THE SYSTEM

chapter eight

DANGEROUS TIMES

© Andy Turnbull, 2005

glossary

Side-effects of the global economy even threaten to destroy our food supplies, and to set plagues loose among us.

When the St. Lawrence seaway was completed in the 1950's sea lampreys followed ships into the Great Lakes, where they wiped out the lake trout and other valuable species. The loss of the lake trout was not world-shaking but other alien fish followed the lampreys and the whole of the Great Lakes, once one of the world's great fisheries, is now threatened. Zebra mussels, another import, now threaten some local life forms and costs the United States $140 million of dollars a year to clear from water intakes and various underwater mechanisms.[1]

Other imported pests threaten our farm crops. The Virella mite arrived in a shipment of bees from Thailand in the early 1990's, and it has reduced honey production in some parts of North America by half. Given time our bees may adapt to cope with it, but then again they may not. Let's hope they do, because about one third of the food plants eaten in North America depend on bees for pollination.[2]

Other pests introduced by global trade include the chestnut blight that wiped out the American chestnut tree, the Dutch elm beetle that killed most of the elm trees in North America and the kudzu vine which is now destroying forests in Virginia and the Carolinas and will probably spread.[3]

Canadians learned of yet another disaster in the summer of 2000 when trees in a Halifax park were found to be infested by the European brown spruce longhorn beetle. In Europe this beetle attacks only sick trees but North American trees are not adapted to resist it, and here it can kill healthy trees.[4]

As the Dutch elm beetle destroyed most of the elm trees in North America, this beetle could destroy most of the spruce. That would be a disaster, because spruce is the single most important tree to much of the North American forest industry.

And the beetle is loose. As they destroyed the park foresters discovered that it has already spread. If it can not be controlled, much of the forest industry of Eastern Canada and the northeastern United States may be wiped out over the next 20 years or so.[5]

Even within countries, the migration of pests can be dangerous. In the year 2000 Forbes magazine reported the arrival of Homolodisca coagulata, AKA the glassy winged sharpshooter, in the wine country of California.

Native to the states east of the Rockies the sharpshooter, a small dark colored bug about a half-inch long, apparently crossed the mountains to wine country with loads of ornamental flowers.

The bug feeds on grape vines and that's no big problem, but it also carries a bacterial infection called Pierce's disease which kills the vines it feeds on.

When the Forbes report was printed the infection was serious only in the Temecula Valley, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, but the bug also feeds on the oleander that lines California freeways. Sharpshooter bugs have been seen as far north as Alameda and eggs have been found on plants in Napa and Sonoma counties -- California's best wine regions. If they can't stop it, the sharpshooter and the disease it carries may wipe out the California wine industry.[6]

Wineries in Ontario and New York State are suffering from the effects of Harmonia axyridis, AKA the Asian ladybug. This import attacks aphids that feed on trees -- notably on pecan trees -- which North American ladybugs ignore, and it has been released in several areas of the United States by private individuals and by American Federal and State governments.

When it's frightened the Asian ladybug oozes a foul-smelling yellow liquid. Because of this no North American predators will feed on it and it is now spreading very quickly.

If a ladybug is sitting on fruit when it is frightened this yellow liquid contaminates the fruit. One wine expert estimates that about 20% of Ontario's 2001 wine production was damaged by the bugs. Judges who blind-tasted 78 Ontario wines from the 2001 vintage found evidence of the ladybug taint in 65% of them.[7]

Airplanes carry pests too. In about ten years the brown tree snake from the Solomon Islands wiped out eight of the 11 native species of birds on the island of Guam. In some areas 13,000 of the venomous snakes are found on a square mile of the island, and their bites send thousands of people to hospital every year.

When it reaches Hawaii, naturalists say, it will wipe out most of the birds there. According to a PBS Scientific American program broadcast November 6, 2001, 14 brown tree snakes have been found in Hawaii and at least one in Texas. All these snakes were found at airports but we have to assume that if no live snakes have escaped to the wild yet, they will soon.[8]

Some globalists argue that animals can migrate without human help and that species will always compete to replace each other. That's true, but the plants and animals that are most useful to us were all cultured by man. We have no reason to believe that they will survive competition with pests, or that the plants and animals that do survive will be useful to us.

We live in an ecosystem we created. If we lose control of it, tens or hundreds of millions of humans will no longer be able to live. On the other hand, disasters that might doom millions of humans would present new opportunities to systems, and to The System.

FACTORY FARMS

The rise of large-scale cash-crop farming is also dangerous, because it exposes us to the danger of famine.

Most of our fears of global famine were allayed in the mid-1960's when biologist Norman Borlaug developed a new variety of wheat that tripled Mexico's crop. Later the same new variety increased India's crop from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20 million in 1970 and 73.5 million tons in 1999. Within a few years other researchers developed high-yield rice varieties that are now growing about the world.

But famine still threatens. For a few years after the "green revolution" the world's food supply increased faster than the population but per-capita production of grain peaked in 1984 and has declined ever since.[9]

One problem is that green revolution grains need enormous quantities of water -- about 500,000 gallons to grow an acre of modern corn -- and big irrigation pumps can drain underground aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them. About 60% of the water in the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies much of the American prairies, has already been withdrawn and current use is 130% to 160% above replacement.[10] If this continues, the aquifer will be drained by 2030[11]

The volume of Africa's Lake Chad has decreased by about 95% in the past 35 years[12] and the Aral Sea -- once the fourth largest lake in the world with a surface area of nearly 26,000 square miles -- has lost 80% of its area and 90% of its volume.[13]

The Gobi desert has more than doubled in size since the 1950's and is growing by an estimated 950 square miles a year. Scientists at China's Institute of Desert Research say the cause is increased water use by humans. The demand for water exceeds supply in nearly 80 nations and some climatologists believe that most of Africa is now slipping into a drought that could last for decades.[14]

A study by British, Indian and Nepalese researchers at Calicut University in India suggests that both India and Pakistan will have more water than usual for about 40 years as the glaciers of the Himalayas melt, flooding the Indus and the Ganges rivers, but when the glaciers are gone both rivers will drop to less than half their present flow. The Indus irrigates about half the crops in Pakistan, and the Indian government plans to take water from the Ganges to water the arid southern section of the country. When the rivers fail, crops will fail.[15]

Shortage of water is one problem, irrigation with groundwater is another. Rain is mostly pure water but groundwater contains dissolved minerals and when it is used for irrigation, minerals which are not taken up by plants are left as salts on the surface. Because the salts build up to toxic levels farmers around the world abandon about 25 million acres of "salinated" land each year.[16]

People around the world pave another 25 million acres of land a year. About half of this was cropland and we now have only about 0.6 acres of cropland per capita, or about half the amount needed to feed the world to American standards.[17] American cropland is down to 1.25 acres per capita, which is about the minimum required.[18]

We are running out of the fossil fuels we need to make chemical fertilizers and pesticides and to pump water for irrigation and, believe it or not, we are even running out of sunshine! Astronomers tell us the sun gets hotter every year but, possibly because of air pollution and the contrails left by high-flying jets, climatologists tell us that less sunshine reaches the Earth every year. Parts of the former Soviet Union lost almost 20% of their sunlight between 1960 and 1987.[19]

Yet another danger is created in part by the new crops themselves. Some are so successful that farmers around the world have adopted them and, where we once had hundreds of varieties of each type of grain, we now have only a few dozen. That's dangerous because reduced diversity makes a crop vulnerable to pests and fungi and the modern practice of buying new seed every year increases the danger.

When farmers collected and re-planted their own seed they did not sort it and alien seeds that blew in from neighboring fields were added to the mix. Irish biologist Erna Bennett told author Stanley Johnson that in 1965 she would find up to twenty varieties of wheat in a single field on the Anatolian plateau.

After the distribution of "improved" seed, each field contained only one variety.[20] That single variety is more productive than any of the local strains but, because it is a single strain, it is more vulnerable to pests and disease.

A field that contains many varieties of wheat can resist most pests and diseases because any new pest or disease will find some varieties more vulnerable than others and, while the most vulnerable varieties may be killed, the less vulnerable ones will survive. A farmer may lose part of his crop but next year, when he replants with his own seed, the mix will contain more of the varieties that can resist the new pest and less of the ones that are most vulnerable.

When a whole field contains just one variety of plant a pest or disease to which that variety is vulnerable can wipe out the whole field. If farmers replant with new seed of the same variety, the crop will be lost again next year.

This is a serious danger, and one that has already created at least one well-known tragedy. More than 3,000 varieties of potatoes have been cultivated but in the 1800's Ireland grew only one of them, and that one made up literally half the national diet. As it happens it was the one most vulnerable to Phytophthora fungus which appeared in the United States in 1843 and Europe in 1845. It struck Belgium and France before it reached Ireland but, because continental farmers grew a variety of crops including at least four varieties of potatoes, it was not a disaster to them. By October of 1845 about 40% of the Irish crop had been destroyed, and the next year the whole crop was lost. By 1850, from a population of just over 8 million people, about 1.5 million had died of starvation or fever and 1 million had emigrated.

Could something like that happen on a global scale? Yes, for two reasons.

We have already cited the standardization of crops, which was one of the major reasons that the potato blight caused a famine. If crops are standardized around the world a blight, and the famine it might cause, could spread around the world.

The development of the global market makes it even easier for a blight or a pest to spread. In the 19th century it took only two years for the Phytophthora fungus to migrate from the U.S. to Europe and on to Ireland, and we have to assume that in the 21st century a new pest or disease could travel farther, faster.

And new blights will develop. Even now, we are losing the fourth most important crop in the world. About half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on bananas for up to half their daily calories but that may have to change because of the Black Sigatoka fungus which appeared in Honduras about 1980 and is now spreading. The fungus reduces yields by up to three quarters in affected areas, and cuts the productive life of banana plants from about 30 to two or three years.

In 2003 it reduced the production of Uganda -- the world's second biggest producer -- by 40% and it is now spreading through the Brazilian Amazon and the Far East. One Brazilian scientist estimates that production in Brazil, the world's fourth largest producer, will fall by 70%.

Black Sigatoka threatens only the 'Cavendish' variety of bananas and there are others, but that's not very reassuring. The Cavendish was second choice to a banana called the 'Gros Michel,' which dominated the world market until it was wiped out in the 1950's and 60's by the fungus that caused 'Panama disease.' When and if Black Sigatoka wipes out Cavendish bananas growers will turn to another variety -- but that will be their third choice and presumably not as good as either the Gros Michel or the Cavendish.[21]

Modern crop researchers believe that they avoid the problems of uniform crops by mixing genotypes, but that's the sort of belief that can never be proved.[22] Pests and pathogens are evolving all the time and, in the long term, no one can guarantee that any single crop is safe.

If a new pest or disease wipes out one of our major grain crops we have seed banks from which to breed a new one but it takes about ten years to develop a new crop and grow seed and, in a world in which tens of millions of people are already on the edge of starvation, that would be a disaster.

Genetically modified crops that promise to increase food production will be even more uniform than naturally developed crops, and will therefore be more vulnerable if a pest or disease finds their weak point. Genetic modifications may also entail other problems that have not yet been reported or proven.

Another problem is that seeds for such crops are available from only a few sources. If a disease gets into one of the farms where the seeds are grown, or one of the plants where they are processed and packaged, it will spread around the world much faster than would a disease of natural crops. Further, if terrorists or natural disasters knock out the sources of the seeds, there will be no crops.

Yet another aspect of globalization -- the concentration of farm production in a few "breadbasket" farming areas -- makes us more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Because we have not seen global disaster we think it can't happen but we forget that the human era is just a blink in geological time, that human history is a tiny fraction of that and the modern era -- in which we actually know what happens over most of the world -- is little more than a century old.

And even in that time, there have been disasters. In 1908 an asteroid nearly 200 feet in diameter exploded about three and a half miles above the Tunguska area of Siberia with energy equivalent to about 10 megatons of TNT, and flattened about 750 square miles of forest. Surveys of asteroids and comets whose paths could intersect Earth's orbit suggest that there is about a 10 percent chance of an similar event happening in this century.[23] If one should occur in a modern "breadbasket" farming area or a major transportation hub it would be a disaster for tens or even hundreds of millions of people. If an asteroid hits an ocean it could raise a tsunami that could destroy every city and farming area near that ocean.

Volcanoes have caused global catastrophes in historic times. By volcanic standards the eruption that buried the Roman city of Pompeii in AD 791 and the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 were polite burps.

One that was less polite was the eruption of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa. In 1815 three months of explosions blew the top 1,300 meters off the mountain, killing at least 12,000 people on Sumbawa and 44,000 on the neighboring island of Lombok.

But that was just a start because the ash cloud -- at least 100 times as great as the ash cloud from Mount St. Helens -- cut off sunlight around the world. In many parts of the world there was no summer that year -- it was the prototype of the "nuclear winter" that people feared might follow an atomic war -- and where there was no summer there were no crops. In Ireland, half-way around the world from Mount Tambora, about 65,000 people starved.

The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 was heard 4,000 miles away, blew about 5 cubic miles of lava into the air and spread ash over about 300,000 miles of the earth's surface. The death toll has never been calculated but the eruption killed all life on and around the island of Krakatoa and the 120-foot tidal wave it created killed about 36,000 people in coastal communities on Java and Sumatra.

Author David Keys describes the eruption of 535 AD which blew the island of Java in half, created the Sunda Strait and left the island of Sumatra as a separate land mass. Ash from that eruption is found in strata and in icefields around the world and several histories record the lack of sunshine, the failure of crops and the famines that followed.[24]

Keys argues that the eruption was a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasty of the time and of pre-Incan and pre-Aztec cultures.

But the volcanoes of history are still pipsqueaks compared to some of the volcanoes of pre-history -- including some that may re-erupt in our time. Seventy-odd thousand years ago the volcano Toba, in what it now northern Sumatra, produced about 2,500 times as much ash as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

That eruption nearly wiped out the human race, and the modern world just might experience one of comparable power. In the past few years vulcanologists have learned that Yellowstone Park -- all 3,468 square miles of it -- is actually the mouth of a huge volcano that seems to blow about every 600-700,000 years. The last time it erupted, about 630,000 years ago, it spewed about 480 cubic miles of lava or nearly 100 times as much as Krakatoa.

The caldera volcano that lies under Long Valley, California, about 120 miles east of San Francisco, is another major threat. The only time it is known to have erupted was about 760,000 years ago, when it ejected about 144 cubic miles of lava that buried several hundred square miles of land up to 350 feet deep. the U.S. Geological Survey keeps watch on all volcanoes in the U.S.A. and it does not predict a major eruption in the foreseeable future, but parts of Yellowstone Park are now rising and the Long Valley caldera has spewed gas and killed dozens of square miles of forest since 1980.[25]

Are these signs of impending eruptions? We don't know because no human has ever seen an event of this magnitude.

Another threat is the possibility of the kind of world-shaking underground explosion that scientists of the Geomar earth sciences institute at Kiel University in Germany call a "Verneshot." They suggest that the Chicxulub crater -- generally believed to be evidence of a meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs -- was actually caused by debris from a "Verneshot" explosion in India, and they have evidence that four other massive global extinctions were also caused by Verneshots.[26]

On a gentler scale, an earthquake could slide part of a mountain into the sea to create a tsunami that could threaten coastal areas thousands of miles away. USGS research geophysicist Peter Cervelli estimates that about once every 100,000 years a landslide on one of the Hawaiian Islands produces tsunamis that may be 300 meters high and, he says, other scientists suggest that such events may occur somewhere in the world every 10,000 years.[27]

Geologists warn that much of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Canary island of La Palma is unstable and that a huge section of mountain could fall into the sea, creating a tsunami that will devastate most of the east coast of North America and parts of Europe. The volcano has not erupted since 1971 but it is so unstable that it may not take an eruption to cause the collapse. A computer model predicts that if it does the wave will be about 100 meters high when it hits the coast of Africa, but only 50 meters high when it reaches Florida and the Carribean.[28]

That's about five times as high as the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean in the closing days of 2004, but it still does does not compare with the tsunamis of pre-history.

Any one of these disasters is an outside chance but the odds are cumulative and if we add up all the remote dangers that are possible we get odds that, with the future of humanity at stake, are not acceptable.

And climate change is a fact, not a possibility. At this point it appears that the early models of global warming may be faulty but science has been telling us for more than fifty years that our climate was about to change, and we have evidence that some kind of change is in fact happening. Some climatologists believe we may be entering a new ice age.

At one time they assumed that it would take hundreds of years for an ice age to develop but we now have evidence that it may take only ten years or so, and some of the conditions that might precede such a flip already exist.

The dangers are obvious, but The System has no foresight and it will not prepare for a danger it does not understand. Like armies that prepare for the previous war, it will prepare for a disaster that has already occurred but not for one that may occur in the future.

THE BIOTECH TIME BOMB

The development of biotechnology adds a new dimension to the threat of famine because we have to expect that, sooner or later, some genetic or other experiment will go astray, and when it does it may destroy a considerable percentage of our capacity to produce food.

This not only could happen, it nearly has happened. Scientist and writer David Suzuki reports one near-fatal accident when a German biotech company re-engineered a common soil organism, called Klebsiella planticula, to consume rotting crop waste on farms and produce ethanol fuel as a by-product.[29]

The company applied for permission to test the new bacterium in the United States and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assigned the project to Oregon State University, which in turn assigned it to doctoral student Michael Holmes.

Suzuki says that normal procedure would have been to test the new bacterium in sterile soil, to avoid the possibility of interaction with other bacteria. Instead, Holmes chose to test it in a variety of 'living' soils that already contained other kinds of bacteria.

To his amazement he found that every plant that was put into soil containing the engineered bacteria died. It turned out that the modified Klebsiella killed other organisms called mycorrhysal fungi, and that plants can't live without the fungi.

If Holmes had followed normal procedure and tested the new bacteria in sterile soil, he would not have discovered the danger. If the engineered bacteria had got loose in the world -- as killer bees got loose from an experiment in Brazil -- they might have wiped out all plants in the areas they infested. Because Klebsiella lives under the soil it might be impossible to eliminate an infestation or even to stop it from spreading.

If we survive the experiments of the biotech corporations our diets will some day be standardized on prepared foods which may come in different flavors and which may or may not be better for us than the food we eat now.[30]

Again, we can look to the social insects for models. Most ants are carnivores or insectivores and they eat whatever the hunters bring home, but some raise aphids which they 'milk' for nectar and others eat a form of fungus which they raise in underground farms. Termites eat mostly cellulose and bees eat pollen and nectar when they can collect them, and honey the rest of the time.

Whatever the choice of the colony, all members eat the same food and all meals are essentially the same.

Our diets are already very limited by the standards of our hunting and gathering forebears. Some anthropologists estimate that North American Indians used about 1,200 different plants for food, but we use only about 75. Hunters and gatherers collect and eat a dozen or more different kinds of bird and reptile eggs, but Americans and Canadians eat only hen's eggs. People in 113 countries around the world eat more than 1,400 species of insects, but we eat none.[31]

As The System gains power we can expect our diets to become ever-more restricted, and that the danger of global famine will continue to increase.

THE PLAGUE IN YOUR FUTURE

The global economy also increases the risk of a 'killer plague' which will sooner or later kill tens of millions of people around the world.

This is not speculation or scare-mongering, it is a virtual certainty that the world of medicine has worried about for at least three decades.[32]

It's just a matter of arithmetic. The more people there are in the world and the closer they live together the more chances germs, viruses, parasites and other micro-organisms have to mutate. The more we travel and the more we ship goods around the world the more chances micro-organisms have to find and infect people who have no resistance to them. This is not theory -- this process has already been responsible for some of the most horrifying disasters in human history.

Bubonic plague -- the black death -- had been around for years but it did not run wild until it reached Europe. According to some estimates the smallpox that Europeans brought to the Americas may have killed up to 90% of the natives of the two continents.[33]

Such disasters still occur, and will recur in the future. Cholera had been wiped out in South America but it came back in the 1990's to kill about ten thousand people in a few years. Scientists think it was re-introduced by a freighter that discharged ballast water from China off the Peruvian coast. The water carried bacteria which flourished in algae which were eaten by fish and shellfish, which in turn were eaten by people.[34]

The Asian tiger mosquito, which can carry dengue fever and other infections, came to the USA in shiploads of Asian tires. It's now found in 18 states, and may some day spread to Canada.[35]

In 1999 the West Nile virus appeared for the first time in the Americas. Carried by mosquitoes and crows the virus can cause encephalitis, and it killed at least seven people in New York City the year it was detected. It now threatens most of the Eastern United States and Canada.[36]

People carry germs too, and people from around the world carry known and unknown microbes, viruses and parasites to international airports, hotels, convention centers and other meeting points where they can mix, match and mutate into super-killers that could kill half -- or perhaps all -- human life on earth. It has not happened yet and it may not happen, but it is a very real danger.

Health authorities do what they can. In the spring of 1997 the government of Hong Kong killed and incinerated more than 1.3 million chickens because a flu virus jumped from chickens to people. The virus infected 14 people and killed four.[37]

The death of four people in a city of six million is not a major problem but the chance of a flu virus getting out of control is. In an era when there were fewer people and less travel -- and therefore less risk of global epidemics -- flu ravaged the world in 1729, 1732, 1781, 1830, 1833, 1889 and 1918. The 1918 epidemic infected about a billion people and killed more than 21 million of them, including more than 500,000 in the United States. In about seven months from September of 1918 to March of 1919 the flu killed 33,387 people in New York City -- more than one per-cent of the total population.[38] It killed about 5% of the population of Ghana and 20% of the population of Samoa.

If the next outbreak is as bad as the 1918 virus it will probably kill about 60 million people -- but it could be much worse. Around the world the 1918 flu killed about 2.5% of the people who caught it but the Asian bird flu, which appears likely to cause the next pandemic, seems to kill between 55 and 75% of its victims.[39]

And the flu is just an old friend that sometimes gets out of hand. Some diseases that are now emerging from the jungles of Africa, Asia and South America are much more dangerous.

The Marburg virus first showed up at a medical lab in Marburg, West Germany in 1967. The lab used kidney cells from African monkeys to make vaccines and, in one shipment, it got an infected monkey.

Thirty one veterinarians, lab technicians, animal handlers and their close contacts were infected. Seven died.[40]

Marburg is a close relative of Ebola, which is one of the most feared viruses of the modern world. In 1989 one of the four known varieties of Ebola raged through an animal quarantine center in Reston, Virginia, in a situation so dangerous that the U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases was called in to contain it.

Hundreds of monkeys were killed and the building was decontaminated by a three-day soak in formaldehyde gas, which was expected to kill every living thing in it. Months later the same variety of Ebola broke out again, killed all the monkeys, and infected all the people who worked in the building.[41]

By pure luck this turned out to be the only known variety of the Ebola virus that is harmless to humans. In fact this variety was not known until it appeared in Reston. Among the other three varieties the death rate for humans varies from 50% to 90%, and there is no known cure. If the monkeys in Reston had carried one of the other three strains of the virus, the U.S. would have faced a national catastrophe. That still might happen, because the Reston virus is now loose in the United States and it may mutate.

The three deadly forms of Ebola are part of a set of viruses that doctors describe as 'level 4,' which are usually fatal and for which there is no known treatment. We have had several outbreaks of level 4 viruses so far and, as long as we maintain the fiction of a global village around which people can travel at will and through which goods are shipped in large quantities, we can expect more.

Nobody knows when or how it will come, but governments are taking precautions. We have seen armed troops used to isolate areas of Zaire where Ebola fever has broken out, and US Army medical teams sent to study and help contain it. When Ebola or one of the other super-deadly diseases gets loose, we can expect a plague that will kill more people than a major war.

And we know that it will happen some day because, like so many other things, pests and plagues are controlled by the ratchet. We will never get the lampreys and the zebra mussels out of the Great Lakes, or the Virella mites out of our beehives. Ebola and Marburg fevers are loose in the world now, and we will never be safe from them. Even the relatively-innocuous West Nile virus is a threat, because our mosquitoes will carry it forever. If it mutates -- as it might -- into something more dangerous, it could decimate our population.[42]

AIDS is already decimating the populations of some countries. Some scientists believe that it originated in Central Africa, and that it was set loose after a road joined the east and west coasts of the continent. Truckers and others who used the road also used prostitutes, and spread the disease to the coasts and thence to the rest of the world.

And while we worry about a single super-plague, we also know that we are vulnerable to a potential plague of plagues. In 2003 Toronto and other cities were struck by an outbreak of Severe Atypical Respiratory Syndrome -- SARS -- and by late spring of that year Ontario politicians and health officials had coined a phrase, "the new normal," to describe the situation in which schools and hospitals were closed and thousands of people quarantined in efforts to control a plague.

Most of us have been taught to think that 'civilization' -- AKA The System -- has brought us freedom from disease but the fact is that most of our most serious diseases, and all our major plagues, are actually products of The System. Without The System we would not have modern medicine but we would not have nearly as many, or as serious, diseases as agriculture has given us.

For most of the 20th century we seemed to be gaining on disease and it actually looked as though we might gain the upper hand, but now we know that's not so. The fact is that new and potentially deadly new diseases are developing faster than we can find cures and it is quite possible that in the next century we will lose more ground against disease than we gained in the last one.

FOSSIL FUELS AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Pests and plagues are just one aspect of the dangers created by The System. Serious changes in the world's climate have already started.

We know that it was due for a change anyway. For at least 100 years scientists have known that the world's orbit is cyclical and that we were due for a change about now, but most of them think our consumption of fossil fuels is also a major factor.

No single oil company is big enough to change the world but the metasystem that I call the Fossil Fuel Interests is. This group includes all the oil companies and all the coal mines and all companies that use coal and oil to generate electric power and all companies that manufacture appliances that use electric power and road builders and all auto makers and all airlines and the tourist industry and large parts of every government as well as every military-industrial complex and countless other components. I'm a member of the metasystem myself because I have a car and therefore an interest in the price and availability of gasoline.

With the help of the media many of us have managed to convince ourselves that the burning of fuels is not a factor in the climate change that now threatens the earth, even though many competent scientists tell us that it is. Even if excessive consumption of fuels did not threaten our very future, we have known for years that it does threaten our health.

Most of the talk has been about 'greenhouse gas' emissions but the attack of 9/11 revealed a new danger. Some scientists have suspected for years that the contrails left by airliners affect our weather and now they can prove it because, after the attack, the three day shut-down of air travel over the United States produced a measurable change in the weather.[43]

Apologists for the Fossil Fuel Interests argue that we have no positive proof that our use of fossil fuels is a major factor in climate change and they are right, in a sense, but they miss the point. When and if we get proof positive of the danger, it will be too late to save ourselves. Biologist and author David Suzuki offers the example of pond scum that doubles itself every minute, and will cover a pond in twelve hours.

Suppose the pond will be covered at noon. At five minutes before noon about 3% of the surface is covered and the scum is barely noticeable. At 11:58 one-quarter of the pond is covered and we might try to take action, but at 11:59 the pond is half covered and at noon it is fully-covered. If we somehow manage to double the size of the pond we will gain one minute -- to 12:01, and if we quadruple the pond we will gain two minutes, to 12:02.[44]

THE COST OF THE SYSTEM

Commercial metasystems now rule but governments are bigger and far more expensive than ever. When the army occupied the village it impoverished the villagers and, in the modern world, the cost of government is a major factor in our skyrocketing cost of living.

The cost of housing, offers on example. I've already told you about the three-bedroom house I bought in Peterborough, thirty-something years ago, for less than a year's not-very-good salary. Now, that same house would cost a reporter on the local paper five or ten years' salary.

An economist once tried to convince me the price of housing has been driven up mostly by low interest rates. That's ridiculous.

In 1965 my sister bought my father's house for an appraised value of $30,000. In 1974 she sold it for $630,000 and a few years later it was sold again for $690,000. What kind of interest rates could justify that?

In fact, the increase in housing prices is largely due to 'city planning,' which is a function of The System.

When housing prices in Kamloops BC began to escalate I wrote a series of articles on the problem for the local newspaper. Developer Frank Hewlett told me the increase was largely because of city planning.

To illustrate his point he phoned to check the price of a ten-acre lot that was advertised for sale. The owner wanted $324,000 and if Hewlett would put $100,000 down, the owner would carry the balance at 10%. That was a reasonable price for the land, at that time and place, and 10% was a reasonable rate of interest for a solid developer with unquestioned credit.

Hewlett figured he could put 44 houses on the land so, without interest, the lots would cost about $7,300 each. That sounds cheap now, but this was at a time and place where you could buy a nice house for $15,000.

And the cost of the land was just the start. Hewlett figured it would take about 13 months to get the paperwork sorted out, the services engineered and the project approved by city hall. The paperwork would cost about $8,800 per lot -- more than the land itself -- and when it was finished Hewlett would have to pay the city another $2,000 per lot for off-site services.

Total price for the land, the paperwork and the city connections would be $18,100 per lot in a city where, at that time, finished houses were still selling for $15,000.[45] Because of the planning bylaw, the cash value of every house in town increased by at least half, and many doubled or tripled.

Dr. Gary Hall, director of the Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace at Duke University wrote about the effect of planning in the United States, in a three-part article in Automated Builder Magazine.[46]

Dr. Hall says the Empire State Building was built in about a year, but it now takes about six years to build a medium sized hotel in California's Ventura County. In the 1940's it took 60 to 90 days to complete the three steps required for a building permit in Los Angeles County but the process now involves 228 steps and takes about two and a half years. The paperwork provides work for servants of The System but planning increases the cost of a home by up to 50%.[47]

In 1973, Dr. Hall says, about 62% of Americans between 30 and 35 years old owned their own homes and mortgage payments averaged about 21% of the home-owners' annual income. By 1984 mortgages cost home owners an average of 44% of their total income, and now only 53% of Americans in the 30 to 35 year age group own their own homes.

The decline in home ownership offers several benefits to The System. One is that among most animals ownership or absolute control of territory gives confidence, and home owners are probably harder to 'manage' than apartment dwellers. Another is that home owners are liable to get attached to their homes, and are therefore harder for systems to move around. An apartment house is itself a system to which residents must conform and more and more apartment houses -- and whole complexes of apartments -- are owned by huge systems. Apartment living also frees us from home maintenance and improvement, and gives us more time to serve The System.

And for all the extra costs imposed by planners and bureaucrats, modern cities are no more livable than the cities of 50 and 100 years ago. They have more room for traffic and more parking, but they are no improvement for people. They are better for The System because most of the residents of a 'modern' city need cars, and are therefore tied to the metasystem of the Fossil Fuel Interests.

In the modern world, city and town planning create a shortage of 'affordable' housing and a plague of homelessness.

That's partly because the cost of paperwork is part of the cost of a house, and while it may be a small part of the cost of a big house it's a big part of the cost of a small house. Better for the builder to build the big house, for which paperwork represents a smaller percentage of the cost.

The other problem is the Not In My Back Yard syndrome, generally known as NIMBY. Most of us would rather have rich neighbors than poor ones -- if only because rich neighbors increase the value of our own houses but poor neighbors will depress them -- and most municipalities would rather have rich citizens who pay high taxes than poor ones who may demand welfare. Because of this where low-cost housing is allowed it is usually on the fringes, where poor people can not afford to live because they would have no access to shopping or jobs.

The System's attempts to plan and manage our lives often produce negative effects. Thirty years ago the U.S. government attempted to reduce pollution from automobiles by mandating 'emission controls' that made cars burn more gas, and thus produce more pollution.[48] Modern American regulations mandate automotive air bags that, one study found, reduce a man's chance of being injured in an accident by 11%, increase a woman's chance of being injured by 9%; and increased a child's chances of being killed by 21%.[49]

If human safety were a concern any device that significantly increased a child's chances of being killed would be banned, rather than mandated; but regulations are written to benefit The System, not humanity.

The System benefits from air bags because they make cars more expensive to buy and repair. According to an article in Forbes Magazine it can cost up to $6,000 just to replace the air bags in some cars after a minor collision. Because insurance companies won't repair a car if the repairs will cost more than 65% of the value of the car, the percentage of cars written off after collisions has increased from 8% in 1992 to 16% in 2003.[50]

This is obviously good for auto-makers, but it's also good for insurance companies because insurance rates are set on a cost-plus basis, and as the cost of collisions increases the insurance companies' profits increase.

In 1995 Canada's federal government passed Bill C-68, which established a central gun registry which, supporters argued, would make the streets safer by making it more difficult for criminals to buy guns. The project was expected to cost $119 million but most of that would be covered by user fees, and the total cost to non-gun-owning Canadians was supposed to be about $2 million.

In December 2002 the auditor general estimated that by 2005 the cost would be more than $1 billion and in February of 2004 CBC News published a new estimate of $2 billion.

More important, the gun registry seems to have doubled or tripled the use of guns in crime in Canada.

This is another example of Barnum's Law in action. When the gun registry was established it made guns a prestige item for teen-agers and others on the edge of the law. With guns readily available in the United States and a notoriously porous border, a black market soon made guns available on virtually every street corner of large cities. Like many other laws, the gun registry achieved the exact opposite of the effect that was intended.

The people who proposed the gun registry probably had good intentions. There are people in this world who think that laws change things, and that you can prevent crime by making it illegal.

And because these people vote, politicians listen to them. The politicians may or may not care much about crime but they do want to please their voters, and to get mentioned in newspapers, so they propose and pass new laws. Individual members of the civil service may see the fallacy but they are paid to administer laws, not to criticize them, and the gun registry provided a wonderful opportunity for the civil service to grow. Individual policemen might have seen the fallacy but they are paid to enforce the law, and if the law leads to an increase in crime it will also lead to an enlargement of the police force, and to more opportunities for promotion.

Programs like the gun registry may do considerable harm and no real good to the people they are supposed to serve and protect, but they are good for The System and when they don't work the government can, as Herbert Spencer observed, enlarge them. Nearly every time The System grows, it grows at the expense of the people it pretends to serve.

After the army took over the craft village the villagers had to work harder to support the soldiers and their agents and slaves. In the modern world the makers who support us all have to work harder to support an ever-increasing number of takers and agents.

Writer Juliet Schor says working hours of the average American were reduced gradually for about 100 years until the late 1940's, and have been increasing since. In 1991 she predicted that by the year 2000 working hours of the average American would be back to the 1920 level.[51] She estimates that before the 17th century English peasants worked from 1,400 to 2,300 hours per year. Allowing two weeks of holidays that works out to an average of 28 to 46 hours a week.[52] Studies have shown that most Americans would rather have more free time than an increase in pay, but not many of them get a choice.

Modern governments offer us a mumbo-jumbo 'science' of economics to show that the jobs they create contribute to our economic welfare, but bafflegab can't convert a taker into a maker. One who scoffed at the bafflegab of modern academic economics was economist Wassily Leontief of Harvard University, who developed the 'input-output' measurement of national accounts that helped the U.S. build the amazing production machine that won World War II and that has since been adopted by most of the industrialized world.

Leontief won a Nobel prize in economics but he deplored the trend to mathematical economics. In a letter to Science magazine he wrote --

"The King is naked ... but no-one taking part in the elaborate and solemn procession of contemporary U.S. academic economics seems to know it, and those who do don't dare to speak up."

later in the same letter Leontief writes that --

"page after page of professional economic journals are filled with mathematics formulas leading the reader from sets of more or less plausible but entirely arbitrary assumptions to previously stated but irrelevant theoretical conclusions"

.......and later....

"econometricians fit algebraic functions of all possible shapes to essentially the same set of data without being able to advance, in any perceptible way, a systematic understanding of the structure and operations of a real economic system" [53]

This is the opinion of a Nobel laureate who is recognized as one of the leading lights of the 'science' he criticizes!

The growth of The System creates more and more takers and agents who live on the production of fewer and fewer makers and, while the productivity of the makers is increasing, the number and the greed of takers is increasing even faster. Because of that all of us -- even most of the takers -- have to work harder than would otherwise be necessary.

Further, more of us are working now than in the past. When I was young relatively few mothers worked and most teen-agers worked only through school holidays and only for pocket money. In 1950 53.7% of Canadians aged 15 years and older 'participated' in the labor force -- meaning they either had a job or were looking for one but in 1990 67% of adults 'participated.'[54]

With all those people working and with higher productivity in modern times you'd think we would all be better off, but we're not. The people of the occupied village were poor because they had to support the army and the army's slaves and agents as well as the villagers, and many of us are poor because we have to support The System and its servants. In the world of The System we have more and more takers and agents who produce no real wealth but, on average, they are paid more than the makers who support us all. As the number of takers increases we all lose, and the makers who are the foundation of our economy lose most of all.

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