Friday, August 17, 2012

America's Summer of Drought, Global Food Shortage, and Dystopian Futures: Report on Travels in the Heartland

Readers will perhaps know from remarks I've made here of late that, in the last part of July, the hottest month on record in American history, Steve and I took a trip into the American heartland.  Steve had business-related work in Kansas City, and I accompanied him in order to have a small break from my everyday routines.  Since he had saved a day off allocated for his birthday, we also had an extra day (and weekend time) which enabled him to drive us up to Sioux City, Iowa, to visit an elderly cousin with whom he's been in touch about family history, but whom he'd never met.

And so we drove through large swathes of the breadbasket part of the U.S. which have been particularly hard-hit by this summer's intense heat and drought.  Almost the entire state of Arkansas continues to be in the "exceptional" drought category now--the highest level of drought measured by U.S. statistics.  Half of the counties in the U.S. are now considered disaster areas due to this summer's drought.  Almost all of the region through which we drove several weeks ago is in the exceptional category of drought.

Some of the signs of the times we saw as we drove:

1. The first two days of the trip, it was brutally hot throughout north Arkansas and into west central Missouri--110F most of the day as we drove, per our car thermometer, and 107F by the time we stopped for the night in Missouri. 
2. Cornfields were decimated throughout almost the entire area through which we drove.  The corn crops are shriveled and brown, and the ears of corn did not mature before the intense heat and drought set in.  Only in rare cases (and almost always where there's irrigation) did the corn mature enough in late spring to form full ears before the rain stopped. 
3. Where we walked in the countryside (I did so two days in Iowa), there are large cracks in many fields due to protracted lack of moisture. 
4. In northwest Arkansas, we saw several large oaks shorn of tops or limbs by a wind that blew through one day as we returned home.  The trees have been so damaged by several years of intense heat and drought that even slight winds cause them to break now. 
5. Large areas of forest appear to be dying, with trees whose leaves have turned brown and have dropped. 
6. There are many burnt-out areas along the roadside where fires have begun due to the drought and have burnt into nearby forested areas.

Having seen close up the devastation of regions through which we've driven in previous summers, finding them lushly green and with abundant crops, I continue to follow with particular interest the reports of those who have begun to recognize that we may well be entering a stage of global history marked by food shortages and food wars due to the shortages, all driven by global warming.  At The Nation site recently, Michael T. Klare sketches a careful trajectory of our likely future based on what has happened this summer--and what will, in all likelihood, continue to happen in future due to climate change.  Klare thinks that food shortages and food wars are in all likelihood down the road for the planet.

At Salon, Simeon Tegel offers a scenario that complements Klare's.  Tegel reports that climatologists in various areas of the world are now tracking the development of another El Niño effect in the eastern Pacific.  As he also notes, El Niño almost always causes massive disruption to agriculture when this weather pattern asserts itself.  

As it happened, throughout much of our journey through Arkansas into Missouri and Iowa (and tangentially into parts of Kansas and Nebraska bordering on those states), I was reading Octavia Butler's engrossing dystopian novel Parable of the Sower, which Kathy Hughes recommended to me here some time in the past.  Butler projects a nightmare scenario for the early part of the 21st century that seems to me increasingly imaginable--and increasingly compelling--in light of what we witnessed as we traveled recently into a part of the U.S. which boasts that its agricultural fertility feeds much of the planet.

In Butler's projection, the U.S. of 2024-2027 is characterized by a total breakdown of life-sustaining structures of food production and food distribution.  People live either on the streets when their houses have been destroyed or they have lost the ability to maintain a house, or in walled-off, gated, and heavily guarded communities that have become protected islands in a society marked by class warfare and relentless and often inexplicable violence.  There is little police protection, and what there is of such protection must usually be bought by bribes to corrupt police.

The lack of food has much to do with the violence.  Such food as can be bought costs exorbitant amounts of money, and even making one's way to the few stores that have reliable food supplies can be so dangerous that one risks one's life attempting to buy food.  Cannibalism has manifested itself in some hidden pockets of the culture, as a way of dealing with the shortages of food.

What I found perhaps most frightening of all about Butler's dystopian futuristic musings was their uncanny resemblance to our present, as we enter the early decades of the 21st century.  Butler's projection of the future is downright frightening because it's imaginable.  It's the present in which we're already living, tweaked slightly in the direction of outright violence and enhanced bureaucratic corruption, with food shortage and climate change driving the tweaking.

It's where we could very well end up if we don't do something about the climate changes now beginning to wreak havoc on food production and portending global food shortages.  And it strikes me as interesting and well worth noting that the writer sketching this possible, believable future was an African-American woman.

As I argued in several postings earlier in the week, we who occupy the center ignore the alternative imaginations and alternative voices of those speaking to us from the margins of our society to our peril. It's often those on the margins who see far more acutely how things actually are, and the direction in which things are trending unless someone with the ability to make effective changes alters he trend before it makes a decisive downward turn.

A turn the global community appears already to have taken with global warming . . . . 

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