“We are all North Koreans”

20 06 2008

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, “We are all Americans” briefly became a popular expression of solidarity around the world. If we don’t devise policy choices that address energy, agriculture, and climate, while replacing the idolatry of unrestrained growth at the heart of both capitalist and communist economies, the tagline for the 21st century may be: “We are all North Koreans.”

In his recent piece “Mother Earth’s Triple Whammy”, John Feffer argues that:

“The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep North Korea’s battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North Korea was able to go through fertilizer, a petroleum product, at one of the world’s highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international energy rates became the norm for them, too, the North Koreans had a rude awakening.

Like the globe as a whole, North Korea does not have a great deal of arable land — it can grow food on only about 14% of its territory. (The comparable global figure for arable land is about 13%.) With heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticides, North Koreans coaxed a lot of food out of a little land. By the 1980s, however, the soil was exhausted, and agricultural production was declining. So spiking energy prices hit an economy already in crisis. Desperate to grow more food, the North Korean government instructed farmers to cut down trees, stripping hillsides to bring more land into cultivation.

Big mistake. When heavy rains hit in 1995, this dragooning of marginal lands into agricultural production only amplified the national disaster. The resulting flooding damaged more than 40% of the country’s rice paddy fields. Torrential rains washed away topsoil, while rocks and sand, dislodged from hillsides, ruined low-lying fields. The rigid economic structures in North Korea were unable to cope with the triple assault of bad weather, soaring energy, and declining food production. Nor did dictator Kim Jong Il’s political decisions make things any better.

But the peculiarities of North Korea’s political economy did not cause the devastating famine that followed. Highly centralized planning and pretensions to self-reliance only made the country prematurely vulnerable to trends now affecting the rest of the planet. As with the North Koreans, our dependency on relatively cheap energy to run our industrialized agriculture and our smokestack industries is now mixing lethally with food shortages and the beginnings of climate overload, pushing us all toward the precipice. In the short term, we face a food crisis and an energy crisis. Over the longer term, this is certain to expand into a much larger climate crisis…” (see the full story here: Foreign Policy in Focus – 18 June 2008)

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