To survive we need to recognize that these threats are not separate problems, and they must be addressed as one major crisis.
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared in TomDispatch, a website run by Tom Engelhardt and associated with The Nation magazine.
Gas prices are above $4 a gallon; global food prices surged 39% last year; and an environmental disaster looms as carbon emissions continue to spiral upward. The global economy appears on the verge of a TKO, a triple whammy from energy, agriculture, and climate-change trends. Right now you may be grumbling about the extra bucks you're shelling out at the pump and the grocery store; but, unless policymakers begin to address all three of these trends as one major crisis, it could get a whole lot worse.
Just ask the North Koreans.
In the 1990s, North Korea was the world's canary. The famine that killed as much as 10% of the North Korean population in those years was, it turns out, a harbinger of the crisis that now grips the globe -- though few saw it that way at the time.
That small Northeast Asian land, one of the last putatively communist countries on the planet, faced the same three converging factors as we do now -- escalating energy prices, a reduction in food supplies, and impending environmental catastrophe. At the time, of course, all the knowing analysts and pundits dismissed what was happening in that country as the inevitable breakdown of an archaic economic system presided over by a crackpot dictator.
They were wrong. The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep North Korea's battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North Korea was able to go through fertilizer, a petroleum product, at one of the world's highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international energy rates became the norm for them, too, the North Koreans had a rude awakening.
Like the globe as a whole, North Korea does not have a great deal of arable land -- it can grow food on only about 14% of its territory. (The comparable global figure for arable land is about 13%.) With heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticides, North Koreans coaxed a lot of food out of a little land. By the 1980s, however, the soil was exhausted, and agricultural production was declining. So spiking energy prices hit an economy already in crisis. Desperate to grow more food, the North Korean government instructed farmers to cut down trees, stripping hillsides to bring more land into cultivation.
Big mistake. When heavy rains hit in 1995, this dragooning of marginal lands into agricultural production only amplified the national disaster. The resulting flooding damaged more than 40% of the country's rice paddy fields. Torrential rains washed away topsoil, while rocks and sand, dislodged from hillsides, ruined low-lying fields. The rigid economic structures in North Korea were unable to cope with the triple assault of bad weather, soaring energy, and declining food production. Nor did dictator Kim Jong Il's political decisions make things any better.
But the peculiarities of North Korea's political economy did not cause the devastating famine that followed. Highly centralized planning and pretensions to self-reliance only made the country prematurely vulnerable to trends now affecting the rest of the planet.
As with the North Koreans, our dependency on relatively cheap energy to run our industrialized agriculture and our smokestack industries is now mixing lethally with food shortages and the beginnings of climate overload, pushing us all toward the precipice. In the short term, we face a food crisis and an energy crisis. Over the longer term, this is certain to expand into a much larger climate crisis. No magic wand, whether biofuels, genetically modified organisms (GMO), or geoengineering, can make the ogres disappear.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, "We are all Americans" briefly became a popular expression of solidarity around the world. If we don't devise policy choices that address energy, agriculture, and climate, while replacing the idolatry of unrestrained growth at the heart of both capitalist and communist economies, the tagline for the 21st century may be: "We are all North Koreans."
Through a Glass Darkly
For years, development experts have bemoaned the declining terms of trade that have kept some developing countries, and most poor farmers, mired in poverty. With the exception of the first energy crisis era in the 1970s, between the end of World War II and 2006, food prices never stopped sinking in relation to manufactured goods. Lower food prices are generally a boon for consumers. But they are devastating for the small farmers who make up the vast majority of the world's poor.
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