What Version of the Hunger Games Will Become Our Reality?
The Great Drought of 2012 has yet to come to an end, but we already know that its consequences will be severe. With more than one-half of America’s counties designated as drought disaster areas, the 2012 harvest of corn, soybeans and other food staples is guaranteed to fall far short of predictions. This, in turn, will boost food prices domestically and abroad, causing increased misery for farmers and low-income Americans and far greater hardship for poor people in countries that rely on imported U.S. grains.
This, however, is just the beginning of the likely consequences: if history is any guide, rising food prices of this sort will also lead to widespread social unrest and violent conflict.
Food—affordable food—is essential to human survival and well-being. Take that away, and people become anxious, desperate and angry. In the U.S., food represents only about 13 percent of the average household budget, a relatively small share, so a boost in food prices in 2013 will probably not prove overly taxing for most middle- and upper-income families. It could, however, produce considerable hardship for poor and unemployed Americans with limited resources. “You are talking about a real bite out of family budgets,” commented Ernie Gross, an agricultural economist at Omaha’s Creighton University. This could add to the discontent already evident in depressed and high-unemployment areas, perhaps prompting an intensified backlash against incumbent politicians and other forms of dissent and unrest.
It is in the international arena, however, that the Great Drought is likely to have its most devastating effects. Because so many nations depend on grain imports from the U.S. to supplement their own harvests, and because intense drought and floods are damaging crops elsewhere as well, food supplies are expected to shrink and prices to rise across the planet. “What happens to the U.S. supply has immense impact around the world,” says Robert Thompson, a food expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As the crops most affected by the drought, corn and soybeans, disappear from world markets, he noted, the price of all grains, including wheat, is likely to soar, causing immense hardship to those who already have trouble affording enough food to feed their families.
The Hunger Games, 2007-2011
What happens next is, of course, impossible to predict, but if the recent past is any guide, it could turn ugly. In 2007-2008, when rice, corn and wheat experienced prices hikes of 100 percent or more, sharply higher prices—especially for bread—sparked “food riots” in more than two dozen countries, including Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Senegal and Yemen. In Haiti, the rioting became so violent and public confidence in the government’s ability to address the problem dropped so precipitously that the Haitian Senate voted to oust the country’s prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis. In other countries, angry protestors clashed with army and police forces, leaving scores dead.
Those price increases of 2007-2008 were largely attributed to the soaring cost of oil, which made food production more expensive. (Oil’s use is widespread in farming operations, irrigation, food delivery and pesticide manufacture.) At the same time, increasing amounts of cropland worldwide were being diverted from food crops to the cultivation of plants used in making biofuels.
The next price spike in 2010-11 was, however, closely associated with climate change. An intense drought gripped much of eastern Russia during the summer of 2010, reducing the wheat harvest in that breadbasket region by one-fifth and prompting Moscow to ban all wheat exports. Drought also hurt China’s grain harvest, while intense flooding destroyed much of Australia’s wheat crop. Together with other extreme-weather-related effects, these disasters sent wheat prices soaring by more than 50 percent and the price of most food staples by 32 percent.
Once again, a surge in food prices resulted in widespread social unrest, this time concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East. The earliest protests arose over the cost of staples in Algeria and then Tunisia, where—no coincidence—the precipitating event was a young food vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire to protest government harassment. Anger over rising food and fuel prices combined with long-simmering resentments about government repression and corruption sparked what became known as the Arab Spring. The rising cost of basic staples, especially a loaf of bread, was also a cause of unrest in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan. Other factors, notably anger at entrenched autocratic regimes, may have proved more powerful in those places, but as the author of Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti, wrote, “The initial trouble was traceable, at least in part, to the price of that loaf of bread.”
As for the current drought, analysts are already warning of instability in Africa, where corn is a major staple, and of increased popular unrest in China, where food prices are expected to rise at a time of growing hardship for that country’s vast pool of low-income, migratory workers and poor peasants. Higher food prices in the U.S. and China could also lead to reduced consumer spending on other goods, further contributing to the slowdown in the global economy and producing yet more worldwide misery, with unpredictable social consequences.
The Hunger Games, 2012-??
If this was just one bad harvest, occurring in only one country, the world would undoubtedly absorb the ensuing hardship and expect to bounce back in the years to come. Unfortunately, it’s becoming evident that the Great Drought of 2012 is not a one-off event in a single heartland nation, but rather an inevitable consequence of global warming which is only going to intensify. As a result, we can expect not just more bad years of extreme heat, but worse years, hotter and more often, and not just in the U.S., but globally for the indefinite future.
Until recently, most scientists were reluctant to blame particular storms or droughts on global warming. Now, however, a growing number of scientists believe that such links can be demonstrated in certain cases. In one recent study focused on extreme weather events in 2011, for instance, climate specialists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Great Britain’s National Weather Service concluded that human-induced climate change has made intense heat waves of the kind experienced in Texas in 2011 more likely than ever before. Published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, it reported that global warming had ensured that the incidence of that Texas heat wave was 20 times more likely than it would have been in 1960; similarly, abnormally warm temperatures like those experienced in Britain last November were said to be 62 times as likely because of global warming.
It is still too early to apply the methodology used by these scientists to calculating the effect of global warming on the heat waves of 2012, which are proving to be far more severe, but we can assume the level of correlation will be high. And what can we expect in the future, as the warming gains momentum?
When we think about climate change (if we think about it at all), we envision rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, freakish storms, hellish wildfires and rising sea levels. Among other things, this will result in damaged infrastructure and diminished food supplies. These are, of course, manifestations of warming in the physical world, not the social world we all inhabit and rely on for so many aspects of our daily well-being and survival. The purely physical effects of climate change will, no doubt, prove catastrophic. But the social effects including, somewhere down the line, food riots, mass starvation, state collapse, mass migrations and conflicts of every sort, up to and including full-scale war, could prove even more disruptive and deadly.
In her immensely successful young-adult novel The Hunger Games (and the movie that followed), Suzanne Collins riveted millions with a portrait of a dystopian, resource-scarce, post-apocalyptic future where once-rebellious “districts” in an impoverished North America must supply two teenagers each year for a series of televised gladiatorial games that end in death for all but one of the youthful contestants. These “hunger games” are intended as recompense for the damage inflicted on the victorious capitol of Panem by the rebellious districts during an insurrection. Without specifically mentioning global warming, Collins makes it clear that climate change was significantly responsible for the hunger that shadows the North American continent in this future era. Hence, as the gladiatorial contestants are about to be selected, the mayor of District 12’s principal city describes “the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land [and] the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.”
In this, Collins was prescient, even if her specific vision of the violence on which such a world might be organized is fantasy. While we may never see her version of those hunger games, do not doubt that some version of them will come into existence—that, in fact, hunger wars of many sorts will fill our future. These could include any combination or permutation of the deadly riots that led to the 2008 collapse of Haiti’s government, the pitched battles between massed protesters and security forces that engulfed parts of Cairo as the Arab Spring developed, the ethnic struggles over disputed croplands and water sources that have made Darfur a recurring headline of horror in our world, or the inequitable distribution of agricultural land that continues to fuel the insurgency of the Maoist-inspired Naxalites of India.
Combine such conflicts with another likelihood: that persistent drought and hunger will force millions of people to abandon their traditional lands and flee to the squalor of shantytowns and expanding slums surrounding large cities, sparking hostility from those already living there. One such eruption, with grisly results, occurred in Johannesburg’s shantytowns in 2008 when desperately poor and hungry migrants from Malawi and Zimbabwe were set upon, beaten and in some cases burned to death by poor South Africans. One terrified Zimbabwean, cowering in a police station from the raging mobs, said she fled her country because “there is no work and no food.” And count on something else: millions more in the coming decades, pressed by disasters ranging from drought and flood to rising sea levels, will try to migrate to other countries, provoking even greater hostility. And that hardly begins to exhaust the possibilities that lie in our hunger-games future.
At this point, the focus is understandably on the immediate consequences of the still ongoing Great Drought: dying crops, shrunken harvests and rising food prices. But keep an eye out for the social and political effects that undoubtedly won’t begin to show up here or globally until later this year or 2013. Better than any academic study, these will offer us a hint of what we can expect in the coming decades from a hunger-games world of rising temperatures, persistent droughts, recurring food shortages and billions of famished, desperate people.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left (Metropolitan Books). A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
Cross-posted with permission from TomDispatch.com.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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