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
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
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
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
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.