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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

And Indonesia keeps on burning...

In 2015, about 100,000 forest and peat fires were started in Indonesia to clear land for oil palm plantations. Palm oil is a valuable commodity used as an automotive fuel, for cooking, in shampoos, creams, lipsticks, mascaras, ice cream, chocolate, and so on.  We consume ever more palm oil.

The Indonesian fires blanketed the entire region with haze and emitted more carbon dioxide than the U.S. Here is a good summary.  I know you are busy and you probably will not devote 31 minutes of your time to watching something that might impact negatively your country and you. Please look at least at the first 10 minutes of this hard-hitting Coconut TV program.  At nine minutes and 41 seconds you will hear about personal threats and thugs sent to dissuade activists from ever mentioning the criminals who run the largest Indonesian racket and pay off the government officials. These criminals work for several large corporations controlled by other nations, mostly rich Western democracies. In many ways, they represent you and me, and our pension plans.  And so it goes...

An image taken from NASA's Terra satellite on Sept 24, 2015, shows smoke from fires in Indonesia over the coasts of Borneo and Sumatra. I used similar images from the same satellite at the OECD meeting in 2007.
If one burns the dried-out swamp peat and tropical forests, what's left is an unmitigated environmental disaster that will leave the Indonesian islands denuded of fertile soil and unable to feed the ever-growing population.  The problem is becoming similar to that of the Easter Island and there is no solution in sight.  With the forest and agricultural soil gone, and the coastal mangroves silted out and dead, there will be a dramatic shortage of food for the Indonesian people and fish.  In short, there will be a massive migration problem and the near-by Australia will become the next  Germany for the environmental refugees from Indonesia. Only Australia is no Germany, and their refugee problem can be 10-50 times bigger.  In a few years, many governments will cry out loud: "Who could predict this!" Just don't say that my son and I did not warn you in this short popular paper.

Eight years ago, I gave an impassioned speech at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Ministerial Round Table in Paris.  I also left a paper manuscript, and told the hapless, unimaginative European bureaucrats that the burning of Indonesia and equatorial Africa is our problem that can be quantified from satellite images.  Surprise, surprise! The glossy-paper manuscript disappeared within two hours grabbed by everyone in the room.  It was the most popular publication of the conference, I was told. Of course almost nothing has been done since then to address the problem of environmental degradation of Africa and Asia Pacific and the ensuing massive human migration that has already begun.

Since 2007, the list of transnational corporations that eat alive Indonesia and many other places has been growing longer by the year. These corporations give us cheap soybeans from Brazil and Argentina and palm oil products from Indonesia, Malaysia, and equatorial Africa. We then devour the planet without ever thinking about it. Got lipstick? Want a hamburger?

The current mythology does not allow most to even see the problem in all its seriousness and complexity.  The standard free-market line is: "Oil palm plantations in Indonesia create jobs, perhaps 6 million jobs."  Yes, true, but these six million people and their families will not want to live in a devastated country, surrounded by pollution and starvation.  Lack of tropical forest cover will exacerbate the effects of global warming more that the current giant emissions of carbon dioxide from burning peat and wood.

China's experiment in exchanging their environment for cities and money is sputtering out as I am writing these words. In their zeal to pursue unchecked capitalism, Chinese rulers forgot that first people breathe, drink, and eat, and only then they watch TV or buy things on the internet.  In other words, we are a part of the environment, not the other way around, as our insane current narrative would have it.  An unhealthy damaged environment means no highly organized humans societies, just roaming gangs and warlords.  Please look at the broader Middle East after 4000 years of agricultural civilizations.  But that's a completely different story...Or is it?

P.S. 11/12/2015. As serendipity would have it, my dear friend, Dr. Charlie Sing, the just retired human geneticist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, emailed me an essay by another dear friend, Wendell Berry,  a famous American poet, writer, and philosopher.  Here is one of many possible quotations pertinent to this blog:
...But once greed has been made an honorable motive, then you have an economy without limits.  It has no place for temperance or thrift or the ecological law of return.  It will do anything.  It is monstrous by definition.
Wendell Berry, "Faustian Economics, Hell hath no limits," Harper's Magazine/May 2008, page 36.

In 2008, Wendell was thinking the same thoughts as I did after a five-year quest against biofuels and planetary destruction. In August 2008, I resigned my Berkeley faculty position after concluding that my beloved university went mad.  In 2007, Berkeley signed a 500 million dollar Faustian bargain with BP to fund a new Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI).  This genetically-modified switchgrass-for
-biofuel Institute was headed by a Monsanto representative, Dr.  Chris Somerville, who was hired by Berkeley's Chancellor with no consultation with the Academic Senate.  After more than 5 years of happy activities, EBI delivered nothing - as science predicted at the onset - and the BP funding stopped.

Otherwise, almost nothing has changed since then, only the universal destruction of ecosystems has progressed nicely, just in time to amplify the negative effects of global warming. In the next blog, I will comment on us, the human pack-men and other monsters trashing the planet everywhere.