Derrick Jensen’s interview with Anuradha Mittal [“Amid Plenty,” February 2002] left me feeling outraged. Food should not be treated as just another commodity. The policies and actions of corporate America are, in my opinion, crimes against humanity.
I experienced such policies firsthand when I worked part-time at a fast-food chain. Any food not sold within two hours was thrown away, but first the food had to be rendered inedible, to deter the hungry from digging through the dumpster in search of a free meal.
“Amid Plenty” wasn’t an interview; it was a series of softball questions lobbed at Anuradha Mittal. Derrick Jensen challenged none of her assumptions, some of which are quite breathtaking.
More seriously, there was not a single mention of overpopulation as a cause of hunger. The fact is, no matter what is done about “redistribution,” organic farming, and local control of agriculture, we will lose the hunger battle if the world’s population is not curbed. As an environmentalist, I have long been puzzled by the failure of otherwise astute thinkers to make the connection between overpopulation and environmental degradation.
The sad thing about this, of course, is that well-intentioned people like Mittal are working with only half the tools. I don’t know if her failure to address population control is one of ideology, ignorance, or postcolonial hangover, but it means she’ll never really find a long-term solution to the problem. If we don’t, then everyone on the planet is endangered, including those of us who could afford to shed a few pounds.
The title “Amid Plenty” disguises three facts about world hunger: that the earth in recent time has become vastly overpopulated; that petroleum is feeding billions of people temporarily; and that the petroleum feast is headed for a crash in the next few years.
Anuradha Mittal is beautifully articulate and has a fine rebellious spirit, but injustice cannot be solved only by redistributing the crumbs. Simple biology and animal behavior explain what is happening today: too many people are competing for too few goods.
Politically correct activists shout for social justice while continuing to overconsume energy, and comfortably funded environmental analysts keep promoting “policy options” while ignoring overpopulation and declining petroleum reserves. As right as she is about some things, Mittal is pretending that our overpopulated and overexploited ecosystem can be sustained. An honest assessment would prepare the reader for a world about to be turned upside down, with far worse suffering around the corner. I disagree with Mittal that “you do not have to change your lifestyle or quit your job.” Those of us promoting true sustainability anticipate a complete change that will affect all of us.
Anuradha Mittal responds:
Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today. Contrary to what these readers have suggested, increases in food production during the past thirty years have outstripped the world’s unprecedented population growth by more than 16 percent. Beneath the scarcity diagnosis of the Third World’s food situation lie many human-made, and therefore reversible, causes. Even high birth rates are not independent variables but are determined by social realities that shape people’s reproductive choices.
In probing the connection between hunger and scarcity, we should never overlook the lessons here at home. More than 36 million Americans, 14 million of them under the age of eighteen, cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. But who would argue that not enough food is produced in the U.S.?
Here at home, just as in the Third World, hunger is an outrage precisely because it is profoundly needless. When we look behind the headlines, the television images, and the superficial clichés, we can see that hunger is real; scarcity is not. Only when we free ourselves from the myth of scarcity can we begin to look for hunger’s real causes.
Do too many people cause hunger? If that were true, then reducing population density might alleviate the problem. But population density and hunger do not consistently occur together. Surveying the globe, we find no significant correlation between the two. For every densely populated and hungry country, like Bangladesh, we find a Nigeria, a Brazil, or a Bolivia, where sufficient food resources per capita coexist with hunger. Or we find a place like the Netherlands, where very little land area per person has not prevented the country from eliminating hunger and becoming a large net exporter of food.
There is a meaningful correlation between rapid population growth and hunger. Most hungry people live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where populations have grown the fastest in recent decades. But we need to study whether rapid population growth causes hunger, or whether they occur together because both are consequences of certain social realities. Hunger and high fertility rates persist where societies deny security and opportunity to the majority of their citizens. Without resources to secure their future, people can rely only on their own families. Thus, when poor parents have lots of children, they are following a rational strategy for survival.
We need to face the fact that the fate of the world hinges on the fate of today’s poor majorities. Only as their well-being improves can we challenge hunger and assure that fertility decline is sustainable. To attack high birth rates without attacking the causes of poverty and the disproportionate distribution of power is not only fruitless; it is a tragic diversion our planet cannot afford.
I was deeply moved by Gillian Kendall’s essay “Hell” [February 2002]. Now there’s a concept: 21 billion years of celestial evolution, uncountable stars and galaxies, all designed for the purpose of generating one tiny species inhabiting a speck of a planet with a million other species for around five hundred thousand years — all so that most of us can be cast into a pit of everlasting torment. It takes a mighty ego to construct such a scenario in view of how small and new we are in the grand scheme of things. (I am speaking here of our collective ego, not Kendall’s in particular.)
It is probable that the suffering of most life-forms on our planet — myself included — is caused by the ego-centeredness of homo sapiens. We single ourselves out: we separate ourselves from the mix for both special reward and special torment, at the expense of all other life.
Exploring the wild world, as far from the influence of the human ego as I could get, cured me of the Catholicism I was raised on. The Catholic religion loved the suffering of hell so much that it did everything it could to create it here on earth by denying that we have anything to do with the natural world. Long before I took up the practice of Buddhism, I could see in the forests and fields that all existence was one interconnected, interdependent entity. There is no “other” to save us or damn us. We do that quite well on our own.
I found Stephen Elliott’s “A Month Without Rest” [February 2002], about his recent visit to Israel, very interesting, but I think it contains a factual error. He wrote: “Then, in 1929, some Arabs brutally massacred more than a thousand Jewish men, women, and children.” I had just read Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God, in which she says that fifty-nine Jews were murdered by Palestinians on August 24, 1929. I have also read about this tragedy elsewhere, and nowhere have I read that “more than a thousand” were killed.
There are enough slanted reports in the press about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Publishers should be more careful.
Stephen Elliott responds:
This was a mistake from an earlier draft that somehow found its way into the published version. Though there are many different accounts of the number killed in 1929, it was definitely not more than a thousand. I agree with Hoffman and appreciate her careful reading of my article, though I doubt that anybody who read it could call it slanted.
I was in tears before I could finish D.S. Barnett’s letter in the February Reader’s Write on “Fears and Phobias.” I’m so enamored of my own kids that it’s difficult for me to fathom how anyone could so consistently starve a child of love.
At the same time, I was awed, amazed, and fiercely proud of that creative, resourceful little girl who somehow managed, with her nighttime snack ritual, to conjure up a bit of desperately needed affection for herself. The image is heartbreaking: a child stroking her own cheek while imagining the hand belongs to someone who loves her. I hope that her obvious strength and the knowledge, however dim, that she deserved better have helped her not only to survive but to thrive.