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a problem of imagination?

Here’s a piece I wrote for the upcoming Kids Can Make A Difference (KIDS) “Finding Solutions” newsletter..


“As Alan Weisman’s “Countdown” amply demonstrates, we are well on our way [to ecological collapse and human extinction.] Some seven billion people are alive today; the United Nations estimates that by the end of the century we could number as many as 15.8 billion. Biologists have calculated that an ideal population — the number at which everyone could live at a first-world level of consumption, without ruining the planet irretrievably — would be 1.5 billion.”

A fellow WhyHunger Board member forwarded this provocative book review from the New York Times, asking: “So, what are we, as anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates, to make of the “population bomb” issue?”

I’ll weigh in as just one advocate, well-aware of population pressures but viewing the facts within a different frame; one of human potential and progress, not fear and scarcity. I see things differently. For me it’s not a question of how the planet will survive when the “third world” catches up to the “first world’s” living standards, is a question of how all of us will recalibrate our lifestyles to bring things into balance, for a better future for all.

“Countdown,” as described by reviewer Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the imbalances, but trends point in another direction. The dangerous agricultural dependence on rice, wheat, corn (and soy) monocultures is mentioned (and is of course stubbornly subsidized by government policy), but the strong new movements by consumers and small farmers away from this soil/body death spiral is not. The high fertility rate in Niger is cited, but the fact that increased development and living standards bring decreased and stabilized birthrates is sidestepped. The spectre of poorer countries beginning to spoil their surroundings like rich ones is conjured, but the concept that an increasingly connected world might learn from mistakes is not.. (Just a few weeks ago I spoke to an EPA official fresh from a conference call with his counterparts in Kampala, Uganda. The Ugandan government was making a new effort to control waste and dispose of it responsibility, and the US government was sharing its knowledge. Cool.)

My view is no doubt influenced by the many small but substantive movements WhyHunger sees and supports around the world, and by our history, and our current role as a grassroots support organization.

My view overlaps with the idea of an “Eco-mind.” WhyHunger’s longtime friend and mentor Frances Moore Lappé became an icon through the publication of “Diet for a Small Planet,” which spelled out the gross inefficiency of a meat-heavy diet. As someone who has immersed herself in environmental and hunger issues for upwards of 40 years, Lappé knows the dark facts well. Yet instead of wallowing in desperate possibilities, Lappé’s survey of climate research, anthropology and neuroscience leads her to advocate for us to navigate away from the “thought traps” of fear, guilt, despair, etc. – which fail to motivate actions — toward a thinking based on possibility, potential, and yes, hope.

And what of that “first-world level of consumption” assumed as the ideal? The fact is that this level of consumption, built on a foundation of colonialism, violence, and environmental destruction — is making us more unequal, fatter, unhealthier, and, one could argue, unhappier. Everyone will benefit when we in the West, particularly we in the bigger-is-better USA, make some changes in the way we consume resources — the future of the earth depends on it.

It will be a long and hard journey along the bumpy paths of culture, policy, science and technology to get us on a new road to sustainability, but the good news is that this road is far from being one of sacrifice. It will be a big change, but not a painful one, when this country no longer wastes 40% of our food. It will be a big change, but a necessary and healthful one, when our diets balance back towards plants and real food and away from excessive animal protein and carbon-heavy processed commodities. It will be a big change, but only a positive one, when we reinvest in public transportation, renewable energy, and the Commons, and stop subsidizing industrial agriculture and pollution. It will be a big change, but far from a punitive one, when we realign our identities away from stuff we own, toward the way we treat each other.

Right now, we Americans are engaged in a high-speed evolutionary experiment to see what happens to a human body when it is fed a diet of corn syrup and antibiotic-laced meat, exposed daily to myriad chemicals and plastics, and kept sedentary. Early results are not promising, just as we are exporting our lifestyle to the developing world and seeing their own rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and chemical poisoning increase. This is not the “ideal.”

Education, empowerment of women, a break on the hold of colonial and corporate structures, the spread of basic technologies producing greater efficiencies, community power and cooperation (as I write, my apartment is hosting farmer advocates from Brazil and Haiti, who are visiting NYC along with others from India, Mali, and the Basque country to receive the “Food Sovereignty Prize” honoring the right of people to sustainably farm real FOOD, not corporate commodities, for their own families and communities. The sense of solidarity and hopefulness in new alliances being made is palpable.) There is so much progress being made.

According to reviewer Rich, Weisman’s book bemoans a “problem of imagination” — that inability to conceive of numbers so overwhelmingly big that they are difficult to visualize or to feel. For me the failure lies elsewhere, in the failure to imagine that human progress – toward real solutions for humanity, not just fancier gadgets – exists. We know, we visualize, and we feel that natural resources and the resilience of the earth are finite; and I believe that we will learn to be smarter, more healthy, less wasteful, less blindly extractive, more sustainable and more just.

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