Mesopotamia’s “fertile crescent” is not so fertile any more. According to National Geographic’s 2001 story on a study funded by the United Nations Environment Program using NASA satellite images, the cradle of civilization and birthplace of agriculture has almost completely dried up over the past four decades and is now mainly a wasteland of desert and salt pans. The region has gone through periods of decline before, throughout history, when war and social upheaval have led to bad stewardship. Most recently, the governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey have dammed the rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates. Because populations are growing in the region and because both international conflict and internal insurgencies make cooperation difficult, the dams have been built without regard for the neighbors. The lush irrigated land that previously covered about 7,000 square miles now is less than a third of its previous size.
Both population and weather have contributed to the damage, but the root cause of the destruction has been a failure to cooperate. The nations of the region fail to recognize their mutual interests, and make destructive choices based on short-term goals.
The pattern is repeated all over the world. Development in California damages Mexican fisheries. Pollution from German factories acidifies Scandinavian lakes. Extravagant Westerners argue to limit China’s national carbon output. China demands per-capita guidelines to curb wastefulness in the West. In the meantime, the buildup of greenhouse gases accelerates.
Human population growth and transportation technology closed the ecumene, the empty space between human societies, 2,500 years ago. We are today closing a different ecumene. We are closing the distance between our national best interests. Our interests are converging in the way our communities once did.
From our luxury box where I live here in North America it’s relatively easy to look down at the world’s environmental problems – and especially its population problem – as though those problems belong to other people. Our continent is comparatively clean and uncrowded. We make environmental messes, to be sure, but we usually have the money and technology to clean them up, or at least pretty them up. Our own birthrate is a sedate, relatively steady 14 births per 1,000 population, per year. We add about 4 new immigrants to our population for every 1,000 people already here, each year. Our population grows about 1 percent per year – enough to keep housing prices up but not enough to overwhelm public services.
On the other hand, our annual 1 percent growth rate will produce an additional 36 million people in the United States over the next 10 years. That’s about one new Los Angeles for each year.
Photo by Bryan Welch