7 07 2012

A few months back, President Obama announced a three billion dollar  U.S. initiative “to help Africa feed itself, “which is a noble goal, but the devil was all over his details.  The first detail to note is that three billion dollars is a third of one percent of our country’s military budget.  About one day of our military spending to help the starving Africans.  Whoopee!

There were two major prongs to this plan. Two-thirds of the money,  (That’s about sixteen hours worth of military spending.)will be given to a European chemical company to build a fertilizer factory in Africa, which would use natural gas to create massive quantities of ammonium nitrate, which is a powerful explosive as well as a fertilizer.  (Remember the Oklahoma City Federal Building?  The first attempt on the World Trade Center?).  The second prong will introduce Monsatan’s GMO seeds to African farmers, “to increase their yields.”     This from the guy whose wife scored big publicity points by putting an organic vegetable garden at the White House.

Both these prongs are going to do a lot more harm than good.  The manufacture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is an energy-intensive, CO2-producing process whose result is a bag of white crystals that, not unlike cocaine, provide a short-term boost, but, in the long-term, have a deleterious effect–in the case of ammonium nitrate, the impoverishment of the soil to which it is applied.  The high levels of ammonia in ammonium nitrate burn out soil micro-organisms, leading to depletion of organic matter and a decrease in the soil’s fertility and ability to hold water.  The short-term solution, as with cocaine, is to apply a bigger dose of white crystals.  Sooner or later, the excess nitrogen starts leaching into the water supply, which exacerbates the problem by polluting the water and making people sick.

.  Then, too, the fertilizer must be purchased, a financial demand that can have disastrous consequences for small farmers in the third world.  We’ll look more deeply at that soon.  For now, let’s just point out that placing  increased financial pressure on cash-strapped, subsistence farmers in the name of “improving their lives” is either cynical or naive.  Time and time again, there have been demonstration projects and studies showing that the best way to improve the lives of subsistence farmers and the communities they feed is to help them find ways to increase the “circularity” of their farming, by increasing their use of local, organic inputs such as plant, animal, and human waste, and by returning to non-mechanized farming methods that require more labor and less machinery and fossil fuels.  Neither the fact that we are running out of inexpensive ways to create those white crystals, nor the fact that producing the white crystals is destroying the soil and the atmosphere, seems to enter into the calculations of those who proclaim the superiority of white-crystal style farming–f’rinstance, President Obama, or Presidential wanna-be Romney.

The second prong of the fork with which our corporatocracy wishes to stick the people of Africa is the introduction of GMO seeds.  There’s two really bad things about GMO seeds.  The first is their toll on the humans who use them, and the second is the way their use destroys the land in which they are planted.  We have only to look to India to see what the President and his cronies are promising to deliver to Africa.  What we see in India is over 200,000 small farmers driven to suicide, often by the debts they incurred to buy GMO seeds and the chemical inputs necessary to grow them–not just the aforementioned fertilizer, but herbicides and pesticides that they lack the technology to apply “safely,” even in the manufacturer’s loose terms.   Third-world farmers have traditionally saved their own seed, but it is illegal to save the patented GMO seeds, and frequently impractical as well, for, if the seed is a hybrid, it will either fail to produce fertile seed,  or fail to produce a uniform variety–but you’re not supposed to even try planting them, because they’re patented.  Intellectual property rights must be respected, y’know!   So, when Obama talks about “helping” African farmers with chemical inputs, he’s talking about inducing a rash of debt-driven suicides.  Hey, that’ll clear the playing field and help solve the overpopulation problem, right?!  More on that perverse idea later.  Back to GMO crops.

Herbicide use itself is highly problematic.  Roundup, the go-to herbicide for GMO crops, is very nonspecific in its effects.  It kills soil microflora just as readily as it kills broadleaf weeds and grasses, and thus is highly detrimental to soil.  And, just as with ammonium nitrate, its production is energy-intensive and carbon-expensive.

So, to sum up, when we strip the facade from the President’s feel-good call to help foster agriculture in Africa, we find a plan that is likely to further impoverish the continent’s vast majority of smallholders, drive them from their land, and wreak havoc with the land’s ability to support plant life.  So, who does benefit from this kind of “help”?

One group that is helped by alienating traditional people from their land base is foreign investors, both private and national, who are increasingly looking to Africa as a place to grow food to export, rather than to feed the hungry close at hand.  China and other countries are making deals with debt-pressed, cash-starved governments, deals that involve the displacement of thousands of people from millions of acres in order to grow crops that will not feed Africans.

The other big beneficiary of Obama’s policy is the Monsanto Corporation.  It is relevant to note, at this point, the “revolving door” nature of Monsanto’s relationship with the government. At least 35 individuals, representing both of the US’s major political parties, have been both on Monsanto’s payroll and the government’s, albeit not at the same time, as far as we know.  We’re talking about some big fish here–Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Hillary Clinton both worked for Monsanto when they were private practice lawyers.  Searle Chemical Company-CEO Donald Rumsfeld  (remember him?) was paid a twelve million dollar bonus by Monsanto when it acquired Searle, giving Monsanto the right to produce the carcinogenic artificial sweetener aspartame  (“Nutrasweet”). after Rummy pulled strings to get it approved for human use, but that’s another story.

The Africa deal is not the only example of  Obama’s–and our whole government’s– apparent willingness to go to bat for Monsanto.    Attempts to pass laws allowing labeling of GMO foods, dairy products containing bovine growth hormones, and limiting the spread of GMO seeds have been shot down, and research suggesting that their widespread use might have serious negative effects has been suppressed., both in the current administration and the last several governments, no matter who was supposedly in charge.

Monsanto’s willingness to play with both major US political parties leads to another question.  Should we really blame Barack Obama for all this?  Or is he a genuinely well-intentioned guy, who thought he could make change happen by being elected President, but found, when he arrived, that his real role was to play spokesman for an unelected shadow government?  As Robert Anton Wilson put it, “was the new President shown a video of the Kennedy assassination from an angle he’d never seen it from before, and told ‘you’ve got a nice family.  Play along with us and nobody gets hurt.'”?  Perhaps.  A friend of mine who is an old smoking buddy of Al Gore’s tells me that Al told him in 1992 that Al and Bill knew the office they were running for was more ceremonial than executive, but they hoped to be able to make a slight difference in the direction of things.  We all know how that turned out.   (And remember, Gore had already written and become somewhat famous for  Earth in the Balance, which, along with Albert Bates’ Climate in Crisis was one of the first books to call popular attention to the mess we are tangled in now.)  Perhaps frustration with his figurehead status accounts for Gore’s lackluster run for President in 2000 and his subsequent flowering, at a convenient distance from politics.

So, maybe Barack Obama regrets his decision to become a kinder, gentler  face for the corporatocracy than Dick Cheney and that guy he was with, but we may never know, because, like Clinton and Gore before him, he fears for his safety and his family’s safety far too much to ever spill those beans.

But, whatever the unspeakable truth may be about Barack Obama’s motivations and intentions, the inconvenient truth is that the African policy for which he is at the very least serving as a charming mouthpiece is not a policy that will benefit Africa.  It is just another corporate iron hand in another velvet glove, grabbing for what’s left of the wealth of the continent that gave birth to us all, a corporate iron hand that doesn’t care who or what it crushes as long as it ends up with a fistful of dollars.  And that’s the inconvenient truth about the Obama administration’s “African initiative.”

music:  Terry Allen, “Big Ol’ White Boys


2 11 2008

Death stalks Africa.  Her wildlife population is being decimated by humans, while the human population is being decimated by AIDS.  Each dying animal and each dying human is a tragedy, but a tragedy greater than his or her own death, and a tragedy even greater than the disappearance of species and the dissolution of societies.

The overarching tragedy is the destruction of the ecosystem in which humans and animals have co-existed for millenia, as Africa has been overrun by its burgeoning human population and despoiled in the holy names of “resource extraction” and “development.”  At the dawn of the 20th century, Africa seemed like a vast and forbidding eternal bastion of the natural world.  At the dawn of the 21st century, Africa seems poised on the brink of becoming one vast refugee camp/urban slum.  Its once seemingly endless forests have been largely turned into timber and firewood; its wildlife is being driven to extinction by the market for “bush meat,” and its vast grasslands have been trampled into dust by alien cattle.

Africa worked as an ecosystem when its human population was smaller.  AIDS is a blind, tragic, and uncompassionate way to swing the continent back towards balance.  The AIDS epidemic is all the more tragic because it could have been prevented, long ago, by a conscientious birth control and social welfare program, implemented back in the 50’s and 60’s, before population growth in Africa went into overdrive.

Social welfare needs to be part of birth control promotion in the third world because otherwise, having a lot of children is the best option most people have for ensuring their own welfare.   With no guarantee of how many of a couple’s offspring will grow up and be in a position to take care of their aged parents, the best strategy seems to be to place a lot of bets.

So, if we are going to limit births, we need to assure people that their need for security will be met–in contrast to the Chinese system, which limits births but then just pushes everyone off the dock to see who swims and who sinks.  This compassionless approach is symptomatic of the spiritual sickness of China–but I digress.  We’re talking about Africa here.

The tragedy of AIDS as the answer to Africa’s destabilizing birth rate is compounded by the fact that the “good times” of the 50’s and 60’s are now gone, and we are entering an era of resource and wealth depletion in which it will be infinitely more difficult to implement widespread social welfare systems–because there are so many more people in need, because there is less money available for such projects–or any others, for that matter–and because the social network has been so thoroughly broken.

With the sad wisdom of retrospection, we now see that the money and resources that were burned up in military hardware and adventures would have been much better spent for peaceful uses.  War never does anything but make things worse.

We can also see that those who prevented implementation of birth control policies earlier, when they would have done some good, did so in the name of “the sacredness of life.”  As we consider the destruction that has ensued from the way they expressed their concerns, we can say that, at best, they seriously misunderstood the best course of action derived from postulating the sacredness of all life, and at worst they were downright demonic in their perversion of this spiritual axiom.

Now, it’s not for me to say whether those who turned Africa into hell on earth were demonic or merely misguided, but I will name names. European-American capitalists, under the tutelage of supposedly Christian churches, are the ones responsible for the sorry state of Africa today.  Of course, not all Africans have been saints, either–many willingly sold their fellow Africans into slavery, and we in the north never came up with anything as fiendish as female genital mutilation.

That’s a hard line to follow.  Let’s say that we would have a lot better moral position to talk to African people about that custom if we were not the ones who mutilated their cultures and their countryside, and if it were not the excesses of our culture that are causing global warming and further desertifying their countries.

What, at this late date, can the North do  about the mess we have made of Africa?

After many years wasted fussing over patent violations, AIDS drugs are much more freely available to Africans than they once were, but the damage has been done.  We need to stop selling military supplies to Africa–automatic weapons just give people the wrong idea.

At this point, community organizing is a key strategy, because the people of Africa don’t need us Northerners coming and laying another wad of our crazy plans on them.  We need to listen to them and let them arrive at their own priorities, and then do what they ask of us to help fulfill those priorities.  We can contribute a certain amount of overview and perspective, but in many cases what we will need to do is get out of their way–and that is the hardest thing of all for us nosy Northerners.

music:  Bob Marley, “Africa Unite


8 03 2006

No matter how much b.s. the politicians sling, the planet’s climate just keeps on shifting. In the last month, it has come to light that Antarctica is losing forty-eight cubic miles of icecap per year, and the meltdown in Greenland is accelerating, which should come as no surprise—it’s one of the physical properties of ice to melt at an accelerating rate. If you’re looking at a cube or two in your drink, that’s no big deal, but when we’re looking at dumping more fresh water into the planet’s oceans, there start to be consequences. The Gulf Stream is slowing down, bringing colder weather to northern Europe—Scandanavia’s glaciers are the only ones in the world that are growing. England’s National Trust reports that much of that country’s seacoast is eroding at an alarming rate. In my wild eyed, fanatical opinion, this is an early result of rising sea levels and stormier winters. Actually, it’s not just my opinion—it’s been documented that storms in northern Europe are increasing in their intensity.

Meanwhile, Africa is suffering from severe drought, which is diminishing river flow and threatening both human culture and what wildlife remains, as the deserts expand. A massive sandstorm spilled out of the Sahara and buffeted the Mediterranian island of Cyprus. This has happened before, but last months sandstorm was far and away the most severe ever recorded. I have reported before on the increasing desertification of Portugal and Spain—birds native to the North African desert are now breeding there.

Rising sea levels and more serious storm surges can have a domino effect. The Sacramento River delta of northern California is already below sea level, and as vulnerable to levee breakage as New Orleans. It is also where the City of Los Angeles draws a sizable percentage of its water. Salt water inundation of the intake valves for L.A.’s water system could dry southern California right out of business.

But if pioneer climate scientist James Lovelock is right, losing LA could be the least of our worries. In his recent book, “The Revenge of Gaia,” he posits that, unless humanity takes immediate, drastic steps, the planet will pass a tipping point, and our current environment will topple, leading to a new stasis, much less friendly to human culture—the most quoted line from the book (which, honestly, I have not yet read) is that the human race will be reduced to “a few breeding pairs in the arctic,” which will, in his vision, be the only part of the planet still cool enough to support human life.

We here in America rarely stop to think about how wealthy and lucky we are. The World Health Organization says that human beings need about 12-13 gallons of water a day for proper hydration and sanitation. The average American uses about a hundred and twenty-five gallons. The British, whose standard of living is notoriously lower than our own, get by on only about fifty gallons a day, while inhabitants of many countries in Africa get by on two or three.

Those dirty Africans…why can’t they just take more responsibility for themselves, eh? Global warming’s their fault, with all their deforestation for cooking fires and slaughtering all the jungle animals for food. It’s not our fault, not our fault with our automobiles and air conditioning and electricity and international trade and oil wells and all. We’re driving full-tilt boogie towards a brick wall, but it’s not our fault. Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh. Uh-oh.

music: Taj Mahal, “Giant Step”


5 01 2006

Imagine you are traveling to a town about the size of Goodletsville or Shelbyville, Tennessee—about 14,000 people, for those of you not familiar with Tennessee. Now, imagine that the only way into that town is a rutted dirt track. And imagine that, for whatever reason, you or your companion are in need of what they call “feminine hygiene products,” and that you find there are none for sale in the stores of this town of 14,000 people—that town is Guma, Ethiopia, and not only are there no sanitary napkins, there are no bathrooms in which to privately take care of that or other bodily functions, and no running water to wash with after you go out behind a bush and do what you need to do. That’s Africa, folks, and it ain’t Kansas. The ladies make do with rags, and they stay home so they don’t have to deal with “it” in public.

This isn’t just an inconvenience—it’s something that helps keep women out of school and public life. It’s not just a religious and social taboo, it’s a lack of simple technology—a latrine with a wall around it and a handwashing sink. These things are not rocket science, and if we were not burning money in Iraq (which we had no more right to invade than the Nazis did Poland), we could be helping build toilets in Africa, which would probably do a lot more to combat terror and spread democracy than all the Marines and smart bombs we can muster. Yeah, I know, it wouldn’t make much of a video game.

I am serious when I say this lack of sanitary facilities and privacy keeps girls from staying in school. New York Times reporter Sharon LaFreniere recently visited Guma and other towns in Ethiopia, talking with families, women, and young girls, and that’s what she found. A hundred and seventy boys in school past the third grade, but only three girls.

Well, no, it’s not JUST that. The Ethiopian people have a domestic economy that requires a lot of help at home—hauling water, preparing food from basic raw ingredients, herding animals—and these are traditionally women’s jobs, and moreover they are jobs that must get done or people go hungry. This is something that we Westerners, who have spent our entire lives in a money-based economy, have lost touch with. When you take kids completely out of their traditional home economies and put them in school full-time, the kids fail to learn basic cultural survival skills. Then the traditional economy, which is relatively sustainable compared to our money-burning hot rod, sputters and goes out, leaving people stuck on the hungry fringes of a money economy in which they have no hope of success.

Furthermore, I think that one of the major psychological failings of our global money economy is that it expects people to be consistent cogs for its gears. What I am about to say may sound horribly patronizing to some of my readers, (I’m a man, not a woman, after all!) but let it land where it may: without falling into superstitious taboos, we need to give women the opportunity to have some quiet time once a month—a respite from work, family obligations, whatever material responsibilities they have, they should be able to bail out of them for a few days a month if that’s what they’d like to do. I think this simple, basic step would radically and positively change the world we live in.

But back to the dusty streets and latrine-less schools of Ethiopia. These children need to be educated in a way that does not alienate them from their culture, that blends reading, writing, arithmetic and a global perspective seamlessly with the ability to take care of themselves. Across the border in Kenya, a group is doing just that. With help from England’s Children in Crisis Foundation, the Kenyan group Action in the Community Environment is promoting small-scale vegetable gardening as a way to improve both nutrition and the local economy. ACE makes small-scale loans to individuals and community groups—we’re talking $150-500 dollars here—to get them started doing what their ancestors did before the global economy turned Kenyan farming into an export business which has enriched a few landlords and turned many Kenyans into penniless, hungry peasants.

I think there’s an exciting link between the lack of latrines in Africa and this gardening project. Latrines are a traditional source of fertilizer, and with what we now know about microbiology and the life cycles of parasites, it is possible to compost this human manure long enough to safely apply it to vegetable gardens. One simple, low-tech link helps solve both the food and the sanitation questions. We should only be that smart in this country, eh?

music: Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”


My thoughts exactly! It’s a taboo subject here too, where ‘education’ is the supposedly magic word. But there are too many qualified people for the few jobs here already. Every single Indian kid doesn’t need a diploma in computers. There is a growing disgruntled over-educated populace, not willing to go back to the village farm because of “modern” notions of success, but with no future in the cities they’ve moved to.
Posted by sirensongs on 01/10/2006 04:50:15 PM

Oh BTW, I love your music “soundtrack” idea for each post. I think I’m stealing it…or at least borrowing. Love, Caroline
Posted by sirensongs on 01/10/2006 04:51:47 PM

I don’t think people should go back to peasant life, I think they should go forward to a more cosmic peasant life–educated, not ignorant, something taken up and walked with rather than something begrudgingly accepted because there’s no other way, although I think there isn’t any “other way” for most of us–humanity would be much better served if most of us spent most of our time providing food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and inspiration for each other at a very local neighborhood level, rather than busting our chops (and our planet) shipping shit all over the place to ramp up the gnp and keep a few clever people rich and/or famous.
Posted by brothermartin on 01/11/2006 03:03:47 PM


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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