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No April showers, no May flowers...

Dry farms near West Lincoln, Ontario

Took a long drive south-east of the city today, and what I saw was shocking. At first, all I could think was “am I back in Arizona?”. Any farm field which wasn’t hadn’t obviously been irrigated or fallowed for some time had become virtual deserts. Some had a few scraggly shrubs, others were literal sandboxes. One farmer tilling with his tractor set off a cloud of dust which trailing off into the wind for hundreds of metres. A little digging online confirmed my worst fears. According to the Hamilton Conservation Authority, we’ve seen about half of the average rainfall this spring, following an abnormally warm winter with very little snow. They’ve advised people to start conserving water. Provincially, we’re seeing evidence of a very early drought emerging, threatening further damage to the area’s farming communities (Ontario Drought Map – Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada).

Not only was 2007 the worst drought in 50 years, but Hamilton has also been beset with torrential down-pours other years, leading to a huge increase in flooding. This year, the area’s farmers have already been dealt a serious blow when an early spring and a late frost wiped out much of the area’s tender-fruit harvest as the trees were in bloom.

The weather just ain’t what it used to be.

Far too much about this year is reminding me of 2008. Rising oil prices aren’t the only commodity which is climbing again, and certainly not the only frightening one. Food riots, once again, are rearing their ugly head as the rising price of food is again rising out of reach of the global poor.

Gwynne Dyer’s recent article, The Future of Food Riots, lays this out in a very frightening way. Heat waves have devestated the Russian and Ukranian crops, and floods have crippled nations like Pakistan and Australia. With large-scale water shortages looming in areas like China and America, the global food markets are getting stressed to the limit. As always, the first casualties are of course, the poor,

And just like oil, it’s clear that surging food prices are the result of large-scale speculation. But again, that kind of speculation tends to show up wherever rapidly rising prices become predictable and obvious. It doesn’t address why they’re exploding in the first place. Extreme weather events – caused by global warming or random bad luck – also don’t tell the whole story.

“Conventional farming” simply is not sustainable. Under conventional farming techniques – particularly those championed by the “Green Revolution” (mechanization, chemicals etc), land can only be farmed for a certain amount of time before suffering serious, long-term damage and forcing production to move to “greener pastures”. Chemical, mechanical and genetic farming technologies are enormously expensive, wasteful and often toxic. They kill off the soil’s web of life (fungi, bacteria, bugs etc), drain it of it’s carbon (hummus) content, break up layers (plowing) and encourage pests (with monocultures). This is not farming so much as mining the soil, and it’s driving farmers to bankruptcy in record numbers worldwide. Don’t worry about the unbelievably rich multinational corporations that manufacture those chemicals, though, as it sounds like Cargill is doing just fine.

As we see the same patterns emerging as we did in 2008, we have to be prepared for the fact that the market meltdown we saw might only have been one of the first of many. As the global economy struggles to get back on its feet, we’re seeing all the same enormous market distortions which brought it down last time. Another crash is coming, and it has a lot of potential to get uglier than the last one. Where will the bailout come from this time?

If recent events in the Gulf of Mexico prove anything, it’s that the price we pay for big toxic industries is often far higher than it appears. The potential for disasters like this is something we live with every day, but seldom talk about. Oil spills from tankers and drilling rigs are one possible source of a disaster which could pose enormous damage to human life and the environment. There are many others, each one of them with the same level of horrific potential as exploding underwater drill rigs.

1.Tar Sands Dam Failure
Oil spills can happen on land, too. And they aren’t always only oil, either. In Northern Alberta there are some very nasty man-made lakes of tarry sludge, held back by some very sketchy dams. It’s been described as “an oil spill in slow motion”. These tailings ponds contain the waste from processing the “world’s dirtiest oil”.Birds often die as soon as they land – 7000 ducks and geese per year. Many of these are sitting a very short distance from rivers leading toward the Mackenzie Delta, with the potential to poison Canada’s largest river system.

2.Coal Mining Disaster
What do you get when you mix high explosives, fossil fuels, and pristine Appalachian landscapes? A war on mountains. Through a type of super-destructive strip-mining known as “mountaintop removal”, mining companies use amounts of explosives on par with the Vietnam War to blow apart entire mountains to get at the coal inside. This process literally remodels the landscape, flattening it. And this means that tailings ponds from the processing are sitting on very unpredictable land. On a small scale, these disasters are common – poisoning farms and waterways. But on a larger scale, it could be very threatening to communities downstream. One Tennessee disaster is said to have dwarfed the Exxon Mobil spill. And though Canada has a lot of potential for ruining lands the size of Western Europe this way, America has a far higher population density, meaning a lot more people would be affected.

3.Uranium Mining Dam Failure
What could be worse than a massive tailings pond full of the by-products of Tar Sands or coal mining operations? The by-products of uranium mining, of course. Canada is a world-leader in Uranium mining, especially in the North (Ont., Sask. and NWT). And we already have seen many dam failures, which led to massive radioactive waste dumps. One of these disasters would mean hundreds or thousands of years of radioactive toxicity for all areas exposed.

4.Nuclear Reactor Meltdown
It’s been said that nuclear reactors are the world’s most advanced tea-kettles. Despite all the high-tech measures used to keep them safe, they are ultimately just steam engines. By piling enriched Uranium together, it heats up and boils water. But if that temperature isn’t kept under control, all sorts of horrible things can happen. A “meltdown” occurs when the nuclear fuel begins to melt, usually melting any safeguards as well(pretty much everything melts and burns at these temperatures). And whether something burns, explodes, hits the water table, or simply just puts off enough of the fuel in smoke that it poisons everyone for hundreds of miles around.

5.Plane Crash
For decades we heard stories about hijackings and plane crashes. The worst we thought could happen was a week or two of icy hiking and eating people. Then 9/11 happened. But while busy office towers during the weekday are terrifying targets, there are a lot of others. And say what you want about the construction of the Twin Towers, but would the average tenement apartment or condo tower stand up any better? How about power plants, especially nuclear ones? Did you know that virtually all of Ontario’s nuclear waste is still stored on site at power plants? And what if they hit a dam, or a water treatment plant? Whether it’s an accident or not, every single plane flying might as well be a cruise missile, and that is something we need to consider when building things which someone might want to hit.

6.Plastic Fire
Thanks to the massive amount of synthetic materials our society uses, there are massive stockpiles of them everywhere. Sometimes this means tire yards, and other times big warehouses full of plastic chips. As one friend who’d worked in local plastics recycling industry put it, “everything that has to do with plastics is super-highly regulated, until you use the word recycling, then you can do whatever you want”.
Plastics are basically oil hardened into solids. And that means they burn fast, hot and put out a lot of toxic smoke. This is a possibility that we in Hamilton know well, after the Plastimet Fire in 1997, one of the most toxic fires in history.

7.Chemical Plant Disaster
A few years ago a fire at a local pesticide plant dumped enormous numbers of toxic by-products into local waterways. This is a small taste of what a pesticide plant can do, as well as many similar chemical industries, if disaster hits at one of their plants. A worst-case scenario would look a lot like the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed an estimated 20 000 people.

8.Mass Food Poisoning
Never before in history have so many people relied on foods processed in so few places. This massive industrial centralization of our food supply means that when dealing with high-risk foods like meat or sprouts, contamination can spread rapidly over the entire continent. Look at what happened with Maple Leaf sandwich meats. Food borne bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria kill about three Americans a day. There is no reason to centralize our food in this way except to generate massive profits for a few rich corporations.
The elements of our food supply, and especially our meat supply, which take extreme risks in this fashion go well beyond central processing. The Mad Cow scare showed how processing meat scraps into food for cows was putting the whole system at risk. And though it didn’t kill millions, it could have. Modern factory farming techniques concentrate far too many animals together in small, unhealthy spaces. They’re fed cheap industrial food (such as grain-based cattle feed) and given growth hormones and other drugs. And then there’s the massive number of very toxic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) used in agriculture. I know many in the medical profession, and though the health dangers of pesticides have been disputed in public very effectively, If these products were safe, agricultural workers wouldn’t have the highest risk of cancers like Leukemia and Hodgekins’ disease

9.(un)Natural Disasters
I was in New Orleans the winter following Hurricane Katrina. The scale of the destruction was like nothing I’d ever seen (especially Biloxi). It wasn’t that they couldn’t deal with it – every city has people to re-build homes and put lamp posts back up. But even with hundreds of new workers and volunteers, it was obvious that it would take years to get to all of them. In one of America’s most famous cities, the disaster response effort was like something out of Haiti or Malasia. Both Canadian and Mexican federal agents were on the scene before the American Government. Rebuilding it all is costing billions, and has dumped refugees all over the nation. It was like a nuclear bombing, but with black mold instead of fallout (I slept in a moldy squat while there – not nice to my lungs).
The wreckage was unbelievable. If this happened only a few times every decade to major American cities the entire nation would crumble. This kind of reconstruction effort takes for granted that the rest of the country isn’t suffering the same way.
We may never know if Katrina was caused by climate change or not. The climate is too complicated a system to make that kind of guess. But we do know that we are mucking around with the climate in very serious ways we don’t understand, and that one of the signs we’re seeing is a big increase in hurricanes. Whether this is “natural” or not, we really don’t know. But why take the risk?

10.Business as Usual
None of these disasters put out anywhere near as much toxic contamination, lay waste as many landscapes or kill as many people as the “normal functioning” of our capitalist system. None of them demand anywhere near the cost for eventual cleanup.
An estimated one billion gallons of tar sands tailings leak into groundwater each year. And stelco pumps out twice as many dioxins (one of the world’s nastiest pollutants) each year than the Plastimet fire. Countless corporations which operate in Canada have been linked to death squads in Latin America and elsewhere, such as Coca-Cola or Barrick Gold. More oil is spilled every year from leaky pipes and pumping stations in the Niger Delta than has been spilled in the BP oil disaster in the Gulf. Aging reactors like the infamous Chalk River Reactor near Ottawa regularly spill radioactive materials into waterways. Oh, and around five people die at work every day in Canada.

One way or the other, these processes cause death and destruction on a global scale. These disasters are only the worst and best publicized examples. And while they don’t often factor into the price (how do you insure a nuclear power plant?), they still filter down to every single one of us. And every additional day it goes on makes things worse.

Here’s a couple of talks from a pair of heavyweights in their fields at the PopTech conference last year.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has become very famous in foodie circles in the last few years. His talk (Youtube, 15 min) goes deeply into the world food system, how it’s failing us, and what needs to be done.

Will Allen is the founder of Growing Power, one of America’s most impressive community-based organization. He talks (Youtube, 24min) about how hey’ve set up sustainable, organic food production in poor rust-belt communities on a truly impressive scale. Their activities include everything from massive sophisticated composting programs to turning parking lots into gardens. They run greenhouses, aquaponics and other cutting-edge programs, and do it all in the poor communities themselves.

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