Contextualizing the Plague in Tigrai
Tigrai is fighting at least four formidable invaders this year. These are COVID-19, the desert locust, and the dictatorships in Addis and Asmara. While this brief essay focuses on the latest threat, the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), it is important to underscore the fact that these dark forces are interdependent. The eminent development economist, Amartya Sen (1999), tells us how the absence of democracy triggers cataclysmic disasters like famine and pestilence in the following terms:
The causal connection between democracy and the nonoccurrence of famines is not hard to seek. Famines kill millions of people in different countries in the world, but they do not kill the rulers. The kings and the presidents, the bureaucrats and the bosses, the military leaders and the commanders never are famine victims. And if there are no elections, no opposition parties, no scope for uncensored public criticism, then those in authority do not have to suffer the political consequences of their failure to prevent famines. Democracy, on the other hand, would spread the penalty of famines to the ruling groups and political leaders as well. This gives them the political incentive to try to prevent any threatening famine…
The second issue concerns information. A free press and the practice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention (for example, information about the early effects of droughts and floods and about the nature and impact of unemployment) (p. 180-181).
Indeed, Amartya Sen (1999) upended the traditional belief that famine inducing factors such as pestilence and drought were a curse from God. A ruling class whose power does not rest on democratic elections will find little incentive to address popular needs. A ruling class whose power rests on brute force benefits more by clogging accurate information coming from the people. By contrast, a free press has an incentive to reflect popular needs because it derives its livelihood and reputation from the society, setting it on a collision course with the undemocratic ruling class. Annihilating free press, therefore, becomes a natural survival strategy for a dictatorship. The mix of neglected popular need and suppressed press exacerbates existing problems that will ultimately manifest in famines, epidemics, civil unrest, and all sorts of disasters. That is why the four invaders, i.e., desert locust, COVID-19, and the two dictatorships residing in Addis and Asmara are forces that reinforce each other.
The desert locust invasion in Tigrai is a high-level threat. This is because the plague, like COVID-19, transcends the capacity of the regional gangsters surrounding Tigrai. This plague could recur anytime, its origin (to be discussed later) is global, and it can only be sustainably defeated through international coordination. This becomes clear when we contextualize the threat. Modern natural disasters (epidemic, drought, pestilence, and kinetic disasters) are triggered by erratic climate change, destructive technological transformation, myopic global governance, and undemocratic domestic government (see figure 1).
Figure 1. The Gearbox of Modern natural disasters
EPRDF’s activism in the global climate change dialogues in the past (2007-2012) was an earnest effort to address real threats like the flooding, drought, and pestilence that haunts poor people in Ethiopia today. It was not a popularity contest. For example, in 2012, the UNEP commemorated Meles’s contribution to the environment in the following terms:
Mr. Zenawi was a champion of the environment, who believed that Africa needed to embrace low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy as the central pathway to sustainable development. Under his leadership, Ethiopia developed a comprehensive Climate Resilient and Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy, which has the goal of transforming the country into a carbon-neutral middle- income country by 2025 (UNEP, 2012).
Despite all, EPRDF was the only government in modern Ethiopian history that never forgot the plight of subsistence farmers and cattle herders eking at the periphery. Other regimes, including the current one, celebrated birthdays, party inaugurations, and fancy monuments by throwing lavish parties in the capital while the masses (farmers and herders) languished in wars and famines (Clay and Holcomb, 1986; Kaplan, 1988; Korn, 1986; Woldegiorgis, 1988).
There is a wide consensus among experts that climate change did cause the locust infestation in East Africa (Leung, 2020; Nita, 2020). Modern climate change, unlike its predecessors, is man-made (Carson, 1962/1985; Sachs, 2015). Previous climatic shifts occurred without human intervention. For example, geologists tell us that our earth entered the Holocene age some 11,700 years ago. The Holocene age marked the melting away of the ice-age where a conducive environment for agriculture emerged. Our kind, the Homo Sapiens, secured a preeminent position in the food chain by spearheading the agricultural revolution (Harrari, 2014). Mankind domesticated wild plants and animals for sustained consumption and as beasts of burden (Diamond, 1997). The agricultural revolution boosted not only the population of human beings but also that of their sworn enemies. Disease causing microbes (e.g. viruses, bacteria, and others), their vectors (e.g. flies and mosquitoes) as well as pirate insects like the desert locust flourished during this period (Diamond, 1997; Fluery, 2011; Leung, 2020).
The contemporary climate change is man-made. That is why some geologists refer to the current era the age of Anthropocene (Greek roots for anthropo=man and cene=new). The Anthropocene age has not only different driver (mankind) but also more catastrophic than preceding ages. This age began with the advent of the industrial revolution vis-à-vis the steam engine three hundred years ago. Since then, mankind has taken the planet in a downward spiral by exploiting non-renewable energy like fossil fuel and engaging in massive scale predation of plants (deforestation) and animals (both aquatic and terrestrial). The toxic emissions and waste coming from these industries using non-renewable energy has given rise rising global temperature, cataclysmic climatic events, soil depletion, extinction of species, and serious public health problems (Carson, 1962/1985).
If the impact of non-renewable technology on our planet and our health is obvious, why do we keep on investing in it? More appropriately, why don’t we switch to green technology which relies on renewable energy to extract (transform from one form to another), transfer, and store energy? This leads us to the third factor, i.e., the global governance regime. The private and state-owned conglomerates accumulating capital by selling energy derived from non-renewable energy are integral players of the global capitalist system we have today (Sampson, 1985). They are, like everybody else, designed to secure profit for their shareholders. Their executives employ influential advertising and lobbying firm to ensure their survival. The advertisers tell their consumers to buy their goods and services. Their lobbyists convince policymakers to remove obstacles domestically or worldwide. This includes discouraging investment in renewable energy industries and engaging in global forums to address climate change (Sampson, 1985). This relentless quest for profit trumps the global governance regime.
Now, how is the downward spiral created by deteriorating climate, counterproductive technology, and weak governance (global and domestic) regime relevant to the latest pestilence in East Africa? In May 2018, Climatologists reported a tropical cyclone (called Mekunu) hit the Arabian Peninsula (Salih et. al., 2020). This cyclone occurred because the Indian Ocean was unusually exposed to rising temperatures. NASA’s photographs shown below depicts how the heavy rainfall transformed Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al-Khali desert known as Empty Quarter (a) into a lake (b) (Salih et. al., 2020).
Figure 2. Desert lakes in the ‘Empty Quarter Source: Salih et.al. (2020)
The unusual transformation of deserts into lakes, induced by climate change, changed the behavior of the desert locust. Entomologists tell us the desert locust is a solitary insect dwelling in arid climes of Africa and the Gulf region. This locust is harmless to mankind if it stays solitary. But this insect could alter its behavior if its environment changes. When deserts change into lakes, they invite these solitary insects to congregate on a few locations and feast on the new shrubs. This encounter transforms the solitary locusts into gregarious ones. Gregarious locusts change colors (from yellow to dark brown). Their brain and appetite grow substantially where a single locust eats as much as its body weight (0.07 ounces). They grow to be lean and muscular, enabling them to traverse 150kms in a single day. They secrete high levels of serotonin-boosting reproduction whereby one locust lays 60-90 eggs at a time (Vox, 2020).
Unlike large predators (k-selected species) that birth a few offspring (because they need to raise their young), r-selected species like locusts propagate exponentially because they do not need to raise their offspring. R-species such as migrating locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) devote their metabolism to reproduction until they form a swarm. This allocation of metabolism to reproduction is also their Achilles Hill because it limits their lifespan which is cut short as they do not protect their offspring (Smil, 2019). As soon as the enabling conditions, i.e., vast but sparsely populated arid areas, change, their exponential growth ends abruptly mainly due to overcrowding, leading the number of r-selected species to collapse instantly.
Gregarious locusts try to make up for this shortcoming (ephemeral lifespan) by spreading their breeding efforts both spatially and temporally…[giving them the ability to] “hedge their bets” by distributing their offspring across a range of areas and conditions that may be amenable to future reproduction” (Holland et. al., 2006, p. 794). But this survival strategy (incessant reproduction) by r-selected species device is not successful. That is why “experience has shown that locust plagues follow a one-to-two-year-cycle after there is a lull for eight to nine years” (Usha, 2020). They rise and fall quickly- but at a heavy price.
The most devastating aspect of gregarious locusts is their ability to form swarms. A single swarm contains 40-80 million locusts (covering 460 miles) capable of orchestrating their raid like a formidable army. It can devour 423 million pounds of plants in a single day. “To put it into a context, a swarm the size of Paris [about 40 sq. miles] can eat the same amount of food in one day as half the population of France” (National Geographic, 2020). A swarm covering one square kilometer wide area is said to be capable of devouring plants which can feed 35,000 people in a single day (Bhalla, 2020). Desert locusts are able to devour plants freely because deforestation destroyed the habitat of their natural predators such as wasps, birds, reptiles and bats (Leung, 2020).
The locust problem we see in East Africa is something its inhabitants have never experienced in the last 25 years. The swarms have coalesced into tens of billions of locusts-hence, qualifying the “plague” threshold. That is why UNFAO is saying 13 million people in the Horn of Africa will be exposed to a severe food insecurity while 25 million people face food shortages (Gilliland, 2020).
In short, the locust infestation we have in Tigrai should be contextualized in terms of systemic problems facing our planet. We, human beings, have depleted the world by utilizing a non-renewable energy-based technology. This recklessness began when mankind started the industrial revolution. The accumulated damage on the planet has destroyed the ecosystem, forcing mother nature to retaliate by unleashing disasters. The increasing frequency of flooding, drought, hurricanes, pestilence, and other maladies we are witnessing today are not the wrath of God but of our own making. The failure of the global governance regime (especially hesitation of industrial countries) to curb global warming has devastated subsistence farmers. The failure of poor countries to democratize has paralyzed their willingness and ability to defend the interest of their own population. Bad governance (global and domestic), toxic technology, and climate change continue to wreck the livelihoods of poor people all over the world. The impact of climate change is here to stay. Nature will continue to punish mankind for abusing her yesterday (for 300 years), today, and tomorrow (if business as usual attitude lingers). So, it is important to think about solutions. As the environmentalist icon, Rachel Carson (1962/1985) put it:
We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one ‘less travelled by’-offers our last, our only chance to reach destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know’, and if, knowingly, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us (p. 144).
Now, it seems to me there are two ways to address the problem. The top down approach begins with those at the helm of the global world order. They could agree to mend their ways and embrace green economy. This trickle-down approach is far-fetched when seen from the angle of poor people like Tigreans. Poor people cannot seat idly until the rich reach an agreement. So, the bottom-up approach becomes more feasible. Poor countries could start addressing their local problem by democratizing their governments. Democracy will help them vote out leaders who cannot help them. Democracy can also serve as an early warning mechanism vis-à-vis free press. Once poor countries put their house in order, they could establish institutions that could foresee looming disaster on time, implement preventative and/or take responsive measures. A government that is legitimate internally could solicit external support to bolster its capacity with no strings attached. Once democratic regime and institutional capacity are in place, poor countries could learn from gregarious locusts and come together (mobilize resources) to voice their opinion on global governance, technology use, and climate change in the global arena. Tigrai is heading in the right direction as it has embarked on democracy. This is, above all, reflected in the strong commitment of the diaspora community to pool a substantial amount of money to eradicate desert locusts from Tigrai. The diaspora trusts the Tigrean government because the later demonstrated a willingness to democratize Tigrai. Whether the rest of the Horn strides towards freedom is something we shall witness in time.
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