May 4, 2007

The Dry Po

Imagine if the Ohio River ran dry. Or some other major river like the Arkansas, Missouri, or the upper Mississippi. In fact, the Colorado River does run dry, or very close to it, by the end of its course at the head of the Gulf of California. But that's because it is so heavily-exploited by agriculture, from Utah to Mexico.

Well, in Italy, the Po River is the largest river in the country, and it's dry today. You could walk across the riverbed in your good shoes. (Well, maybe not, they'd get dusty.) Apparently there are heavy storms this week, which is good, but a drought like this is a big deal for our friends in Italy.

It does seem like there's been a lot of extreme weather conditions in the past several years. Environmentalists would say it's the result of global warming, or some kind of global climate change. That's likely true, although there seems to be less scientific consensus than some would have us believe about the impact of industrialism on that phenomenon.

One of the things I study in legal history is the effect of global climate change in the thirteenth century -- what is now called the "Little Ice Age" cause large agricultural failures in northern Europe, and combined with the decimating effect of Bubonic Plague, this resulted in a change in social and economic structures that urbanized places like England and France, and placed more bargaining power in the hands of suddenly-scarce laborers as against the agricultural landowners who had formerly enslaved them.

But really, all that proves is that 1) there are winners as well as losers when things change, and 2) global environmental change is caused by things other than industrialization. That doesn't mean much when considering what's happening now; scientists are sounding alarm bells all over the place and a few other scientists are suggesting restraint. More study is necessary, and protecting the environment is necessary, no matter what.

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