Copyright (c) 2004 Toomas Karmo. Revision history: 20041015T140000Z/version_0001.0000 (finished the base version). Permission is granted to copy, distribute, and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2, or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. In the terminology of the License, this document has no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. The definitive machine-readable copy of this document is in the "Literary" section of A copy of the License is included in a hyperlinked section, entitled GNU Free Documentation License, of the machine-readable copy.

Snapshots of a Planet in Peril

One Earth Can't Support
Six Billion People

What are the world's great regional problems? Here's a survey, written to support a client of mine in a Toronto-based ecology-friendly retailing venture.

My survey aims to pick out just the essence of the essence.

So when, for instance, I stress the prospect of famine in Asia, rather than in Africa, I do not mean to imply thereby that Africa is well fed. My implication is only that Africa presently has other, still more pressing, worries. (We can see the actual seriousness of Africa's food situation from 1989 research cited by the United Nations Environment Programme in its Global Environment Outlook 2000, available at 'Crop yields in Africa could be halved within 40 years if degradation of cultivated land continues at present rates.')

Again, when in the course of this survey I stress disease in Africa, but not in Asia, I do not mean to imply thereby that Asia is in good health. We can see the actual seriousness of Asia's medical situation from a remark of David Barker, from the University of Southampton, quoted by Lester Brown in chapter 5 of his 2003 book Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble: 60 percent of all newborns in India would be in a hospital intensive-care unit if born in California.

Again, when I highlight rainforest destruction in Latin America, I do not mean to imply that forests are doing well in Asia and Africa. On the contrary. A more detailed survey would report that Indonesia had several months of forest fires in 1997, with smoke so dense as to require the cancellation of a thousand flights. Such a survey would raise among other questions this one: How biologically stressed must a tropical rainforest be if it proves capable of such violent, longlasting, uncontrollable combustion? And a more detailed survey would mention Dame Anita Roddick's 20 July 2004 warning, on her, that through, in part, the malign ministrations of the World Bank, 60 million hectares of rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo face being handed out to logging companies. To two significant figures, 60 million hectares is a parcel of land measuring 770 kilometres by 770 kilometres. I only soft-pedal the emerging Congolese rainforest tragedy because Congo has still a still more terrible problem, namely - we'll get to it soon enough, in so short a survey - a death toll in war of four million and counting.

One point has to be kept in mind throughout the survey, being the point that underlies and explains pretty well every one of the grim facts we are about to ponder. Since 1980 or thereabouts, the human population, growing exponentially since the launch of the Fossil Fuel Age two hundred years ago, has exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. Our twenty-first century woes are the reflection of a population overshoot, of the same kind as causes a rodent population to die off disastrously after exceeding the carrying capacity of its region, and indeed of the same kind as killed off many a past human civilization. We gaze at National Geographic pictures of those great Easter Island statues, now weathering peacefully amid treeless terrain, or of Mayan agri-theocracy plazas now swamped in vines, or of city walls in the Fertile Crescent, now baking amid lifeless Iraqi sands, and we ask: can Manhattan, London, Paris, Chicago, Toronto be spared? What must we, in the affluent cities, now do to begin deserving to be spared?

Disease, Poverty, and Turmoil
Assail Africa

At, 223 countries or quasi-countries are ranked by life expectancy at birth. In 30 of these, expectancy is under 50 years. Of the 30, all but 2, namely Afghanistan and Haiti, are in Africa.

There is more than one big killer. According to chapter 5 of Lester Brown's Plan B, malaria claims more than 1.1 million lives annually, 90 percent of them in Africa. But the most notorious killer, the one whose clear historical precedent in European civilization is the mediaeval Black Death, is HIV-AIDS.

The UK-based international HIV-AIDS charity AVERT notes at that sub-Saharan Africa, with just over 10 percent of the world's population, is home to over 60 percent of all people living with HIV. AVERT offers the estimate of 3.2 million adults and children newly infected in the region in 2003, taking the total infected in the region to 26.6 million at the end of that year.

Then we have the poverty. At, 231 countries or quasi-countries are ranked by annual GDP-per-capita. In 22 of these, annual GDP per capita is under US$1000. Of the 22, all but 6 (Kiribati, Yemen, the West Bank, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and East Timor) are in Africa.

Finally, we have the turmoil. The world was horrified in 1994 when the Rwanda massacre left 800,000 dead. From that short, sharp civil war arose the Congo Civil War, which in five years claimed around 4 million victims. As of October, 2004, the war was not over, though some observers were envisaging a winding-down.

Here's an account of realities on the ground, a short excerpt from correspondent Fergal Keane's 18 October 2003 BBC News World Edition article 'Africa's Forgotten and Ignored War'. Keane describes one military "operation", in just one village, thus:

One of them fired shots. It was the signal for the killing to begin.

Families panicked by the shooting ran out of their huts.

They ran into the militia and were cut down, mostly with the weapons used by Africa's poor: machetes, clubs and spears.

Sixty-five people were killed.

Forty of them were children.

Forty children hacked and bludgeoned at the hands of adults.

The killers escaped as they nearly always do, and a few hours after that the UN peacekeepers arrived.

As of late 2004, we face a possible new word in our lexicon of horror, 'Darfur'.

Famine Threatens Asia

In the first chapter of State of the World 1999: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress toward a Sustainable Society, Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin quote David Seckler, head of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo as saying that freshwater aquifers in India are being pulled down at the rate of 1-3 metres per year. Seckler goes on to speculate that as aquifers become depleted, cutbacks in irrigation will reduce India's harvest by 25 percent. That would upset India's current food balance, in which a precarious victory has been gained over the famines that beset the India of the twentieth century.

The same State of the World essay makes a parallel point for China, noting that in the north China Plain, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of China's grain harvest, the water table is falling by around 1.5 metres annually.

An essay entitled Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia, on the USA Beijing embassy Web site, conveys the realities on the ground:

A U.S. Embassy Environment Science & Technology (EST) officer visited Inner Mongolia Xilingol League (prefecture), north of Beijing, in late April [of 2001] to deliver U.S. Government disaster assistance to herders left vulnerable by last winter['s] severe snowstorms and a preceding drought. Officially, 97 percent of Xilingol['s] 200,000 square kilometres is classified as grassland. But much of the region is now covered with sand dunes. To the inexpert eye, at least a third of the terrain visible from the highway between the prefecture capital Xilinhot and the banner (county) seat of Uliastai, 200 km to the north, appeared to be desert (i.e. virtually no vegetation).

On the drive from Xilinhot to Uliastai April 25 [2001], swirling eddies of dust could be seen every half kilometre or so, some traversing barren pastures like dust devils, others stationary and reaching up to the clouds. In several places, thick blankets of sand could be seen blowing across the road surface, sometimes depositing itself in deep dunes at the edge of the pavement, creating a road hazard.

Storms emanating from these newly desertified areas not only occur more frequently, they are happening earlier in the year, and, being composed of finer dessicated soil particles, they travel farther. Beijing this year [2001] suffered a major dust storm on New Year Day, the first ever recorded in January. Monitors in Hawaii now detect Chinese dust about 20 times a year, according to press sources. Last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed for the first time that a Chinese dust storm rode the jet stream across the Pacific to the U.S. mainland, causing a visible haze over Colorado and other parts of the Mountain West.

In the second chapter of his Plan B, Lester Brown notes that China's wheat production peaked in 1997, that the yield dropped in each of the following five years, and that the decline over the period 1998-2003 was roughly equal to the entire Canadian harvest. These remarks of Lester Brown's lead us to ask whether, in China as in India, the great twentieth-century famines are destined to return. But in the case of China, there is a new term in the equation. China now, for the first time, couples a nuclear strike capability with a certain boycotting potential (such is the power of its low wages, one fiftieth of wages in the USA) in the global manufactured-goods trade.

Latin America Faces
Ecological, Political Turning Points

The English-language Wikipedia makes the importance of the Amazon rainforest clear: one in five of all birds in the world live there; according to some authorities, one square kilometre of that rainforest can contain 75,000 types of trees; and one square kilometre can contain 90,000 tonnes of living plants. (How can we visualize a mass of 90,000 tonnes? It's the mass of 1.8 million 50-kilogram adult humans.)

Forests in the cooler climatic zones also harbour a lot of organic matter. But whereas in the cooler-climate zones, forests can have deep topsoil, in the rainforests the soil is poor, with most of the organic matter above ground, in the trunks, stems, and leaves of the plants themselves. Fell a temperate-zone forest and you may well produce viable farmland. That was the experience of, for instance, the colonizers of Upper Canada, in the decades following the American Revolution. Upper Canada's primeval Carolingian forest, most notably occupying a ribbon of land around 70 kilometres wide along the north shore of Lakes Erie and Ontario, harboured trees with trunks a metre, even two metres, thick. Although the Carolingian forest is largely a faded historical memory now, as dim to many of us as the War of 1812, the fine Upper Canada farmlands are still going strong, supporting fruit trees and vineyards.

Fell rainforest, on the other hand, and you are left with poor soil, lacking an agricultural future. Much of the currently cleared Amazonian land grows mere grass, for beef cattle. When we try to imagine the long-term prospects for those lands, not lush Upper Canada, with its fine vintages, but denuded, eroded, hardscrabble-poor Haiti (once a haven of tropical forest) is the appropriate model.

To make matters worse, the current felling releases sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, since much of that vast biomass ends up burned, not composted. The carbon-dioxide emissions exacerbate global warming, with consequences that can make themselves felt everywhere, for instance in the remote North Atlantic. Global warming may make the British climate of the twenty-second century so hot as to require a total reorganization of agriculture. (That's a scenario I explore in my Utopia 2184: A Green Manifesto in the Traditions of the Permaculture and Catholic-Worker Movements.) Alternatively (as I also briefly remark in the concluding chapter of Utopia 2184, following a suggestion from a climate modelling group in Potsdam), Greenlandic meltwater may perturb the Gulf Stream circulation, conferring on Britain the climate of Labrador.

One fifth of the ancient Amazonian rainforest is already gone, and the felling proceeds apace. The United Nations Environment Programme Global Environment Outlook 2000 states the 1990-90 forest loss in Latin America as 62 million hectares. How can we visualize such an area? It's the equivalent of a plot of land measuring 800 kilometres by 800 kilometres, in other words a box of land big enough to contain virtually all of France, plus some modest trimmings from the edges of Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. A further 5.8 million hectares were lost annually over the period 1990-95. The destruction has been slowing down, but is not halted. In State of the World 2003, Lester Brown's team reports a loss of 1.6 million hectares in 2001.

We mentioned beef. Where does the beef turn up? Yes, ma'am, you guessed it: although most of us in affluent North America never see those prodigious trees, or their stumps, we may be getting our teeth into the beef, at our local bovineburger joint. According to the Rainforest Action Network, a patch of jungle the size of a small kitchen is destroyed to make just one quarter-pounder. Our pets get to eat that same beef through canned food. Admittedly, the issue is murky. You may find, as I did, a Google search with some such search phrase as Campbells soup "rainforest beef" turning up both material affirming and material denying that those so-familiar soup cans contain rainforest beef. The Web has been asserting that the provenance of beef is impossible to track once the US Department of Agriculture has approved importation. One fact that does emerge with full clarity on the Web: Burger King promised, in the wake of a Rainforest Action Network boycott, not to use rainforest beef.

Can Latin America muster the long-term political will to protect its rainforests? Perhaps, provided democracy continues consolidating its foothold in the region. The vigor of "Base Communities" among the region's Catholic poor is one of the positive signs of the times. And when we, in the affluent streets of Toronto, were chanting, in our 2003 opposition to the Iraq war, 'The people, united, will never be defeated,' we were unwittingly repeating in English what the destitute of Latin America had declaimed before us in their own struggles against globalizing business: 'El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.'

Turmoil Shakes
Middle East and Russia,
Challenges European Union

The years since 1989 have seen a progressive, steady deterioration in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

No progress has been made in divesting Israel of its nuclear armament, now believed by Western analysts to comprise on the order of 200 warheads. Iran is believed by many to harbour nuclear-weapons ambitions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially unresolved, in spite of the 1993 Oslo Accords, with intifada renewed as of September 2000. (That the current intifada has a long, busy future is suggested by an unofficial peacemaker's crude video I saw at a Toronto Catholic Worker house in 2003 or 2004. Those throwing stones at Israeli forces were young children.)

The damage done in Iraq to America's international standing, and to America's own ability to comprehend and perpetuate the core values of its founders, is evident from the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal of 2004. Here a startled world found American troops resorting to techniques worthy of Saddam Hussein, including not only sexual abuse, but (in a uniquely horrible development, oddly muted in media coverage), religious torture: the BBC News World Edition reports on 21 May 2004, under the headline-without-reporter-byline 'New Account of Prisoner Abuses', that pork and alcohol were forcibly administered, and that a prisoner was ordered to thank Jesus for remaining alive.

The damage was evident also in the alienation of Islamic opinion, including potentially moderate opinion. I have found a grim reminder of this in the public writings of two Iraqis (who have been very kind in also corresponding a little with me privately and personally): on the one hand secularist Raed Jarrar, blogging at, on the other hand his theologically more conservative mother, the engineer Faiza Jarrar, blogging at Are American troops handing out candy to Baghdad children in a spirit of neighbourliness, as they did to the German children in 1945? Or is their calculation, rather, that Baghdad insurgents are less likely to start shooting when there are kids around? It is of the first importance to see how ordinary Iraqis, the people whose presumed political will the Bush administration has cited in trying to defend its invasion, now answer such questions.

Underlying the Iraq disaster is the physical fact that the world, as of 2004, consumes on the order of 82 million barrels of oil a day. Here's how to visualize that figure. Take one storey in a high-rise building to be 3 metres high. Imagine, then (making the calculation to the adequate precision of just one significant figure) a tank 80 stories in height, 80 stories in length, 80 stories in breadth. And realize that that cubical tank has to be filled to the brim with petroleum once in every 24 hours, 7 days in every week, 365 days in every year, to keep the world's road and air fleets on the go, its plastics and fertilizer factories humming, and (a fundamental point) its tractors ploughing. Petroleum geologists are nearly unanimous in thinking that the daily petroleum flow will peak, then decline catastrophically in defiance of rising global demand, before 2040. Many of them fear the peak will come before 2010.

Some suggested that the 2003 Iraq war was driven by a strategic concern regarding weapons of mass destruction, coupled with a humanitarian concern for the victims of Saddam Hussein. To this line of thought, three rebuttals are in order. Firstly, it was openly conceded by Washington itself, at any rate by the second half of 2004, that no weapons of mass destruction could be found. Secondly, had Washington been concerned in 2003 over weapons of mass destruction, it would hardly have left Iraq's nuclear facilities unsecured against looters in the opening days of the occupation. (Similarly unsecured was the Iraqi foreign ministry, where for more than a week it was possible for anyone to walk in and out, removing this document or adding that one. In contrast, the petroleum-ministry headquarters, if I remember the sequence of events correctly, got locked down very early in the occupation.) Thirdly, had Washington been concerned for the wellbeing of local people, it would hardly have left Iraq's borders unsecured in 2004. (I myself learned about bizarre security arrangements along the land frontier from Christian Peacemaker Teams volunteer Stewart Vriesinga, at the Toronto Catholic Worker roundtable of 30 September 2004. When Mr Vriesinga crossed into Iraq, vehicles were more or less waved forward, with only the most perfunctory queries, as though this were the border between two untroubled states in the European Union. It was as though - it's a suggestion I've now had from two sources, one of them an Iraqi blog - the Coalition was deliberately making it easy for terrorists to infiltrate Iraq, on the calculation that the bad guys would then be less likely to turn their attention to the more diligently patrolled borders of the affluent Western countries.)

Others suggested that the reason for the 2003 war lay in 14 new American bases on Iraqi soil, whose ultimate purpose was to secure both Iraqi and Saudi oil reserves. On this more cynical, but ultimately more persuasive, analysis, Washington, while only peripherally and tangentially concerned about the quality of life in the Iraqi streets, or about the quality of Iraqi parliamentary institutions, understood only too well the importance of securing that daily 80-storey cubical petroleum tank. (Roughly one quarter of the daily planetary tankage was, as the Oval Office well knew, consumed by the USA.)

The diplomatic scene in Russia mirrors the current deterioration in the Middle East. Russia is emboldened in its current hard line against Chechnya by the American position on Iraq. Current American language of a "war" against terror is convenient in handling the Chechen insurgency, as is the current American doctrine (contrary to international jurisprudence) that national security goals legitimize pre-emptive military strikes. In a particularly alarming development in the wake of the September 2004 Beslan school massacre, President Putin has said that high local officials, such as regional governors, should now not be elected locally, but instead should be 'nominated by the head of state' (BBC News World Edition, 13 September 2004, Bridget Kendall, 'Analysis: Putin's Drastic Measures').

The challenge facing the European Union is clear. Can it maintain an independent foreign policy, acting as a proponent of moderation and international law, in the face of external pressure? Which group of capitals represents the authentic mind of Europe? Is it Berlin and Paris (along with populist, street-level Madrid and Rome and London), standing in opposition to the 2003 Iraq war? Or is it, on the contrary, the "Vilnius 10", a grouping of impoverished, ex-communist peoples now entering the European Union under Russia's shadow, and in their weakness willing to entertain special military alliances with Washington? Can the European Union adopt a coherent, rational, juridically and morally defensible posture as the situation in the Middle East and Russia deteriorates further - especially if the picture is darkened over the coming decades by a final collapse of the already tottering parliamentary institutions in America?

Will United States and Canada
Now Choose
the 'Road Less Travelled'?

Underlying the possible eventual collapse of Washington's remaining democratic mechanisms is a physical fact. Not only is humanity at large exceeding the long-term carrying capacity of its planet, at the price of turmoil around the globe: among the ecologically most unhelpful people are measurably, quantifiably, the people of affluent North America. Perhaps the best-known formalism for calculating the impact of a country on the biosphere is the "ecological footprint". The "footprint" is the area of land per capita required to maintain the given country's current lifestyle, with all its attendant growing of crops and mining of minerals. One useful ecological-footprint table has been drawn up by the Earth Council, a non-governmental organization that has in past years received strong support from the government of Costa Rica, but has now transferred operations to Ontario. Using 1999 figures, the Council finds an average ecological footprint for the world of 2.8 hectares. The countries with the largest footprints are Canada, at 7.7 hectares; Australia, at 9.0 hectares; and the United States, with an astonishing 10.3 hectares.

A similar picture emerges from a simpler calculation, that takes not resources consumed, but one particular waste generated, namely, carbon dioxide gas. Here we find that the United States, with 4 or 5 percent of the world's population, exacerbates climate change by producing 20 or 25 percent of the total carbon-dioxide torrent.

The United States now faces a stark choice. Will it give moral, political, and scientific leadership in the developing global ecological crisis, building on the internationalist traditions that led it two generations ago to launch the Marshall Plan and host the United Nations? Or will it, on the contrary, retreat, as it did in the Great Depression, into isolationism - into the self-protecting fortress mentality it adopted after the 1929 crash, but now with the complication of a military-industrial complex powerful beyond all international historical precedent?

The choice facing America is of immediate relevance to Canada. Canada's demonstrated capabilities in foreign policy would facilitate vigorous cooperation with Washington if America were to choose the internationalist path. Contrariwise, the militarily indefensible frontier would render Canada an immediate, easy, casualty (one recalls here 1938 Austria, facing a Germany intent on Lebensraum, "living space") if the Fortress America mentality were to triumph over coming decades.

America's choice is brilliantly captured by Doris "Granny D" Haddock, running at the age of 94 for the Senate in the 2004 elections. On 20 August 2004, Ms Haddock spoke at poet Robert Frost's farm in Derry, New Hampshire.

Frost's poem 'The Road Less Travelled' is one of the best-loved works in American literature:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Here is a part of what Ms Haddock had to say on her campaign trail in New Hampshire. Her words deserve to be remembered even as Frost's poem is:

… despite all our hard times, our wars, our depressions, our genocides, our suppressions and oppressions, our experience with slavery itself, we still stand at the edge of woods dark and deep with our future ahead of us and this dream still in our hearts.

… we have come to a new time. We and our natural world are poised now at a parting of the road. One path leads where powerful nations have gone before. It is the road of silver and blood - the short, noisy road of empire. The other is a path no great nation has taken before.

I could conjure up a fearful world for your imagining, where any who wish to speak out must do so in a barbed wire enclosure, and where the police organize to beat up and gas any of our children who stand up for justice and peace in the world - but that is already here, of course, as we saw in Boston and Miami and shall see in New York. In Miami, fine children came to stand peaceably for justice in the world - to argue for fair trade for the people of the world instead of exploitive trade. These young men and women - and I know some of them and how fine they are - were obeying the police. They tried to leave the area but were cut off and gassed and shot with wooden bullets that blinded and scarred some of them. They were rounded up into trucks, their belongings and identification were taken from them and left fluttering in the street so that they could not get out of jail or get home. This shame is upon the City of Miami, but it is on our society, too, as it moves toward a police state of repression of our civil liberties. That is the way it is now. And people, because they speak out peacefully, are visited by the federal police and told to watch what they say. This is what America has come to and is coming to in the shadow of dark leadership that cares nothing for the rights and values that so many Americans have died for.

I could conjure up an old grandmother who goes into the U.S Capitol rotunda and recites from the Declaration of Independence, to urge the senators to free themselves from the special interests that bind them. I can imagine this old woman being handcuffed and arrested and jailed. I can imagine her coming back another time to read from the Bill of Rights itself, and again being shackled and jailed. But this time is already here, and this happened to me.

I can imagine people being held without recourse to lawyers or courts, endlessly in solitary confinement. This is here. I can imagine our country attacking a poor nation that never threatened us but had the bad luck to have one of the world's great oil reserves under its sands. This is here.

And so what is left to imagine down a dozen years or a half-century down this road? A ruined landscape? A broken spirit among the people? A fearful compliance in the machinery of death and not life? Other nations have gone that way. They end poorly. Their people suffer. The people of the world suffer. It gets worse and worse until the suffering is unbearable and the world reacts. Or is that upon us now, too?

You see what harsh words have come to my old American face. You see what harsh words we bring to your porch, Mr. Frost.

But we see the path you told us about, too, Dear Robert.

We see the one less travelled by great nations. I can imagine the end of this century quite differently. I imagine the great Appalachian Mountains in all their beauty, the coal operators long gone and the people again making a thousand good uses of the bounty of nature. I can imagine great arrays of solar cells and all the newer energy technology, harvesting the energy we need here at home from the natural processes of nature. I can imagine a people who look to their children as the nation's greatest resource, and they nurture them with an imaginative and engaging education and a perfection of health care. I can imagine a nation where the freedom and creativity of the people bloom in a daily display of great joy and abundance. I can imagine a political environment where there is still the great moving balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the group. I can see the day when government has become much smaller, more the town hall, because great scale is no longer needed to keep check on the monstrously overscaled corporations that once terrorized the people and no giant machinery is needed to protect us from the mayhem we incite in the world. It is now the small government, the small business, the creative enterprise, the family-sized group that drives the economy so efficiently and profitably, and in balance with the natural surroundings. We will learn to do all that in this century, or we will die.

Let us do the thing that no great and powerful nation has done before. Let us take that less traveled path where might can be used as a force for justice and good and mass prosperity in the world. Let us understand that the course of history is at this moment in our hands. …