Planetary Endgame

Three trends bode ill for our future: the increase in weather disasters, the black market in organs and the growing demand for drinking water.

A Century of Weather-Related Disasters

Includes droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, landslides, waves & surges, wildfires and storms.

This chart illustrates a staggering fact: The last 30 years have yielded four times as many weather-related disasters as the first three quarters of the 20th century combined. Tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods. You might say that the earth is throwing ominous tantrums.

Unfortunately, our reaction to such natural outbursts – as well as to the problems of skewed data on CO2 emissions, resource annihilation, and latent toxicity in our land and water – hasn't spiked nearly as dramatically. Instead, we seem content to simply refine our existing patterns of consumption. If a mass-produced plastic label promises that a product is "green", we'll likely buy it and feel satisfied for having done our part.

We may owe our collective lack of environmental consciousness to the convenience of invisibility. We dispose of our waste in neat receptacles, rarely bearing witness to its grim deterioration. We marvel at the efficiency of the industrialized world yet seldom glimpse the colossal infrastructures that make such modern efficiencies possible.

But the taxing effects of the Western lifestyle are becoming more globally conspicuous than ever. And yet still, we're largely unable to admit to the problem. Perhaps the world is experiencing a complex state of collective denial?

American sociologist Kari Mari Norgaard recently spent a year in Bygdaby, a rural Norwegian community with a population of 14,000, where she interviewed locals about their perceptions and reactions to climate change. Though Bygdaby's inhabitants were surrounded by overwhelming evidence of global warming (abnormally high temperatures, an unfrozen lake, late snowfall and flooding), they tended to selectively "normalize" this knowledge and maintain distance from the issue by "participating in cultural norms and using a series of interpretative narratives to deflect disturbing information." In other words, the inhabitants of Bygdaby denied the problem despite the fact that they were directly confronted with its effects and, given their simplified rural lifestyles, likely bore only incidental responsibility for its existence. The bulk of accountability lies on the overgrown shoulders of the urbanized West where, having effectively rid our lives of nature, we are shielded from the effects global warming on the natural world.

As Norgaard notes in the study's conclusion: "Societal inequality helps to perpetuate environmental degradation, making it easier to displace visible outcomes and costs across borders of time and space, out of the way of those citizens who are most politically able to respond." In other words, while the citizens of a less destructive world are punished by the effects of our bad behavior, we in the industrialized West can go on about our way – ignoring a problem that is conveniently invisible.

Driven by donor shortages in their home countries, ailing Westerners are traveling to places like India, China and the Philippines, where a burgeoning biological black market promises a plethora of fresh organs available for transplant. In the US and Canada, patients can languish on waiting lists for five to fifteen years before a kidney is donated from the deceased. On the black market, a kidney can be made available within hours of a finalized financial transaction. How? Preying on areas of extreme third world poverty, highly organized rings of organ brokers dispatch agents to seek out men and women desperate enough to part with “spare” organs in exchange for cash.
Though a Westerner in need of a kidney can pay in excess of $150,000 for the transplant, third-world sellers are often paid as little as $800 for their sacrifice. And those are the lucky ones. Increasingly, stories are emerging of poor men and women being lured abroad by the promise of work only to find that they have been duped by an organ ring. A ticket home means giving up a kidney. Proponents of transplant tourism claim that because most transactions take place between two willing participants, a buyer and a seller, organs for cash is little more than simple supply and demand. Critics argue that this skewed capitalism fails to take into account the abject desperation on both sides of the equation. Either way, we seem to be living in a world in which boundaries, both physical and ethical, are dissolving. A world in which the wealthy perceive the bodies of the poor as little more than supply which they have every right to demand.
- Sarah Nardi

According to the World Bank, global demand for water is doubling every twenty-one years, and water supplies, especially in the developing world, can’t keep up. The growing problem came into focus recently in South Africa.

Jennifer Makoatsane lives with eight other family members in Phiri, Soweto. They survive on her mother’s pension of approximately $115 a month. The family’s water is rationed through a prepayment meter, which means they receive a fixed amount of free water every month, but they must prepay for any additional water, something they can’t afford to do. Instead, every member of the household shares the bath water, and the toilet is flushed with water used for laundry or cleaning. Despite these conservation measures, her family usually has enough water for only half of the month.

In 2006, Makoatsane and five other residents filed suit against the city of Johannesburg and the Johannesburg water utility, alleging that prepayment meters are unconstitutional, and this past April a South African High Court ruled in their favor. Judge Moroa Tsoka ruled that the requirement to prepay for water, which applies only to households in poor, traditionally black areas, violates South Africa’s constitutional right to equality.

"The Constitution guarantees equality," Tsoka wrote. "It is therefore inexplicable why some residents of the city are entitled to water on credit plus free allocation of twenty-five liters per person per day or six kiloliters per household per month, yet the people of Phiri, are denied water on credit. In spite of the fact that they are poor, they are expected to pay for water before usage."

Poor households find themselves going weeks without access to water if they cannot purchase prepaid credits. Many residents claim that they are now worse off than during apartheid. One of the claimants, Vusimuzi Paki, recalled battling a shack fire to no avail because there were no funds left for water. Two children died in the fire.

Civic campaigners say prepayment meters and reduced access to water has contributed to public health problems throughout the country. Notably, a KwaZulu Natal project implemented in 2000 has been closely linked to a massive cholera outbreak that killed hundreds after communities turned to polluted rivers for drinking water when they could not afford the water from prepaid communal taps that used to be free.

Water activists around the world are celebrating the ruling and vowing to continue to challenge the use of prepayment meters and discrimination against the poor. Prepayment water meters have spread rapidly throughout Africa and are used in Tanzania, Lesotho, Namibia, Nigeria, Egypt and beyond. The newly formed African Water Network has made it a priority to combat the use of prepayment water meters. In Mumbai, India, activists have hailed the decision as they seek an end to prepayment meters in Mumbai’s slums.

Although one small victory in the fight against water rationing may have been won, there’s no long-term solution in sight for the overall problem of rapidly increasing demand for water. Even in the first world, where cheap access to water is taken for granted as fully as free access to air, we’re left to wonder if the current crisis in the poorer areas of Africa might represent the future of all mankind.

Maj Fiil-Flynn
A version of this article first appeared in Multinational Monitor.