"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money."
—Cree Indian Proverb
(Swans - December 5, 2011) STOP THE CLOCK! I learned with deep sadness that Danielle Mitterrand died two weeks ago. She was 87. For those of you who've never heard of her she was the wife of François Mitterrand, the president of France from 1981 to 1995, and she was, above all, a woman of her own, a fierce militant for the defense of human dignity. I had the privilege and honor to meet her once in 1975. I remember asking her what I should do to make life better for the whole. She put her two hands around my own, and asked: "What's your name, young man?" "My name is Gilles," I answered. "Well, Gilles, fight for justice and equality. Fight all your life." Her green eyes and tender face were intensely focusing on me. That was all; just a few seconds; an encounter that deeply marked me, though I do not think I ever lived up to her high standards. She was a shining light in a promising age that would soon turn into neoliberal darkness.
MRS. MITTERRAND stood much to the left of her husband, a man who used the socialist label as a vehicle to win the ultimate prize -- power. An exceptionally cultivated man but a deeply conservative one who did not hesitate once he had cut the wings and destroyed the influence of the French communist party (which had helped him win the presidency) to embrace neoliberalism in abandon. She supported the Cuban regime, the Sandinistas, the Kurdistan independence movement, Tibetan freedom, the struggle against Apartheid, and many other progressive causes. In 1986, she founded France Libertés, a foundation whose goal was to build a more just world in solidarity and cooperation with respect for the dignity of all. A partisan of participatory democracy, she favored a redefinition of wealth not based on materialism. In later years she prioritized the access to safe and potable water, considering it a fundamental human right. She was an exceptionally generous human being.
WATER SCARCITY is a topic that is left unaddressed by policy makers around the world. It's not a part of the conversation. If you look at the freak show that is the US Republican nomination, which in the words of Marc Pitzke is a farcical spectacle composed of "a club of liars, demagogues and ignoramuses" (Der Spiegel, December 1, 2011), you can only throw you arms in the air with total dejection. Perhaps these clowns could grab a copy of the latest report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, read it, and debate its findings in one of their public circuses. In "The state of the world's land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW)," published in Rome on November 28, 2011, the FAO presents a grim perspective about the "widespread degradation and deepening scarcity of land and water resources." One quarter of the most productive lands on earth are "highly degraded." "Some 1.6 billion hectares of the world's best, most productive lands are currently used to grow crops. Parts of these land areas are being degraded through farming practices that result in water and wind erosion, the loss of organic matter, topsoil compaction, salinization and soil pollution, and nutrient loss." ... "Many rivers do not reach their natural end points and wetlands are disappearing." ... "[...] intensive groundwater withdrawals are drawing down aquifer storage..." This is "posing a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050." (Read the summary of the FAO report). You'd think that the pompous clowns that govern us (or aspire to), whether in Europe or in the U.S., would focus their attention on serious matters. Fat chance. It's much more entertaining to talk about DSK's complot, Cain's infidelities, the sex of the angels, and, of course, 9-9-9, no new taxes, more deregulations, god, abortion, freedom, job creation thanks to the entrepreneurial class, the 1%, scapegoating the bad Chinese for our woes, and all the usual shibboleths.
ANOTHER ECOLOGICAL DISASTER in the making. "When I think of it, it makes me cry," wrote my long-time friend Simone Alié-Daram. She was referring to the 42,000 majestic plane trees that were planted in the 1830s along the banks of the famous Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel hand-built in the 17th century, between 1666 and 1681, with the help of over 12,000 workers -- a 240 km (150 miles) canal with 91 locks, 40 aqueducts, and over 320 structures (bridges, dams, even a tunnel) from the Mediterranean Sea to Toulouse and connecting to the Canal de Garonne, thus connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. The Canal des Deux Mers ("Canal of the Two Seas"), as it used to be known, is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is the oldest or one of the oldest fully functional canals in the world.
Photo by Peter Gugerell, Vienna, Austria - GFDL v. 1.2
IT'S ONE OF the most enchanting and idyllic places on Mother Earth built by men (and, actually, many women). The source of its water comes from a series of civil-engineered dams, the biggest being the 180-million US-gallon reservoir known as the Lac de Saint-Ferréol, also built by hand in 1667-1672, which brings the water from the Montagne Noire all the way down through a diversionary channel to the navigable canal. When I was a kid, my grandparents would drive my brother and me to Saint-Ferréol where we would picnic, swim, and play on a pedalo (paddleboat). I have very fond memories of this beautiful place and the peaceful times.
ANYONE WHO has lived in or traveled through the Languedoc or the southeast of France is aware of the significance the platanes (sycamores, planes) have in the culture. Most roads are lined with these magnificent trees. There must be millions of them all over the countryside, many being over 200 years old. The planes along the Canal du Midi began to be attacked by Ceratocystis platani, a native North American fungus apparently introduced unintentionally by the US military in Italy during WWII. There is no cure to date for the wilt disease. By 1946, the fungus reached the Parc Borély in Marseille -- the park where Marcel Pagnol and his younger brother used to play on Sundays with their aunt. The trees are all gone. Then the disease moved west and in 2006 it was discovered that some trees along the canal had gotten infected. Over 2,000 of them have already been felled, the trunks and roots uprooted and burnt at considerable expense. Another 4,000 are expected to meet the same fate in 2012. Experts consider that over 80% of the trees are already contaminated. It is estimated that within 10 or 15 years all remaining trees will be no more. The Canal du Midi without its extraordinary canopy won't ever be the same. Along the roads in those regions tens of thousands of planes have already died.
I CONTACTED by e-mail my older brother. I sent him a report regarding the disease that I found on the Web site of Le Figaro, a French conservative daily. My brother has taken control of the family property in Prunet, near Toulouse, after having long cared for it and spent a huge amount of money to renovate and maintain it. The main alley, or driveway (there are two) that leads to the house is called "l'allée des platanes." It is lined with those magnificent trees.
L'allée des platanes, 1977
Reaching for the sky, 1977
NOW, MY BROTHER is a retired highly successful, hard-working financier and businessman, an optimist and a pragmatist. Still, he replied that the disease was a real catastrophe for southern France and he was very worried about the superb trees lining the driveway. He decided that there would be no more intrusion on them, except with sterilized tools if needed, and no work underground that could risk touching the roots of the trees. And being the fatalist that he is, he concluded: "We shall see as best we can!"
SO THE LAND is getting degraded, the water is becoming scarcer, our trees are dying. Here, in California, we are facing sudden-oak death (phytophthora ramorum pathogen discovered in 1995 and spreading from Big Sur to the northern tip of California) and pine extinction (pitch canker pathogen discovered circa 1986, which has now jumped to Douglas Fir all over the state). Where I live, trees are falling aplenty. I hear chainsaw manufacturers are having a heck of a year (we just purchased a new one). And there is the death of fisheries, the death of the atmosphere... But why continue the litany? The clowns will perorate in unison. The media will echo their words with advertising delight. People's complacency will prevail as they rush to the stores for more consumerist bargains. And we will all yawn and go to bed.
YES, DANIELLE MITTERRAND, fighting for justice and equality was your mantra and goal in life. Still, the clowns (demagogues, liars, hypocrites, navel-gazing, self-enriching people) hold sway. Intelligence, compassion, and respect of the Other are not merchantable commodities to be marketed at Walmart or Amazon.com. You are already deeply missed, Madame Mitterrand.
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.
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