The Big Question

Road ShotAs the bus twists and turns up the Sierra Madre del Sur coming out of Zihuatanejo the first thing you notice are the lush green hillsides. The next thought that logically follows is: wow, there is a lot of water here. But like the coastal ranges of California the water is deceiving as I soon discovered.

After climbing above the first range of crests, outcrops and rippling ridges we descended into a broad valley, much as I imagine the Salinas Valley in John Steinbeck’s retelling. It was dry, cactuses proliferated. Grasses burned off in the heat of a Mexican summer. Corn fields baked on the banks of a river.

“Lago muy seco,” I asked the bus driver. “Si,” he replied, “it’s the lowest it’s been in twenty five years.” The scene was well nigh apocalyptic. Everyone here in Austin is concerned about the levels of Lake Travis, one of a chain of Hill Country reservoirs built for flood control (and water management) on the Colorado River during the Great Depression. LBJ’s pork for the area when he was a Congressman and Senator. But this Mexican lake? It was forty feet low. In part of the lake fields of corn had taken over–the river snaking through where water and fish once thrived. This lake provides necessary drinking and farming water for the States of Guererro and Michoacan and now it was almost empty. The landscape was parched. Sure, I was in a rain shadow. But the sources of the lake were not, as they sat at the crest of a watershed, which in most years, brings in ample water to the region.

“It’s the hottest and dryest summer I can remember,” said Resendo, the owner of a small cafe in Melaque. Melaque is on the coast. Tropical. It is supposed to rain every day in July, August and September. Not this year. And when a Mexican complains about the heat, you know it is unseasonably warm. “It’s the rainy season,” he went on. “And you’ve been here, what, almost two weeks? Has it rained?”

“Once, for half a day?” I replied.

“Exactly,” he said.

In the last year I have traveled in almost twenty foreign nations. And there were only two (Vietnam and Singapore) where the people didn’t complain in one sense or another about massively altered traditional weather patterns. I’m not talking about ‘global warming’ here. That’s a misnomer, in my opinion, for what is happening. What I’ve heard about and what I am discussing is nothing short of global climate change.

In Indonesia Lake Toba was 10 feet higher than it had ever been. “Too much rain,” said Efan, the young man who managed the guest house I stayed in.

“The Highlands are extremely dry this year,” said Les an Australian ex-pat (and bug collector) living in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. “I haven’t seen my favorite beetle this year at all. And it’s not rare. It just needs water,” he said.

In Laos and Thailand the late onset of the cool season messed up food production. And it’s almost paralyzing Cambodia.

Although the Monsoon didn’t fail in India in 2008, my farming friends in Kerala had already almost run out of water in the Western Ghats and were worried about the cardamom crop failing. “It’s not as water hungry,” said Ahmed, “as cotton, but it is a thirsty plant.”

Oman had been devastated by a hurricane the year before. Yes, a hurricane.

Turkey? Central Anatolia was greener than many people could ever remember. But spring was late in coming. And it was a cold spring. The Judas Trees blossomed a full month later than they normally do.

“We only had a week or two of snow this year,” said Stuart, my best friend in Denmark.

Yes, you read that correctly. Viking-land lacked real snow.

And here I sit in Austin, Texas. The mercury in the thermometer is at the point of bubbling and it’s only 1100am.

All this is anecdotal. Dismiss it. Or don’t.

But here’s the whole point of my anecdotes, from an interview of Jared Diamond:

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.

Can’t humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we’ll get around water by desalinating sea water.’ But then there’s the energy ceiling, and so on.”

That’s the big question. The question no one is willing to voice. Am I, a member of the advanced world willing to forgo some of my standard of living for those in the developing world? And if I do so, do I have the moral and ethical standing to ask those of the developing world to forgo some of their wants?

I don’t have an answer.

I can promise you one thing: we cannot have it all. The Chinese cannot live like Americans and the Americans cannot continue to live as they are. Something will break.

One night in June, as Stuart and I sat in the garden, polishing off a bottle of tequila, he asked me how I saw the world in fifty years.

“Hotter, poorer, hungrier and more violent,” is how I put it. “But it’ll still be round,” I said, taking a swipe at Tom Friedman.

“That’s pretty grim, brother,” he said, smiling at the joke.

“If history has taught me anything, Stuart, it’s this: life can be grim and history is inexorable,” I held my finger up silencing an emergent query. I gathered my thoughts and finished up, “but humanity will muddle through.”

I don’t know if I want to bequeath a world of ‘muddling through’ to our children. But that’s what they’ll get.

3 Responses to “The Big Question”

  1. wilsontan

    I dunno what to say, bro. Except I hear and heart you.

    Each time I feel down about this, I think of all the amazingly selfless, unsung heroes, heroines and activists (of all faith persuasions or not and champions of all different causes) I’ve met, particularly those in Texas where I spent the better part of my time in the States.

    I realize it might not sound like much but if they ain’t stopping their good works, I have no cause to stop contributing my tiny bit either.

  2. tracyb

    I’m with Wilsontan. I’ve observed the same trends wherever I go – and it scares me – but I think it’s way too soon to give up.

    There are too many people giving their energy and creativity and even their lives to bring about a change. In Texas, in Latin America, all over the world.

    It’s paradigm shift time – if we don’t get it right this time, you’re absolutely right, grim it will be, but probably too fast to call it inexorable.

  3. Splo

    Here is a positive outlook. Except for increased numbers from immigration, the US has almost stabilized population. Because number of children go down with affluence, mainly because they are an economic liability, rather than asset with agrarian societies. The answer is affluence. Metal resources can be recycled, as they often are in the US. The use of fresh water resources is not accurate. These other statics are deceiving. You can say because Americans are productive they are transforming resources, 32 times more than in Kenya, but that doesn’t mean they are taking Kenyan resources, or necessarily destroying them here. The problem in Kenya is political I’m afraid. They won’t be able to utilize their own resources until that is solved. I’ve looked into climate change. The 1 billion figure is absurd. The climate has been generally warming for several hundred years. The climate is always changing and unevenly. In general 2000 to 2008 has been stable, and this year it has begun cooling. But it shifts and moves, as always, leaving some people in trouble. That is a challenge. If CO2 is a problem, which that opinion is changing, at least it is not up to the 440 ppm of the 1940′s and hovers around 380 ppm. Look up CO2 chemical methods. I too wish I could help the world. But flushing your toilet less in US won’t give Kenyans drinking water. I don’t know how to change their political situation to make it more like the US, less government power and more by the people.

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