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Silent Armageddon?

Editor's note: Written especially for Culture Change readers, this solid analysis asks "At what point do we recognize that expensive technologies meant to maintain a 'sustainable' consumer society among the world's wealthiest people are utterly divorced from any reasonable moral coherence? Are we ever going to provide plug in hybrids to the citizens of Darfur?"

The greatest danger of the ecological collapse of civilization is that we might not notice. There are a few taboos in political and academic discussion that serve to make our leaders look important and moral. We are not supposed to admit that our minds are directly influenced by the Earth on which we walk, or the degree to which we benefit from the exploitation of the global underclass. Our failure to recognize these things hides the impacts of ecological collapse.

As much as those in the progressive environmental community are striving to have a realistic discussion of the combined impacts of peak oil, global warming, the breaching of other environmental limits, we seem to be largely ignoring the most obvious scenarios. The most likely future, at least in the medium to near term, is a simple extrapolation of current trends. We seem to talk as if ecological limits are going to disrupt all of modern society, and transform our lives. The reality is that both in the U.S. and the world, incomes have been polarizing rapidly, especially since the early 1980s. (For a number of decades before that, the income gap in the U.S. was actually growing smaller owing to progressive taxation and other factors.)

A simple extrapolation of current trends would indicate that those in power are going to try to stay in power, try to maintain their privilege, and will be willing to use many different schemes, overt and covert, to do so. They are going to try to shuffle the distress downward. This will likely require a greater centralization of state power. A brutal reality of the modern environmental crisis is that for much of humanity it is already here. The number of malnourished people in the world has increased by about 20% in the last decade, from 800 million to near a billion people. That's the number of starving people, not the number of poor people. The increase in poverty is much higher, owing to the efforts of neoliberal economic adjustment in the 1990s and oil price spikes in the 2000s.

These increases in poverty and hunger are not merely coincidental with the "war on terror." Now that the global energy pie is stalled in growth or shrinking, the only way the U.S. can continue to eat gluttonously (literally and figuratively) is to eat an ever larger share of the remaining pie. The only way the U.S. and the other wealthy nations can continue to expand their claim on a shrinking resource pie is to maintain an aggressive foreign policy, and that in turn demands a greater concentration of state power. If one simply extrapolates these current trends into the future, the picture seems both dire and very different from most of what is painted regarding environmental limits.

It is highly likely that environmental limits will be manifest as a series of economic shocks that will be noticed by everyone, but the greater brunt of these shocks are going to be borne by the very poor. The problem is that the entire process is likely to be so hidden and politicized that we are likely to be fighting the "barbarians at the gates" for a long time to come without any open recognition of the ecological linkages between their well being and political change in our own society.

Specifically, although oil prices have fallen dramatically with the current economic downturn, grain as traded on world markets has not fallen nearly as much. Why is that? There are three reasons. First, global warming is already making itself felt in the drying out of grain producing areas in Australia, China, Africa, and arguably the American west. Second, because of the global polarization of wealth, the upper classes are eating more meat, thus putting greater strain on global grain supplies. Meat production has in the last few decades increased about twice as fast as population itself. And thirdly, the competition for agricultural outputs for biofuel is supporting global food prices at higher levels, again with a direct linkage to the consumption of the wealthier classes.

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