Sunday, October 17, 2010

Maude Barlow is Warning Us - Will You Listen?

Maude Barlow - former UN Senior Water Advisor, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, founder of the Blue Planet Project, has spent her life in the service of others.  For many years she has been an outspoken critic of the world's water consumption habits, the spreading privatization of water resources and the need to understand the looming freshwater crisis to be every bit as threatening to the survival of mankind as global warming itself.

AlterNet has published the text of a speech Barlow recently gave to an environmental funding group in California.  I urge you to follow the link and read it.   Here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:

A comprehensive new global study recently reported that 80% of the world’s rivers are now in peril, affecting 5 billion people on the planet. We are also mining our groundwater far faster than nature can replenish it, sucking it up to grow water-guzzling chemical-fed crops in deserts or to water thirsty cities that dump an astounding 200 trillion gallons of land-based water as waste in the oceans every year. The global mining industry sucks up another 200 trillion gallons, which it leaves behind as poison. Fully one third of global water withdrawals are now used to produce biofuels, enough water to feed the world.

The global water crisis is the greatest ecological and human threat humanity has ever faced. As vast areas of the planet are becoming desert as we suck the remaining waters out of living ecosystems and drain remaining aquifers in India, China, Australia, most of Africa, all of the Middle East, Mexico, Southern Europe, US Southwest and other places. Dirty water is the biggest killer of children; every day more children die of water borne disease than HIV/AIDS, malaria and war together. In the global South, dirty water kills a child every three and a half seconds. And it is getting worse, fast. By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40%— an astounding figure foretelling of terrible suffering.

Barlow goes on to explore what can be done to deal with this pending water crisis.  In essence she argues for what I've advocated on these pages for a very long time.  We, mankind, simply have to find new rules for living together, rules that place our long-term survival at the top of our priorities.

She echoes the efforts of many, including the Germans, to gain global acceptance of the concept of "commons."   These are assets that must be taken to belong to no one and hence to belong to everyone.   Two obvious assets are the oceans and the earth's atmosphere.   The latter of these illustrates the hurdles we have to clear.

No matter where you are in the world when you look up at the night sky you see the same moon and you see it through the same atmosphere.   I imagine not one in a thousand of us can possibly believe that he owns that atmosphere.   We can't possess it.   It constantly moves as our earth rotates.   What's above you today is going to be somewhere else tomorrow and far off next month.

We can't possess the atmosphere yet, with our 19th century economics and geo-politics, we act as though we can and do.   That is exactly what we do when it comes to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.   Those emissions go into the atmosphere.  We now know the limited but, we hope, safe CO2 carrying capacity of our atmosphere and less than half of that capacity remains.   The question then becomes who has the right to the remaining CO2 carrying capacity?

The industrialized West's position is that it's ours.   For no remotely defensible reason, we tacitly claim priority to emit CO2 into the world's atmosphere.  Oh, we don't say that in so many words but that's the inescapable intent of our policies.

Look at it this way.   If we, the industrialized West, were to accept the atmosphere as a commons to which all of mankind had an equal interest, our right to emit greenhouse gases would be fixed.   It would be our population divided into 6.8 billion times the remaining carrying capacity.   Know what happens if you do the math?   We would have a very short time, a decade perhaps, to decarbonize our economies and our societies.   We would have to launch a Marshall Plan-scale effort to develop and implement non-carbon based energy alternatives.

I suppose we could buy up other nations' carbon quotas but, placed in these terms (the Commons) and subjected to the supply and demand dynamics, the cost to the West would be punishing.

So, let's be honest.   We're not going to do it, are we?   Nope.   But, in rejecting that principle for governance of the atmosphere, we are simultaneously closing the door on peaceful solutions to most other existential threats that face mankind - deforestation, collapse of fisheries stocks and ocean acidification, the freshwater crisis, desertification, air/soil/water contamination, species extinction, disease migration, regional security threats, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Barlow cites Einstein's observation that you can't solve problems with the same thinking that created them.   That's never been truer than today.

We're living with global consumption obesity.   A U.N. study this week confirmed what others have been saying for some time - mankind now consumes resources fully one and a half times the rate at which the earth can replenish them.   How is that even possible?  The proof is right before your eyes.   The vanishing fish stocks are the result of over-exploitation.   Same thing for the spreading deforestation.  We're cutting those trees faster than nature can replace them.   Desertification is the same story.   We're working the land to exhaustion, turning it into useless desert.  Freshwater - again the same story.  When we fell short of surface water we went to the ground, draining our aquifers far faster than nature could replenish them.   Is it really that surprising that we're doing the same thing to the atmosphere itself?   Surely not.

My point is that this global consumption obesity is happening right before our eyes.   It's visible.  It's tangible.  It's unquestionably dangerous to our survival.   Why, then, do the people into whose hands we entrust our welfare and that of our children and grandchildren, the very future of Canada itself, why do they stand mute?   Why do they have no vision to meet these enormous challenges?   You can ask them.   Maybe you'll have better luck than I did.


As indicated above, I have written our leaders but in vain.  Therefore I'm going to continue thrashing away at these problems here in hope that you and others will come to grasp the seriousness of these issues and, collectively, demand change.   I'm reasonably optimistic that I'll be able to get through the remaining fifteen to twenty years of my lifespan without feeling the lash of these threats.   It's my kids and their kids and yours too and the future of our country that I worry about.  I can't let it go without a fight and I hope you can't either.


Beijing York said...

I'm trying to keep up the good fight for my nephews and the children of my friends and the next generation in general.

The Mound of Sound said...

Beijing York, you're one this message doesn't need to get through to. Still and all, it's a matter of just keep hammering away at the message until a critical mass of Canadians emerges telling our politicians that their passivity, indifference and neglect are no longer acceptable.

Denialists fight global warming on the bases of voodoo quasi-science and that it's a "theory." Well, gravity too is a theory as is relativity and quantum mechanics.

The key point, in my view, is to stress that global warming is but one of a viper's nest of ecological, political and social threats, many of which are tangible and visible and immediate. Our resource consumption obesity is a clear case in point. The forests are disappearing. Once arable farmland is being transformed into desert. Species are falling extinct and we're collapsing food stocks. No one remotely sentient can deny these demonstrable facts nor can any sane person argue that they'll get better without a broad global consensus for change.

When we tie these things altogether they become impossible to dismiss. There's a powerful synergy in these threats and, taken together, they point unmistakably to their collective solution.