Desert Planet

by Michael G. Livingston

News Flash—capitalism is turning the planet into a desert.

Drought conditions are extreme in Africa, especially in the countries of Niger, Ghana, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Parts of India are experiencing drought, as well as Thailand. And not surprisingly, given its fragile environment, Australia is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years. Sydney is so desperate for water that it is spending $1.5 billion (US) to construct a desalinization plant. Meanwhile, Spain and Portugal are also experiencing severe droughts that have increased political tensions between the two countries, caused conflicts between different Spanish states, and resulted in large-scale fires.

What may be surprising to many Americans, given how little the national media cover the story, is that large areas of the United States are experiencing severe droughts as well. I use the plural “droughts” intentionally here, as the droughts are occurring in several major watersheds, including watersheds that normally have abundant water.

The drought that has grabbed the most national attention is in the Mississippi Watershed, which includes the Mississippi River and all of its tributaries and drains 41% of the lower 48 states. The watershed is the third largest in the world (after the Amazon Watershed and the Congo River Watershed) and includes all or parts of 31 states. This drought stretches from southern Wisconsin and Illinois through eastern Iowa, most of Missouri and Arkansas, most of Kentucky and western Tennessee, and parts of Louisiana. Billions of dollars in crops have been lost. The Ohio River is at its lowest level in 60 years and parts of the Ohio and Mississippi are turning into “sandbars” according to a recent New York Times story (8/15/05, pp. A1 & A16), one of the few national stories on the drought.

A major drought in the heart of the Mississippi Watershed is cause enough for alarm. But it is not the only one. Parts of New England, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley in New York are also experiencing drought. The Great Lakes Watershed, which includes Michigan, parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and New York, as well as a large part of Ontario and Quebec, is also suffering from a drought. The Columbia River Watershed, which includes the state of Washington, most of Oregon and Idaho, and Montana west of the continental divide, is also experiencing a drought inland from the Pacific Coast. Finally, parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, (covering parts of the Colorado River Watershed and the Rio Grande Watershed) are also in drought.

What is happening here?

Cycles of more or less precipitation occur naturally, sometimes taking the form of periodic drought or periodic overabundance (given a region’s average precipitation) of rain or snow. But what we are observing worldwide goes beyond the normal historical fluctuations. We are confronted with two grave problems that threaten to turn the planet into a desert:  The first is diminishing supply and increasing demand; the second is global warming.

While the world is covered with water, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water. This small fraction of the world’s water is increasingly being consumed by humans or contaminated by industrial pollution, making it unfit for humans or other animals. The increasing demand and diminishing supply is turning fresh water into a valuable and much coveted commodity. Corporations are now trying to privatize municipal water supplies and secure control over underground and surface supplies. The increasing demand and diminishing supply is also producing political battles, not only in places like Africa and Spain, but in the U.S. as well. The Great Lakes Watershed, the largest single source of fresh surface water in the world, is one battleground, as reported recently in the New York Times (8/12/05, pp. A1 & A16).

Ancient civilizations in the past have collapsed because they abused their water supplies. But our problem is magnified many fold by human-caused global warming. Global warming, which exceeds in both scope and severity the natural drought cycles that doomed such ancient civilizations as the Anasazi, reduces the snow pack, dries the soil, and reduces surface water and river flows. Combined with the massive deforestation (which increases drought and soil erosion also) and the draining of the aquifers (which feed many rivers, lakes, and streams), global warming could doom us all to die of thirst and starvation.

If you think I am exaggerating or that I am a member of the lunatic fringe, consider this: Russian and British scientists reported in the Guardian (8/11/05), one of Great Britain’s most respected newspapers, that an area of permafrost in Western Siberia equal to the area of France and Germany combined is starting to thaw for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago. As it thaws, the permafrost will release billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. A release of this amount of methane would produce runaway global warming.

A two-part solution is required to deal with this crisis. Both parts go against the inherent logic of the capitalist world system, a logic which reduces everything to a commodity and which seeks to maximize the profits of the owners of capital, no matter what the cost to individuals or society. The first is what the Spanish water activists term a “new culture of water.” This new culture treats water not as a commodity but as a shared communal resource that must be protected and used in a sustainable fashion. The idea of a new culture of water entails an individual’s right to water for drinking, bathing and food, but not the right of individuals to waste water or to use it to make profits or pollute it. The new culture of water translates, politically, into the democratic and sustainable use of water.

The second part of the solution requires the massive reorganization of the world economy away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy and conservation. This, too, well never happen under capitalism. Again, we are forced to the same conclusion: a democratic, sustainable socialism or ecocide. There is no third way.