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Nature's Capital Is The Limiting Resource

By       Message Paul Craig Roberts       (Page 2 of 3 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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When the original colonists arrived in Australia, they made a mistaken inference and concluded bountiful harvests were in their reach. Alas, there is salinity under the soil and irrigation brings the salt to the surface where it destroys the crops.

Salinity brought to the surface by irrigation then runs off into the surface water. The Murray/Darling River accounts for about half of Australia's agricultural production. But as the river flows downstream, more and more water is extracted. The river becomes progressively salty as its volume decreases and more released salt deposits run off into the river. Diamond reports that "in some years so much water is extracted that no water is left in the river to enter the ocean."

Clearing the land of its native vegetation contributes to the release of salinity. Diamond writes that 90% of Australia's original native vegetation has been cleared.

The problems with Australia's soils and waters are profound, but don't expect the government to take them into account. Capitalist enterprises can make short term profits by destroying the fragile soils and waters of Australia. The small population of Australia is all the country can support considering its fragile ecology.

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This brings us to the rain forests of Brazil, the most extraordinary modern example of the wanton destruction of immense natural resources by the blind force of unregulated capitalist greed, a destructive force as dangerous as that of nuclear weapons.

In The Fate of the Forest, Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn take us through centuries of destruction of the most valuable forests on earth and the indigenous peoples that inhabited them. This book is an extraordinary learning experience and covers many centuries of man's destruction of the Amazon rain forests, medicinal plants, waters, indigenous peoples, and animal, vegetable and insect species. Every development plan failed, whether originating in a Brazilian government, private capitalist such as Henry Ford and Daniel Ludwig, or international organization.

Briefly what happened is this. In order for outsiders to gain title to land inhabited by natives, rubber tappers, Brazil nut gatherers, and others who had use rights to the forests and knew how to exploit the forests without damaging them, the trees had to be felled, because titles were granted to cleared land.

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Land speculators and cattle ranchers acquired vast land holdings by wiping out forests of mahogany, rubber, and Brazil nut trees along with the native inhabitants. The cleared land, deprived of its stewards and its nutrients, became compacted and infertile after a few years. Cattle farming is profitable for a short time before the soil is exhausted, but the-short term profits exist only because of government subsidies and because the external costs of the value of the forests that were destroyed in order to gain a land title are not counted in the cost of the cattle.

The Fate Of The Forest was published in 1990 by the prestigious University of Chicago Press. The information in the book goes to 1988. What has happened to the Amazon since I do not know. Hecht and Cockburn report that remnants of indigenous peoples, despite the murder of many of their leaders by the land barons who were never held accountable, succeeded in forcing the corrupt government of Brazil to establish "extractive reserves" that were supposed to protect the use rights of existing social organizations to the forests. The authors indicate as of their time of writing that the corrupt rich and well-connected were able to take advantage of the extractive reserves to continue their process of land theft. The same misuse is made of national parks. The indigenous inhabitants are moved off national park lands, but favored capitalists are given access to exploit the resources.

I recommend this book to everyone. It shows conclusively without being didactic that unregulated capitalism is one of the greatest forces of destruction of peoples, animal and plant life, and the Earth's ecology. The book shows that for short-term profit, capitalists are willing to destroy irreplaceable resources. Future profitability is not important to them.

And so we have GDP accounting that measures the Gross Domestic Product of countries without regard to the cost of polluted air, water, and soil, and without regard, for example, to the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico from oil spills and chemical fertilizer run-off from farming. We add to GDP the value of the fracked oil and gas, but do not subtract the value of the ruined water supply of peoples and the life in the streams.

When mining corporations blow off the tops of mountains, GDP counts the minerals extracted as an addition to value, but does not offset this value with the cost of the ruined scenery and environmental effects of destroyed mountains.

When fishermen dynamite coral reefs in order to maximize their fish catch, the value of the fish obtained by destroying the environment that produced the fish is not offset by the destruction of the coral environment that would have produced a future supply of fish. The dynamite purchase is counted as GDP, but the destroyed reef is not counted as an offsetting cost.

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Ohio has experienced earthquakes from fracking. How severe will these become as the earth is fractured in the interest of short-term profit?

Heinlein recognized "Mankind The Destroyer" and depicts humans as destroyers first of their Galaxy and then of other Galaxies.

Will the real human race, as compared to Heinlein's fictional one, have the possibility of escaping from a destroyed Earth to other planets? Or is the destruction of Earth's ecology much closer in time than the ability of humans to colonize space?

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Dr. Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury for Economic Policy in the Reagan Administration. He was associate editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal, columnist for Business Week and the Scripps Howard News Service. He is a contributing editor to Gerald Celente's Trends Journal. He has had numerous university appointments. His books, The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West is available (more...)

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