so requires extraordinary demanding measures –a massive effort to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from their 2006 levels, the stabilization of World population at 8 billion, the eradication of poverty, and the restoration of forests, soils and aquifers. Net carbon dioxide emissions can be cut by investing massively in the development of renewable sources of energy. Stabilizing poverty go hand in hand, as smaller families ensures less poverty due to low food and space demands, and primary education can be ensured for all. Restoring earth’s natural resources incorporates a worldwide initiative to arrest the fall in water tables by raising water productivity.
There’s nothing new in these four objectives, they are being discussed since I was born. Indeed, we are hit by economic crises now following all these terrible conditions that no nation has enough to invest on such targets and take care of food shortage and social security simultaneously. Growing unemployment following global recession, falling Indo-Zhong trade relations and declining World stock markets are forcing us to stay mute spectator until the crises persist.
CHANGING TIMES: WORK OR REST IN PEACE
Agriculture as it exists today has been shaped by a climate system that has changed little in the 11000 year old history of farming. Because most crops were developed for maximum production under these stable conditions, the higher temperatures that are expected in global warming will reduce crop yield, measured in bushels per acre harvested. Global warming has triggered the climatic shift 600 years prior to the predictions of 19th century experts with a 180 degree shift. Earlier predictions were for ice age and what is in front is a cinder to roast. Earth is heating up, generating more thunderous super storms, to be discussed in subsequent issues.
The effect which is more alarming and still not warmed up in discussions is tectonic plates surrounding Himalayas, both Indian tectonic plate and Han tectonic plate. These plates have shown motions in the recent months, leading to thunderous earthquakes in Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir, China, Tibet, Assam, Bihar and West Bengal. Certainly, the plates are heating up and something is wrong with seismic activities of lava in the mantle, which is yet to be discovered. Delhi is next on cards to face largest seismic disaster in the history as per my calculations, with no prior training or work experience in a laboratory, just my observations with raw data available.
Our challenge is to act, that too quick enough in order to avert what’s in store in days to come. The world is in a race between political tipping points and natural ones. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to prevent the Greenland ice sheet from slipping into the sea and inundating our coastlines? Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the mountain glaciers of Asia? During the dry season their melt waters sustain the major rivers in India and China –and by extension, hundreds of millions of people. Can we stabilize population before countries such as India, Pakistan and Yemen are overwhelmed by shortages of the water they need to irrigate their crops?
None of the transformations will be possible, however, if the root cause of their desperate necessity –human behavior and demographic pressure –are not viewed with the appropriate sobriety. These strategic developments are all viewed as behavioral requirements for any true resuscitation of the natural environment, in which I include a natural human population, where children are loved and cared for, and their parents may find joy and dignity in their lives. Realistic curbs on overpopulation are only so good as our corresponding contemplation of, and behavior towards nature (an equation that encompasses our treatment of one another). Both are battle fronts; both family planning and ecological sustainability factor equally in our scaling back humanity’s unprecedented aggression against the Creation.
It’s hard to overstate the urgency of our predicament. Every day counts. Unfortunately, we do not know how long we can light our cities with coal, for instance, before Greenland’s ice sheet can no longer be saved. Nature sets the deadline and we are in maze to chase. We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking got us into this blind will not get us out.
There’s nothing called fate. It’s the courage, right frame of mind and right conditions we need if civilization is to survive. We are no longer speaking about “utopia”, per se, but about ensuring a biological future. What is best may be beyond humanity’s reach, at present. But what is good may be possible.