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Palden Jenkins
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Shifting Ground
The last of six articles for The Bangladesh Today International
March 2008

To say that we live in interesting times is an understatement. We live in times during which the underlying basis of human history is surreptitiously shifting – and I’d suggest that this process is only just beginning. It could continue well past the middle of the 21st Century, getting deeper, wider and much more profound. It’s unlikely to be easy, but the further we go into it, the more the benefits are likely to show. In fact, one paradox within this historic process is that we could see quite a few things getting easier. Let me explain.

The world has become a tremendously complex place and, at this time, immense forces are tugging at each other, pulling in opposite directions. This creates a lot of energy- and resource-wastage, destruction, conflict and stress. As I mentioned in my March 2008 article in this series, the past – tradition, vested interests and past ways – and the future – emergent global facts which demand solutions – are grating and scraping against one another, heading for a crunch point. In fact, we might already be in it.

Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, recently said, "This crisis could result in a cascade of others and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world". Indeed, he might be right. He was referring specifically to the current crisis with food prices, but if it weren’t this, it could be something else. Problem is, such a crisis is not isolated in itself – it has impacts, implications, side-effects, knock-on effects and consequences which, at first, cannot be foreseen. Or perhaps, to be more truthful, which no one wants to see.

But there is another paradox here too. In many cases – such as the global food crisis – we know roughly what needs to be done to make steps toward resolving it. But business, economic, social and political forces are going the other way. That is, the urge for short-term profit and economic development is pulling against the need for working on climatic, environmental, social and longterm priorities. Something has to give. Somewhere there is a middle way, and we’re obliged to find it.

The food-prices crisis has arisen due to four main factors which have all coalesced together to make a ‘perfect storm’ – that is, a textbook example of several exceptional and seemingly unconnected factors combining to make a super-crisis of exceptional proportions. These factors have been climate change, dietary change, population growth and agricultural changes relating to biofuel production.

Climate change, particularly drought, desertification, flood-damage and the effects of weather events, combined with cumulative soil and seed-stock deterioration, rural depopulation and the decline of traditional agricultural support-structures and balances, are reducing the amount of arable land that is available, and reducing its quality and output. This process, which has been visible for at least 30 years, has gone critical during 2007 – something few thought or hoped would happen.

But then, they hoped that a ‘perfect storm’ would never come, and corporations, economists and market-leaders do tend to think this way. They calculate that the risk is low, and the markets prefer such a calculus since investors don’t like high risk, and to keep markets rising, they prefer not to talk about it. So when it happens, it catches us by surprise.

A sub-factor here is industrial agriculture, driven by chemical fertilisers, pesticide use and GM technology, together with corporate seed-stock control and high-tech farming methods. Farmers are increasingly becoming engineers and businessmen, relying increasingly on science, market conditions and remotely-guided factors, instead of their farmers’ instincts or, dare I say it, their love of the land they farm. So, we now hear the UN World Food Programme suddenly advocating support of small farmers, not big corporate entities, and saying that the question of raising agricultural yields now depends not on industrialisation of farming, but on care and protection of soils, water and forest, and the social systems that encourage this.

In my own country, Britain, we are seeing the issues straight in front of us. Catastrophic floods in June-July 2007 were caused not just by a prolonged, exceptional, high-volume deluge of rain. They were caused by the compounding of soil through decades of tractor use (affecting water-absorption), decades of use of chemical fertilisers (clogging the soil and reducing its organic composition), urbanisation (concentrating rain into drains, covering the soil with concrete and stimulating rapid run-off), together with bad planning of buildings and roads, clearing of forest, hedges and undergrowth, too much pasture (for meat and milk production), loss of traditional rotation and fertilisation practises and other factors which, when they all add up, lead to loss of soil quality and loss of the nutritive value of foods, the richness of seed stocks and biodiversity.

Even though the former ‘third world’ is increasingly rejecting the former leadership and initiative of the West which prevailed in the 20th Century, people need to think a bit harder. For example, the West encouraged a high consumption of meat in such fashionable and convenient products as burgers, which many people across Asia and Africa are now emulating.

But meat production is an enormous resource-waster. Production of a unit of protein through meat can use up to sixty times the resources of one unit of vegetable-based protein. Meat production causes vast deforestation and reduction of carbon-soaking vegetation, making it every much as dangerous for the planet as motor and air traffic. So a major priority in coming times is reduction of meat (and dairy) consumption, worldwide.

Suggestions such as this were first made in the 1970s, but nobody wanted to hear it – these were the utterances of crazy ecologists and hippies, of no practical value. Well, now such suggestions are being made, and the corporations and other vested interests (particularly American) who once led the charge against such things are now beginning to look like criminals whose profit needs are obstructing planet Earth’s future. This is what’s shifting today.

A new objectivity is taking root. Looking at concrete issues such as economic viability, market prices and practical sustainability issues, the standard analysis we have known and accepted so long, often backed by the accepted authorities of the last few decades, is beginning to look shaky.

Suddenly, the calculations are being re-worked, to look at the price of poverty, the cost of pollution, disasters and industrial-scale production, even the cost of wealth. Suddenly, the richer countries which used to finance aid and disaster-relief are looking at a future in which they might not be able to afford it. Suddenly, accepted priorities are looking questionable. This is all happening now, in 2008, and an enormous shift of perspective is taking place.

This is not all. Although large-scale shocks on the scale of the 2004 tsunami are generally not emerging in the news, there are small indicators that an era is ending. It’s worth noting some of these, because they represent trends that are far deeper. One, which I read recently, was a simple report that many of the fighters in the Colombian rebel force, FARC, have been deserting, bringing FARC’s continued operation into question. FARC, very much a product of the vastly profitable cocaine trade of the 1980s onwards, is losing steam, symbolising the gradual end of one of the world’s greater ills. One might think that FARC is of little significance.

But the billions squirreled away from the cocaine trade fuel offshore banking and illegal trading in arms; cocaine has fuelled boardroom politics in USA and international American power (after all, the war on drugs, fought in Colombia, Vietnam/Laos, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Chechnya, Kosovo and Pakistan, has a far longer heritage than the war on terror). FARC’s decline signifies a restoration of relative sanity and proportion in one of the world’s most disturbed countries, Colombia. Not just this, but it is also a symptom of USA’s declining influence in Latin America, where new, home-grown political forces are taking shape in America’s own backyard.

Or what about the new pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India? Sounds like a standard business deal, worthy of a small report on page five. Look closer: this is the gradual replacement of American influence in South Asia. In response to the Great Satan’s bluster and missiles since Ronnie Reagan’s time, and surrounded by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s technocrats are slowly undermining USA’s hold in Asia by the simple application of business astuteness, by forging its own deals in the mutual interest of Asian countries.

Or look at China’s small irritants – awkwardly revolting Tibetans, Enterovirus outbreaks in Anhui province, technical mishaps at the Three Gorges Dam, and rural riots against corruption – all featured in the world’s attention, just before the Olympic Games. Small events, theoretically, but very symbolic. They suggest that China’s rampaging growth is not quite as easy as once thought. Rapid modernisation charges its price, and a warning is being sounded.

Why is this significant? It’s important to look for small symptomatic events reported in the media because quite often they suggest much larger trends that lie behind the customary media analysis. China’ economic and industrial growth, for example, is significant in terms of current-day thinking where economic growth is held to be the biggest game around. In one sense it is so, but actually we are seeing the playing out of a bigger movie underneath this. The bigger movie concerns economic growth itself, and its effect on bigger issues of environmental sustainability and human happiness.

The Tibetan uprising is symbolic of something: of relentless economic growth spreading its tentacles to the Earth’s furthest corners, and of its effect on ordinary people. Everyone thought the Tibetan question had gone away. Yet, 50-60 years later, it’s still there. And what Tibetans symbolise is not economic growth but human and spiritual values – basic happiness and social wellbeing. In the west of Asia, we see the Palestinians too, 60 years later, still there, penned in, experiencing zero economic growth, refusing to ‘transfer’ elsewhere, even under great pressure, and remarkably resisting a relentless, American-backed growth-regime. Small peoples faced with big machines and seriously outgunned – yet they’re not going away.

The food-prices question is interesting inasmuch as it is so basic to human life. If one could put this question down to one single cause, it would be called ‘greed’. The greed of Westerners, who consider their car addiction so important that other key priorities, such as food, are overridden. The greed of corporations seeking new avenues to profit. The greed of humanity in general, who in the last 50-100 years have knowingly permitted forest-clearing, pollution, resource-consumption, relentless growth and other planet-damaging activities to get out of hand, to the extent that we now are threatened on a fundamental level.

Food-prices have a levelling effect, affecting everyone from the poorest refugees to the plumpest of restaurant-goers. They lift the carpet on an intricate web of other issues that otherwise have been set aside. This is what Ban Ki Moon’s ominous statement alluded to. We have now entered times in which apparently small things can have a catalytic and multi-faceted effect on other, much bigger factors. We have been ignoring farming, farmers’ cultures and natural environments too long and too blithely – and now the accumulated effects of these are coming back at us. Right now, in 2008 and the years to come, we’re likely to see more of this – compound issues in which one changing factor affects many others.

Food security isn’t just about eating. It is about society, politics, economics and the fundamentals by which global society functions. It hits us in our stomachs, tending to stimulate action. It threatens us sufficiently to start looking at awkward questions. Taboo questions, concerning military expenditure, over-production, the hunger of some and the obesity of others, the role of conflict in bringing global insecurity and, perhaps the question with the greatest political impact, the future position of the economic and political rulers who, in recent decades, have named the game and dominated the world agenda, at great cost to everyone else.

Big, dramatic news items are not too common at present. But big trends are afoot, and things are shifting and changing in all departments worldwide. Things are moving terribly fast, and more is happening than what we are fully aware of. Things are coming in multiples: even America has been presented with the possibility of both a black and a woman president – both representing deep historic opportunities, and both coming at the same time. And this is one of the dangers we face today: a little too much happening all at once.

But then, this too presents an opportunity. In a world where we have set aside wisdom and forethought, crises have their value, because stowed-away issues that everyone studiously ignores suddenly emerge to face us, and we are forced to look.

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