Eating is fundamental
and this week reminds us that it's getting harder on a hotter planet
The most basic of all human questions is, and always has been, “what’s for dinner.” Or, even more fundamentally, “is there going to be any?”
For decades it’s been getting easier to answer that question: the world’s food supply grew fairly steadily, albeit it with many caveats that came from the reliance on fertilizer, chemicals, and hybrid seeds that powered the Green Revolution. But do not expect the future to look like the past.
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In the very short term, we face the truly disgusting willingness by Putin to starve the developing world by shutting off the supply of Ukrainian gain—the Post reports this morning that his plan is to set off a wave of hungry refugees flooding Europe from Africa and thus undermining the EU’s willingness to fight. In the words of one of Putin’s
advisors cartoonish villain henchmen,
“The world is gradually falling into an unprecedented food crisis. Tens of millions of people in Africa or in the Middle East will turn out to be on the brink of starvation — because of the West. In order to survive, they will flee to Europe. I’m not sure Europe will survive the crisis.”
But the world is only in this fix because climate change has already begun to undermine its ability to produce food—the number of hungry people began to rise in the years before the pandemic, as storms and droughts began impacting harvests. At the moment, for instance, a dry winter and then a wet spring have managed to crimp both of America’s important wheat harvests, and other big producers like Australia are dealing with dramatic flooding. (If you want to stay up to date on climate-caused agricultural troubles, this twitter account is worth following). We tend to focus on commodities like wine or chocolate, but we’re actually talking about wheat, rice, corn—and about the panics that can begin to set in when they start to run short. India, the second-biggest wheat grower on earth, imposed a ban on exports in May when soaring temperatures started to cut into yields. The price of corn is up 20% since Putin invaded Ukraine, and wheat 30 percent—this is an annoyance for most Americans, part of the “inflation crisis.” But if you spend half your daily income on grain, nothing that’s happened this year is more important than that price increase. At the moment, according to one recent study, 71% of Indians can’t afford a healthy diet.
This will obviously grow steadily worse if we let carbon dioxide levels continue to rise: as the indubitable Katherine Hayhoe, from her new post as chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, recently pointed out, there’s simply no way to adapr to the temperature rises in the offing. “Human civilisation is based on the assumption of a stable climate,” she said. “But we are moving far beyond the stable range.” Wonder what she means? Consider this new study indicating that America’s corn belt—the single biggest patch of fertile soil on planet earth—may not be able to grow corn by the time today’s kids are my age. And wonder what that world looks like? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, said last week that using militaries to liberate the grain that Russia is preventing from export in the Ukraine would be “a high risk military operation.” According to the Defense News website, retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, argued this week ships under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO or a coalition of nations could escort convoys of grain as U.S. naval vessels escorted oil shipments in the 1980s, amid tensions with Iran, but as Milley pointed out, “right now, the sea lanes are blocked by mines and the Russian navy. In order to open up those sea lanes would require a very significant military effort.”
If all this sounds dystopian to you (and it sure does to me) then we need—quickly—to start turning down the heat. And here’s your reminder that 60% of the Iowa corn crop goes for…gasoline. A seventieth of that acreage devoted to solar panels and pumped into the battery of an EV would provide the same mileage.
In other news from the world of climate and energy
+Nat Herz reports for the Anchorage Daily News that oil companies are quietly giving up their leases on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because drilling there has become such a political hot potato—instead, they’e planning to move next door, to the National Petroleum Reserve.
+A lovely essay from Sierra Crane Murdoch on the life and work of Barry Lopez
The people I know who have endured unimaginable violence are also those who appear more open than most to spiritual or supernatural occurrences. This does not surprise me. To accept as real an act so evil, for which reason and motive could forever elude its victim, is also to accept that there are things we can’t explain. This humility, Barry seemed to argue, is not just virtuous but essential to our survival, the antidote to unimaginable darkness being unimaginable light.
+If we ever take serious climate action, a new study finds that people with undivested pension funds may face huge financial consequences. (More about European pensions and their effect on the carbon crisis here)
+China’s carbon emissions appear to be dropping again
+The usual suspects, including Chase and Black Rock, turn out to be backing a new crude oil pipeline across East Africa that has inspired some of the fiercest opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure in years
+The anarchic and cheerful pranksters the Yes Men offer “four beautiful visions” for the future, arguing that organizing will get easier if we’re fighting for something grand.
The most obvious benefit of getting our world off the frozen solar energy of fossil fuels, and onto its live versions instead, would be… well, survival. But it would bring other benefits too.Switching to renewables could, if done right, foster community independence and cohesion, as people and groups manufactured and sold their own energy. But it could also help level inequality, as some of the poorest places in the world, including in the US, happen to be sunny and windy. If the people who live in such places were empowered to produce and sell their own energy (rather than host others to do so, which often goes wrong), energy purchases could support them instead of billionaires.
+The EPA announced yesterday that it was returning some authroity to states and tribes to block pipelines and other such projects when they posed a threat to water quality; Trump had removed this long-held prerogative.
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Here’s the latest installments of our epic nonviolent yarn, back in Asia this week. If you want to read the first 70 chapters of The Other Cheek, you can find them in the archive
Minister Hua sat in his office at the State Security headquarters, hands folded, index fingers pressed into the bottom of his chin. He was thinking, but mostly he was waiting—General Youxia had summoned him to Defense headquarters, and he knew he’d find Colonel Wang waiting with him. And he knew they’d be angry.
He wasn’t angry—he found it didn’t pay—but he was perplexed. He’d gone over every aspect of the Wei Lian episode, and he couldn’t figure out how it had gone so wrong: how she’d been tipped off, where she’d gone, how she’d disappeared. He wasn’t going to take the blame, but he didn’t like perplexity either. Especially not right now.
He picked up the phone and called Director Liu. “I’m headed over to see the army,” he said. “Come with me—the car leaves in ten minutes.”
The two of them sat in silence as the car crept through traffic—even with a red light on the dash, it was slow going, since the breakdown lanes were as usual already filled with traffic. The sky was even grayer than usual—a great dust storm had socked in the city for the last few days, an almost annual occurrence now when winds swept across the ever-expanding Gobi, lifting the dirt and flinging it at the capital.
“The smog is actually getting better,” said Liu. “We’ve looked at the real data, and shutting down coal-fired power plants has begun to work. But the sand, we’ve got no idea. We’ve planted billions of trees, but it’s so hot and dry they keep dying and the desert keeps growing.”
Hua just grunted, still lost in thought.
The car pulled through several checkpoints, and let them out at the front steps of the vast National Defense Ministry. They were met by a lieutenant, who ushered them through the security, and then up a private elevator to the top floor, headquarters of the Central Military Commission. With apologies the lieutenant led them through a metal detector and asked for their phones, before depositing them in a conference room lined with photos of high-ranking generals. They waited several minutes in silence before the door opened and General Youxia entered, followed by a scowling Colonel Wang.
“You know why you’re here,” the colonel said.
“Colonel, let us offer our guests tea,” said the general, pressing a small white button next to his chair. In a moment a junior officer entered quietly, and poured small cups of tea for each of the four. When he left, General Youxia looked at Hua.
“Well?” he said.
The security minister shook his head, as if coming out of a deep thought. “You tell me,” he said. “I have no idea.”
“Someone told her,” said Wang. “And it had to be in your office. We’ve watched the tapes—she got out just a second ahead of our people.”
“Actually, it didn’t have to be someone in my office,” said Hua. “You demanded the task of actually arresting her. So people here knew what was going to happen too.”
“This is the military. Not the police. We’re actually good at keeping secrets.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Hua, pensively.
“Do we have any better idea of what happened to her after that?” General Youxia asked.
“Not really,” said Hua. “She disappeared from the grid the minute she left that building. We found the car, but nothing else.”
“The face recognition system?” the general asked.
“It’s not perfect,” said Hua. “And it’s been re-tasked to concentrate on Uighurs, who don’t look that much like Tibetans. But there were no hits anywhere when we put her face in the database. It’s as if she was in a box somewhere.”
“The only report came from your . . . associate in Tibet,” said the general.
“Yes,” said Hua. “We have people in all the monasteries. But they are poorly trained locals. This young man spoke little Chinese, which is why it took a while to even decipher his message. He didn’t even have a phone to take a picture.”
“I think it was all nonsense,” said Wang. “Once we got the message we searched every truck crossing the border at Zhangmu. Every truck. Traffic takes hours there anyway, but this time it took days.”
“You found the truck from the monastery?”
“Of course. And it was empty. Going to Nepal to pick up supplies, or so the driver said.”
“You . . . interrogated him?”
“And at the monastery?”
“The abbot is a tough bird. But apparently they’d found our guy, so they had time to prepare.”
“Did they kill him?” Liu asked—the first words he’d spoken.
“What do you care?” asked Wang. “No, they didn’t kill him—they’re soft. They just told him to leave. Why are you here anyway? This is your fault. You’re the one who found the girl in the first place.”
“He’s here because I want him to be,” said Hua, speaking more decisively. “He’s the one who identified the young girl who may be the next DL. And if he hadn’t made the lottery work, you wouldn’t have been building rockets as fast as you have. Which brings us to the real question here, the more important one. Are we really going ahead with the plan at year’s end?”
“We are,” said General Youxia. “The moon landing is on, and the babies have been born. Obviously this is the most tightly guarded secret we possess, which is why I worry about the leak with the Wei girl. But we have no choice—Xi has approved, and now we must make it work.”
They conferred for an hour, going over timetables and beginning to draft speeches. Director Liu was mostly quiet, deferring to the senior men; Colonel Wang continued to simmer, every now and then offering a barbed sentence or two. But they all realized the gravity of their task, and kept at it. As they stood finally to leave, General Youxia said “assuming this all goes to plan it will be one of the greatest moments in the history of the People’s Republic. The moment when we take our rightful place.”
“Yes,” said Hua. “Assuming.”
They left as they had come, and when they were back in the car Hua turned to Director Liu. “I know it was you,” he said.
Director Liu looked at him. “How do you know?” he asked.
“I know because when I sent you to Ordos I kept an eye on you—an electronic eye. I know that you studied that damned cartoon, and I know that you learned to meditate, and I know you well enough to guess what happened next. It did something for you, and you felt a debt to the girl. A debt which you paid by tipping off the network of Tibetans who somehow got her out of Yiwu.”
“If you knew that, why did you not turn me in to Colonel Wang?” he asked.
“You know why. Because it would have come back on me. I was the one who brought you back to Beijing. If you were known to be a spy, I’d be known to be an idiot. If not worse.”
“Ah,” said Liu, staring at his shoes, which were stretched out in front of him in the spacious backseat of the government car.
“And I need you,” said Hua. “Because this new thing, the moon thing, is going to be a public relations moment that makes the lottery look small. And you have to figure it out. If you play around again, I won’t send you to Ordos. I will send you to hell, or at least the part I have jurisdiction over. That we were friends will not matter. Meditate on that.”
Director Liu said nothing. He just stared at his shoes some more, and nodded.
“In any event,” said Hua, “what we are doing now is a good thing. It is the best of China. So we will celebrate it.”
Shareen Robinson stood, hand on hip, gazing back across the Brahmaputra. The crossing had taken all day, in a boat that seemed to her like a floating slum, a fifty-foot wooden craft with a motor that had quit twice during the crossing, drifting downstream as men in lungis worked to restart it. It had taken seven or eight such boats to get the DL’s group across the river, and even now only half of them had managed to find each other on the far bank.
“I thought the Mississippi was a big river,” she said. “But this is more like an ocean.”
“It comes from Tibet,” said Sonam, who was waiting for the next boat to arrive. The DL was safely ashore, and the quartet of Indian security agents had him safely under watch, so he was helping Lopsak with logistics. “From the mountains. But there it’s called the Tsang-po. It’s the wildest river in the world.”
“That seems unlikely,” said Shareen, gazing out at the vast and placid sheet of water. A year of walking had changed her—she was no longer stout, and she usually wore one of the saris the women of Bhopal had given her. Today was no exception, a purple and white dress that had dried off quickly after a midday thunderstorm on the river. Though she’d not taken the DL’s vow of silence, it seemed to her she spoke less now too—the sameness of the days had quieted her. She wasn’t quite sure why she’d stayed on the long walk, missing weddings and funerals back home in Louisiana. Mostly just momentum, she decided—a pilgrimage seemed to develop its own logic, each step leading to the next, till it would have been harder to stop than continue. And anyway it tickled her that she was now well-known as the “trash lady of India.” Sonam had shown her a cartoon video depicting her as the “litter Kali.”
“The real Kali had a garland of skulls—she drank the blood of a demon, I think,” he’d said. “But you have a garland of soda cans.”
“If I never see another Fanta that will be fine with me,” said Shareen. And yet she was quietly proud of their work. Often local film crews would come to follow them, and since the DL was silent they tended to focus on her. Once, teasing, she’d spent the day showing the camera her “trash yoga,” bending to the left, to the right, on one foot or the other to reach the gutter. It had, said Sonam, gone “somewhat viral,” and just that morning a boy on the other side of the river had shown her he could stand on one hand long enough to pick up a can with the other. “That is some advanced freakiness,” she’d said as he beamed. She’d grown used to heat and dust of the Indian plain, learning to rise early and rest at midday. But now, as they began to walk slowly away from the river, she could see hills in the distance.
“That’s where we’re headed,” said Sonam. “Up there somewhere is Tibet.”
They spent that night, and several that followed, at a tea plantation owned by a local politician. “A good politician, I think,” said Lopsak, somewhat surprised by the idea. There were pictures of Gandhi on the walls, and when one of the pickers showed Shareen the small house where she lived with her family it seemed clean and well-built. In the mornings they’d sit on the porch of the estate, drinking tea, which tasted fresh and clean to Shareen. “I had Coca Cola for breakfast most of my life,” she told the boys one day. “But I’m taking some of this tea home with me. It makes my brain tingle.”
At the far end of the vast porch, she could see the DL conferring with his aides, most of them monks in robes, but a few in dress shirts. He would write a note, and it would be passed around the circle, with one head after another nodding, and sometimes an assistant pulling out a cellphone to make a call.
“They seem more concentrated than usual,” said Shareen. “Is it because we’re getting near the end?”
“Maybe,” said Sonam. “Though not that near. We still have to climb up through Arunachal. But I think it’s because of the mud in the river.”
“What mud?” said Shareen. “It all looked muddy to me.”
“Yeah, down where we crossed, in the plains. It floods every year in monsoon, it picks up mud. But further up it’s different. It’s a mountain river, it’s supposed to run clear. But the villagers have been coming down in droves, and sending messages—they say in the last week it’s been running brown, and the level is dropping.”
Shareen remembered seeing one group of locals the evening before. They looked different than the Indians she’d been seeing for months—darker, with different features. “Tribal,” Sonam had explained. “Arunachal is different from the rest of India. Not Hindu—many different languages. It gets more like Tibet the higher up you climb.”
More of them had appeared all morning. “People are starting to panic,” said Lopsak. “Sometime around 2000—they say different years, but sometime around then—this happened before. The river dropped, and turned muddy. And then all of a sudden a great tidal wave came down the stream, wiping out villages, killing lots of people. It turned out there had been a landslide in Tibet, and the rocks blocked the river, and the Chinese didn’t tell anyone. Apparently they were trying to make a new channel through the blockage, but they weren’t fast enough, and the water overtopped the rocks, and then it blew the whole dam out. And now they think it’s happening again.”
“Why wouldn’t the Chinese tell anyone?” Shareen asked.
“Because—because they’d lose face, I think,” said Lopsak. “Actually, I kind of understand it. The Chinese, they’ve convinced themselves everyone looks down on them. If you go on Chinese internet, they’re all mad at the West all the time—they think everyone in the West thinks they’re backward. That’s why they’re so keen on going to outer space.”
“Back home, only billionaires still want to go to space,” said Shareen. “Because in space no one can tax you.”
“Yeah,” said Lopsak. “It’s different in China. You notice they’re just about the only ones that still want to host the Olympics? Very last-century. Also, since they know they have no real business in Tibet, it’s particularly embarrassing to screw up there. So I imagine if there’s a landslide they’ll try and solve it on their own before anyone finds out. If they can.”