Just the tip of the iceberg

With the just completed Bali conference, the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, special reports in many newspapers and magazines, demonstrations in 50 countries on global warming, the new Australian government signing on to the Kyoto Accord, and many other events, the focus of the world’s attention is shifting to the need to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. Alongside and driving this change is a decisive shift in world public opinion. This will propel changes in elections, government policies and media coverage for years to come.

However, the basic environmental problem humanity faces is not only global warming. Global warming is but a symptom, a profound symptom to be sure, of the imbalance in the relationship between human activity and the nature on which we depend. This is the crisis of our times, of which global warming is but one part.

Global climate change is throwing into relief other looming crises. As climate change causes shifts in weather patterns, rainfall patterns and seasons, that also highlights serious problems with the way we do agriculture. When we depend on irrigation systems for increasing agricultural production, we base our ability to grow food on the stability of those water systems. Melting glaciers, rampant development in water-stressed regions, overtapped underground aquifers and rainforest destruction are all turning the water on which our food depends into threatened resources. When we don’t have enough water in the right places to grow the food we are used to, how will we feed ourselves?

When we increase agricultural output by an over-reliance on chemical fertilizers, that puts one more burden on the nonrenewable oil that is used to produce the fertilizer. And in the process, unnecessary carbon dioxide is released. What the fertilizer does is enable us to speed up the rate at which we use up the natural ability of the soil to grow food. We turn the soil into an addict, requiring ever-larger doses of fertilizer to get the same results.

Agriculture is just one example of the problems humanity faces due to our imbalance with nature. Oil and natural gas depletion, industrial pollution, the buildup everywhere in the world of persistent organic pollutants (known as “pops” — many of which negatively affect the human reproductive system), rapid desertification, increased extreme weather events and massive amounts of waste can all be linked to and added to global climate change as examples of how humanity is helping to degrade and stress the ability of nature to support us.

It is not just humanity in general, though, that is causing the problem. It is capitalism. Capitalism, in addition to its exploitation of human labor, relies on ever-expanding markets, ever-expanding production of commodities, ever-expanding development and ever-expanding private profit, all of which are root causes of the imbalance with nature. Short-term, shortsighted profit as the sole measure of value underlies many of the crises which affect humanity as a whole. Increasing capitalist globalization in part means a huge increase in the transport of goods, which results in huge increases in the burning of fossil fuels to run the ships, trucks and airplanes that transport globalized commodities.

We most certainly have to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and fast. Global climate change is an escalating challenge. But it is not the only thing we have to work on.

We need agricultural production systems that don’t rely on excess water consumption, chemical fertilizers or transporting agricultural goods many thousands of miles. We need transportation systems that are much more efficient (trains rather than trucks, for example), and that don’t substitute for local production and distribution. We need industrial production that doesn’t waste energy, doesn’t produce massive amounts of waste, and utilizes solar energy (many forms of renewable energy come from the power of the sun in one form or another — solar, wind, wave and others).

Are goods and food distributed justly? Are all humans provided with health care? Is there sufficient safe water for everyone? It is not good enough that there is sufficient food on average: there has to be sufficient food for everyone.

Justice, peace, environmental sustainability and world health all require socialist planning, cooperation and democratic decision-making. We need an economic system that measures all value by human need rather than individual profit.

Marc Brodine (marcbrodine @inlandnet.com) is chair of the Washington State Communist Party and co-authored the second edition of the CPUSA environmental program, “People and Nature Before Profits.”