11 11 2005

I’ve spent a lot of time on this show talking about the weather in the arctic—and by the way, in late October the sea ice at Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, was still a hundred miles offshore. Just a few decades ago, the Arctic Ocean was frozen clear up to the shore by this time of year. Freed of its damper of ice, the ocean is chewing relentlessly at the shoreline, forcing relocation of villages that have been in the same place for centuries, if not millennia. Meanwhile, down south….

In Africa, forests are disappearing, cut for local use as firewood for the most part, and this is drying the climate and drying up the rivers and silting up the hydroelectric dams and of course making subsistence agriculture even chancier, and making commercial, irrigated agriculture even more expensive. The two prongs of this dilemma are the need for firewood as cooking fuel and the need for a source of income for the firewood cutters.

A concerted program could replace firewood with solar cookers and water heaters and methane production—which would also help clean up Africa’s massive, shall we name it delicately, sanitation problem. There’s nothing like putting value into something to keep people from leaving it laying around in the street, and that doesn’t just mean cans and bottles, folks.

This still leaves a bunch of unhappy, out-of-work firewood vendors and their families. Sure, a certain number of people will be employed building solar and methane facilities, but there are people out selling wood on every street corner in Africa and unless the rules of the economic game are changed, they’re going to need some way to come up with the scratch to feed their families. And this is where it gets tricky. Thanks to the intervention of western medicine, law, and technology, there are just too many people in Africa for them to all go back to their traditional, sustainable ways of life, just as we here in Tennessee couldn’t all go back to burning firewood , shooting deer, and riding horses. There ain’t enough wood and there ain’t enough deer or horses and there ain’t enough pasture, and if there was enough wood the people in downtown Nashville would smother from the smoke. But, I digress.

What we might do is appoint a commission to study the matter—say, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Vandana Shiva, Helena Norbert-Hodge and a few other champions of compassion could take this one on and come up with a solution. It would be cheaper than doing nothing or sending in the army, I can assure you of that.

In South America, the situation is a little more, shall we say, clearcut? The Amazon is being deforested not for the cooking fires of the hungry multitudes but for plywood for the Chinese and cattle ranches for land barons, who maintain their wealth habit by selling beef to Europe and America. Even Brazil’s popular, populist President Lula hasn’t been able to dent this one.

It’s a real global security threat and it needs the kind of attention we’ve mistakenly given Iraq—but oops, we done whupped the tarbaby a good one and now we are stuck and B’rer Fox is done nabbed us and this time he ain’t gonna throw us in that briar patch, people, this is not a drill, this is catastrophic global warming, the Amazon River is running dry, a thousand towns that depend on river transport are cut off due to low water.

The rainforest has apparently been cut back far enough that the hydrological cycle–the forests’ ability to generate the rain that sustains them–has been disrupted, and the Amazon climate may have flipped over into savannah mode, but all that water is still banging around loose in the atmosphere and it’s just going to make the weather more unstable—did you know that the first South Atlantic hurricane ever was recorded this year?

Let me elaborate a little on the rainforest hydrological cycle. First, an acre of hardwood trees pours hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into the atmosphere every day. That’s why it’s cooler and more humid under a forest canopy than it is out on the plains. When there are millions of acres of hardwoods, all that water rises up into the sky and joins together and creates regular afternoon rainstorms.

When I first moved to Tennessee thirty-five years ago, there was enough forest cover where I lived to create the same effect. Mornings were foggy, and then as the moisture rose and cooled, it tended to fall back down as an afternoon thundershower. In the eighties, much of the hardwood forest around me was cut, and those morning fogs and afternoon showers are no longer part of the weather cycle here—nor, apparently, in the Amazon.

Furthermore, the high temperatures characteristic of the tropics speed up soil processes in a way that tends to burn up organic matter and wash out nutrients pretty quickly unless they are being cycled through the elaborate carbon net called a rainforest. The lively energy that grows the rainforest is contained in its living fabric, and disappears when that fabric is rent. We do not know how to recreate rainforest once it has been turned into pasture.

Anyway, curbing the Brazilian beef trade and the Chinese hunger for plywood are two fairly concrete goals that wouldn’t even require revolutionary changes in the world economic system. Fundamental changes, yes, but not necessarily revolutionary ones. Again, perhaps a panel of deep ecologists and biologists can come up with a way to reclaim the Amazon. I can guarantee you it will be a lot more gratifying and doable than “bringing democracy to Iraq” in order to maintain a stranglehold on their oil supply.

So, from a Green perspective, global warming is a far greater threat to our national security than so-called terrorists. In our psychotic pursuit of these Muslim scapegoats, we ignore our real enemy at our very great peril.




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