Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Is Nobody Bothering To Notice The Collapse?

For some reason, this post which I wrote some time ago seems to have gone viral. In that post, I pointed out the silliness of discussing the possibility of what would happen in some sort of theoretical future collapse scenario when by many statistics, many societies around the world were already undergoing what by any reasonable account could be described as a collapse.

You can think of this as sort of a sequel to that one. Because, while that article concentrated on the effects of austerity in Europe, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has gotten far, far worse since then. Looking closely at it, how can this not be thought of as anything else but a collapse? It seems all the most dire warnings from the Peak Oil community are playing out in this region for some reason.

And what makes this scenario much more frightening is that it is not just an artificial collapse caused by our ridiculous debt-based monetary system. No, these crisis are underpinned by actual resource scarcity, especially water and topsoil, aggravated by climate change. I wonder why that's not getting more commentary. This is the collapse to be really concerned about: what will happen in a world of declining resources. No amount of debt reshuffling will change that. How can we ignore a collapse that is happening?

So to begin with is the situation in Egypt. By some accounts, Egypt was the setting of the largest mass protest in history. The army has taken over the government in a coup to try and restore order. This comes only a few years after revolutions roiled North Africa (triggered, by some accounts, by grain prices which were artificially inflated by speculation combined with a bad harvest).

A forerunner of worldwide "water wars" ? (TYWKIWDBI)
[T]race the Nile about 1,400 miles upstream and there’s a rising colossus that threatens to upset a millennia-old balance. There, in the Ethiopian highlands, one of the world’s largest dams is taking shape.

For Ethiopia, the dam promises abundant energy and an escape from a seemingly permanent spot in the lowest rungs of the world’s human development index. But for Egypt, the consequences could be dire: a nationwide water shortage in as little as two years that causes crop failures, power cuts and instability resonating far beyond even the extraordinary tumult of the recent past.

For a country facing daily domestic crises in the aftermath of its 2011 revolution, the dam is a foreign threat that Egypt can ill afford. And that may be the point. Analysts say Ethiopia is seizing on Egypt’s distraction and relative fragility to plunge ahead with plans that have long been on the drawing board but have always been thwarted by Egyptian resistance...

The country, [Morsi] told a crowd of cheering supporters, is ready to sacrifice blood to ensure that “not one drop” of the Nile is lost...

Egypt and Ethiopia each have more than 80 million people, double the population that existed just 30 years ago. By 2050, the combined population of the two countries is expected to rise by 100 million, even as climate change could reduce the supply of water...

Ethiopian officials say the dam will be used to generate electricity, not to irrigate fields, meaning that all the water will eventually make its way downstream to Egypt...

Egypt may be the gift of the Nile, as the Greek historian Herodotus once remarked, but the Nile is not Egypt’s alone. Eleven countries share the basin of the world’s longest river... Ethiopia has won the majority of those countries to its side with the promise of electricity exports for a region that desperately needs new sources of energy...
Meanwhile in Gaza:

The water is running out in Gaza: Humanitarian catastrophe looms as territory's only aquifer fails (The Independent)
The Gaza Strip, a tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave uninhabitable in just a few years.

With 90 to 95 per cent of the territory's only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza's 1.6 million residents. But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 per cent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished territory to buy bottled water at a premium. The UN estimates that more than 80 per cent of Gazans buy their drinking water. "Families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water," said June Kunugi, a special representative of the UN children's fund Unicef.

The Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas and in a permanent state of tension with Israel, is not the only place in the Middle East facing water woes. A Nasa study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount in the Dead Sea – making a bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the UN warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020. Between 5 and 10 per cent only of the aquifer's water is safe to drink, but even this can mix with poor-quality water during distribution, making it good only for washing.
And in a surprisingly intelligent piece, Thomas Friedman explores the environmental roots of Syria's crisis: Without Water, Revolution
THIS Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. It’s what happens when an extreme weather event, the worst drought in Syria’s modern history, combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions, fueled by money from rival outside powers — Iran and Hezbollah on one side, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies’ defeating the other’s allies — all at a time when America, in its post-Iraq/Afghanistan phase, is extremely wary of getting involved.

I came here to write my column and work on a film for the Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” about the “Jafaf,” or drought, one of the key drivers of the Syrian war. In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.

“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.

Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better health care, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.

Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”

Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution.
It could be said that these things tend to happen periodically and go away. But to me, the truly historic nature of this situation is underlined by the fact that archaeological sites hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years old are in danger, and being used again.
 Across much of Syria, the country’s archaeological heritage is imperiled by war, facing threats ranging from outright destruction by bombs and bullets to opportunistic digging by treasure hunters who take advantage of the power vacuum to prowl the country with spades and shovels. Fighting has raged around the Roman ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city in central Syria, once known as the Bride of the Desert. And the Syrian Army has established active garrisons at some of the country’s most treasured and antiquated citadels, including castles at Aleppo, Hama and Homs.

For decades Ebla has been celebrated for the insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria’s civil war — scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums ago because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more.

Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again.

The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.

And so Mr. Shibleh and several other fighters have been posted on the mound with two-way radios, to report the approaches of the MIG and Sukhoi attack jets that have repeatedly dropped bombs on cities and towns that have fallen from Mr. Assad’s control.
Wow, sites that date from the dawn of our transition to the grain-based agricultural/urban way of life are being used in a high-tech revolution using planes, guns and rockets, all while the water is running out. You don't have to be a militant anti-civilization type character to see the irony in this (although it helps). And the mention of Aleppo is interesting. In this excellent essay from Lester Brown, Civilization's foundation eroding, he mentions Walter Lowdermilk's examination of ancient sites in the Middle East (also described in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization):
This is not new. In 1938, Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, traveled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to learn how these older civilizations had coped with soil erosion. He found that some had managed their land well, maintaining its fertility over long stretches of history, and were thriving. Others had failed to do so and left only remnants of their illustrious pasts.

In a section of his report entitled “The Hundred Dead Cities,” he described a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings were still standing in stark isolated relief, but they were on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, “Here erosion had done its worst….if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be re-peopled again and the cities rebuilt, but now that the soils are gone, all is gone.”
And notice that the Egyptian chaos has sent gas prices soaring here in the United States. And we're the lucky ones. And in the same region, but in Europe, Greece continues to unravel, years after the crisis supposedly "began." Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't "Limits to Growth" say that 2020-2030 was when the shit was really going to hi the fan? Are we getting a sneak preview?

So before Peak Oil "alarmists" are dismissed, maybe naysayers will want to read the headlines of their daily newspaper. And let's not even talk about Detroit.


  1. Well, *some* people are paying attention:

  2. That wasn't spam you deleted, unless you've decided you don't like self-promotion--on-topic self-promotion at that. Still, it is your blog. So, I apologize. Just the same, I invite you to promote your blog on mine.

    1. I didn't delete anything. And there was another comment I got via email that didn't show up under the post. Something very weird is going on with Blogger lately. NSA, is that you?

    2. My apologies again, this time for the false accusation. Could you do me a favor and pull my entry out of your spam folder, please?

  3. Mmm... I commented also, and now it's not here... mmm? Spam folder?


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