A LITTLE GOOD NEWS (JUST A LITTLE!) ABOUT THE BAD NEWS…

10 04 2010

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies….

Like many people, I spread the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan ice sheet, which is the third largest on the planet, and the source for every major river in Southeast Asia, was likely to melt by 2035.  Well, the good news is, they now admit they were wrong about that–it will actually happen in 2036.

Just kidding!

Seriously, though, the official estimate for the demise of that ice pack is now three hundred years, which, geologically speaking, is hardly any different from twenty-five years, and in any case, the IPCC’s estimates have consistently turned out to be optimistic, compared to what is actually happening.  For instance, fossil fuel use, and consequent carbon release, has risen much faster than even their worst-case scenario predictions.

A slower dwindling of the Himalayan ice pack means that the billions of people who depend on the rivers of Southeast Asia for their water–from the Indus in Pakistan to the Yellow River of China–will be gradually parched rather than suddenly hung out to dry.  If the affected countries plan carefully, this could allow time for voluntary population reduction, social programs to obviate the perceived need for large families, transition to less water-intensive agriculture, reforestation, and other water conservation and ecosystem stabilization practices.

None of that will be easy, and even a coercive state like China has not been able to actually reduce its population, in spite of a fairly strict one-child-per-family law.  The alternative, whether reached in twenty five years or three centuries, is horrific–billions of people displaced by famine, failing surface and ground water supplies, and rising seas.  There will be population reduction and eventual return to some kind of equilibrium, but it will not be pretty.

In fact, it’s not pretty already.

In India, the “Green Revolution” replaced lower-yielding, open-pollinated dryland crops with hybrid crops that, given irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, produced higher yields.  While costs of these fossil-fuel based inputs were originally low, they have since risen faster than the price of the crops that demand their application.  In addition, since they are  planting hybrid seeds, farmers can no longer save seed from one year to the next, and are confronted with rising seed prices.  This has had several serious, unintended consequences.  Indian farmers, caught in a noose of rising debt, are committing suicide in record numbers, and record numbers of families are being forced off land they have inhabited for centuries, seeking the dubious shelter of India’s already swollen and out-of-control cities.  Meanwhile, the increased demand for irrigation water is drawing down India’s water table, causing wells and springs to go dry, sending more people out of the countryside and into the cities.  Last but hardly least, the dryland crop seedlines–and the knowledge of how to grow and use them–are in danger of being lost in the rush to grow green revolution rice.

The monsoon, which provides another big chunk of India’s water supply, failed last year.  This is not unheard of, and not necessarily connected to climate change, but it should serve to remind us that we have set things in motion that we can neither predict nor control, despite our conceit about our own cleverness as a species.  Can you say hubris, boys and girls?

And, speaking of hubris, let’s look at China, where the rush to industrialize has resulted in incredible, pervasive levels of pollution.  Even boiled water is not safe to drink in many locations, because it is apt to contain chemicals that cannot be removed by boiling.  Worse yet, China’s much-vaunted railway line into Tibet is likely to help China exploit Tibet’s vast, untapped mineral resources–which, given China’s abysmal environmental track record,  will result in toxic mine waste polluting the water supply of most of southeast Asia–while it lasts.

I wish I had something vast and uplifting to offer you at this point, but I don’t.  The reality of our situation is grim and sobering, especially for poor people in the second and third world, who are going to be bearing the brunt of the problems we in the first world have created with our exorbitant, exploitive lifestyle.  We have the luxury of time and energy to form garden co-ops and relearn low-tech grain farming and animal husbandry, blacksmithing and woodworking, and to adapt high-tech electronics to consciously conceived and executed sustainable lifestyles. Most of us have plenty of clean water available. We are not Indian or Chinese peasants or urban slum dwellers, facing poisoned water or none at all, lack of land and other resources from which to feed ourselves, or even a secure home.  It’s a blessing that we have blessings to count, and probably the best way to insure our own continued good fortune is to seek ways to share those blessings with whoever we can reach out to.   That’s not much, but it’s what there is.

(on the subject of corrections, I have been crediting “The Road to Hell” to Leonard Cohen, because somebody gave it to me on a CD that was otherewise all LC songs, and they sound somewhat alike…finally figured it out!)

music:  Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”








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