As the “perfect storm” gathers from inchoate, deceptively non-threatening winds, we can look ahead, backward and into the mirror and ask how crisis comes, or why, if it is inevitable, if we might just fall right out of it, as we fell into it. But the answer is simple: human crisis comes from excess, from inordinate ambition, from misplaced aggression, from over-exploitation of resources, each of which generates real and problematic tension across the landscape of human experience.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted from a misguided atomized over-exploitation of arable land. Ancient Sumerian civilization collapsed entirely because excesses of irrigation coupled with poor planning raised soil salinity to levels toxic to agriculture. At the end of the 20th century, global industrial activity had come to far outstrip the available resources feeding into it, and our global economy had come to depend on increasing demand and increasing output to feed unsustainable rates of increasing growth, across the planet.
Something had to give. The mathematics of the whole big picture had come to rest on the assumption that already over-stressed basic resources could expand along with economic expansion. They could not. We may now be seeing just the beginning of this realignment of economic expectations, forced by circumstance.
As major resource scarcity spreads, with China losing ever more arable land to encroaching northwestern deserts and road building in the industrial east, as China’s exploding demand for petroleum, steel, copper, water, meat and grains, put pressure on world markets and pushes the cost of basic goods like food staples ever higher across the world, as the unsustainable demand for fuel moves the US corn belt to shift to cropping for ethanol —as much as 40% of world corn exports are from Iowa, which now devotes 18% of harvest to bio-ethanol—, we are experiencing the natural results of an economy that hinges on hyper-exploitation of resources. The correction, when fully upon us, may yet be far more severe than the 2008 credit-freeze crisis.
Hyper-exploitation is a doctrine: it underpins public policy, government spending, security policy and the philosophical arguments for and against deregulation and the trickle-down theory of economic growth as related to tax policy. It requires that we believe in unstated, unproven modes of natural replenishment; it is a proposition that all things can be tapped, moved, transformed and spent, infinitely, because somehow, the market will set all the right limits and excesses will never be so severe as to ignore the laws of nature.
It is, for this reason, dangerous, because it not only is a doctrine that requires us to use more of the vital resources we require than can be replaced at sustainable levels, it moves us deeper into the vice of living on borrowed time. The result is that we must periodically learn the lesson that borrowed time cannot be financed, that we must pay the full price when it comes due, and our unprecedented resource depletion will leave us, quite simply, without the level of supply required to sustain our standard of living.
Already, wealthy governments are moving to take over cropland in poor countries in order to shore up their own food supplies, as the food security crisis spreads throughout the world, affecting even the wealthiest economies. The fear is that this over-consumption now extending to land use in poor foreign states may lead to a wave of mass starvation throughout the developing world, sparking conflicts and threatening the integrity of the international system as such.
According to the Guardian’s Julian Borger:
“In the context of arable land sales, this is unprecedented,” Atkin said. “We’re used to seeing 100,000-hectare sales. This is more than 10 times as much.”
At a food security summit in Rome, in June, there was agreement to channel more investment and development aid to African farmers to help them respond to higher prices by producing more. But governments and corporations in some cash-rich but land-poor states, mostly in the Middle East, have opted not to wait for world markets to respond and are trying to guarantee their own long-term access to food by buying up land in poorer countries.
India and Bangladesh are constantly disputing river water resources that both countries depend on for basic sustenance for tens of millions of people. Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are gripped by a struggle over control of the Nile’s water, with the river running dry at the Nile delta on the Mediterranean during some seasons. The Colorado River in the US has failed to reach the sea and is seeing its flow through the Grand Canyon significantly reduced, as states in the Colorado River Basin dispute claims on the river’s water.
Hyper-exploitation even extends to the use of natural resources like water as dumping grounds. The level of toxic chemicals and plastic polymer byproducts now found in ocean water the world over has reached alarming levels, threatening vast ecosystems and undermining the health of human beings and wildlife in most of the world. Drinking water across the US was found to be contaminated by high levels of pharmaceuticals earlier this year, raising the specter of as yet unknown potential harm to public health, over the long term.
High levels of contaminant emissions or toxic dumping are an abusive use of natural resources we often overlook —like air, land, water and forest cover— in our quest for combustible fuels, industrial-scale production and economies of scale we hope will reduce costs, even if they also increase the risk to our long-term economic and physical health and wellbeing. We are now facing a structural economic crisis, which requires us to reformulate and rebuild our economic model, at the most basic levels, a process which will be more or less painful, depending on how seriously we commit to getting it done and done right.